THE DRAMATIC EVENTS of the beginning months of 1990 marked a watershed in Nepal's political system. The quest for a multiparty, representative form of government had begun on December 15, 1960, when an unprecedented royal coup d'état dismissed the constitutionally elected government of Bishweshwar Prasad (B.P.) Koirala. King Mahendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev abrogated the constitution and suspended all guarantees of fundamental rights and political activities. The traditional partyless panchayat system of local and national assemblies imposed by fiat was found unsatisfactory in the face of the Nepalese desire to secure legitimate political and human rights and establish accountability in government.
Monarchical opposition toward political parties or groups had been so vigorous that the centrist Nepali Congress Party, the oldest political party, carried on its activities from exile in India. Other political parties, including the splintered leftist groups, either operated from abroad or were disbanded. Although political parties were banned and at times their leaders were incarcerated or forced to go underground, they remained a vital force in sensitizing and mobilizing public opinion against government authoritarianism.
The Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD), popularly known as the prodemocracy movement, finally succeeded in early 1990 in restoring democratic rights denied for decades by the powerful palace clique. In April 1990, tens of thousands of Nepalese marched on the royal palace in Kathmandu, demonstrating against King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, who was traditionally revered as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Police and troops shot and killed many of the marchers. As shock waves reverberated through Nepal, long an oasis of civil order in South Asia, the king quickly scrapped the panchayat system, lifted the ban on political parties, and formed an interim government from among the ranks of the veteran opposition leaders under the premiership of Nepali Congress leader Krishna Prasad (K.P.) Bhattarai.
The interim government, which represented the spectrum of public opinion, was directed to conduct fair and free elections within a stipulated period under a new constitution framed by an independent constitutional commission appointed by the Council of Ministers--the Constitution Recommendation Commission. Although the constitution was proclaimed from the throne, its development, unlike past constitutional edicts, was through a democratic process in which the interim Council of Ministers served as a legislature. Nepal's human rights records--poor before the success of the prodemocracy movement--also improved.
During the prodemocracy movement, a range of political parties acted in concert and rapidly commanded the loyalty and imagination of the overwhelming majority of the urban population. This unprecedented expression of national unity and the government's subsequent attempts to suppress the movement triggered the reactions of major and regional world powers including the United States, Japan, and India, and international financial institutions, such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Their timely expressions of concern and threats to reevaluate their commitments of economic and technical assistance both bolstered the movement and served as a damper against the monarchy's continued use of excessive force to contain it.
Strategically wedged between China and India, Nepal has always been fearful of foreign intervention and has tried to maintain equal distance from these two powerful neighbors in a continuing effort to protect its sovereignty. Nepal's choice not to align with any superpower facilitated grants of economic assistance from diverse sources, including the United States, the Soviet Union, India, China, and Japan. Nepal maintained a high profile in various international organizations and activities and was a charter member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).
Although the vast majority of the Nepalese population was illiterate, Nepal's printed media has been influential as well as strident. Before the introduction of the 1990 constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, several stringent publication and censorship laws limited freedom of expression.
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