WASHINGTON -- Far across the globe, in the beautiful, but troubled mountain country of Nepal, every day brings dark news of demonstrations, riots, ethnic standoffs and the military fighting violence in the streets.
It would be easy from afar for anyone -- for Americans, in particular, obsessed with our own problems -- to dismiss little Nepal's troubles as not relevant to us. We have no special interests in that country, home to a hundred ethnic groups and castes, with an increasingly assertive India on its southern border, and it is best to let it be. But this would be a mistake because Nepal exemplifies the problems of many other countries today on the brink of change.
The story of Nepal is far more than the simple one of the world's most perfervid mountaineers out to climb Mount Everest or die heroically in an avalanche. Today, the sad story is one of internal dynamics at a time when no one has the power to grasp the reins of leadership. The result? Slow-motion helplessness.
Perhaps the Washington-based author and journalist Dr. Chitra Tiwari, a Fulbright professor and expert on South Asia, puts it best: "In the past, when there was an insurgency, it was basically between the Maoists and the royal forces. At that time, ideology was at the forefront. But now in Nepal, ideology is dead, political parties have miserably failed. The result is that we have ethnic politics raising its ugly head."
Until recently, the political standoff in Nepal was between the centuries-old Shah monarchy -- which united the disparate groups of Nepalese, just as Queen Elizabeth unites the British or Sultan Qaboos unites the tribal Omanis -- and Maoist insurgents. Then, in a bizarre turn of events in the early 2000s, almost the entire royal family was killed by a berserk son. The new King Gyanendra Shah was not able to hold the country together, particularly against the self-styled Maoists playing off the ethnic differences in the countryside.
People who cared about Nepal were thrilled when these two groups signed a peace treaty and a 601-member Constituent Assembly was formed four years ago to write a constitution. But it didn't work; they could agree on nothing, especially the issue of federalism, and suddenly ethnic politicians came forward, claiming to represent the marginalized ethnic groups.
"As long as politics was fought along class lines," Dr. Tiwari told me, "it was a two-way ideological fight, but with the demise of the Soviet Union and China's move towards state capitalism, the political parties in the Third World got lost in the horizon. The Maoist insurgency and the counterinsurgency led by the monarchists was understood in terms of an ideological fight between the communists and an absolute monarchy, although in the modern garb of 'constitutional monarchy.' The issues of class disappeared soon, and caste and ethnic politics raised its ugly head."
Dr. Tiwari says Pandora's box is now open. As the centrist political parties break down, ethnic leaders are spinning off, and he foresees that they will "sooner or later form a coalition of ethnic groups," who would then fight against the upper-caste Brahmin-Chhetris, with their long domination of the state through the monarchy.
And so, at the moment, this is the picture: The police have deployed thousands of men in Katmandu and major cities across the country, the political parties are in a process of disintegration, the Maoists are out to organize the ethnics, and the ex-king is reported to be secretly considering a return. Meanwhile, in effect, there is no legal government, although the previous one is more-or-less in charge.
In short, the problem and the answer, too, can be found in one word: legitimacy. Countries can have elected democratic leaders; they can have kings, sultans, constitutional monarchs or sheikhs; but these men or women have to have sufficient power and personality to meld the country together, and they have to have legitimacy.
Some think Nepal's insecurity and violence will serve to bring back the ex-king, and it may; but it would be out of desperation, not out of choice.
Nepal isn't alone in its violent search for national cohesion and legitimacy. Look at Burma or Myanmar, just to the south of Nepal. Just as Burma has a reformist general as president and is opening to the world, it is hit by Islamist ethnic rioting and deaths in the southwest. The search for legitimacy will also challenge virtually every one of the "Arab spring" countries in the Middle East.