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NEPAL: WAR OVER BUT PEACE NOT YET AT HAND

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KATHMANDU, Feb 2 2007 (IPS) - If all goes well, in the next few weeks Nepal\’s Maoist insurgents will join the government of Prime Minister GP Koirala, writes Kunda Dixit, editor and publisher of the Nepali Times newspaper in Kathmandu. In this analysis, Dixit writes that with the restoration of democracy, it was as if the lid came off and all pent-up grievances and demands of groups that had been marginalised or excluded from decision-making wanted their say. The latest complication is an eruption of demands for fair representation and self-rule from many of Nepal\’s 103 ethnic and caste groups. Despite the peace process, Nepal is in ferment. There are strikes, shutdowns, and highways blockades every day by various groups. The unrest has caused a crippling shortage of fuel. The government has held several rounds of negotiations with representatives of these groups, but has not been able to stem the agitation. As the first anniversary of the victory of People Power approaches in Nepal, there is no doubt that a compromise has to be reached and quickly before another fire ignites from the embers of ten years of war.

It has been a dramatic transformation from underground war to surface politics for this revolutionary group that launched an armed insurrection eleven years ago and decided to set weapons aside last year.

The Maoists realised that a military victory was not realistic and that neither Nepal’s giant northern neighbour China, the homeland of Mao Zedong, nor India to the south would ever allow them to capture state power by force. So last year they joined hands with the political parties to force autocratic king Gyanendra to roll back his coup.

After three weeks of a People Power uprising, the king finally restored parliament in April 2006. Since then, the ruling seven-party alliance has signed a peace treaty with the Maoists, got the United Nations to monitor the internment of the rebel army and their guns, pass an interim constitution, and swear in a transitional parliament that included Maoist members.

The next step is to set up a new government made up of also Maoist ministers that will prepare for an election to an assembly that will draft Nepal’s new constitution later this year.

The road so far has been bumpy, the process has been deadlocked and delayed several times but the ceasefire has held and the peace process is on track. This time last year, more than 40 people were being killed in the conflict and the future looked bleak. The war has ended but this hasn’t meant that Nepal is at peace.

The latest complication is an eruption of demands for fair representation and self-rule from many of Nepal’s 103 ethnic and caste groups. With the restoration of democracy, it was as if the lid came off and all pent-up grievances and demands of groups that had been marginalised or excluded from decision-making wanted their say.

Since January, the inhabitants of Nepal’s narrow strip of plains bordering India have risen up against centuries of discrimination by the country’s hill-dwelling rulers, and they want representation in parliament to reflect the size of their population. The densely populated plains is home to half of all Nepalis. Last month, nearly 30 people were killed as police tried to quell violent street demonstrations that lasted three weeks.

In addition, various indigenous groups that have been traditionally under-represented in governance because of their lack of education and unequal opportunities have been staging strikes and rallies. Members of the ”untouchable” castes have also been demanding fair representation as has an aboriginal community in the south.

Taken together, and despite the peace process, Nepal is in ferment. There are strikes, shutdowns, and highways blockades every day by various groups. The unrest has caused a crippling shortage of fuel, and transportation has been severely hit. The government has held several rounds of negotiations with representatives of these groups, but has not been able to stem the agitation.

Having come so close to their goal of being in government, the Maoists have now found themselves being blamed for mishandling the restive south. Their cadre has been involved in a series of clashes with activists. Being used to the certainties of revolution and getting what they want by pointing their guns, the Maoists are finding it difficult to adjust to the ways of parliament and the politics of compromise. And it will take even more getting used to being in government. The latest controversy this week was over a Maoist member of parliament trying to enter the chambers carrying a pistol.

The Maoists have shown insecurity by blaming the plains agitation on right-wing supporters of the king. Rebel leaders have been trying to distract attention from their debacle by demanding an immediate proclamation of a republic. Several recent public opinion polls have shown that Nepalis are split 50-50 about the retaining the monarchy even though they don’t like the present king. Surveys show they are more concerned about political instability and disruptions to their lives than about whether Nepal is a republic or a monarchy.

The Maoists have said repeatedly that they are not going back to the jungles, and they most likely mean it. With many of their fighters now living in UN-supervised camps and their guns in locked containers, there doesn’t seem to be a danger of a return to war. But there is a worry that if political accommodation is not found for the demands of ethnic groups, there may be an even more virulent war in future.

Most analysts agree that given the way Nepal’s nationalities are enmeshed, ethnic federalism would not work; a federal state structure with political power decentralised to viable geographical units would be the only way to govern such a rugged and diverse country. More immediately, the government is under pressure to meet demands for proportional representation and re-delineation of constituencies.

As the first anniversary of the victory of People Power approaches in Nepal, there is no doubt that a compromise has to be reached and quickly before another fire ignites from the embers of ten years of war. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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