15-21 February 2013 #643

Lost in transition

Nepal is not the only country in the region which has had to deal with a dirty past

Nepal’s violent conflict ended in 2006 with a lot of loose ends. War fatigue pushed leaders to overlook human rights violations for the sake of peace.

But as Norwegian peace studies expert Johan Galtung reminded an audience in Kathmandu on Wednesday, although the violence stopped seven years ago, the conflict didn’t. Unless the unresolved conflicts that led to violence are addressed, the war could reignite. Looking around at images of pain and grief, Galtung said: “All this suffering for what? For nothing.”

Somewhere, Nepal’s revolution lost its way. The former guerrillas are now so intent on grabbing power they have forgotten what it was all for. The structural injustice in society remains unaddressed. The uproar generated this week by the Maoists’ controversial call for an election government led by the Chief Justice has effectively hidden their protection of war criminals.

Nepal, however, is not the only country in the region which has had to deal with a dirty past. Dhaka’s Shahbag Square has seen mass demos now for nearly two weeks after Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal sentenced Abdul Quader Mollah of the country’s third largest party Jamaat-e-Islami, to life-imprisonment on charges of mass murder, rape, and arson during the 1971 Liberation War.

Demonstrators want capital punishment for Mollah, a sign of a nation desperate to come to terms with its brutal past. Shaken from the devastation of a war that killed and displaced millions, and establishing a national identity, meant that prosecution of war atrocities was never a priority for successive governments. For more than four decades, Bangladeshi leaders swept the dirt under the rug and covered it with rhetoric of ‘nation building’ and ‘economic development’. All this has a similar ring to Prime Minister Bhattarai’s justification of blanket amnesty in the name of ‘protecting the peace process’.

Many local collaborators of the Pakistan Army were re-integrated into mainstream politics, and ended up in positions of power much like the architects of Nepal’s civil war who are sitting comfortably in top government, army, and police posts. The parallels between the two countries are disturbing.

When the war tribunal was finally set up in 2010 by the Awami League-led coalition, the scope and effectiveness of what became a largely symbolic prosecution was restricted. Vital evidence like mass graves, eyewitness accounts, documents from Pakistan, newspaper reports, photographs, and videos are still intact, but many perpetrators have either fled the country or died. The Tribunal can try only a handful of collaborators, and what’s worse, thousands who suffered under the anti-liberation forces are no longer alive to see justice being served.

The trials have been made doubly difficult due to Pakistan and India’s unwillingness to cooperate. Pakistan has washed its hands of all responsibility and refuses to officially acknowledge the war, and India protected and eventually let go of more than 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war under its control.

Nepal’s insurgency was home-grown so we won’t have to bargain with international powers, or be at their mercy. The victims, survivors, perpetrators are all Nepalis, and as the Dekendra Thapa case has shown there is still fresh evidence, making it far simpler to provide justice.

In reality, both sides of the Nepal conflict are now in ruling circles and protecting each other. The president has rightly returned the draft of the Disappearance, Truth and Reconciliation Bill which did not address the concerns of victims for justice and truth.

In Bangladesh, there are accusations that the Awami League is using the tribunal to take revenge on its rival Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has strong ties to Jamaat. With Nepal’s badly fractured polity, where parties are willing to go to any length to get an upper hand, there is a similar danger of future governments using post-conflict reconciliation as a tool to punish opponents.

There will be no lasting peace in Nepal unless we address the injustice at the root of conflict, and provide full closure to victims and their families. The good news is that we still have time. However, truth and justice after 40 years will be meaningless.

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