Will the Maoists Spoil Nepal's Victory Party?

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The bronze bells are ringing in the temples of Bhaktapur, about ten miles outside Kathmandu, and people are lighting small wax candles. The morning after King Gyanendra went on television late Monday night to announce that he was capitulating to popular protests by restoring Nepal's parliament — an announcement that put an end to a nineteen-day cycle of protests, curfews, tear gas, rubber bullets and several deaths — the people of this ancient town of temples and palaces, which was once the capital of a medieval kingdom of Nepal, are offering thanks to the gods.

Dinesh Hada, a shopkeeper whose store has a view of the palace square of Bhaktapur, is open again, for the first time in nearly twenty days. Four customers have gathered around him, happily drinking tea or smoking cigarettes. "I've lost so much in the past twenty days," Hada says. "This is the last strike ever of its kind, I'll tell you. The people won't let it happen again."

Most of Hada's countrymen seem to share his optimism. While he is speaking, young men holding red and white flags — the flag of the Nepali Congress, one of the leading political parties of the country — jump in to a pickup truck, and shout: "Long live democracy!" In a little while, they will join the drive towards Kathmandu, like several thousands of people who are pouring into the capital to celebrate their victory over the King. The roads towards Kathmandu, just a day ago deserted due to the curfew, are now jammed with noisy pickup trucks, buses, and cars draped with red banners. Drums are beaten and horns are blown. Many of the trucks and cars are going towards the house of Girija Prasad Koirala, an 84-year old two-time prime minister of Nepal who has been picked to lead his country once again by Nepal's political parties.

But despite all the festive celebrations, the crisis in Nepal may not be entirely resolved. After having unleashed popular anger to force the King to capitulate, the political parties will now have to figure a way of reining it in. Many of those who were protesting for the past couple of weeks are still angry about the beatings they suffered; today they repeatedly jeered and mocked the police. In one place, the crowd scuffled with the police, and had to be dispersed with tear gas. Although most of the political parties are in favor of retaining a ceremonial monarchy, many on the street are now clear that they want the king to abdicate. "Gyanendra, leave the country," was the most vociferous shout from the crowds. And once Koirala and his fellow politicians have decided upon a role for the King in the new Nepal, they will have to find a way to fix the country's economy, which is in a shambles after twenty days of violence.

But the biggest problem facing the new prime minister is how to deal with the Maoists, who seem to be the only ones unhappy that the protests have ended. Many believe that the Maoists, who are vehemently opposed to the King, would have loved nothing more than to see the pro-demoracy protestors smash through the police cordons and storm the royal palace. Rejecting the King's announcement, the leader of the Maoists, who uses the nom-de-guerre Prachanda (the fierce one), said that the political parties had committed an "historic blunder" by ending the protests. He also announced that the Maoists would immediately blockade Kathmandu and other major towns until a special assembly, with the power to draft a new constitution for Nepal, was formed.

After waging a decade-old war against the Nepali state that has taken about 13,000 lives, the Maoists now control large areas of the nation, where they run a parallel state, collecting taxes, building roads and enforcing their rule with brutality. Upon striking a deal with Nepal's political parties, the Maoists promised not to attack the Kathmandu valley during the protests, although their attacks continued elsewhere — they have killed more than half a dozen policemen and soldiers since the protests began. Most observers believe that the Maoists also played a huge, although mostly hidden, role in making the protests a success, by sending their cadres out onto the streets. "It is hard to believe that all the people out on the streets were members of political parties," says Bhekh Thapa, a former Nepali ambassador to the United States. "It is very likely that Maoist sympathizers added to the numbers of those protesting in many places."

Their recent cooperation with the political parties notwithstanding, many observers here insist that the Maoists will never settle for anything less than the armed takeover of the country. For now, the country's political leaders know they cannot hope to overwhelm the Maoists by arms: rather they have to try and wean them back into the political system, by negotiating with them, and attempting to write a constitution that the Maoists can accept. "I am not vouching for the Maoists," says Arjun Narsingh K.C, a prominent member of the Nepali Congress, a major political party. "I cannot promise that they are sincere about giving up their arms. But we have to try and bring them into the mainstream."

And despite the petulant tone that the Maoists are striking, some Nepalis really do believe that the rebels will give up arms and eventually enter the political mainstream by contesting elections once the country has a new constitution. Back at his store in Bhaktapur, Dinesh Hada and his friends certainly share that view. "Look here — the way you talk about Maoists, it's as if they were monsters," one of Hada's customers snaps. "Now, one of the four of us," he gestures around him, "is a Maoist. Can you guess which one?" Two of the men drinking tea begin chuckling: it's not clear if this is a joke. Hada explains that Bhaktapur, like most of the country, has often been attacked by the Maoist guerillas — but that the locals have learned to live with it. "Maoists are just people like everyone else," Hada says. "Most of them are poor farmers. Now that there's going to be a new constitution, they might join the system too." If they don't, that system, and the current joyous mood, may not last too long.