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 an 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.
Achyut 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 labor rights. One of the challenges for Nepal’s trade union movement will be to repeal this and other anti-labor restrictions.
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 held.
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 the 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 legislation remains 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 an 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 enriches 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 labor 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 the 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 learned that to their peril. The masters of China and Burma, among others, should be taking note.
Second, workers and the labor movement in Nepal played a key role in reversing the royal coup of 2005. Without the mobilizations 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 both simultaneously.
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 organizations 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 labor movement and the poorest and most marginalized of Nepal’s citizens.
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 a 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.