Five months into the ceasefire, Nepalis are without representation, without security, and without development. Reconstruction and rehabilitation is still a mirage. But an even larger tragedy looms: an institutional loss of human rights, militarisation, and a change in the very nature of the Nepali state.
The Maoists could be blamed for creating the conditions for all this to happen, but it is up to the palace, Maoists and the parties to undo the damage. In this three-way tug-of-war the growing rift between the palace and the parties seriously threatens the peace process. The urgent goal of disarming the rebels so that politics can be revived at the grassroots, is nowhere in sight. Kathmandu is sleep-walking, while the Maoists control the countryside.
The end to this road will be a Maoist leadership that willingly (if this has been their strategy all along) or unwillingly (if they are forced by the cadre) returns to the jungle. A return to conflict more vicious than before will mean innocents will die by the thousands. Some analysts reckon it may take up to three years to defeat the Maoists militarily. But even if that were possible, it would leave a country in ruins, no civil society, and wipe out the freedoms we do enjoy even today.
In five months, the Maoists have lost some of their mystique, but elsewhere they have continued to consolidate, extort, arm and even administer. The Maoist leaders' desire to enter the mainstream appears genuine, but they need to be able to convince their followers to lay down the gun at one go. The present deadlock, however, allows the local cadre to fortify itself, so that the tail begins to wag the dog. The worst that could happen is if the rebel leadership fractures, leaving arms in the hands of local warlords and bandits-a mess that could take decades to sort out.
It could be that the king's military advisers believe the Maoists will lose strength if they are left to dangle, and a short and decisive military campaign will finish them off. This is unlikely, due to the lack of political activity and administrative initiative countrywide which is an advantage for the Maoists. Besides, Nepal is still the best terrain for guerrilla warfare.
It is not clear if an army that appears so excited about the Congo mission has upgraded its intelligence and fighting capability to deliver a decisive victory in-country. Some seem to believe that a round of fighting will weaken the Maoists enough to make them more amenable at the table. Others, particularly those who have actual experience in fighting insurgencies, say the Maoists cannot be beaten, they just have to be regarded as a political force, and adequate concessions made.
"The Maoist came out of the jungle strong. Their leadership is too smart to allow power to fizzle away," says one close international observer of the insurgency. "They have not used a large part of the possibilities. There can be top level assassinations, attacks on large infrastructure. And all will be lost once they begin urban guerrilla warfare in the by-lanes of the Valley towns."
At present, King Gyanendra is the inscrutable power at the apex of the establishment, and it is not clear what he thinks. The talks which he doubtless guides from backstage could have been an opportunity to get the Maoists to prove their bonafides, for instance spelling out exactly what they mean by "constituent assembly". We only have backdoor channels to tell us they are actually okay with "constitutional monarchy".
Part of the answer seems to lie in giving the Maoists their due as a political force and negotiating a respectful way out for the leadership, given that they have come above ground due to foreign (read: Indian) pressure and the professed fear of foreign (read: US) intervention.
We have seen elsewhere that every time a peace process breaks down, the next round of fighting is more vicious, more brutal and with more civilian deaths. Nepal is presently at the brink of such a disaster. In the past weeks, the Maoists have gone eerily silent and there is clearly a rethink going on about strategy in the run-up to informal talks slated for Friday.
Those talks must extricate the peace process from the quagmire. Since other actions would require rapprochement between the palace and the parties, the most urgent need is to have human rights safeguards in place and to monitor the ceasefire.
It is the tragedy of Nepali polity that there hasn't been a groundswell demand for such a life-saving as well as confidence-building measure. Now, the National Human Rights Commission has prepared a draft human rights accord which is supported by UNDP, the EU, Amnesty International and the political parties. The government and the Maoists now need to sign on it. (Draft accord)
The Accord will follow up on the Code of Conduct agreed in March, and allow a country-wide monitoring mechanism managed by the NHRC with technical support from the UN. This immediate action by the government and the Maoists would give the people the breathing space needed to let the king and the parties solve their differences. There is no time to lose