February 13th is a date etched into the Nepali national consciousness. This is the day the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) started their 'people's war' seven years ago, to establish a 'communist republic'. The conflict has already cost more than 7000 lives. According to the plan of action announced by the Maoists late last December, February 13th this year was to be the beginning of a two-day shutdown, itself preceded by a 'people's resistance campaign' for two weeks.
The shutdown would also have signaled the beginning of an 'indefinite' forced closure of schools by the
students' wing of the Maoists. Fortunately for the country, as a result of a ceasefire announced between the
government and the rebels on January 29, the protests were called off and things are moving towards normalcy
in the country.
There are, however, many hurdles before true normalcy can return to Nepal. The major one is building trust among the government, the parliamentary parties and the Maoists. The present truce was possible because the government agreed to the rebel's key conditions that the Interpol 'red corner' notice be withdrawn along with the terrorist tag and the bounty on the heads of top Maoist leaders.
There have been no major developments since then apart from the announcement of a team by the Maoists to
negotiate their demands for a roundtable conference, an interim government and a constituent assembly. That
the present team consists of those from the highest echelons of the CPN (Maoist) has been viewed as an
indication that the Maoists are more serious this time around than during the earlier ceasefire in 2001. The
government is yet to respond to the last Maoist overture, arguing that it is awaiting formal intimation of the
same from the rebel side.
Some confidence-building measures are also being explored, despite occasional bouts of mutual accusation. The Maoists are demanding that the anti-terrorist law be withdrawn and their supporters released by the government as a step towards creating a 'trustworthy' atmosphere for the talks to proceed. Accordingly, a number of those jailed for Maoist-related offences have been released (although in some cases, they have subsequently been re-arrested as soon as they stepped out of jail).
After the Defence Ministry reported that extortion was still continuing in the countryside, the CPN
(Maoist) chairman, Prachanda, released a statement instructing his cadre to desist from 'all forms of
fund-raising except voluntary donations until further notice'. The two sides are also to work on a code of
conduct during the negotiations in order to avoid any unpleasantness that could disrupt talks.
The third force in the unfolding political equation, the parliamentary parties, have suddenly found themselves in danger of becoming irrelevant since the center stage is presently occupied by the Maoists and a government led indirectly by the King. Given the unexpectedness of the ceasefire, the parties, while welcoming it, have decried the fact that the negotiations leading to it were not 'transparent'. Some leaders even expressed suspicion that some secret understanding may have been reached between the Maoists and the King.
The Maoist leadership has been at pains to reiterate that everything is above board. A couple of rebel leaders are presently doing the rounds in Kathmandu, meeting leaders of political parties to convince them that the proposed roundtable conference would not proceed without the participation of the parliamentary parties. In his statement to the Press on the eve of the anniversary of the February 13 commencement of the 'people's war', CPN (Maoist) chairman, Prachanda, reiterated:
"Rather than viewing the [upcoming] talks as between the establishment and our party, it should form part of the dialogue process among all political parties, the intelligentsia and the common people."
King Gyanendra also referred to the need to address the common distrust in his annual message to the nation
on the occasion of Democracy Day on February 19, when he appealed upon all to stop 'blaming and doubting each
For the moment, however, the biggest stumbling block seems to be the distance between the political parties and the government that was appointed by the King in October, after the democratically elected Prime Minister was ousted for 'incompetence'. The Prime Minister, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, has repeatedly called for an understanding between the two sides, but his offers have, so far, been in vain. A recent all-party meeting called by the Prime Minister to discuss the Maoist issue was boycotted by all the seven parties represented in the last parliament that was dissolved in May last year. Even Chand's own party, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), preferred to opt out.
This show of solidarity among the political parties is, however, quite misleading when it comes to concerted action. Of the seven parties, three have been treated as pariahs by the other four. Two of the former, the RPP and the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, have been shunned because the Prime Minister and his deputy are from those parties respectively; the third, the Nepali Congress (Democratic) because it was responsible for the dissolution of the parliament which has ultimately led to state power being concentrated in the hands of the King. The remaining four, which includes the two largest, the Nepali Congress and the CPN (Unified Marxist-Leninist), have finally agreed to demand the restoration of the dissolved parliament and are preparing to launch an agitation, though the strategy and the timing are still to be decided.
Meanwhile, in the countryside, the Maoists have begun holding mass meetings openly, and are also approaching various political parties for roundtables at the district level. Unlike previous occasions, the security forces have, however, not let down their guard. Security in Kathmandu is still tight, checkpoints at highways are still in place, and some outlying towns are still under nighttime curfew.
The situation remains in a flux at present, and no one knows if the ceasefire will hold at all. But it is altogether clear where public opinion lies - in the hope that the rather muted celebrations on 13 February, the seventh anniversary of the 'people's war', should also be the last.
Deepak Thapa is a Kathmandu-based Journalist and Editor. Courtesy: South Asia Intelligence Review of the
South Asia Terrorism Portal.