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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Maoist-governed Nepal may be less than year away

By Richard Halloran

The visit of the leader of the U.S. Pacific Command to Nepal took only 24 hours, but it spoke volumes about the U.S. concern over the fate of that increasingly troubled nation nestled up against the high Himalayas north of India.

Adm. William J. Fallon flew into Katmandu, the capital, earlier this month to meet with King Gyanendra and several Cabinet ministers, political party leaders and senior military officers. He was the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to visit Nepal in living memory and his message was stark: "I can't help you until you take steps to establish participatory democracy."

Over the past year, Nepal has experienced a three-way struggle for power. Maoist insurgents seek to take over the country. The king has sought to consolidate authority in his own hands to fight the insurgents. An alliance of seven parties demands that parliamentary government be restored and has dallied with the Maoists in an attempt to gain political leverage.

U.S. officials say that unless a turnaround is engineered in six to eight months, Nepal will collapse into Maoist hands. Besides bringing more instability to South Asia, that would enhance ties between the Maoists in Nepal and anti-government insurgents in northern India, and possibly provide a new haven for terrorists.

The Bush administration has been cultivating new relations with India after decades in which India was among the world's leading nonaligned nations and often tilted toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. President Bush is scheduled to visit New Delhi next month, and Nepal is certain to be on the agenda.

Soon after Fallon journeyed to Katmandu, the U.S. ambassador to Nepal, James F. Moriarty, delivered an unusually blunt address. He scolded the king and the political parties alike for failing to join hands to fight the 10-year Maoist insurgency in which 13,000 people have been killed. "There is no other practical, workable solution to your constitutional crisis," he said.

About the same time, a spokesman for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice abandoned the State Department's customary diplomatic stance to criticize the king for failing to "initiate a dialogue with the political parties. His continuing refusal to take these steps is leading his country further down the path of violence and disorder."

In response, King Gyanendra issued a statement last week in an apparent effort to reach out to the politicians opposing him. He called on "all willing political parties to come forth to fully activate, at the earliest, the stalled democratic process in the greater interest of the nation." A year ago, he dismissed the parliament after claiming that the government had been ineffective in fighting the Maoists.

The king's appeal was immediately rejected by leaders of the seven-party alliance. Sushil Koirala, vice president of the Nepali Congress party, was quoted in the English-language press in Katmandu as saying the king's call for dialogue was intended only to deceive people. "We will compromise neither with the king nor with the Maoists at the cost of democracy," he said.

For 10 years, the Maoists have rampaged through the Nepal countryside, murdering innocent civilians, conscripting young men and otherwise terrorizing the people. They threatened violence to candidates and voters in municipal elections earlier this month and were credited or blamed for keeping the turnout down to 20 to 25 percent.

U.S. officials with access to intelligence say no evidence has yet turned up that the Maoists are supported by China despite having taken their name from Mao Zedong, the revolutionary leader of the Chinese Communist Party. The Nepali insurgents, however, are reported to get some supplies and ammunition from insurgents next door in northern India.

Fallon suggested in an interview that despite the ordeals of Nepal, a few bright spots shone through. He found the king, with whom he met for 90 minutes, to be well-informed and articulate in arguing that security took priority. The admiral said Nepal's army, although guilty of sometimes violating human rights, had improved and was helping to hold the country together.

Ambassador Moriarty, however, berated the quarreling king and politicians equally, asserting that "so long as there is no coherent strategy in place to roll back the massive gains the Maoists have made over the past decade, the Maoists will rightfully conclude that they are winning.

"There certainly is no way for the parties or the king to successfully ride the Maoist tiger for their own advantage," Moriarty contended. "One could easily fall off ... and tigers get hungry."

Richard Halloran is a Honolulu-based journalist and former New York Times correspondent in Asia.