TOPICS > Politics

Royal Tragedy

June 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: For more background and developments in Nepal, I’m joined by Teresita Schaffer, who was deputy assistant secretary for South Asia in the first Bush Administration; she’s now director for South Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, a Washington think tank; and William Fisher, professor of international development at Clark University; he’s studied Nepal for 25 years and traveled there more than a dozen times since 1975.

Ambassador Schaffer, what else do we need to know about Nepal, given this weekend’s events what we don’t know in this country?

TERESITA SCHAFFER: Nepal is a country which has really been shaped by isolation in the mountains between two huge neighbors. It’s culturally and every other way lived in its own world for much of history, including quite recent history. Ten years ago the monarchy which had been an absolute monarchy, was persuaded by violent outbursts among the population to accept limitations on its power and to become a constitutional monarchy. This was a major turning point in Nepalese history.

It’s been a troubled 10 years, however, because the people who wound up running the government have been not just out of power but completely out of the loop and in jail, and so you had instantly very confrontational politics, total inexperienced leadership in the sense of experience in running a government and in recent years you’ve had in addition the problem of a violent insurgency, which has been increasingly active in parts of the Nepalese countryside, so these are the problems against the background of which this royal massacre took place.

GWEN IFILL: Is that the way you see it too, Professor Fisher?

WILLIAM FISHER: Yes, I agree. I think that this tragedy probably could not have come at a more challenging time for Nepal. We’re in the midst of the fifth year of a Maoist insurgency in the western part of Nepal that has taken the lives of more than 1600 people. And while in 1990 with the restoration of democracy in Nepal, there was a great deal of hope that democracy would quickly bring prosperity to the country, this has not been the case, and over the last 10 years there’s been an awful lot of squabbling among the political parties, a lot of inexperience on the part of the leaders, and what has been hoped for was never delivered by those political parties. During those last 10 years then the monarchy has come to be seen as at least one symbol of stability within the country, one thing that was constant, and this tragedy that’s happened over the weekend has taken away I think that sense of stability.

GWEN IFILL: Well, if the last 10 years had mainly also bred some of the suspicions that – all the rumors that we’ve seen flying about what really happened that we just saw in the report, what do the people you talk to tell you about what they think happened here?

WILLIAM FISHER: Well, there are many, many different rumors go on about what they think has happened, who was responsible for the killing. There’s certainly the earlier reports that the killing was done by Dapendra, and that’s a story that most of the people I talked to find unacceptable, that Dapendra was a crown prince who most people looked to as someone who would be a responsible king when he became king, and they find it quite difficult to believe that he – they could have been so wrong in their judgment of him and he could then have taken this automatic weapon to his family. The second story that it was an accident is a story that people find just unbelievable, and so there are many stories that it’s the Indians who have been involved – that it’s Ganendra, himself has been involved, that it’s the Maoists who have been involved, but there is really no certainty about any of them.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador Schaffer, how do you sort through all these different things?

TERESITA SCHAFFER: I hear the same rumors, but the one piece of reaction that’s come out of the leader of the Maoists basically praised the first of the two dead kings as a patriot and a liberal and of course they point to the likelihood of this being some kind of a conspiracy. I should say that in Nepal and in the surrounding region most people tend to assume that there is a conspiracy behind any kind of dramatic development, so that in itself doesn’t mean so much, but the important thing and the troublesome thing is where does it lead, where does it leave the country?

GWEN IFILL: Let me get you to address that piece by piece, because you’ve mentioned the Maoist guerrillas a couple of times here. Exactly how does this leave them positioned in this situation? Does it make them stronger, or does it make them weaker?

TERESITA SCHAFFER: Well, I think it has to make them stronger in the sense that the current regime is in disarray. You have a king taking over who is looked to for stability but who is also, according at least some of the rumors, believed to have somehow had a hand in this tragedy, and whose reputation and whose son’s reputation – the son now of course becoming the crown prince-are fairly controversial and so at a minimum he’s got his hands full.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Fisher, how about that, the Nepalese government is not an old democracy, it’s a new democracy still – does it find itself fundamentally shaken by something this spectacular?

WILLIAM FISHER: Well, I think the democracy has already found itself shaken by other kinds of scandals within Nepal. I think it’s the spirit and the hope of the people of Nepal who largely find themselves shattered by this particular tragedy and I think that they’re not quite sure where to turn and where to hope. I’m not sure where the Maoists find themselves. For example, in a stronger position than they were before – certainly one could think that the Maoists are in a stronger position because the government and the monarchy are in more disarray than they were before but Durendra, the previous king, was also thought to have taken a relatively moderate stance towards the Maoists, and most people believe that the current king will probably take or will be forced to take a much stronger line against the Maoists rebellion in the west.

GWEN IFILL: Is the current king, the new king vulnerable because of the way that he rose to the monarchy, or does it matter?

WILLIAM FISHER: I think he’s certainly vulnerable in the short run, and I think that there will continue to be unrest in the streets of Katmandu until an acceptable answer about what happened over the weekend is actually offered, an official answer is actually offered, and I think that the palace would be wise not to underestimate how much violence there might be on the streets of Katmandu; we certainly saw a great deal of it 10 years ago.

GWEN IFILL: Ambassador, you saw those glum faces of the people watching the carriage go by carrying the new president. Do you think that he’s going to be accepted – the new king – do you think he’s going to be accepted?

TERESITA SCHAFFER: I think that really depends more than anything else, as Professor Fisher said, on what kind of an explanation there is of the massacre but also on how he conducts himself. The – what is clear – one thing people in Nepal seem to be united – that they were absolutely horrified by what happened; but I would watch at this point three things: One is what will be the new king’s relationship to the politicians; both the prime minister and his political opponents. Will he be able to relate to them in a way that enables the political process to go forward in some reasonably functional way? Secondly, how will he deal with the Maoist insurgency, and I’m not talking just about whether you get the army more actively engaged, which is the somewhat high risk strategy; it hasn’t covered itself with glory so far in dealing with the – the insurgents, but I’m also talking about whether he will be able to take a more energetic approach to world development. That doesn’t depend just on him; he’s dealing with a weak system; so its both what he wants to do and whether he can make a weak system perform, and the third thing is what is the reaction of India and of China?

GWEN IFILL: What about that, Professor Fisher, what is the importance of Nepal’s position right there as a buffer between India and China?

WILLIAM FISHER: I think it’s very important; it’s always been regionally I think quite important that Nepal has been a fairly stable buffer between China and India. And it has always been a small country described – the current king is the 12th – traces all the way back to – Prithivi Narayan Shah described Nepal as a flower blooming between two stones, the two stones being India and China, and it continues to be that way, constantly threatened by those two. I would agree that those are the three things that we need to watch. I think though that there is a third, and it was suggested earlier. I think that if the current king handles himself well, that people will come to accept him, but I think there is some concern about whether they’ll come to accept his son as the heir to the throne, and that’s I think where there is some threat to the stability.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Fisher, Ambassador Schaffer, thank you both very much for joining us.