Prominent Student Leader’s Arrest Could Galvanize Nepal Protests

KATHMANDU – It is perhaps too much to say that Lady Luck had never smiled on Gagan Kumar Thapa, a 28-year-old charismatic Nepali student leader at the forefront of Nepal‘s pro-democracy protests. But luck indeed never seemed to favor him.

Charged with sedition for shouting republican slogans and held in prison for more than two weeks by King Gyanendra’s government in late 2003, Thapa also had the bad luck of being fired from his position as general secretary of one of the biggest students union in Nepal by none other than his party elders.

His crime: vocally pushing for a republican line when the Nepali Congress was still trying to reconcile with King Gyanendra during the heady protests in summer 2004.

Early on Tuesday, luck once again ran out for Thapa. In the wee morning hours, jeep-loads of police surrounded the tiny house at the Sorhakhutte neighborhood in the heart of Kathmandu, a house that had served as his hiding place after Gyanendra seized power and imposed emergency rule on Feb. 1. The police swiftly arrested Thapa and two other colleagues. They are now imprisoned at a police station barely 450 meters from the Royal Palace.

Thapa’s arrest comes as a big victory for the royal regime. But it could well turn out to be a Pyrrhic one.

As former secretary general of the Nepal Students’ Union, Thapa is widely known across Nepal and commands a solid following among the youth of the Nepali Congress party. Even rivals from opposing parties acknowledge his popular appeal.

Minutes after his arrest became public through a secret grapevine, human rights networks kicked into high gear in an effort to get the news out.

"We fear that he could be disappeared just like so many others," said a rights defender who refused to give her name. "It is important for the world to know that he has been arrested by the regime."

That is a valid fear. Nepal has been termed as the country with the highest number of disappearances by both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Government security forces, fighting a vicious Maoist rebellion since 1996, have been alleged to be behind most of these disappearances, a charge the security forces deny. But local and international human rights groups say rights abuses by security forces have intensified since Feb. 1.

Because of his organizational skills, unrelenting demand for a republic, and charismatic speeches, which often held crowds enthralled, he was high on the list of politicians and students wanted by the royal regime.

But as soon as King Gyanendra announced his royal coup in a television address on Feb. 1, Thapa went underground. A frustrated regime harassed his family members and cut of the phone lines in his house, all in an attempt to coerce them into giving Thapa’s whereabouts. None of this worked.

From his safe hiding place, Thapa regularly put out press releases and statements calling for the international community’s support in the fight for the restoration of democracy.

One of his appeals in March reads as such: "There is no solution to the present political crisis in Nepal without the involvement of the democratic-progressive forces, that represent well over 90 percent of the Nepali people. … There are just too many people in Nepal who are neither royalists nor with the Maoists."

"To deny their existence, and to imagine a political solution without their decisive role, merely because they do not carry guns, and [they] believe in peaceful politics, is utter foolishness and arrogance," added Thapa.

He represented a danger to the regime due to his unrelenting criticism of King Gyanendra and frequent calls for a republican setup.

In a recent public statement, Thapa had harsh words for Gyanendra.

"The king has repeatedly shown that he wants to use the pretext of the Maoist threat to usurp power for himself; he has no intention of resolving the crisis. It is high time that the Maoists and the international community realize this," he stated.

"If the king believes that even in the 21st century, Nepal is his private property, that he can rule through intimidation and terror, that he can hold the country hostage for his raw greed for power and wealth; that he has the authority to silence dissent and to deny the inalienable and universal human rights of the sovereign citizens, then we the people of Nepal have every right to trash this king in the dustbin of history," added Thapa vehemently.

Though such words have excited the youth, they are admittedly still at fringe of mainstream politics. Many in Nepal still hold the monarchy in high esteem, but they also want to see true constitutional monarchy rather than a royal dictatorship. And several recent polls have borne that out.

But the king’s actions have wiped out democracy and constitutional monarchy.

This impoverished Himalayan Kingdom was a functional though chaotic democracy and constitutional monarchy till Oct. 4, 2002 when King Gyanendra made his first strike. On Feb. 1, he completed the process by dismissing a party-based coalition government, imposing emergency rule, and severely constricting political parties, civil society, and the media.

Thapa’s arrest could have a galvanizing effect on the pro-democracy movement. Some analysts note that since he is a popular figure, any physical harm to him will act as a trigger for more intense protests against the regime.