Tricky tasks

Published : Jun 16, 2006 00:00 IST

THE MAY 18 proclamation curtailed King Gyanendra's powers. - BHIM GHIMIRE/REUTERS

THE MAY 18 proclamation curtailed King Gyanendra's powers. - BHIM GHIMIRE/REUTERS

Lasting peace and stability in Nepal is dependent upon a close engagement between the SPA and the Maoists on important issues.

RED banners and posters put up across Kathmandu announce a major rally of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in the city on June 2. The main poster, with an image of party supremo Pushpa Kamal Dahal (`Prachanda') emblazoned on it, promises that top leaders of the party will address it. The rally, in the heart of the capital, is symbolic of the attempt by the rebels to transform rapidly from being an underground force to one that is emerging as a legitimate mainstream political group.

The transformation began on May 26 with the commencement of preliminary talks between the government and the Maoists. The three-member government team was headed by Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula, while the party spokesperson Krishna Bahadur Mahara led the Maoists' negotiation team. The fact that the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists had already built a working relationship in underground meetings in Delhi helped matters. At the end of a six-hour-long meeting, they agreed to formalise a 25-point code of conduct for them during the talks.

The code has been widely welcomed, by civil society, politicians and professional organisations. In its preamble, both sides have expressed their firm commitment to adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international humanitarian laws and the rule of law and to work within the framework of a competitive multiparty democracy. "This promise of the Maoists to abide by democratic norms and respect human rights according to international standards is a fitting answer to those who question their sincerity," Devendra Raj Panday, a leading civil society activist, told this writer. At the same time, it is important to note that the preamble was added by the political parties, and the code of conduct is mostly directed at the Maoists.

Among other issues, the government and the Maoists have agreed not to launch offensives against each other, release detainees from both sides, end collecting donations by coercive means and stop new recruitment to both the armies. They have also decided to deal with the issue of "arms management" through mutual agreement, and to invite national and international monitoring teams to oversee compliance with the code of conduct. A government negotiator indicated that the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Nepal (UNCHR) would be requested to step in to play a monitoring role. Headed by Ian Martin, the UNCHR has built a credible reputation for itself over the past year and gained the goodwill and respect of both the political parties and the Maoists, and its involvement in the process bodes well for Nepal.

The fact that there is already a consensus on Constituent Assembly elections - the main demand of the Maoists - means that future negotiations will revolve around the process of getting there and the arrangement in the interim period. "At present, things are largely on track. Now it is important to start talking about the modalities of the elections," said Krishna Khanal, a leading academic and political activist.

At the same time, the political agreement between the SPA and the Maoists on some issues has thrown up its own complexities. The historic proclamation of the House of Representatives on May 18 severely crippled the King, declared Nepal a secular state, renamed His Majesty's government as the Nepal government and the Royal Nepal Army as the Nepali Army, put the Army under parliamentary control and declared that the House would be sovereign for the exercise of all rights until another constitutional arrangement is made.

Although many of these issues were raised by the Maoists in the course of their "people's war", the proclamation itself is believed to have led to a level of nervousness in Maoist ranks about their own political space. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) fears that the parties in Parliament could hijack their agenda, and so wants a clear recognition of their contribution to the latest developments. The fact that the Maoists have welcomed the announcement, but with caveats, stems from this insecurity. "We are apprehensive as to whether the parliamentary political parties will only work to improve and institutionalise the House and legitimise it rather than moving ahead in the direction of a Constituent Assembly," Krishna Mahara said in an interview.

It is for this reason that they have been demanding the dissolution of the House in which they are not represented. As an alternative, they suggest the formation of an all-powerful national political conference attended by all political parties, the Maoists themselves and civil society representatives. This could then be followed by the formation of an interim government in which the Maoists too would participate.

The demand for the dissolution of the House has, however, been rejected by the SPA as well as by Prime Minister G.P. Koirala. Claiming that dissolving the House would lead to a vacuum in the present context, general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) Madhav Kumar Nepal says: "The House has to be there until another reliable institution with public representation is set up." While asserting that it is not unnatural for the Maoists to make such a demand, Member of Parliament Pari Thapa said: "They should recognise that the present balance of power does not give them enough strength to dictate terms."

Observers believe that this stand of the political parties emanates from the intention to build their strength and consolidate their achievements. They continue to be wary of the Maoists, primarily because while the Army is back in the barracks, the Maoists retain control of the countryside. Reports suggest that the government is considering reinstating local government units, in which the CPN (UM-L) has a majority. Given the expected competition between CPN (UM-L) and the Maoists for cadre and political space, this is a move that might not go down well with the Maoists.

The challenge of the moment is how to keep the Maoists from feeling beleaguered. They feel that the parties are running ahead with initiatives such as the wings of the King, establishing a Constituent Assembly and a secular state. Incongruously, this leaves them without planks for the pulpit. A committee comprising MPs and Maoists could provide a way out to assuage their sensitivities. A possible compromise could entail that the political parties stop plans to revive local bodies and, in return, the Maoists agree to the idea of keeping Parliament alive. Devendra Raj Panday argues for a balancing act. He said: "After years, the parties are finally getting a chance to work at the village and district levels and are feeling politically liberated. At the same time, there must be continuous consultation with the Maoists and their views must be taken into account."

The exact timing and sequencing of events such as the formation of the interim government and matters such as the status of the House are expected to be decided in the future negotiations. Among the foremost challenges at the talks will be the issue of arms management. The broad contours of an understanding seem ready; what needs to be worked on, however, are the details. The Maoists have declared that they will not disarm in the run-up to the Constituent Assembly elections but are willing to place their weapons under international supervision. While the parties have reconciled themselves to the fact that complete decommissioning of arms is not possible immediately, the process of supervision will need to be decided. "The Nepali Army should be sent back to the barracks, and there should be a special barrack created for the Maoist army. There has to be a concentration of the Maoist arms in a centralised place, which can then be put under supervision," said Pari Thapa.

A positive development over the past few weeks has been the increasing flexibility of the Indian government to the idea of a role for the U.N., with the limited mandate of supervising arms. There has been no official statement in this regard, but Indian diplomats privately concede that there is the need for such an international body with New Delhi constantly playing an active behind-the-scenes role.

What is completely unacceptable to South Block, however, is the presence of the U.N., or any other international actor, as either mediators or facilitators in the peace talks. In fact, opinion is divided about the need for such an actor in Kathmandu as well. Some politicians and analysts argue that a "silent low-key facilitator", who could help when the negotiating teams hit a stumbling block, or a "witness" who could provide credible guarantees would be useful. Others, however, point to the excellent communication existing between the SPA and the Maoist leadership and the fact that remarkable strides have been made without a facilitator. While that may be true, it is important to remember that despite the structural change in Nepali politics past attempts at talks between the two sides with Nepali facilitators failed and an international player's role may not be out of place.

Another area of concern over the past few weeks has been the reported increase in extortions by the Maoists. While the code of conduct has sought to tackle the issue and the rebels have promised not to collect donations forcibly, such demands have led to a dozen manufacturing units shutting down operations in the southern border town of Birgunj. The dispute between the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal Trade Union Federation (ANTUF) and the industrialists was resolved after the Prime Minister called up Prachanda and asked him to rein in his cadre. For their part, the Maoists say they do not extort money but only take voluntary donations, which is clearly not corroborated by the facts on the ground.

Even as local people in Birgunj say that the town's economy is driven by illegal trade and that the industrialists had resorted to exploitative labour relations, they add that the Maoists were motivated not by a desire to reform the economy but by the need to garner resources to sustain and feed their army and party cadre. "We recognise that they have needs which are different from that of a normal political party because of the presence of an army. There is a feeling among some of us in the SPA that an economic mechanism could be devised to assist the Maoists in this regard so that there would be no need for extortions," said Banshidhar Mishra, an MP from the neighbouring district of Rauthat. The other factor that has driven the recent "donation drive" is the possible realisation among Maoist commanders that this may be the last round of resources they can gather with the implicit threat of the gun, both for organisational and for personal benefit.

There is also a need to be wary of the activities of right-wing Hindu groups that are organising themselves in the wake of the House proclamation. They have termed the decision to make Nepal secular "illegal and undemocratic". General Bharat Keshar Simha, a close aide of the King and leader of the World Hindu Federation (WHF), said: "We are preparing a concerted strategy and are going to launch a full-scale movement against the announcement. Hindus across the world have decided not to take this lying down." Simha has the dubious distinction of organising a lacklustre meeting to felicitate the King in Birgunj as the "Vishwa Hindu Samrat" even as the people's movement was gathering steam in April.

While these groups have organised some protests in Birgunj and other southern towns, it is clear that the WHF derives its influence largely from connections with the King and cross-border ties with the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). The VHP runs about 600 Ekal Vidyalayas in Nepal. However, right-wing Hindu outfits clearly do not have either the institutional base or the mass support to pose any challenge to the parties.

At the same time, activists point to the need to spread more awareness about the notion of secularism in the grassroots. "There is no way these fundamentalists can take away the momentum of the present process, but there is some misinformation about what secularism really means. It is important for us to tell people that a secular state does not mean a state against religion," said Panday.

In this tumultuous phase, the role of the Nepali Army will be of importance. One of the core demands through the People's Movement was the need to transform the Army fundamentally and shake up the top Army brass, which was completely beholden to the King and was implicitly involved in gross human rights violations. However, another view held by conservatives and elements in the SPA is that the Army system should be left untouched as any change would spawn further instability.

The government has not yet taken any action against top generals even as it suspended the head of the police and the Armed Police Force. Some reports suggest that there has been a quid pro quo between the government and the Army leadership. Top political leaders are believed to have assured the Army that its structure and leadership will be left untouched in return for its expressed commitment to the new government. This may have stemmed from the desire of the parties not to rock the boat but to embark on a process of gradual change, and from the lingering doubts about the Maoists. There are also unconfirmed reports that it is Indian pressure that is keeping the government from acting against the Army; New Delhi, it is said, believes that any action against the Army would weaken its resolve significantly at a time when the Maoists are hardly disarmed.

In the midst of these immediate concerns and challenges, there is hope among the Nepali people that the peace process will be taken to its logical conclusion. What is needed to take it forward is close engagement between the SPA and the Maoists on all issues in a manner in which neither side feels insecure enough to derail the peace track.

Prashant Jha is the Delhi-based assistant editor of Himal Southasian.

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