Drive Revolutionary Steps Towards Democracy, Rights and Equality in
February 2005 King Gyanendra proclaimed an end to Nepal’s constitutional
monarchy and installed himself, with the backing of the Royal Nepalese
Army (RNA), as absolute monarch. The King’s proclamation was the
croak of a withered monarch that amounted to nothing more than a last-gasp
attempt to preserve the privilege and power of a tiny elite.
Wracked by 10 years of civil war, dire poverty, gross human rights abuses,
repression of trade unions and widespread corruption, Nepal’s elite
had done nothing to temper these circumstances or alleviate the conditions
of inequality and disempowerment the majority of the country’s population
lived under. To each challenge to the elite’s privilege, the response
was predictably anti-democratic and backward. The royal coup of February
2005 was the final blow to any veneer of legitimacy the monarchic elite
Raj Pandey, past president of the IUF-affiliated Nepal
Tourism and Hotel Workers Union and now general secretary
of the Nepal Trade Union Congress, addressing a rally
of hotel workers in Kathmandu in 2000. Hotel workers at
the time were demanding a service charge for a fair distribution
of income from tourism. In 2001 strikes were banned in
the hotel sector denying hotel workers one of their fundamental
labour rights. One of the challenges for Nepal's trade
union movement will be to repeal this and other anti-labour
Tensions and protests
marked the King’s descent into a black hole devoid of rights and
democracy in 2005. This reached a crescendo in April 2006 as day after
day tens of thousands of Nepalis rallied for democracy and radical change.
Hundreds of those protesting were arrested and detained. Police and
military units fired at demonstrators, including at children. The precise
figures on deaths during this period are unknown, but at least 18 people
were killed, including trade union members.
As the power of
the popular protests continued to grow, the King was left with no alternative
but to submit to the will of the people and relinquish control.
With the formal
end of the dictatorship Nepal is entering a new and very precarious
phase of its development. The causes of the civil war remain to be addressed.
Anti-union and anti-worker legislations remain on the books. While the
Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) has agreed to a ceasefire to
its “People’s War” and has reached agreement with
the Seven Party Alliance (SPA: the coalition of major parliamentary
political parties which grouped together to fight the dictatorship),
the longevity of that agreement is uncertain. The RNA, primarily responsible
for turning Nepal into a country with one of the worst records of forced
disappearances in the world, remains outside democratic control and
its commitment to a new order grudging at best.
For too long Nepal
was a country of marginal interest doused with overseas aid money which
did little but enrich a layer of consultants. When the civil war began
in 1996 few treated the problem seriously, or could only manage a myopic
response. That CPN-M was to ultimately control some 80% of the countryside
could only have happened had conditions been ripe for the party’s
message. It is instructive to remember that Nepal’s elite only
managed to enact legislation banning feudal forms of bonded labour in
2000, by which time CPN’s control of the countryside rendered
the legislation moot. That says as much about the governing classes
failure to initiate reform in the countryside as it does about the success
of the CPN-M.
Yet, the success
in ending the monarchic dictatorship was not the result of a glorious
rural maquis infused with the ideologies of Chairman Mao. It
was in the end the result of a formal agreement between CPN-M and the
SPA, which committed the CPN-M to a ceasefire, to elections and to a
pluralistic democratic future. Despite repeated earlier calls from CPN-M
to the populations of urban Nepal to rise up against the state, these
had always fallen on deaf ears. It was only following this commitment
to peaceful democratic revolution that the majority of Nepalis united
and successfully overthrew the regime.
The radical changes
in Nepal suggest lessons for the rest of the region.
First and foremost,
when people are oppressed they will rebel. It is not axiomatic that
such rebellions will succeed, but dictators across the region should
note that oppression as a means to power and control can only ever create
castles built of sand. The dictatorships of Indonesia, Philippines and
Thailand learnt that to their peril. The masters of China and Burma,
among others, should be taking note.
and the labour movement in Nepal played a key role in reversing the
royal coup of 2005. Without the mobilisations of Nepal’s workers
it is highly unlikely that the King would have been toppled. Unlike
the myths of development perpetuated by the World Bank, where concern
for democratic rights is seen as the exclusive property of a middle
class that emerges once a country becomes “developed”, Nepal
demonstrates that democracy and development are inseparable and that
workers and the labour movement are the social force which can realise
Third, despite years
of assistance from overseas donors via World Bank loans, Asian Development
Bank funding, IMF advisors and the like, all preaching the glory of
free market capitalism, Nepal could not escape grinding poverty. Despite
a plethora of non-government organisations bred on donor funding, neither
the neo-liberal agencies of the wealthy countries nor the NGOs were
the agents of change when it came to reversing the coup. The possibility
of a revolutionary change to real democracy has been created by workers,
the labour movement and the poorest and most marginalised of Nepal’s
The changes in Nepal
offer reasons for both celebration and caution. Any downfall of a dictatorship
is a moment of joy for trade unions and workers. But such joy is also
accompanied by the sad memory of those who lost their lives in the struggle.
There is reason to be hopeful that in Nepal’s case genuine development
and democracy can now occur. That is a democracy for all Nepalis, where
wealth is shared equally, where rights are universal and where justice
is available to all.
Trade union movements
the world over should congratulate the workers, unions and people of
Nepal who liberated themselves from a brutal dictatorship. Our solidarity
actions should be to ensure that this liberation can continue and not
be deterred or set asunder by the ancien regime. Just as important,
our solidarity actions must also ensure that the paths of development
which brought about the civil war and the dictatorship are abandoned
and replaced with democratic development where rights and equality are
the goals, not wealth and power for a new elite.
Nepal: King and Army Choose the Abyss
2005 IUF Executive Committee Resolution on
Democracy in Nepal
Nepal's Civil War and the Labour Movement: What
Chance for Peace?