Rebel guns have been silent for more than six weeks now. But whether this cease-fire would turn into a peace process forcing the government to reciprocate remains an open question. Whatever may have provoked the Maoists to unilaterally declare a ceasefire with a pledge that they would not kill any civilian, nor would initiate offensive operations against the security forces well ahead of the Dussehera, it has certainly given some respite to common people. The Maoist cease-fire came into effect for three months from September 3, 2005.
The most plausible explanation is that, by unilaterally calling off their offensive just six days before King Gyanendra was to embark on a trip to the United Nations (UN) to solicit international support against ‘terrorism’, the rebels succeeded in disarming him quietly. The ceasefire also sent out a message that the Maoists were prepared to take any risk – but were a step ahead of the government – in seeking a resolution to the conflict, preferably with UN mediation.
The King cancelled his visit under a variety of embarrassing circumstances, including the striking off of his name from President Bush’s guest list, along with another seven dictators considered ‘enemies of democracy’ by the West. Within Nepal, the Maoists were trying to convince democratic forces that the King could not be trusted any more to remain ‘totally constitutional’ within the framework of the present constitution, and that it was, consequently, high time that the political parties and the Maoists came together to have a new constitution drafted through an elected Constituent Assembly.
As a follow-up to the ceasefire, the seven pro-democracy political parties authorised their two top leaders – G.P. Koirala , President of the Nepali Congress (NC) and Madhav Kumar Nepal, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal – United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) to hold dialogue with the Maoists in an effort to bring them into the political mainstream, and with a strict proviso that they would abjure violence.
The Maoist ‘ideologue’, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai has already acknowledged, albeit indirectly, that, since both Nepal’s southern and northern neighbours – China and India – have refused to recognise or support their movement as an acceptable way of bringing about political and associated changes, and as even the citizens do not appear supportive, joining hands with pro-democracy political parties for a ‘democratic republican Nepal’ is the tactical option for now.
It is, however, equally clear that a ‘republican’ Nepal is not something that the King will willingly concede. For that, the political parties and the Maoists would need a sustained, decisive and peaceful campaign, but the crowds on the streets over the past eight months since the ‘King’s coup’ on February 1, 2005, do not indicate that the kind or scale of mass support needed would, in fact, be readily available. The political parties are also counting more on the international support – mainly from democratic countries including the US, UK, the European Union (EU) and India, besides the UN, which has been asking the King to seek conciliation with the political parties.
The King has, however, done nothing to conceal his contempt for the political parties, dismissing them as corrupt and incompetent. Nevertheless, he did take cognizance of international pressure when he announced that elections to the House of Representatives would be held by mid-April 2007, fully restoring the present Constitution. The King’s announcement implies that he is no longer rigid about ruling the country for three years, as announced on Feb 1, 2005, in his ‘takeover’ speech.>
Secondly, by asking the international community to contribute to the successful and fair conduct of elections, he has clearly acknowledged that there could not be real democracy restored in the country without the people being able to elect their own government. The King’s move also leaves the international community with a Hobson’s choice – to support the move for the restoration of democracy through elections under the King’s aegis, or let political parties ‘work together with the Maoists, who most of you have called terrorists’. So far, British Ambassador Keith Bloomfield has raised doubts over the possibility of holding elections within the current conflict scenario. As he expressed it, peace is what Nepal needs first.
This has no doubt left the pro-democracy international community in dilemma – but that is not their predicament alone. The Maoists are equally confused. Party supremo Prachanda and key ideologue Bhattarai remain divided on the issue of capturing state power through ‘armed struggle’, or to seek power through an alliance with the democratic parties in deference to the realities of the 21st century. For the time being, it seems that Bhattarai’s line has prevailed, but their new found allies at home and the international community are cautiously watching whether the insurgents can be trusted.
The evidence is ambivalent. Violence levels have dropped, of course, and the Maoists have remained true to their word on the ceasefire. Nevertheless, even during the first one month of the unilateral truce, they have abducted nearly four hundred people from different parts of the country, and they were released after varied period of ‘indoctrination’. The Maoists’ extortion spree continues, and the security forces fear that the ‘terrorists’ are exploiting the so-called ceasefire to make a safe move to Kathmandu.
According to a senior Army source, "the Royal Nepal Army certainly contemplated reciprocating the ceasefire, but we had strong indications that it was only tactical". Dr Tulsi Giri, Vice Chairman of the Council of Ministers, noted further, "Why would the government need to reciprocate? This ceasefire agreement is between the Maoists and the political parties." Dr. Giri also made it clear that the government would ‘welcome’ G.P. Koirala’s efforts to bring peace through negotiation with the Maoists, adding sarcastically: "We will give him the full credit and he will be a national hero. Many pro-dialogue forces tend to side with the government on this count. Can peace be achieved without a party to the conflict – the government – being asked to join the peace process?"
All current indications are that Maoists simply seek to extend their legitimacy in the eyes of the UN, the international community and democratic forces within the country, without actually wanting a resolution to the conflict.
Nepal’s politics evidently remain suspended at a crossroads, with no clear indication that some direction will easily be recovered. An EU delegation (October 4-6), led by Tom Phillips, Director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, warned that the state was on the verge of collapse, and suggested that conciliation was the only option. The King’s announcement of elections followed shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, acceptance of international advice has been grudging and partial, and the King is still refusing to open a dialogue process with the political parties.
The political parties are, however, no less to blame for the situation. Their major strength – no doubt – is the support of the international community, but, as one senior diplomat stated, "We have our limitations, we cannot go beyond a point.">
The Maoists, on the other hand, hope that even if their tactical ‘partnership’ with the political parties does not work in their favour, the collapse of the state or the current system would still ensue. But a Maoist success remains uncertain. That is why they have, through their ceasefire declaration, sought UN mediation. The Nepali assessment, however, is that India would remain an obstacle to any move for UN or international mediation.
A group of leaders from Nepal’s main political parties, along with General Vivek Shah, former Military Secretary to the King, is currently in the US on the invitation of the Atlanta-based Carter Center at a meeting that would, among other things, explore the ‘outside’ role in the resolution of Nepal’s conflict. It must be clear, however, that outside forces can, at best, only facilitate processes, it is the internal actors who will have to move closer. Unfortunately, a willingness to do so is not visible. Of course, it would be a positive and successful move on the part of the political parties if they are able to encourage the Maoists to extend their ‘ceasefire’ beyond the originally announced three months, ending on December 3, 2005, thus increasing the pressure on the government to reciprocate. If they fail, however, and the Maoists call of their ceasefire, this would force them to negotiate with the King from a position of increasing disadvantage, and to struggle to find the means to create a conducive atmosphere for holding the promised elections.
Yubaraj Ghimire is Editor, Samay, Kathmandu. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal