Nepal wakes up with a headache
By Dhruba Adhikary

KATHMANDU – Fears over a powerful monarchy backed by an army appear to have been allayed, but the people of Nepal are unlikely to find their homeland a safe and peaceful country until they can persuade the Maoists insurgents to lay down their weapons for good.

May 18 was a red-letter day for Nepalis. The country's parliament, the 205-member House of Representatives, took the drastic step of turning the monarchy, which until April 24 was alive in its absolute form, into a virtually redundant institution.

A nine-point declaration, adopted without a single dissenting voice, effectively raised the status of Nepalis from that of king's 

subjects to proud citizens of the country to which they belong. The tag "His Majesty's government" has been removed in favor of
a simple expression – the government of Nepal. What has traditionally been known as the "Royal Nepal Army" was directed to drop the word "royal" so that a sense of belonging could be promoted among servicemen and women.

The army leadership has also been formally told that the Nepali Army will be placed under a civilian government elected through parliament. The house also assumed the responsibility of making laws relating to succession to the throne, a privilege previously assigned to the reigning monarch.

Ironically, the lawmaking body, revived by King Gyanendra himself in the wake of a popular April movement, stripped most of his powers, positions and privileges. The only solace to him and his heir apparent, Paras, is that parliament has stopped short of abolishing the institution of the monarchy itself, for the time being at least.

But, if the present level of anti-king sentiment persists, the monarchy could be a part of history within years. A new constitution, to be drawn by an elected constituent assembly, might not leave any role for a traditional institution which looks anachronistic at the start of 21st century. Besides, brutal repression and atrocities the royal regime has unleashed on the people since October 2002 are too recent to be forgotten.

The Maoist leadership believes – and claims – that the pro-democracy protests, formally launched by an alliance of seven political parties, picked up momentum from the active support of their unarmed workers in the field. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, issued a statement saying that while his party welcomed most of the initiatives taken by the parliament, they were inadequate.

In his opinion, there was no need to retain the monarchy, even in its ceremonial form. Since the country was already on the threshold of a republican setup, the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) should have had the courage to declare Nepal a republic.

"Yes, it has been an inadequate step," said Madan Regmi, a political analyst, supporting the argument of the top Maoist leader.

In fact, the Maoists are unhappy with SPA leaders because they think the Maoists are not getting the credit they deserve. "Now they want to marginalize us, they want to bypass us, and they want to minimize the role of the Maoist movement," the New York Times quoted Prachanda as saying. The paper on Sunday said the top Maoist leader was interviewed on Friday night in an Indian city that he insisted remain unidentified.

Two young Maoist leaders who recently defected from the group publicly asserted that Prachanda and another of his senior comrades had spent eight of the 10 years of insurgency in India. Posters have appeared in Kathmandu indicating that top Maoist leaders would appear in a public meeting scheduled for June 2. Ostensibly, the rebel leaders are getting ready to make their first public appearance in the capital.

The alliance of seven parties is being constantly reminded of the 12-point understanding it reached with the Maoists in November. The Maoists want that understanding, which was subsequently renewed, to be honored and implemented speedily. The rebel leaders announced a ceasefire and formed a three-member team to conduct preliminary talks in preparation for a higher-level parley at a later stage.

For its part, the government consisting of SPA representatives also declared a ceasefire, lifted the "terrorist" tag from the Maoist leaders and began withdrawing criminal cases against them from the courts, and made public announcements that a three-member negotiation team would be headed by Home Minister Krishna Sitaula.

A matter of trust
But the level of trust needed to carry forward the agenda is not there on either side. The main objective is to reach an agreement on elections for a constituent assembly, which would write a new constitution, replacing the existing one promulgated in 1990.

For that, the Maoists want an early dissolution of the present parliament, together with the formation of an interim government with representation from the Maoist camp. One Maoist leader, Matirka Yadav, has gone to the extent of demanding that a Maoist leader should be given the chance to head the interim government, which would oversee elections for the constituent assembly.

From the Maoist standpoint, the present parliament as well as the government derive legitimacy from an old constitution and old format which is not acceptable to the people committed to form a new Nepal. They are also rejecting suggestions that they abandon their weapons in the runup to the polls for the constituent assembly.

The Maoist leadership also remains ambivalent about demands from human-rights groups that those involved in cases pertaining to human-rights violations should be punished.

While the Nepalese military has been accused of human-rights violations, the Maoists have also used brutal methods, such as killing teachers in front of their students and cutting off the hands and legs of villagers who expressed the inability to give them food or shelter.

There have been numerous incidents of abductions, recruitment of underage children for the Maoist militia and extortion of money as donations to finance the armed rebellion. More than 13,000 lives have been lost in the 10 years since the rebellion began.

However, leaders belonging to the SPA are clearly against the idea of dissolving parliament, an assembly which increased its power through Thursday's declaration. The oft-repeated contention is that the present parliament (elected in 1999 for five years but dissolved prematurely by the king in 2002, and revived on April 24 this year) should be kept alive until the plan to elect a constituent assembly materializes.

They think conservative and regressive elements could raise their heads if there were an absence of an institution representing the people's collective will. The rebel camp does not appear to buy such arguments. The Maoist demand is that the commitment to the constituent assembly should be unconditional, but the SPA and other pro-democracy groups insist that the Maoists must make a pre-poll pledge to engage in competitive politics, and not revive their plan to set up one-party authoritarian communist rule.

Suspicion over the Maoists has persisted because of the breakdown of peace talks twice since 2001. The SPA is also concerned by the fact that Maoist guerrillas have not stopped extortions, reports on which are coming from across the country.

Kathmandu-based Western diplomats, who in the past supported the Maoist decision to join the political mainstream, have begun to express their worries. "Is this an indication of the leadership losing grip among its cadre?" wondered a diplomat, reflecting a view of the European Union.

One US official, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher, repeated his country's perception of Nepali Maoists when he spoke to a Senate committee in Washington on May 18, "We and many in Nepal and in the international community remain wary of Maoist intentions."

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who heads the Nepali Congress, and the six other party leaders are often accused of entering into an understanding with an extremist – and unpredictable – group. Accommodating the Maoists was a monumental mistake, intellectuals in the non-leftist camp observe.

But others disagree, and say that efforts to bring a militant group into the mainstream must not be seen as a mistake. If it is a mistake, they argue, it was made because of the king's arrogance, direct rule and his concomitant actions to sideline the legitimate political forces for several months.

It was also a failure on the part of Western powers, particularly the US, which could not persuade King Gyanendra to fulfill the SPA demand for the restoration of the democratic process before they were forced to join hands with the Maoists through the 12-point understanding. The US had wanted the king and political parties to work together, but what happened eventually was that the political parties and the Maoists decided to act together against the monarchy.

Some political analysts also say that it was remiss of the US not to exert timely pressure on India, which is being described as a strategic partner, to stop Nepali Maoists from using Indian territory to carry out and expand their activities.

The US could have drawn New Delhi's attention to the fact that if not checked, armed insurgencies could spread and destabilize other parts of South Asia, including India itself. The Maoists initially used to criticize both India and the US, the former for being expansionist and the latter for acting as an imperialist force. Now they have ceased to rebuke India; their hatred is focused only on the Americans.

On May 16, the European Parliament moved a resolution on Nepal, calling the international community to establish a contact group, to be made up of Nepal's key partners and international organizations, such as the EU, the US, India and the United Nations. The resolution also proposed the appointment of a special rapporteur to monitor the situation.

The Maoists, too, have a commitment to leave their armed fighters under UN supervision pending elections. However, the Americans view the situation differently. As was evident in Boucher's statement in the senate committee on May 18, the US continues to think that among Nepal's partners "India has a key role to play". While there is an element of truth in that because of geographical proximity (with an unregulated border) and cultural similarities, it is unrealistic to conclude that India alone could resolve the issues at hand.

Indeed, Maoist leaders have said time and again that they are prepared to work with the UN or any other neutral organization with international standing with regard to laying down arms in the period leading up to the elections for a constituent assembly.

While both China and India, Nepal's neighbors to the north and south, respectively, might find it wise to keep the US away from their doorstep, the two are unlikely to jointly work to help Nepal get out of the present mess.

So if New Delhi and Beijing cannot work in tandem on Nepal, they cannot oppose the involvement of an organization like the UN.

Dhruba Adhikary, who has been a Dag Hammarskjold Fellow, currently heads the Nepal Press Institute.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.