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Published: Friday, 4/28/2006

Clash in the Himalayas

THE Himalayan kingdom of Nepal has torn itself apart in three weeks of violent street demonstrations. The political struggle pits a monarch, King Gyanendra, supported so far by the country's security forces, against a civilian political opposition composed of seven political parties. Both sides are ostensibly opposed to the third element, an armed Maoist insurgency, ongoing for a decade but now profiting from the general disorder.

Although 14 demonstrators were killed by government security forces in recent weeks, the pressure eased Monday when the king relented a bit, authorizing the parliament to reassemble as of today and causing the protesters to leave the streets for the time being.

Nepal, for years a constitutional monarchy, began to come unstuck in 2001 when a drunken prince killed the previous king, Birendra, and other members of the ruling family in a general slaughter at the palace. Gyanendra, as virtually the only one left standing, became king.

The royal family's legitimacy had been weakened, Gyanendra showed no particular talent for governing, and he quickly resorted to more heavy-handed means of ruling. In the meantime, the Maoist insurgency, which has claimed an estimated 13,000 lives, continued. Last year Gyanendra suspended the government and began to rule directly.

The civilian opposition organized demonstrations involving thousands of people, which lasted nearly three weeks, gaining in strength. They demand a return to constitutional, parliamentary government, with authority over the armed forces in the hands of an elected government rather than the king, and the holding of democratic, multi-party elections.

The Maoists have stated their willingness to compete for power in democratic elections, although their violent role to date makes that posture suspicious.

The trouble in Nepal, with a population of 28 million, makes India nervous. Nepal is 81 percent Hindu. It is also not clear to what degree China and or Pakistan are behind Nepal's Maoists - both deny it. A realistic deal could have the king remaining as a constitutional monarch, with reduced powers, and acceding to elections, in which, ideally, the Maoists would participate.

Whatever is worked out, lasting peace must somehow be assured in Nepal and soon. The Nepalese people are paying the price for a lethal combination of a stubborn king, fractious civilian opposition, and a violent insurgency, rendering life in the country difficult and dangerous. The current calm is likely to be only temporary.

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