Geopolitics

With Maoists Refusing To Turn Over Their Arms, Nepal Totters On The Edge Of Political Crisis

Nepal’s major parties have hammered out a last-minute deal to save the Constituent Assembly. But six years after the end of a bitter civil war, the country's divisions still remain raw.

Security forces in Katmandu, Nepal (Annie Green Springs)
Security forces in Katmandu, Nepal (Annie Green Springs)
Frédéric Koller

KATMANDU – Welcome to the capital city of a state on the verge of bankruptcy. The roads are crumbling. There isn't enough street lighting. Power gets cut regularly, and trade has been dismal for years. Regular strikes and protest movements don't help much either, which scare off potential tourists from the Himalayan paradise.

Nepal represents the main crossing point between two of the most dynamic economies in the world, China and India. But it is also one of the planet's poorest countries, still very much dependent on international aid.

The economic stagnation can largely be blamed on endemic political gridlock that has long afflicted Nepal. A potential breakthrough came just last week when the country's three major political parties did manage to cobble together an 11th-hour agreement to save the current Constituent Assembly. Still, the situation remains highly unstable. The agreement extends the life of the Assembly by three months -- and what happens after remains to be seen.

After three years of vain attempts to conclude a peace process and to draft a democratic Constitution, local observers are skeptical about whether the three major parties will ultimately be able to reach a deal. "We are sitting on top of a volcano," says Yubaraj Ghimire, a political analyst.

From the outside, the situation looks quite confusing, to say the least. Between 1995 and 2005 Nepal was embroiled in a lengthy civil war pitting government forces against Maoist rebels. Soon after the war ended, the country's monarchy fell, though the main political party, composed of ex-Maoist rebels, continued to struggle with ideologically-fueled internal divisions.

Five years have gone by since a peace agreement between the government and the Maoists was signed under the aegis of India. Nonetheless, there are still some fundamental political disputes to be addressed, among them the demobilization and disarming of more than 19,000 Maoist soldiers.

"In 2006, the Maoists and the opposition parties committed themselves to set up a truth and reconciliation commission, to hold an inquiry on human rights violations committed during the Civil war, to enable displaced people to return home, and to get to the bottom of the numerous missing-person cases. But nothing has been done," says Ghimire.

That explains why the Nepalese Congress, the main opposition party, refused until the very last moment to extend the life of the Assembly, which they accuse of playing into the Maoists' hands.

"This extension is a victory for the Maoists. They have refused to surrender their weapons and to demobilize their army the People's Liberation Army," says Narayan Wagle, editor-in-chief of the local Nagarik daily.

The Nepalese Congress did obtain one major concession: the promised departure of current Prime Minister Jhala Nath Khamal, a member of the unified Maxist-Leninist party, Nepal's largest communist party.

"Unlike the Maoists, the Nepalese Congress renounced Marxist-Leninist ideology 20 years ago and now they are advocating reforming socialism. But the party is split into two groups: on the one hand there are the liberal democrats and on the other hand, the former guardsmen who are ready to compromise with the Maoists," says Wagle.

The Maoists are also internally divided – between two vice presidents. One defends the idea of a people's republic based on the Chinese model, while the other is sympathetic to the idea of a parliamentary democracy.

"Prachanda his full name is Puspa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist party chairman, often changes his mind. One day, he backs one of his two vice-presidents, the day after, he backs the other one. Things are very unclear," Wagle says.

People's Liberation Army soldiers, who are now state employees, do not want to surrender their weapons without first obtaining guarantees that some of them will be able to join the national armed forces.

The Maoists are widely viewed as hindering the peace process and the establishment of a parliamentary republic. Yet they remain very popular with young people and in rural areas, where Hindu temples are often adorned with communist flags.

"The majority of the Nepalese population is very young. And young people want things to change rapidly," says Wagle. "Some of them see the Maoists as the party that will bring positive changes, that has established a republic and that defends the idea of a federal state, the poor and the trade unions. The opposition parties, in contrast, don't have charismatic leaders."

The Maoists' refusal to surrender their weapons is not the only thing hindering negotiations. Ethnic and language divisions are a stumbling block as well. The Nepalese population is divided into approximately 100 different ethnic groups.

Nepalese people practicing Hinduism are the country's largest ethnic group, but they are divided into various castes. Last Saturday, in front of the palace where political negotiators were meeting, members of the the small Hindu-affiliated party Rastriya Prajatantra were quick to demand the abolition of the Constituent Assembly.

"We want a constitutional monarchy that will defend the Hindu identity. The King embodies Nepal's unity. The Maoists want Nepal to become like China," says Rastriya Prajatantra party member Krish­na Hari Mainali.

The three-month extension for the Constituent Assembly gives all sides in the national debate a bit more wiggle room, though solving the deeper impasse will be a much trickier puzzle.

"The only lasting solution will be to form a coalition government that will include the main political parties, and to offer the position of prime minister to the Maoists in order to reassure them," he says.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Annie Green Springs

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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