Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Posturing in Nepal: One Year after the Peace Accord


A year ago, on November 21, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal signed an agreement dubbed "Brihat Santi Samjhauta" (Comprehensive Peace Agreement). That document formally ended a decade-long civil war in the country.

A year later, it's relevant to ponder on the gains of the peace agreement as well as the setbacks.

For a while, it seemed the peace process remained on track. The king was subdued. An alliance of seven political parties and Maoists formed an interim parliament and a unity government. The international community was reassured of an orderly democratic process and the UN began monitoring Nepal's peace. The Constituent Assembly elections were slated for June 20, 2007.

Looking back, the peace process hinged on several ground realities, which included restorative justice, arms management, mutual dialogue, security, emerging dissentions, external support, and electoral preparedness, among others.

To be fair, restorative justice remained a far cry to many. The victims of war have not been adequately rehabilitated. Hundreds of individuals still remain missing. Only a fraction of the more than 200,000 displaced people have been able to return home. Many who have been traumatized by conflict need special psychological care and healing. In many cases, land and property seized by Maoists have not been returned to the rightful owners. The controversial draft bill on Truth and Reconciliation Commission is still under revision. War criminals and human rights violators roam freely while families of civilians killed or disappeared cry for justice.

Though past abuses have been generally overlooked, the CPA initiated a process of restraining armed rebels from committing further acts of violence. Under the supervision of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), some 30,000 (decreased to 17,000 on April 18 after government-Maoist agreement in response of reports that Maoists included many child soldiers) combatants were placed in seven cantonments across the country. But nobody, except the Maoists themselves, is sure if the rebels reported, under the provisions of the agreement, all their weapons. Sporadic walk-outs by combatants, bitterness over poor living conditions or stipends, and hiccups on monitoring procedures have hindered better management of the camps thereby affecting the peace process. Recent reports that Maoists are forcing child soldiers to return to camps have added another complexity to the matter.

Although the spirit of the agreement remains generally intact, some of the provisions have been violated time and again, particularly by Maoists, and some important deadlines have been missed, such as the postponement of the CA elections-- first slated for June 20, then for November 22, then postponed indefinitely again on October 5. The Maoists have not fully abandoned violence and intimidation and their excesses continue under the banner of Young Communist League (YCL), a youth wing of the Maoist party. Such excesses are nowhere more apparent than in their attacks on the press. The highly publicized attacks on media houses recently and the killing of journalist Birendra Sah last month is just one of many Maoist atrocities. Disregarding the pre-agreed agenda of declaring the country a republic after the CA elections and holding timely elections based on a mixed first-past-the-post and proportional representation system, the Maoists put forth 22 new demands, which included immediately declaring the country a republic through the interim-legislature and holding elections by means of a fully proportional system. These demands were meant to strike a chord among the marginalized groups, including those in the Terai, where a new revolt suddenly emerged weakening Maoist influence (and by implication, their votes) in the region. Seeing the major coalition partners-- the Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) -- were not in a mood to fulfill such demands, the Maoists actually walked out of the coalition government on September 18.

The complication of the peace process is that post-conflict Nepal is ironically subjected to post-conflict conflict. The Maoist violence did not cease completely. More significantly, the revolt in the plains of Terai (unforeseen but not unlikely) changed the dramatics of transitional Nepal. Unhappy with some provisions of the CPA and then of the interim constitution, many marginalized groups and ethnicities, notably some Madhesi factions, began to resort to violence demanding full representation in governance and civil service. Criminal activities of extremist groups and thugs worsened law and order situation. Since the CPA last year, at least 234 people have been killed and 772 cases of abductions recorded, according to Insec, a Kathmandu-based human rights group. Reports of en masse resignations by civil servants in conflict zones are becoming frequent. The government's efforts in addressing new grievances, curbing violence and listening to new voices of dissent can at best be described as haphazard and ill-equipped. Dialogue with the new rebels is hindered by the fact that these groups don't have a clear leadership or a common political agenda, just like in the national political scene.

Public confidence in the peace process is influenced by the lack of a common vision among political actors on the nature of future political order. Ideological bickering has created fissures in the ruling coalition, polarized party activists and confused the masses. Following the suspension of monarchy, Lokatantrik ganatantra (democratic republic) has become a ubiquitous slogan but there is little deliberation on its strengths as well as drawbacks. The spiral of silence, fed mainly by fear of Maoist persecutions, has made a mark on Nepalis: few dare to doubt popular mood or show the courage to ask if a "democratic republic" is the right model for Nepal, especially because there are many such types, which also include dictatorships and party autocracies. What lessons can Nepal learn, for instance, from a seemingly steady India or a volatile Pakistan, Congo, Sri Lanka or Algeria? The Maoists insist on a proletariat democratic republic but history is witness to its abuse in USSR, China, North Korea, Cuba, and elsewhere. Are we looking for just a label or a truly autonomous liberal dispensation that helps empower individual Nepalis, the "demos" at the grassroots? The Maoists and other moderate parties must find a middle ground of action, whatever the label.

However, such a middle ground looks difficult, if not impossible at the moment. Procrastination and posturing is a deeply embedded political culture in the thoroughfare of Singha Durbar, the seat of power in Kathmandu. The latest Maoist demand that caused yet another postponement of elections reflects their apprehension of polls at a time when their reputation is declining among the people. To project an indomitable self-image, the NC (with 134 majority seats in parliament) would not budge from the originally agreed outline in the CPA. The UML, not sure which way the wind would eventually blow, tried to initially fence-sit, and then supported the proposal of their Maoist brethrens. The Maoist proposal, though approved by interim legislature (on November 4) by simple majority, is non-binding since it failed to earn the needed two-thirds majority in the 329-seat legislature to amend the constitution. The Maoists are threatening to start a new revolt and prevent elections if their demands are not fulfilled. The fact is monarchy is crushed in Nepal and there is nothing such as a "fully" proportional system anywhere in the world. Though such a system may be desirable for a hugely diverse country like Nepal, it is not possible in the literal sense. For instance, how to ensure full representation of each and every one of some 120 languages or 60 indigenous nationalities, in most cases, with only a few hundred members? The focus must be on a "feasible" proportional system.

Perhaps the single most important deterrent to abuse or failure of the peace process is the international community. Never before in Nepal's history, since the country's entry in the UN, have world powers shown so keen an interest in Kathmandu's politics. Indian, American and Chinese support to the political process, both moral and monetary, has provided unassailable cushion to Nepali leaders, who are fond of citing foreign powers to legitimize their pronouncements and positions. This dependence on foreign support frequently earns them public rebuke and opposition displeasure thus affecting the peace process.

But the interests of foreign powers in Nepal are apparent. India, already a victim to Naxalite violence, is not prepared to see a Maoist takeover in Nepal. It abandoned its two pillar policy vis-à-vis Nepal (upholding monarchy and multi-party democracy), in favor of a democratic republican agenda, purportedly for the sake of regional stability. Increased involvement (some would say interventions) of USA and China and their support to the political process are also guided by similar interests. In turn, their support and involvement, not always without criticism, have provided legitimacy and momentum to Nepal's current leadership and the ongoing peace process. The truth is, without their active involvement, the peace process could soon fizzle out.

The UN, another component of international vigil in Nepal, has been instrumental to the peace process. The challenge is to extend UNMIN's mandate with additional funding. Frequent poll postponements have cost the mission millions of dollars in wasted money, and that is also true with Nepal's election commission. The government is seeking six more months of service from UNMIN that has already spent most of its allocated $ 89 million budget for the first year, ending in January, 2008. The Security Council is expected to approve an extension, but it is unlikely that UNMIN's mandate will be expanded, beyond managing arms and monitoring the peace process. Reports of the Mission's unauthorized mediation with some Terai-based rebel groups have recently irritated Nepali officials.

Amid all the posturing and procrastination, the question everyone asking in Nepal is this: Will the country ever hold the CA elections or will there be another coup?

I would disregard the defeatist coup option (although not improbable) but focus on the process of formalizing the gains of the people's movement a year ago. It is true that postponement of elections has caused a lot of anxiety in the country. Winter snows and poor logistics in a mountain country as well as widespread poll illiteracy in the far-flung hinterlands are formidable challenges to overcome. One must not be surprised that the elections could be postponed yet again. Nepal is preparing to hold the Constituent Assembly elections for the first time in her history. Even periodic general elections are time-consuming. In some countries (ex: USA), planning and campaigning begins 2 years ahead of the polls. And by all indications, despite the Nepali leaders' false assurances, Nepal is going to need about that much of time.

In the end, they are the Nepali people and their civil society (including the media) who should be capable of keeping a tab on the transition process. They can be above political partisanship, and if they have to, they can galvanize an entire society. This was abundantly clear during the April uprisings of 2007.

Published in the Nepal Monitor, November 27, 2007.