President Should Push for Democracy in Nepal

President Bush will be in South Asia soon and one of the burning issues he’ll confront will be the crisis in Nepal that has claimed 13,000 lives.

If he wants to make the most of his visit, President Bush needs to work with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to craft a policy toward Nepal that is grounded in the president’s promise to expand democracy worldwide.

It doesn’t seem as if an easy choice exists when it comes to Indian and American policy toward Nepal. It’s either support democracy, which allies Washington and New Delhi with communist insurgents who have shown no regard for the rule of law or human rights, or support a demonstrably unpopular king and his brutal army, which undermines democracy and indirectly supports China’s policy of oppressing Tibetans.

Fortunately, there is a third way. Washington and New Delhi should push for inclusion of all the indigenous political interests, giving all factions a seat at the table and working out elections in which all sides can take part and share in the victory of freedom.

The current crisis began when King Gyanendra dissolved parliament and seized absolute power last February. This set off intense diplomatic activity to resolve the country’s decade-long crisis that began when Maoist insurgents gave up on the political process and declared a state of revolution.

Initially, the Indians and Americans opposed the Maoists’ efforts to topple the king and asked that the other seven major political parties join with the monarchy to form a government, but the king refused to cooperate. So instead of an agreement with a tyrannical king, the democratic opposition parties signed a “12-point understanding” with the Maoists in which they agreed to fight jointly for a constituent assembly and a new “democratic” constitution.

After intense American and Indian pressure, Nepal’s royalist government held the country’s first elections in seven years on Feb. 8, 2006. These municipal elections were supposed to lead to national elections in 2007, but instead the Maoists and the democratic parties announced boycotts of the elections.

Even before the polling started, 55 percent of the seats had no candidates running and another 30 percent had only one candidate. Voter turnout in Katmandu was estimated at only 15 percent, while polling stations outside the capitol attracted half that number.

In comparison, the voter turnout in the previous election in 1999 was estimated at 66 percent. The elections were an embarrassment for the Monarchy and capsized Washington and New Delhi’s policy of a reconciliation of the king with his parliament.

As if things weren’t difficult enough, Beijing has stepped into the Nepal crisis firmly on the side of the king against the Maoist insurgents and democratic parties. After the royal power grab, China’s Foreign Minister, Li Zaoxing, visited Nepal to declare that the king’s seizure of power was “an internal matter for Nepal,” meaning China refused to intervene.

King Gyanendra in turn announced that China is a “reliable friend of Nepal,” that Nepal supports Beijing’s one-China policy, and that Nepal would “never allow any anti-China activities” in its territory. It carried through on this promise by promptly shutting down Tibet’s government-in-exile, which had operated in Nepal for 53 years, and persecuting the thousands of Tibetan refugees residing in Nepal, including forced repatriations.

Not surprisingly, China also is assisting the king’s Royal Nepalese Army. No one knows how much military assistance has flowed into Nepal. But before the elections, seven political parties announced they would defy a ban on demonstrations. In response, the RNA announced a curfew and enforced it on the streets of the capital by patrolling in Chinese-supplied armored vehicles.

India was quick to label the Maoists as “terrorists,” but it has allowed insurgent leaders to spend considerable time in India. In fact, the meeting between Nepali opposition parties and the Maoists leaders took place in New Delhi. India denies having known about the meeting beforehand.

Indian and American policy toward Nepal is on the horns of a dilemma. At the moment it appears that they must choose to side with either the Maoists or with Beijing’s puppet King. To avoid this, President Bush and Prime Minister Singh should craft a humane policy toward Nepal that comes down on the side of democracy — open to all indigenous political forces, even if most of them may not be to our tastes.

Dana R. Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.