Talks and fears

Published : Apr 11, 2003 00:00 IST

Major political parties in Nepal see in the ceasefire and the peace talks between the Maoists and the government nominated by the King a secret deal to destroy the multi-party democratic system.

in Kathmandu

ONCE a constitutional monarch with limited powers in a multi-party democracy, King Gyanendra has leveraged himself into a position to become the decisive arbiter in Nepal's volatile polity, being at the centre of the peace process between the nominated government and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the other power centre in the country. Marginalised stand the political parties and the Constitution of 1990, the product of the people's movement for democracy and the basis of their claim to centrality in Nepal's political system. "You have a situation of two secret authoritarian power structures engaged in a peace process - the result can only be a `Peace without Democracy'," said political scientist Krishna Hachchetu.

The abrupt manner in which the ceasefire was announced on January 29, taking the political parties by complete surprise, revived suspicions of a secret deal between the Palace and the Maoists. "Nobody knows why, who and what brought about the ceasefire," said Nepali Congress (N.C.) president and former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. Party spokesperson Arjun Narsingh said; "We don't know what understanding was reached between the Palace and the Maoists. We're not clear what the Maoists' bottom line is. The Maoists have dropped their Republican demand. They say they are for the gains of the 1990 people's movement and beyond. What is the content of that `beyond'?"

The Maoists have demanded the convening of a `round table conference' and the creation of an interim government and an elected constituent assembly as part of the ceasefire process. "All these have to do with the process - but what is their substantive agenda?" Narsingh asked.

Analysts like Shyam Srestha, the editor of the Leftist monthly Mulyankan, feel that this time round, as against the period of the four-month ceasefire in 2001, the Maoists are more serious and flexible in their approach. This was evident in the statement of the Maoist central committee member Dina Nath Sharma: "If a constituent assembly elected by the sovereign people favours a constitutional monarchy, we will accept it."

The dominant parliamentary Left party, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), has accused the Maoists of undermining the political parties and being dishonest in the matter of containing the power of the King. Party leader Subhash Nembang said: "Their conduct shows that they are helping the unconstitutional government and having good relations with them. When they talk to us [UML] they talk of a Republican agenda, but when they speak to the N.C., they are for a constitutional monarchy."

On October 4, 2002 King Gyanendra summarily dismissed the elected Sher Bahadur Deuba government, dissolved Parliament and wrested all executive powers by virtue of Article 127 of the Constitution (Frontline, October 25, 2002). The main political parties have refused to cooperate with the Lok Bahadur Chand government nominated by the King.

Dina Nath Sharma has sought to allay misgivings about the Maoists `validating' an unconstitutional government by emphasising that the ceasefire was between two armies and that the dialogue was with the old (King's) regime and its nominees. Moreover, the lack of progress in moving from the declaration of a ceasefire to its implementation has impelled the Maoists to pursue the political parties' support to the peace process.

The Maoists' chairperson, `Comrade' Prachanda, spoke to Koirala over the telephone, and members of the party's negotiating team have been holding bilateral meetings with political leaders. Maoist leader Krishna Mahara has sought to impress upon the leaders his party's acceptance of the mutli-party system. He said: "No single power can run the state exclusively. Twelve years of democracy proved that the political parties alone can't fulfil this task. It would be foolishness on the King's part to imagine that he can solely govern the nation. We don't think that we can do it single-handedly either. Our firm belief is that unity is needed and this is something we are ready for." On March 11, the Maoists took part in a meeting of 11 Left parties in Kathmandu and agreed to join a public campaign to counter the King's pro-active role.

THE N.C. and the CPN (UML) are concerned about the following questions - "Who will abrogate the present Constitution? Who will call the round-table meeting? Who will attend the meeting?" There are 109 registered political parties in Nepal. For the Maoists, as central committee member Krishna Mahara said, "the question of who summons whom is trivial. Proving yourself in the battlefield is far more important". The UML and the N.C. want either the reinstitution of the old Parliament or the formation of an all-party national government - both of which would bring the political parties centre stage in national politics. Within the parties there is growing support for the Maoist demand for convening, for the first time, an elected constituent assembly, especially as the existing Constitution is defunct. However, N.C. leader Arjun Narsingh feared that "it could be a trap to scrap multi-party democracy, as happened in 1951. Elections were held in 1959."

Meanwhile, there is little reason to believe that the King will relinquish his pro-active role. On the contrary, he has been placing his men in strategic posts of the state apparatus. The old faces from the previous Panchayat regime, the `Khanty Panchas', have been appointed in the reconstituted State Council and in ambassadorial posts. An editorial in the liberal elite weekly Nepali Times succinctly sums up a liberal crisis in Nepal's polity: "There has never been a time in Nepal history when the Nepali people had so little trust in individuals and institutions which purport to rule over them. They have lost what little assurance they had on national-level politicians; they don't trust the throwbacks calling the shots; they don't trust the Maoists and their brutal methods; they don't trust the Kathmandu elite with its arrogance and pompous airs; they fear the security forces almost more than they fear the rebels. And they have questions about the King's motives."

Curiously, left out from this scheme of things is the international community. In this crisis involving the King and the political parties, the United States and the United Kingdom have clearly put their economic and military muscle behind the King as the main bulwark against a takeover of the country by a Communist dictatorship. India, on the other hand, has been insistent that the political parties must not be jettisoned.

However, in the Kathmandu media the political parties have been cast as `spoilers' holding back the peace process. Given the huge groundswell of support for peace, the N.C. and UML leaders are under pressure to reiterate support for peace. "People will punish those who wreck the peace process, so strong is the desire for peace," observed Shyam Srestha.

Seven years of conflict in the countryside has resulted in the death of 8,000 people, the destruction of about 40 per cent of the government's rural infrastructure, the internal displacement of an estimated 200,000 people, economic blockades and disruption of the livelihoods of many people.

According to the government's special representative in the talks with the Maoists, Planning Minister Narayan Singh Pun, the ceasefire talks began about four months ago. Informed sources said that in November 2002 the Maoists were ready to declare a ceasefire and had identified their negotiating team, headed by the number two in the party hierarchy, Babu Ram Bhattarai. Apparently, it was the Palace that delayed the process as the King was busy with his daughter's wedding. Finally, on January 17, Pun was appointed and negotiations began.

The Maoists put forward four conditions for talks - annulment of the Interpol red corner notice, withdrawal of the terrorist label and the rewards on the heads of Maoists, and acceptance of talks on the political agenda. In the midst of these `secret' negotiations Inspector-General of Police (Armed Police) Krishna Mohan Srestha and his wife were killed in Kathmandu, signalling, it was feared, the beginning of an urban guerilla war. However, within hours a ceasefire was formally announced by both sides.

Pun said: "Both were in a hurting stalemate. The stronger side [the Royal Nepal Army or RNA] couldn't win and the weaker side [Maoists] couldn't be defeated." The Maoists emphasise the international situation, that is, the threat to Nepal's existence as an independent sovereign nation as a consequence of being sucked into the vortex of the U.S., U.K. and India's strategic designs in the name of fighting `communist terrorism' (Frontline, February 14).

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Camp, speaking at a conference on `Preventing a communist overthrow of Nepal', affirmed that U.S. security assistance and international community support for the government played a key role in combating the Maoists. In addition to stepping up security assistance to the government, the Maoists were in danger of being placed on the U.S.' list of terrorist organisations. India too had stepped up security cooperation and border surveillance and the RNA had begun inducting a new generation of weapons systems. It was feared that soon these weapons would reach the hands of the Maoists as `captured weapons', presaging a new threshold of violence, sucking in further the international community.

THE last three months of ceasefire indicate just how difficult the process is likely to be. Prachanda has blamed the government for not building an atmosphere conducive to talks. The RNA was continuing its cordon and search operations, arrests and economic blockade. The Maoists were continuing their extortion, despite Prachanda's injunction to stop the `forcible collection' of taxes. Colonel Deepak Gurung, Public Relations Officer of the RNA, said that in one incident, 16 armed Maoists were arrested as they were going door-to-door doing political mobilisation. Twelve of them are said to have escaped from police custody. However, as they have yet to establish contact with their colleagues, it is feared they may have `disappeared'.

Nepal tops the list of countries guilty of forced disappearances, according to the International Working Group on Disappearances. At the district level there was growing fear that the ceasefire would break down. In Achcham district, according to an official with the German development agency GTZ, though the ceasefire enabled GTZ to resume road surveys and food-for-work programmes, midway through the Maoists sent it a directive to stop work.

The delay in finalising the code of conduct raised misgivings about the stability of the ceasefire. Meanwhile, the King was busy with another royal wedding, this time his niece's. A court warrant issued against the Maoist leadership troika for the killing of some policemen in Bhiman further queered the pitch. Eventually, on March 13, a 22-point code of conduct was announced and Babu Ram Bhattarai was to visit Kathmandu for talks. On the agenda, said Pun, was a discussion on how to implement the code of conduct and to create safe corridors to assess the basic humanitarian needs of the people. It was well known that the Maoists controlled the rural areas in more than half the districts. The code of conduct treats both parties on a par and provides for "no mobilisation of armed forces by either side in any manner that would create havoc".

Although political parties have welcomed the proclamation of the code as a `positive' move, they have warned that its formulations, such as "no unnecessary search and arrests", are deliberately `ambiguous' and could be misused. Arjun Narsingh said it was uncertain, with the Maoists retaining their armed strength, whether political cadres of the N.C. and the UML would risk returning to undertake political mobilisation. Moreover, the security forces will continue to fulfil their responsibility to maintain law and order. There will be no change in the army's expansion, re-equipment and training plans, said Col. Gurung. There will be no withdrawal of cases against the Maoist leadership. But the movement of those involved in the peace process will not be restricted.

About three weeks before the code of conduct was announced, on February 24, the U.K. appointed Sir Jeffrey James as the special representative to follow through its role in coordinating the international community's military and developmental support for Nepal to overcome the conflict. Sir Jeffrey has welcomed the progress towards a negotiated settlement and multi-party democracy. However, the U.K. remains ready to provide train and enhance the ability of the RNA to deal with any resumption of hostilities. The U.S. has made clear its opposition to the Maoists seeking to replace a constitutional monarch, one whose authoritarian regime is reminiscent of that of the Khmer Rouge. Referring to Babu Ram Bhattarai's equivocation about the crimes of the Pol Pot regime in a recent interview, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Camp said at a conference in Washington on February 28: "From a humanitarian standpoint alone [we do] not wish to see the Maoists prevail."

India's declared policy on Nepal is to work in coordination with the U.S. and the U.K., which were once regarded as competitors. However, Indian Ambassador Shyam Saran revealed New Delhi's continuing uneasiness about Nepal developing independent sources of arms supplies, especially M16 rifles. He said: "We have conveyed to the Nepali government that we will take care of its requirements in terms of military and security forces on a concessional basis." On the issue of third-party mediation, he warned that third parties might introduce their own agendas. Pun conceded that regional considerations would be paramount in determining third-party mediation/facilitation.

Further, according to Ambassador Saran, for India the sticking point is that in case of third-party mediation or facilitation, "the need is to take a neutral stance between the two sides. We don't wish to see a violent insurgency and an established government put on the same footing." Saran said in an interview that India was clearly not reconciled to the possibility of the Maoists prevailing, especially as "the Maoist insurgency is a threat not only to the security of Nepal but also to the security of India".

The Nepal government may have withdrawn the terrorist label from the Maoists but India has not. In the last week of February in Kolkata and Patna, the police uncovered a network of Nepali Maoists actively working with naxalite groups in India. Fifteen Nepali Maoists were arrested. Not unexpectedly, Maoists who were summarily deported last year from India, and are now waiting to be released, are wary of returning to India.

India, contrary to the views of the U.S. and the U.K., is convinced that Nepal's stability rests on a system of multi-party democracy and constitutional monarchy. It has been highly critical of the King's latest move. In this context, the King's coming visit to India assumes significance. If he succeeds in changing New Delhi's stance, the balance of forces at the peace table could change, consolidating the centrality of the King as the arbiter.

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