In 1990, Nepal’s centuries-long history of monarchical rule and more recent autocratic substitutes were finally brought to an end in what may consider to be one of the most notable non-violent revolutions of the twentieth century. With the death of King Mahendra in 1972, the future of Nepal’s government was uncertain. His son, King Birendra, ascended to the throne and implemented amendments to the ancient panchayat system that allotted virtually unlimited power to the monarchy.
All promises of democratic reform were abandoned by the throne, and the Nepalese people began to call for change. The Nepali Congress, a pro-democratic party formally banned by the monarchy, and the United Left Front, a coalition of socialist and Maoist political parties, agreed to campaign together in order to restore the kind of multiparty democracy Nepal possessed in the 1950s, so long as both parties could hold seats in the new Congress after the revolution was over.
On February 18, 1990, both parties formally called for protests by the people to begin across Nepal, with the insistence that the revolution be a non-violent one. The King attempted to stall the movement by banning opposition newspapers, arresting opposition leaders, and broadcasting pleas for the people to pursue reform through constitutional channels. However, the King’s success was limited. The protests quickly combined with general strikes and police forces began to collide with protesters.
Within a month, as many as 200,000 protesters marched on the capital of Kathmandu. Government buildings were surrounded and swarming crowds demanded the King’s abdication. Police, faced with overwhelming opposition, refused to fire on the seas of protesters that surrounded them. On April 8, the King agreed to reinstate the multiparty system and surrender the throne. The Nepalese monarchy came to an end once again. In the wake of the democratic transition, the Nepali Congress and United Leftist Party went on to claim the majority of seats in Congress.
In her 1998 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy, Julia Chang Bloch, the first Asian-American to become an ambassador, recalls firsthand the last months of the Monarchy’s reign and the events that shaped Nepali democracy shortly afterward. Ambassador Bloch served at her post in Nepal from 1989 to 1992 and also became a leading organizer for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) programs in Nepal. Her Deputy Chief of Mission, Albert Thibault, discussed Ambassador Bloch’s leadership during the upheaval during his 2005 interview with Kennedy.
“I immediately set about to run a Mission; not the State Department, not an Embassy”
BLOCH: I got a call from the White House personnel office… and they asked me whether I’d be interested in [becoming U.S. Ambassador to] Nepal. And frankly I said, is there any other choice? Because I felt Nepal might be boring. I was not interested in an ambassadorial assignment, even a historic one, if I was going to be professionally bored. I’d always had meaningful jobs. I’m not interested in the status or – what do you call it? – the visibility.
Two other countries were named, but after a long deliberation with my husband, we decided on Nepal — and thank goodness! Of course it wasn’t very boring because they had a revolution soon after I arrived.
When I arrived it was an absolute monarchy, lovely country, beautiful scenery, and as far as Embassy work was concerned, it was a very sleepy little outpost. Nobody worked terribly hard with the exception of maybe one officer. Even had things not changed, I worked differently, and even then my focus was on aid because that was the focus of our relationship.
I had to make sure I didn’t overstep my bounds as ambassador and get into the responsibilities of the AID Director. At the same time, it was okay because I was learning my job as an Ambassador, but that was very easy, because I think that I’ve been in training all my life.
The thing was, in Nepal we had a Peace Corps, we had a USIA [U.S. Information Agency]; I knew less about the State Department than the other agencies. We had a large AID, comparatively speaking. The only other agency I didn’t know was Defense and CIA. So I immediately set about to run a Mission; not the State Department, not an Embassy. And that hadn’t been done, so that was interesting, that the whole Mission could work together for a national objective. Our American interest in Nepal when I first arrived was to support Nepal’s sovereignty and to support Nepal’s economic development.
[U.S. aid to Nepal] was minuscule. When I arrived I think it was about 12 or 15 million. But Nepal is a small country. That was a large sum for a country with the absorptive capacity of Nepal. We had at one time been the largest donor but as the years went by, certainly the Japanese, the Germans, even some of the Scandinavian countries supplanted us. But nevertheless we had influence because we were one of the few countries with a Mission on the ground…
The Monarchy: in Nepal at that time, you could deal with maybe six people in Kathmandu, because they made the decisions, so it was a very small community. You deal with it with respect. You try of course to have some dialogue, to have some relationship, and it wasn’t always easy. Because monarchies are very closed, by and large; lots of ceremony.
For example, the custom was that when an ambassador arrived, you waited six months for your first appointment with the King. I arrived in late September and I had to come back on some personal business in November.
I went to the King’s private secretary and I said, “Look, I’m going home. Does the King want to give me any messages to take back? This is a good time for me to certainly make a case.” And lo and behold, I got an appointment.
Kathmandu was aflutter, the diplomatic community was aflutter. How did this happen? If you got 15 or 20 minutes you were lucky, I was told by my staff. I was really prepped by everybody; even the Palace’s secretary had said no more than 20 minutes or whatever and when he tells you to go, you get up and go. Well, our meeting lasted for almost an hour and the Private Secretary was beside himself.
“About 50 people were killed. And for Nepal that was a horrendous act, to have people killed”
[After the February 1990 revolution began], we were working around the clock. We called our Emergency Action Committee together. From all that was coming out of Washington, my first priority was that all Americans in Nepal were safe. That is no easy matter because Nepal is a tourist destination. But our EAC [Emergency Action Committee] committee worked very well. My Deputy at that time, Al [Albert A.] Thibault, was really terrific. We became “information central” for all the western Embassies because most of my colleagues were out of Kathmandu. Everything came to a head in April…
It was certainly not foreseen in terms of the results, not even by the protagonists. The Congress Party had been in opposition for a long time; they were either in exile or banned. Many of them were in prison. But in the beginning of February they started marches and demonstrations. Most of the leaders were under house arrest. Things started sort of placidly. Nepalese are not violent people.
The demonstrations gathered steam, partly aggravated at that time by an Indo-Nepal dispute where India cut off all but two access points or transit points, so goods were scarce. The middle class was getting somewhat disgruntled because of that. I think part of the problem was the way the government handled the protest, because they were making no concessions.
By the time they began to realize and talk to the opposition, to take the opposition more seriously, it was getting too late. And that’s what happened. About 50 people were killed. And for Nepal that was a horrendous act, to have people killed. The momentum just built… (King Birendra and family seen at left)
Word [of the fall of the Soviet Union] was getting into Nepal, even the Uhmaru Kingdom of Nepal, and people wanted more say, because it was a very closed society. The professional sector began to get involved. Professionals in the medical field, professionals at the universities, professionals even in the civil service started demonstrating. And as more people were killed, more of the professionals came out…
[The U.S. Embassy] maintained a very clear dialogue with both sides. We were one of the few places where there was clear information because we talked to both sides. We made sure that our message was: minimize violation and open dialogue. We were perceived by the revolutionaries as having helped their movement. [The U.S.] Congress sent a letter again espousing support for democracy. But at the same time we never lost access to the government, so again it was a question of balance…
When the dust settled, the government really sent us all kinds of appreciation letters, and with the new government we had complete access, even with the communists.
… I think we were able to help them consolidate their democracy. Democracy is very fragile, it’s still very new; still a lot of work remains in the consolidation process. But I think we built probably a model democracy support program… We developed and established a program for what we considered the transition phase and the move into the consolidation phase. We were there immediately; we had people on the ground helping with the constitutional reform process in May.
The revolution succeeded in April; they came to us because we had complete access. They asked us for help. We helped with the constitutional reform phase, we then worked up a program to support the development of the parliament. And we looked at the judiciary because that’s another anchor of democracy. We stepped up our exchanges. I got AID to fund USIA’s International Visitors Program. We had to get the [Nepal] leadership out, to see the world and broaden their horizons because they had no experience in government. (U.S. Embassy Kathmandu seen at right.)
… I ran an integrated Mission. It was not easy to get AID to support USIA activities. I had to make them see that it was not an AID activity or a USIA activity. It was a democracy support program for Nepal. It was a US democracy support program for Nepal, and we had a task force which I chaired, I think only the Ambassador can chair, because you’ve got to make all your components work together.
“This is something we supported, without the King being humiliated or his role in Nepalese society being significantly undermined”
Albert A. Thibault, Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassy Kathmandu, 1988-1991
THIBAULT: Julia Chang Bloch, a Republican political appointee, became ambassador… a very interesting, impressive lady with whom I worked very closely. She was the first Asian-American ambassador ever and was very proud of that fact. She had been born in China, come at the age of eight or nine to the United States. She was a political appointee, and I think her ties are to Senator Mitch McConnell, her sponsor, guru if you will, from Kentucky, and her husband is a well-to-do businessman, based here in Washington. (Thibault is seen at left.)
But, in fact, she had considerable relevant experience. She had previously been a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia, worked on the Hill, but then beginning with Reagan through Bush, she had become over a period of eight years a senior administrator in Peace Corps, area director in USIA, and an assistant administrator for Asia in AID. So it was not as if she had no foreign affairs experience. She was a serious person. So State was just the most recent of her foreign affairs agencies…
The major event of that period, and it was a protracted process, was the shift from direct royal autocracy to democratically elected government. It did not happen easily, it did not happen overnight but fortunately it happened with very little violence, in fact with almost none, and with the U.S. government and Ambassador Bloch in particular playing a very helpful, very constructive role, very supportive role. This is something we supported, at the same time, without the king being humiliated or his role in Nepalese society being significantly undermined. So it was a very careful balancing act.
At the time it appeared to be a very successful transition. Things have happened since then that have brought out the weaknesses, especially among the democratic parties but also in the monarchy, but at the time it was a great accomplishment…
Nepal has always been an independent country. It was never colonized. They’re very proud of that. It did not have the institutional infrastructure that, for all of its shortcomings, for example in Pakistan, is still quite meaningful, which the British created in the other countries. That is in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, in India, and in Pakistan, all areas which
the British controlled. They did not have that experience.
The monarchy is also the same family who were the creators of today’s Nepal, having been in power for over 250 years, the same ruling family. It is different also in that Nepal is a Himalayan country. That’s important because ethnically you have a mixture of Indian Hindus – indeed, Hinduism is the state religion – and Mongoloid groups in which there is also a significant Buddhist element and a Tibetan element…
Nepal is very different too in that the army, maybe this is what makes it a little closer to Pakistan, but the army always has played a traditionally important role. The country is different also in that the social class that has dominated Nepal for many generations is very narrowly based and there is a big gap between the Hindu castes and a very large percentage of the population who are of Mongoloid, semi-Tibetan people. The famous Sherpas who lead people up Mount Everest are from that background. Many of your so-called Gurkha soldiers from Nepal are of that background also.
The country is different, also, from the others in that there’s only one significant city and that’s Kathmandu. So Kathmandu dominates Nepal and always has dominated it since unification of Nepal in the late 18th century. Nepal is also different in that, as their expression puts it, they are between a rock and a hard place.
We [the U.S. Embassy] had a high profile and our presence in Nepal was extremely important to the Nepalese as a symbol of our commitment to their independence and sovereignty. The neighboring presence of India and China is always a matter of great immediacy to the Nepalese… They welcomed the other embassies as well, of course, but we were not just any outside power but the preeminent superpower. This was in the terminal phase of the Soviet Union and so the Soviet presence, which was never very important in any event in Nepal, was not of momentous concern to them.
We also had significant activities that we supported there. An aid program, an AID mission that was large. We have a vibrant Peace Corps presence as well that had a remarkable impact at the village level, where those volunteers were stationed. So the
commitment that the United States demonstrated through its presence and programs, and through having an activist ambassador like Ambassador Bloch, to the sovereignty and independence of Nepal was absolutely vital. I’ll get to how this became important in a practical sense, not just as an abstract concept of international law.
“I think also that her personality, and just her character, were such that she was not a person you could ignore”
We had a very immediate access to the top leadership of the Nepalese government. The Nepalese were very mindful of any statements that we might make about them. Now, getting Washington’s attention to Nepal, of course, was another matter. That was never easy. Nepal’s a very small country, and so to get the attention of policy makers, not just for Nepal but for any country of that stature or lack thereof, is a challenge. But having an ambassador like Ambassador Bloch certainly helped, no question about it.
… She had had considerable Washington experience, although she was a political appointee. Through the eight years of the Reagan Administration she had been a senior official of USIA, of the Peace Corps, and of AID. She was an assistant administrator for AID, for Asia, before she came to Kathmandu. So she wasn’t a babe in the woods and she had been on the Hill as well, so she knew the congressional dimension to this. She knew how the foreign policy system worked.
More important, she had well-honed instincts and acutely developed political antennae, unlike Ambassador Frank who, though a very nice person, did not have that experience. All this proved invaluable at a time of crisis. I think also that her personality, and just her character, were such that she was not a person you could ignore. Gender was never an issue in terms of access… So she very quickly established her credentials and as I say was able to play an active role…
We saw the individuals and groups who organized the agitation as legitimate democratic groups. We knew them well. I often had Bhattarai and Koirala, NC party leaders who later became Prime Ministers, to my house for breakfast before they got caught up in meeting with their activists. At the same time, I had very close links with the King’s senior adviser and, indeed, sheltered him at home for a couple of nights as he hid from mobs roaming his section of the city.
These contacts gave the United States and the ambassador in particular the opening to promote dialogue between the Palace and the parties, to urge peaceful accommodation, which we then implemented, not only in the form of public statements in which we encouraged the democratic process; not only in terms of giving private advice to both sides, that is, to the Palace and to the political parties; but also in terms of providing AID-sponsored, AID-funded programs that brought in American specialists on constitution writing, for example, legal systems and the like.
Now, this is commonplace today, speaking in 2005, but I’m not sure it was quite as prevalent a practice back then. But we put it into place in Nepal, again led by the Ambassador, who because of her command of the bureaucratic process, of AID’s package of programs and money that could be tapped, and of individuals in Washington, could get a hearing on this and could certainly make a valid case.