Not long ago, unprecedented change seemed to be sweeping the mountainous nation of Nepal. Following the end of a violent civil war in 2006 and a historic election in April 2008, the Himalayan kingdom, ruled for decades by the almost divine right of its monarchs, became a secular republic. Maoist rebels, who once preached armed struggle and proletarian revolution, donned suits and went about promoting capitalist industry. But since then, Nepal's fortunes have hardly improved. Indeed, for many Nepalis, the country's dream of transformation has turned into an interminable nightmare.
Last week, traffic in Kathmandu was bullied off the streets as tens of thousands of Maoist protesters hoping to topple the current government barricaded stretches of the capital's main road. Countless businesses were forced to shutter, costing Nepal's meager economy an estimated $300 million over the six days of the demonstrations. The strike was only lifted on the night of May 7 after widespread anger and counterprotests as well as reports of dysentery and diarrhea among tired Maoist activists apparently convinced the Maoist leadership to back down.
But the way forward is as uncertain as ever. After waging a decade-long war against the royalist state that saw the deaths of more than 13,000 people, the Maoists became the driving force of a peace process meant to usher in a new democratic era for Nepal. In the landmark 2008 election, they won the majority of seats and formed a government that would, in theory, draft a new constitution and steer Nepal away from the great inequities of its monarchical past. Yet little was achieved in a country riven by political factions and feudal enmities; last May, the Maoists backed away from power when their firing of the country's army chief, a longtime foe, was blocked by other parties in the government.
Opponents have questioned the Maoists' ability to truly renounce their militant past a fear made all the more real by the recent fiery proclamations of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist leader better known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda, meaning "the fierce one." On Saturday, one day after lifting the general strike, he thundered to a mass rally in Kathmandu that the demonstrations that had crippled the nation for a week were "only a dress rehearsal ... We will put on the real show in the days to come." Since the strike was called off, there have been reports of fresh protests and disturbances.
The Maoists have refused overtures to sit down to talks with the government, an ungainly coalition of 22 parties patched together to replace the Maoist-dominated administration. Critics, the Maoist chief among them, say the present regime is weak, corrupt and lacks a popular mandate. Dinanath Sharma, a Maoist spokesman, calls it "unnaturally formed. It's undemocratic and against the spirit of the peace process." Many Maoist supporters who flocked to the capital to participate in last week's lockdown have no intention of disbanding. "I will stay in Kathmandu as long as the movement continues," says Ashok Shrestha, a Maoist party worker from the west of the country who is now camped out with colleagues in the corridors of a shopping complex in the capital.
Key to the conflict has been the fate of thousands of Maoist soldiers still housed in U.N.-monitored cantonments across the country according to various agreements, they are expected to integrate with the same Nepali army they once bitterly opposed. The deadline for the process has passed, and the integration has yet to happen. Both sides accuse the other of having their own agenda for delaying this vital step toward political unity: the Maoists see themselves arrayed against an old guard eager to return to the royalist era, while opponents think the Maoists ultimately do not want to shed their fatigues for civilian life and democratic politics. Pradeep Gyawali, a prominent politician within the government, speaks darkly of the Maoists' intentions. "This strike was a trial run for an urban uprising," Gyawali says, adding that Prachanda's cadres received inspiration from the success of the recent mass agitations in Thailand and Kyrgyzstan, which convulsed the politics of both countries.
Meanwhile, the country teeters toward a precipice. Nepal's elected assembly is supposed to ratify a new constitution by May 28. But the parties, including the Maoists, are nowhere close to an agreement, and after that date, the interim charter that in essence underpins the whole state of affairs in the fragile nation will expire. It's a surreal and unsettling prospect for most Nepalis, who had high hopes for the much-vaunted peace process. "The political parties are steeped in petty interest," says Lokraj Baral, a leading Kathmandu-based commentator. "They have all forgotten the crucial task of drafting a constitution. They lack commitment to the larger interest of the country."
Nepal is in desperate need of broad-mindedness. Sandwiched between rising economic giants in India and China, the country is one of the poorest and worst performing in the world, with chronic food and power shortages and a steady drip of its 28 million population departing for menial jobs in the gulf countries and Southeast Asia. It's not surprising that, with such entrenched poverty and political dysfunction, the grandstanding Maoists have attracted so vociferous a following. "None of the political parties looked after us, but the Maoists seemed honest," says Tilak Sirali, a 42-year-old laborer who left behind six children in his destitute village in the east to join the strikers in Kathmandu. "I came here with the hope that poor people like me will not have to suffer anymore."
But the Maoists' actions have only deepened the sense of crisis gripping Nepal. Krishna Sitaula, a party elder of the centrist Nepali Congress, hopes that last-ditch talks in the coming weeks "can bring back the country from the brink." Foreign governments, a host of international organizations and NGOs, as well as Kathmandu's civil society, are all applying pressure on the various parties. If this fails, darker days loom. Says Sitaula: "A full-fledged confrontation is very likely."
With reporting by Deepak Adhikari / Kathmandu