For several months towards the end of last year, the prolongation of a unilateral ceasefire declared by Nepal’s Maoist rebels was not reciprocated by the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA). But it meant that ordinary people were able to visit their families with less risk of being caught up in the conflict.
The lack of constructive response to the Maoist initiative by the royal junta led the insurgents – struggling for nearly a decade to transform Nepal from a backward agrarian economy ruled by a semi-feudal Hindu monarchy – to call off their ceasefire and resume their remarkably successful armed struggle.
The Maoists now control the vast majority of the countryside in Nepal. Increasingly they are demonstrating that they can also threaten the urban areas. Several towns in the plains of Nepal, notably Nepalgunj, a major town in the mid-west, have been coming under persistent attack in recent weeks.
The capacity of the Maoists to mobilise support in urban areas will prove significant in the coming months. Their strategy includes urban insurrection in combination with rural insurgency and protracted people’s war. The Maoists are in a strong military and political position.
They want to show the impossibility of a military solution by the king and the RNA and to win over other opposition political parties to a common agenda for popular democracy.
But the king and the army have been buoyed up recently by promises of military arms sales by both the Chinese and Russian governments, who are concerned about destabilisation.
There are sections of the ruling elite in Nepal which remain convinced that a military defeat of the Maoists is not only possible but also most desirable. They are influential. Various conservative groups have the ear of the king.
Proponents of the old regime are also encouraged by the support that the US has provided to the monarchy and the RNA.
Despite its criticism of the king’s assault on democracy in February 2005 and calls for the restoration of “democracy”, the Bush administration is prepared to back the king against the Maoists and the legal political parties, which are regarded as directed by leftist fellow travellers or self-serving individualists.
The US continues to be the dominant external actor, influencing the governments of India and Britain. India has worries about the links between the Maoists in Nepal and other insurgencies within its own borders, while the US and Britain lead the “war on terror”. Concern for “democracy” hangs in the balance against worries about the spread of insurgency in the Asian sub-continent.
In recent months, most of the political parties have swung towards republicanism, while leaving the door open for a constitutional monarchy cooperating with “democratic forces”.
They have opened to door for negotiations with the Maoists. The palace, on the other hand, has tried to maintain a “business as normal” approach, planning – and holding – municipal elections to demonstrate its control of the situation and progress towards a return to “democracy”.
The main parties boycotted the elections held last month and the Maoists threatened those who stood. The turnout across the country averaged generally 20-30 percent. The Maoists and the main parties claim this showed the lack of popular support for the king’s government, while the royalists claim that the people showed great courage and determination to vote.
The scene is set for a deepening crisis as the Maoists and the conservative forces renew the armed conflict that has torn Nepal apart. The political parties appear unable to develop a coherent and effective strategy to bypass the palace and create the basis for a return to an inclusive, democratic regime. The Maoists have indicated that they are prepared to support such a move.
India, the US and Britain’s continuing ambivalence towards the royal/military dictatorship and their failure to act decisively in favour of the restoration of parliamentary democracy has given the green light to the Maoists and the palace to continue their struggle.
David Seddon is a professor of development studies at the University of East Anglia