Anytime tens of thousands of people defy the bullets of a monarchy for weeks to demand democracy, the world must do more than gawk. As tiny as Nepal is, its massive display of peaceful people-power to achieve freedom cannot be ignored.
The urban uprising against King Gyanendra, who still commands the loyalty of the Royal Nepalese Army, is in its third week, with dozens of protesters killed, the economy in a free fall, and a humanitarian disaster in the offing.
Just how this showdown will end remains unclear. It has shades of historic revolts, such as the French Revolution; the 1986 Philippines uprising against a dictator; and the recent protests that brought down rulers in Georgia, Ukraine, and Thailand. But Nepal is a landlocked, feudal Hindu kingdom of only 25 million that's also one of the world's poorest nations. Its future may not be decided by it alone. It is squeezed between the world's two most populous giants, India and China, while the US and Europe are trying to prevent more instability in southern Asia like that in nearby Afghanistan.
This crisis could turn in large part on what big powers do.
Complicating the crisis is the success of Nepal's communist guerrillas, who have taken much of the countryside since 1996, using the tactics and ideology of China's late Mao Tse-tung. Nepal's centuries-old monarchy, which was forced to allow a limited democracy in 1990 after street protests, sacked parliamentary rulers last year for failing to curb the Maoist advance.
But the king's retaking of absolute royal rule has led to a suspension of civil liberties and such human rights abuses against the democratic opponents in seven political parties that they felt compelled to join hands with the Maoists in November, leading to mass protests that began April 6.
Nepal shares a long, porous border with democratic neighbor India, which has often manipulated the Hindu kingdom to keep it subservient. India has kept some supplies flowing to Nepal's military but also supported the Maoist entry into the antiking alliance. India has its own Maoist rebellion and hopes it, too, will shed its antidemocratic ideology.
Nondemocratic neighbor China has fewer ties with Nepal but also recently aided the royal army. To Beijing, a democratic Nepal might inspire independence activists in Tibet to the north. And having rejected much of Maoism, China would be red-faced to have Maoists in a Nepalese regime.
The king has smartly played China and India against each other. But their conflicting interests should not hinder an international effort to pressure the king into letting the democratic parties set up an interim government and hold elections for a constituent assembly. The US and other nations must find a way to present a unified front to the king. Some sort of penalties, such as travel bans and targeted economic sanctions, could be used against the royal family and military leaders. At the same time, Nepal's democrats must be supported to avoid any intimidation by the powerful Maoists.
The Nepalese have spoken with their valiant, peaceful marches for democracy. Now they need an equal measure of pro-democracy help from other nations.