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CHALLENGES 2006-2007: A ‘New Nepal’ for All?

Marty Logan

KATHMANDU, Dec 22 2006 (IPS) - Cycle and foot traffic will swell on the two-lane highway that runs through Nepal’s ‘tarai’ (plains region) Dec. 25. Normally the road teems with buses that pack passengers onto their roofs and careen from stop to stop, speeding trucks with squealing brakes and a few personal cars. But the Nepal Sadhbhawana Party (NSP)has called a general strike on that day and motorised vehicles risk being attacked by mobs.

The NSP, which represents the plains people (‘madheshis’ in Nepali), is protesting last week’s signing of an interim constitution in this small South Asian nation wedged between giants India (to the south) and China. It says the document maintains the region’s exclusion from power.

While much of the media, leaders of the governing seven-party alliance (SPA) and their Maoist counterparts praise the interim law as the latest stop on the road to peace, the strike will be a reminder of how much remains to be done to address long-standing grievances against the Nepali state – the reasons for which the Maoists said they launched their uprising a decade ago.

Nepal is a nation of 27 million people dominated by the fewer than one-third who make up the so-called ‘high castes’ according to Hindu orthodoxy. These few groups rule over other lower-caste Hindus – particularly ‘dalits’ or ‘untouchables’ – 59 officially recognised groups of indigenous people, Muslims and other minorities. Their power centre is the capital Kathmandu.

All that is supposed to change in the ‘new Nepal’, the nation that is emerging from April’s ‘people’s movement’, when the SPA and then still-at-war Maoists warily united to lead hundreds of thousands of marching, chanting protesters onto streets across the country to force King Gyanendra to relinquish direct rule.

The arrogant monarch was their immediate target but the housewives and civil servants, who joined young activists on the streets, were also protesting 10 years of civil war that killed 14,000 Nepalis, forced 100,000 or more to flee their village homes to barbed-wire encircled district towns or farther a field, and clouded much of the nation in fear and suspicion. Many also demanded an end to corruption, to the acute poverty that marks many people’s lives outside the capital and for the sharing of power among all Nepalis.

“We, the people, were successful in bringing down an ignorant crown, but the mendacity of the parties and the Maoists still reigns over us,” says the report of a new group, Namuna Nepal, released this week. Its analysis of a sampling of the new administration’s appointments “proves that your government is functioning without regard for broad based representation and ignores the people’s voice and aspiration”, it adds.

Namuna Nepal found that 62 percent of positions went to Brahmins, who account for 13 percent of the population – the same proportion as dalits. But the latter group received only one percent of the postings. Women did somewhat better, getting seven percent of the appointments.

“Till the minority rule of one caste/class (is) uprooted, the majority of citizens will not see justice and fair play in the light of day,” adds the report. “If the new constitution does not involve social inclusion, the peace resolution will only diminish the human rights of most Nepalese and will further fuel a civil war based on caste/ethnicities and gender rights,” says Namuna Nepal.

An end to the eight-month peace threatened this week when armed, Maoist cadres left their designated camps to protest the government’s announcement of the appointments of 14 ambassadors. (They returned hours later). Their leaders said the move, just weeks before the former rebels will join an interim government, violates the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed Nov. 21.

Maoist leaders also announced a country-wide strike Dec. 31 and Jan. 1 to protest the appointments.

The CPA assigns soldiers from the Maoist army to seven main camps, each with three nearby ‘satellite’ camps. Their weapons will be stored in steel containers and the keys given to rebel leaders. The camps will be watched by UN monitors, who are due to start arriving by year-end.

“I still do feel more optimistic than pessimistic (about the peace process) though not by a large margin,” says Rhoderick Chalmers of the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Last week ICG released its latest report, ‘Making Nepal’s Peace Agreement Work’. It describes daunting challenges ahead, among them: transforming the current personality-driven, sometimes ad-hoc peace process – despite its success to date – into a more inclusive, structured one; bringing military leaders of the state and Maoist armies together to start talks on merging their forces; and holding constituent assembly elections by mid-June, a deadline that many observers here scoff at.

“If elections do happen it’s almost certain they won’t be free and fair (but) the trade-off is to sacrifice a little bit of the perfection of the election process to keep the momentum going,” Chalmers told IPS in an interview.

Both the government and Maoists have persisted with peace talks until now because it served their own interests, says the report. “The Maoists don’t believe in multi-party democracy and they’re keeping Plan B open and ready but as long as (the process) works they’ll continue with it,” added Chalmers.

The other political parties “still do have at the backs of their minds that the public won’t forgive them if they don’t get it right this time”, he said. The first ‘people’s movement’ in 1990 forced then King Birendra to return multi-party democracy, but many people here believe the political parties that afterwards took turns running the nation squandered the chance to develop Nepal, sowing the seeds of the Maoist rebellion.

Looking back at the 13 months since the SPA and Maoists penned their first agreement, “to have come this far without major upsets – the country hasn’t fallen apart, crime has risen slightly but there’s not anarchy on the streets – it’s not bad at all,” added Chalmers. Compared to many conflict situations, it’s quite good.”

State Minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare, Urmila Aryal, agrees. “Compared to other countries (the peace process) has been very successful but the issues of inclusion still need serious consideration,” she told IPS.

Senior human rights activist Padma Ratna Tuladhar says the Maoists have consistently championed the causes of madheshis and other oppressed groups. “They say there should be a federal state where powers are shared or autonomy given to these groups. But then they conclude agreements with the government and say they couldn’t attain these things because it was a ‘compromise document’.”

“The losers have always been oppressed peoples,” added Tuladhar.

Neither the CPA nor the interim constitution deal substantively with excluded peoples, although parliament has just passed a law that will make millions of madheshis eligible for citizenship for the first time. Maoist leaders have pledged that 80 percent of their seats in the interim government will go to indigenous peoples and 40 percent to women.

One of the ideas in the air in the heady days since April has been electing the constituent assembly based on proportional representation, where excluded groups would finally get their fair share. But in their dealings, the SPA and Maoists decided that only half the seats would be elected based on that plan and the other half according to the status quo.

“On one hand we have to welcome the end of the killing, of the 10 years of war,” said Tuladhar. ”On the other, we have to complain that the parties could not fulfil the desires of indigenous peoples, madheshis, women and others.”

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