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Heads up – Embassy 7 – April 2008

Nepal – A new chapter

Things are changing at the Embassy of Nepal: where once royal portraits dominated the reception room, the walls are bare. Only the canvas of the Himalayas remains.

“Nepal has turned over a new page,” smiles Murari Sharma, Nepal’s new Ambassador to London, speaking of the epoch-making political changes taking place in his country. “Nepal has been waiting for this moment for the last 58 years. In 1950 the King of the day agreed with political parties to hold a constituent assembly election but this never happened! So now we are going to re-write our constitution which is very exciting for all of us.”

Nepal could become a republic within a month, says Sharma. Following the recent constituent assembly elections, former Maoist rebels now form the biggest party in parliament. The party leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (alias Prachanda or ‘the fierce one’), has called for the abolition of the monarchy at the first meeting of the constitutional assembly – a call echoed by the Seven Party Alliance, the coalition of pro-democracy parties.

Nepalis are unlikely to mourn the end of the 200-year-old institution, says Sharma. “The monarchy was greatly revered but what changed people’s minds was the liquidation of the entire royal family in 2001. That was the beginning of a very dark period.”

The Ambassador expects a healthy dose of “political posturing” as the parties draft a new constitution. He predicts the Maoist Communist Party, now in government rather than opposition, will soften their line: already they have sought to reassure foreign investors that their interests in Nepal are safe.

A South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission is also planned to investigate any atrocities committed during the decade-longcivil war. “It’s important to forgive,even if you don’t forget. And then you move on,” says Sharma.

Negotiations are likely to be complex – particularly over the merging of the two armies and the future of Gurkha soldiers fighting for foreign armies – but the Ambassador still takes some personal satisfaction out of the way things have turned out. After all, he played a supporting role in his country’s recent political drama.

He was appointed as the country’s Permanent Representative to the UN in 2000, but after King Gyanendra assumed power following the massacre of the royal family in 2001, the Ambassador grew increasingly discontent with the King’s authoritarian measures. Sharma began to work with pro-democracy groups in the US, leading to “unpleasant” confrontations with his masters.

The last straw was when the King assumed direct rule in 2005. “Democracy is something you cannot compromise over,” says Sharma, who quit his post to mobilise support for Nepal’s second pro-democracy uprising or Jana Andolan II.

Convincing the US Administration to put pressure on the King was not easy, he admits. “There was a lot of dilly-dallying because they believed the King was indispensable in the two-pillar theory of democracy and constitutional monarchy.”

So Sharma began an intensive lobbying campaign to mobilise Congress. “We found friends and worked through them. And Congress came up with a law that banned the sale of arms to the Nepalese king.”

Even when the Seven Party Alliance had clinched a deal with the rebels in November 2005 (a deal that tacitly agreed to do away with the monarchy), the Administration remained indecisive. “It was only when one million Nepalis took to the streets of Kathmandu on 11 April that they started to put pressure on the King.”

Now in London, Sharma has taken up the cudgel for other causes. In particular, he will be pushing for the fair treatment of Gurkha soldiers who retired before 1997, whose pensions are one-sixth of those awarded to British soldiers.

Economic diplomacy will be another priority. Sharma, a one-time foreign secretary, helped draft Nepal’s foreign policy direction in 2006.

“In the past, the diplomatic service was all about ‘alcohol and protocol,’” he smiles wryly. “But the days of such diplomacy have gone. We need to focus on things that will improve the lives of Nepali people: how to create jobs, improve people’s standards of living, increase trade and investment, promote tourism etc.”

Attending to the consular needs of the 75,000-strong Nepali community in the UK is also a priority and Sharma has plans to encourage expat Nepalis to strengthen their links with their country of origin and invest in its economy.

As a columnist and writer (he has already co-authored a book, Reinventing the UN, and has also penned a collection of short stories) the Ambassador hopes to set aside some time to read and write – after all, he says, “England has the perfect weather for it!”

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HE Mr Murari Sharma

“Nepal has turned over a new page Nepal has been waiting for this moment for the last 58 years. We are going to re-write our constitution which is very exciting for all of us.”

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