For a few weeks in the spring of 2006, the world paid attention to Nepal, when a coalition of nominally democratic political parties and Maoist rebels united to overthrow King Gyanendra. Then, as talks between the parties and the rebels dragged on, Nepal faded back into its accustomed obscurity.
Gyanendra had seized absolute power in 2005, claiming that the elected government had been unable to deal with the Maoists’ decade-long insurgency. With a long history of power-hungry aristocrats, the Nepalese have reason to worry that the king may yet attempt a comeback. But the rebels, who are consolidating their control over the country, present an even more serious threat to the future of democracy. Able negotiators, the Maoists have backed the political parties into a corner, forcing them to choose between allowing an armed force to enter a government and quickly dominate it or refusing a coalition and taking the blame for the collapse of a peace process. The last general election took place seven years ago and the legitimacy of the democratic party leaders is dubious. Nepal may soon join a very short list of countries – China under Mao Zedong himself, Albania under Enver Hoxha, Cambodia under Pol Pot – that have experienced the dubious benefits of a Maoist regime. How it got to this point is a long story.
Half of Nepal’s 28 million people live on hills and mountains, often accessible only after days of walking. The villages that dot its cliffs are as remote as islands in the middle of a huge and hostile ocean. In such terrain, the Maoists had little difficulty over the last decade in evading the Nepali army. A Chinese military man once told me, “A vertical metre is as hard to occupy and defend as a full kilometre of open plain.” In area Nepal is roughly the size of the three Maritime provinces. Bearing in mind that eight of the world’s ten highest mountains (including Everest at 8,860 metres) are within its borders, and multiplying by 1,000 as suggested by my Chinese observer, this quintessential mountain kingdom is a very big country to defend against guerrilla activity.
Nepal’s northern border is defined by the Tibetan Plateau; its southern frontier has shifted with the political tides. It generates the bulk of its agricultural and industrial wealth from the Terai, the flatlands that occupy the southernmost one sixth of the country adjacent to India. In addition to the Terai, the Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys, protected from the heat and diseases of the plains by a range of mountains and sheltered from the worst of the Himalayan winter, are regions of relative prosperity.
At the end of World War II, Nepal was ruled, as it had been for a century, by the Ranas, a prominent Nepali family that had seized control from the king and established a government of hereditary prime ministers. Monarchs, reduced to virtual house arrest, continued as heads of state but without real power. The Ranas imported European fashions and inventions, but ideas such as national liberation, liberalism and modernity failed to make it across the mountains. A further consequence of Nepal’s geography was its fragmented demographics. Dozens of ethnic groups and languages, further divided by a caste system, rendered nearly impossible the rise of effective popular leaders able to pose an alternative to the Ranas. Peasant rebellions were quickly and ruthlessly suppressed; often the Ranas allowed hunger to do to the work of soldiers as rebellious villages were starved into submission.
Still, Nepal did not entirely escape the upheavals marking the end of European empire in the mid-20th century. Newly independent India, unhappy at the anachronism perched on its border, supported Nepali dissidents gathered under the banner of the Nepali Congress (NC) Party, modelled on the Indian National Congress. A guerrilla war launched in 1950 led to a New Delhi–negotiated ceasefire one year later that restored the monarchy and established a multiparty democracy.