When Nepal’s King Gyanendra seized control of the government and sacked the cabinet on Feb. 1, most Nepal-watchers were surprised.
During a January visit to Katmandu by my organization, the International Campaign for Tibet, which included meetings with senior officials, there was no hint the king was planning to move against Nepal’s fractious political parties, his ex-allies in a struggle against a vicious Maoist insurgency.
As India, the U.S. and various Western embassies issued statements of shocked disapproval at the King’s anti-democratic actions, one embassy in Katmandu not only seemed to have anticipated the king’s moves, but tacitly approved them.
The day after the “palace coup,” the Chinese government commented that the king’s actions were an “internal matter” on which it would not pass judgment. While standard Chinese diplo-speak, this message was in striking contrast to other governments’ responses.
In retrospect, we should have seen this coming. One of the clearest signals that Nepal was getting more unstable was the government’s move on Jan. 21 to close the offices of the Representative of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Organization, ostensibly for failing to register with the local government as non-governmental organizations.
Both of these offices have operated for many years with the full knowledge, and frequent cooperation, of the Nepal government. Their presence also has been an irritant to the Chinese government, which has put increasing pressure on the Nepalese in recent years to shut them down.
Given what happened the following week, we should have recognized the actions against the Tibetans as, at minimum, a signal of worse things to come and possibly as part of an effort by the king to manipulate the political landscape.
Instead, most observers shrugged off the office closures as either bureaucratic overreach or a clumsy effort to placate Chinese complaints. After the king seized power, however, other facts emerged that placed the moves against the Tibetans in a different light.
First, there was China’s interesting reaction. Next, former Prime Minister Deuba reportedly said that the government acted against the Tibetans under pressure from the palace. Put these things together with the king’s trip to China shortly before the power-grab and the appointment of a deputy chief minister who is known to be “Beijing’s man in Katmandu,” and it is easier to see the closure of the Tibetan offices as a bad omen.
The approximately 25,000 legally resident Tibetan refugees who have lived in Nepal since before 1989, and the roughly 2,500 a year who pass through en route to India, are a vulnerable population in a chaotic country.
Because the law does not have formal protections for them, they have always been at the mercy of Nepal’s typically corrupt, weak and inefficient governments. When the situation worsens in Nepal – such as during the current twin crises of the collapse of democracy and the Maoist insurgency – the Tibetans are frequently the first to feel the pain.
The growing influence of China in Nepal is the wild card in this scenario, both for the Nepalese nation and the Tibetans.
If King Gyanendra continues to look to China for support and approval, Nepal’s other large neighbor – India – can be expected to grow increasingly worried. Today, the possibility of state failure or a Maoist takeover (or both at the same time) is far from remote.
If either China or India decides they can no longer sit on the military sidelines, Nepal could become the next regional flashpoint.
Given China’s history and current orientation, we cannot expect it to play a positive influence in this situation.
If China gains a foothold in Nepal, we can expect the treatment of Tibetans refugees will continue to be the “canary in the coal mine” for the state of democracy in Nepal.