Two large, politically charged assemblies Friday in Nepal’s capital couldn’t have been more different.
On Friday, a day after the fifth anniversary of the killing of most of his family and his subsequent ascension to the throne, Nepal’s King Gyanendra made his first public appearance and only his third trip outside the palace since abandoning absolute power in April. On the same day and only a few hundred yards from the palace, Maoist leaders made their first public appearance in many years to address a crowd of up to 200,000 people.
The king’s appearance fulfilled a centuries-old tradition that required his presence at the closing ceremonies of the month-long festival of Kathmandu’s rain god. According to tradition, the king’s absence or any untoward incidents during the festival are evil portents for the crown. In 2001 the giant wooden chariot that carries the rain god during the month toppled over within sight of its destination and had to be rebuilt. King Birendra attended the delayed closing ceremonies of that festival, but eight days later he was killed by the crown prince, who later shot himself.
This king is reported to be deeply superstitious, and memories of the tragedy may have motivated him, but the decision to attend despite major security concerns was political as well. The king was signaling his intent to hold on to the throne in form at least and, perhaps, to regain power. The royal motorcade took the normal route from the palace without incident. The crowd was in a good mood as it anticipated the king’s arrival. When a municipal garbage truck drove up to collect the last of the debris from a hurried clean-up of the area, shouts rang out: “He’s arrived!” Widespread laughter followed, and police officers struggled to keep straight faces.
Despite the disrespectful mirth, the king was well received. The crowd surged forward as his limousine pulled up, and many people took photos. Large reserves of police stood by, and an army detachment was poised just out of sight: neither was needed. During the ceremony supporters of the king drowned out a small group of demonstrators that started shouting anti-monarchy slogans.
In sharp contrast, anti-monarchy sentiment was the order of the day at a large rally in central Kathmandu called by Nepal’s Maoists, who have been fighting for a decade to end the monarchy. Maoist politburo members spouted fire and brimstone against the king, and the crowd chanted “Burn the crown!” and “Hang Gyanendra!” The alliance of seven political parties that are now in control of the government came in for almost as much criticism, despite agreements between them and the Maoist speakers.
Common purpose – to strip the king of his power – brought the Maoists and parties together in April. During the last month the two forces have called a ceasefire, the reinstated parliament has made dramatic steps to meet Maoist demands, and talks have begun. But big differences remain, and the problems now get harder.
The stated goal of both Maoists and politicians is constitutional change leading to a republican state, but each side has a very different roadmap. Maoist demands for immediate dismissal of parliament, an interim power-sharing government, and integration into the army have gotten a boost from the rally’s huge turnout Friday, putting the parties off balance temporarily.
Two junior ministers braved the rain to make a token government appearance at the rain god’s ceremony, but the seven parties stayed well away from the Maoists’ rally. Even so, the heat is on them to put aside internal squabbles, to negotiate with the Maoists, and, above all, to do it quickly. Ten years of insurrection and five years of political turmoil have left Nepalis with a thirst for peace and a huge reservoir of anger against leaders across the whole political spectrum. If the parties fail to make progress soon, they will lose their last chance at credibility.