Unarmed resistance in Nepal

IssueOctober 2006
Feature by Tom Daly

I was in Kathmandu on the eve of the final show down this April between the king and the huge and inspiring pro-democracy movement. And I wasn't sure if I wanted to be.

The next day was starting to look more and more ominous. The leaders of the movement had called for a massive protest. They said they expected two million people to come from miles around and march on the palace to demand the end of royal rule. Some said they would storm the palace and throw the king out by force, but they were unarmed and the palace was heavily guarded so that seemed unlikely. Nevertheless the king was not enthusiastic about the prospect. His chief of police had already given orders to shoot any protesters who tried to assemble anywhere in the Kathmandu Valley. The armed police had been shooting live ammunition at head height into crowds that week, and there had already been 17 deaths and 5000 injuries in the three weeks of nationwide protests. But the following day's violence threatened to eclipse everything we had seen so far. A hideous massacre as big as or bigger than Tiannanmen Square looked entirely possible.

Tactical nonviolence

The democracy movement had put the entire country on strike for three weeks, and marches and rallies had been held every day in every town of any size in the entire country. Initially the andolan (protest) was set to last three days, from 6 to 9 April, but it was extended indefinitely in response to the police's violent repression.

The whole of Nepali society had been at a standstill. The strike had been absolute -- no working, no cars driving on the roads, no opening shops, nothing. Even commercial airlines and banks were on strike in solidarity. Hospitals were on strike except for the emergency wards, which were treating injured protesters for free. Even the Home Office -- who tell the police what to do -- held a protest. Irony-free police arrested 25.

Almost everybody we spoke to believed the king had to go before there would be any chance of dealing with Nepal's many problems. The poverty and injustice of Nepali society is breathtaking, and the king, one of the world's richest, was utterly indifferent to it. He had taken total power and abolished parliament a year ago and it had taken this long for the movement to unify and confront the monarchy and demand their country back.

A key moment had been the signing of an agreement between the main seven banned political parties (the SPA -- Seven Party Alliance) and the Maoist guerrillas, who control most of the countryside. The pact between these two major forces made the andolan possible. The Maoists declared a ceasefire for the duration of the andolan, to allow it to be a nonviolent movement. Without this, the king would have been able to paint all opposition to his rule as violent Maoist terrorism, and crush it without the international community batting an eyelid.

International solidarity?

Despite their nonviolence, the Nepalese still could not trust the international community or the media to watch their backs. During the crisis, coverage was patchy and sometimes downright treacherous, and international support for the Nepali people, at possibly the most crucial time in their history, was not reliable.

The US had failed to condemn the king's takeover, and continued to sell him assault rifles and helicopters, while urging him to escalate the disastrous civil war with the Maoists. True to form, their philosophy for the region was “Better Dead Than Red”. India had the same approach, partly fuelled by anxiety about their own Maoist rebels, the Naxalites.

On 21 April, the king had made a bogus offer that was immediately rejected by every body except his playmates in the army. Sections of the world's media portrayed the protesters as unreasonable for not accepting the obviously flawed deal.

The ambassadors of Sweden, France, Britain, Germany and the US all visited the house of GP Koirala, a party leader, to pressure him to accept the king's “generous” offer. Crowds formed outside shouting to the politicians not to accept the offer, which would have left the door wide open for the king to take over again whenever he liked.

A letter from 20 imprisoned civil society activists slammed the international community for pushing Nepali society to accept the king's dodgy offer. It said:

”Your reaction has needlessly delayed a peaceful transition in the country at a critical hour, when millions of Nepalis are on the streets agitating for an immediate return to democracy. This show of people's solidarity... deserves more respect than has been accorded by the international community.”

I would go further than that and say that the international community left the Nepalis in the lurch and left the door open for the king to massacre the protesters by not throwing all of its weight behind them.

Carrots and sticks

By 24 April, there was a general feeling that we were in the endgame, but the king still had the loyalty of the army and police, who had already demonstrated that they were willing to use lethal force against unarmed protesters. Every effort was being made to weaken the king's grip over these key forces. Family of police and soldiers held protests, imploring their husbands and fathers to remember that their first loyalty was to the people, not the king. These were among the only protests where the police were guaranteed not to charge in with their batons!

A stick-and-carrot approach was offered. People started recording the names of the police and soldiers who were committing atrocities and threatening that they would be held to account after the revolution. On the other hand, promises were made that if a policeman or soldier refused to attack the protesters and was fired, after the revolution he would be re-hired, and the lost wages would be compensated. Whether these tactics worked is hard to know, and it is hard to know exactly what will tip a situation one way or the other, even after the event.

From violence to victory

My friends and I spent the night trying to think of a way of being useful without being dead. We still wanted to go out on the streets, but the shadow of the shooting order lay across the day ahead.

We planned to get up at dawn so we went to bed early, but we were woken by people telling us the king was about to make a last-minute appearance on TV and we should come and watch it.

He looked tired and bleary-eyed as he made a pompous speech that offered just enough concessions. The return of a parliament with the powers needed to bring in the changes that people had been fighting for. Above all else, a road to writing a constitution granting human rights and making another royal coup impossible.

He offered condolences for the 17 dead and 5,000 injured by the brutal repression he had ordered, and that was that. The apocalypse was cancelled. As the speech ended people poured out onto the streets and there was a spontaneous street party.

Next day, 25 April, the planned protest became a victory party instead, and people marched, sang and did the funky chicken all along the Kathmanduring road, which had been the main battleground in this three-week long battle of wills between the Nepali people and their king. The mood was positive and people were relieved that the strike and road blockade were over at last, but everyone we spoke to that day knew it was the start of the long process of revolution, not the end.

Beware the leaders

People in Nepal have been let down by their leaders many times before, but this time they do not intend to let it happen again. I saw a group of women on the victory parade chanting, “be aware of the leaders now”.

The victory belonged to the people of Nepal, not their corrupt and incompetent politicians. People had shown tremendous courage in the face of the brutality of the police and army. In the last few days massive crowds had come out on the streets in defiance of the curfews. In many places police opened fire into crowds, often using live ammunition.

The use of nonviolence differentiated the democracy movement from the armed Maoist guerillas. The palace tried to conflate the two deliberately in order to be able to use more extreme violence against the unarmed protesters.

My memory of my time in Nepal is dominated by the courage and spirit of the people there as they struggled to get their country back. Their victory has given them a chance to transform the country and sweep away the traces of the corrupt royal regime. It would all have been easier and less perilous if they had had the international support they deserved.

Topics: Nepal, People Power