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Chance for peace

Print edition : May 18, 2012 T+T-
MAOIST PEOPLE'S LIBERATION Army cadre during their daily exercise at Rajthali in Hedaunda, some 250 km south of Kathmandu, in this July 2006 photograph. Uncertainties about numbers and ranks prompted many in the 19,000-plus cadre to opt for cash compensation.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

MAOIST PEOPLE'S LIBERATION Army cadre during their daily exercise at Rajthali in Hedaunda, some 250 km south of Kathmandu, in this July 2006 photograph. Uncertainties about numbers and ranks prompted many in the 19,000-plus cadre to opt for cash compensation.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

Nepal: Maoist rulers succeed in resolving the issue of the future of PLA combatants, but constitution-building remains an onerous task.

IN the past six months, Nepal has made significant progress in the peace process and in constitution-building, which had bogged down the country for the past six years. The biggest hurdle in the peace process integrating the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA) combatants into the Nepal Army and rehabilitating them otherwise has been resolved. For this, the Maoist combatants were divided into three categories (i) those who wanted to opt for integration into the army; (ii) those who preferred rehabilitation through acquiring other professional skills; and, (iii) those who opted for voluntary retirement through cash compensation to seek their own options of livelihood.

In the first count, the poorest response was for the second category. While 9,705 of the total 19,000-plus opted for integration into the army, about 7,365 were happy to collect the cash compensation and join their families. In the second count, however, those in the third category have emerged as the largest group, with 6,574 of the 9,705 who had wanted to join the army opting for voluntary retirement, leaving only 3,129 seeking an army career.

This change came about because of the internal conflict among the Maoists and also the political wrangling between the Maoists and mainstream political parties such as the Nepali Congress (N.C.) and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) over the numbers to be integrated into the army and the ranks to be granted to senior Maoist combatants.

The political parties had evolved a consensus earlier that not more than 6,500 combatants could be integrated into the army, and senior commanders of the PLA could be granted ranks, after some relaxations in age and educational qualifications, but only within the existing norms of the Nepal Army. The uncertainties on these counts prompted the Maoist combatants to opt for the cash compensation. With far fewer than the expected 6,500 opting for the Army, the process of integration and compensation is expected to proceed smoothly, resolving one of the most tangled issues relating to Nepal's Maoist insurgency.

The credit for getting this issue off the table must go to the Maoist leadership duo, party chief Prachanda and vice-president' and current Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai. The leadership has been under considerable pressure not only from the international community, but also from the N.C. and the UML on the question of the integration and rehabilitation of the combatants. With this issue remaining unresolved, there was no progress in constitution-building.

Internally, there were pressures from other constitutional bodies too. The President of Nepal, Dr Ram Baran Yadav, has been pleading with the political parties to evolve a consensus on the peace process and on constitution-making. The Supreme Court of Nepal had firmly reiterated that the drafting of the constitution should be completed by May 27, when the extended tenure of the Constituent Assembly (CA) would come to an end. The life of the CA cannot be extended any further as it has been extended several times in the last two years.

There was also public pressure building up on the political class. Some of the political leaders were publicly humiliated for delaying the constitution-writing. Media reports hinted that the priorities of the political class lay elsewhere and not in the urgent matters of peace building and constitution-making. Members of the CA, cutting across political parties, began expressing their resentment against their respective leaders for going slow on issues of national importance. They gheraoed their leaders at meetings held to discuss these issues.

The Maoist leadership duo made compromises on its stated positions on questions relating to the integration of PLA members into the army of numbers, compensation amounts, ranks for Maoist commanders and senior fighters, and the selection process. In doing so, the Maoist leadership faced strong opposition from PLA hardliners led by the other vice-president, Mohan Baidya, and many of the militant cadre. Baidya has been threatening to break the party and move a no-confidence motion against Bhattarai.

Responding to the allegations of Baidya and his supporters that everything the party stood for had been surrendered, Prachanda said that it was a transformation and not a surrender. Prachanda, in his interview to The Hindu (April 14, 2012), clarified that he could not lead his party to the fate of insurgent groups such as the Karens of Myanmar, the communists of Peru and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, who were either completely eliminated or were fighting an unwinnable wars. Prachanda has, therefore, been backing the Bhattarai line, after hesitations and periodic turnarounds in the interest of the party's unity and his own supremacy therein, that a new Nepal can be built only by resolving the issues of the peace process and constitution-making.

Bhattarai has, no doubt, shown more courage and determination than most of his predecessors in taking the peace process and the constitution-making process forward. He has called on all his Maoist colleagues to make compromises in order to lift Nepal out of its chronic ailments of political uncertainty and economic underdevelopment. The Maoist leadership has also been driven by the fact that compromise on the combatants' question will throw the ball back into the court of the N.C. and the UML and give them a better bargaining position on the issues of constitution-framing.

However, the resolution of the integration issue does not complete the peace process. There is the question of Truth and Reconciliation under which the thousands of innocent victims of more than a decade of conflict and violence have to be compensated and the perpetrators of the violence and human rights abuses have to be brought to book. Without this, the culture of impunity that has seeped into political groups and the Army cannot be curbed.

For this, the Maoists who led the insurgency are not the only culprits. In fact, they are held responsible, according to independent estimates, for fewer than half the deaths and human rights violations. The rest are Army and police excesses carried out under the orders of N.C.-led governments.

The challenge of evolving a political consensus on the questions involved in Truth and Reconciliation is formidable. While sparing the Maoist and N.C. political leaderships from public prosecutions and humiliation, such a consensus will have to ensure an end to the culture of impunity and heal the wounds of the victims of violence and human rights abuses through adequate compensation and appropriate rehabilitation.

Constitution-building

With the resolution of the combatants' issue, the constitution-drafting process has received a big boost. There are five contentious issues in this regard federalism, forms of government, judiciary, electoral system and citizenship. The differences among the main political stakeholders on these issues have now been radically narrowed down. Following their conclave on April 16 and 17, the Maoists, the N.C., the UML and the United Democratic Madheshi Front have agreed to (i) have seven or eight provinces based on identity and economic viability in a federal setup; (ii) have an elected President and Prime Minister; (iii) give a trial to the Maoist-backed idea of a constitutional court for 10 to 15 years; and (iv) redefine the content, not the basic structure, of mixed-member proportional representation. Party leaders, however, need time to arrive at a consensus, since they have to revise their respective organisational positions and secure their parties' endorsements on these issues. Given the political will and the compulsions to move forward this may not be difficult, but the constitutional process can be delayed on other counts.

One critical question coming in the way of speedier constitution-writing is: Under whose leadership will the constitution be proclaimed? The Maoists, who are leading the present coalition government, insist that it should be done under their leadership and, in order to expedite the process, the N.C. and the UML should join the present government to give it a national character. Both Bhattarai and Prachanda have publicly promised to hand over the leadership of the national government to the N.C. immediately after the proclamation of the constitution and stated that they are willing to go to the polls under an N.C.-led national government.

The N.C., on the other hand, is demanding that the leadership of the government be handed over to it before the present coalition is broadened into a national government and also before a new constitution is proclaimed by May 27. The N.C. leadership's ego, internal rivalries and deep suspicion of the Maoists (whether they will hand over the leadership after the proclamation of the constitution) are holding it back from joining the Maoists in a national government and expediting the constitutional process.

What worries the Maoists and the N.C. is who will get more credit for the successful constitution-making process. The Maoists consider themselves to be the rightful claimant as the critical force behind Nepal's transition from a monarchy to a republic and for making most of the compromises to resolve the PLA combatants' issue. The N.C. believes that it will help it regain lost political space and credibility. The odds are against the N.C.'s having its way. If the party delays the process for partisan political gains, it might lose much more than it hopes to achieve.

India's support

One critical factor in the last six months' progress has been the benign support extended by India through quiet diplomacy. India hailed the resolution of the PLA combatants' issue when Maoist cantonments were dissolved and arms handed over to the Nepal Army on April 12.

India will need to nudge continuously the Nepali-owned and Nepaliled constitutional process in a positive direction in order to bring it to a culmination and ensure stability and order in Nepal. It will also have to take the rest of the international community along in this. Only after the peace-building and constitutional processes are completed can the country traverse the path of development and prosperity.

S.D. Muni is visiting research professor, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.