Nepal and The Army Deal

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Nepal’s government is skating on thin ice with their constitutional changes. The army’s support will strengthen their hand considerably.

There are a lot of questions within the Nepal Army – until recently the Royal Nepalese Army – about its proper role vis-a-vis the king and people. A certain amount of discord is tolerated and even occasionally encouraged in good military organizations while an issue is open, but once the commander speaks to something, dissent stops. Nepal Chief of Army Staff Pyar Jung Thapa has spoken on one of the critical issues in Nepal, civilian control of the military.

In an address to army officers and trainees yesterday Thapa said that the army would follow the orders of the current government, restored after King Gyanendra abandoned direct rule in the face of massive public demonstrations. He used the new name for the force and effectively endorsed the government’s recent moves to undo the effects of the king’s rule and to strip him of power, including his role as commander in chief of the army.

That would have been welcome news to the government under any circumstances. The army’s support at this moment is especially important, as the government stands on shaky ground for those reforms. So far parliamentary proclamations by just the lower house have effected what amount to major constitutional changes. Amending the constitution requires two-thirds votes in both chambers and royal assent: What the parliament has done clearly has the support of the people of Nepal, but it is also clearly vulnerable to challenge in the courts.

The explicit acceptance of the new order by the chief of army staff will weaken the strongest court case that royalists might mount – one centering on the removal the king’s control of the army. A high court ruling against the government on this issue would probably plunge Nepal back into conflict. That is significantly less likely now.

Chief of Staff Thapa’s move may save his job as well as the government reforms. April’s “people’s revolution” in Nepal was suppressed violently for weeks by police and soldiers. Parliament and demonstrators called repeatedly called for everyone involved in the suppression to be sacked and held accountable. Other senior figures, including all top police officers in the Kathmandu Valley, have lost their jobs or freedom. Thapa was rumored to be next: The announcement, it was said, was being postponed until after his daughter’s wedding.

Since then Thapa has announced the military’s support for merging the Maoists into the army and has now backed the government to the hilt. In return he presumably hopes to stay in power. Whether that happens depends on the findings of the Rayamajhi commission, charged with identifying those who suppressed the demonstrations. But with a grateful parliament the ultimate judge, Thapa may have made a good deal for himself as well as a good move for the country.

John Child is The NewsBlaze Nepal Correspondent, a journalist in Kathmandu who writes about goings-on in and around Nepal and her neighbors.