Nepali Times
Back to the drawing board


More than two months after coming to power, the Thapa government finally has a time and venue for peace talks with the Maoists. In Nepalganj on Sunday, two negotiators from each side will try to move beyond pleasantries to substantial political issues.

The public stands the two sides have on the monarchy, constitution and the army are so contrary that they appear irreconcilable. The seven-month ceasefire period has not seen major outbreaks of fighting, but things are far from normal.
Maoist statements and interviews are designed to confuse, and appear deliberately contradictory. Baburam Bhattarai often takes the ideological hardline on the monarchy, and is still saying the king must go (see p 12). But there appears to be a slight shift in nuance: gone is the strident call for a peoples' republic. The Maoists are now saying let the people decide through a referendum.

The government says it is ready to discuss everything including constitutional amendments, but the constitutional monarchy is a no-go area. "There will be absolutely no compromise on that," says Kamal Thapa, the government spokesman and member of the government negotiating duo.

Two other things are different in this round: the Maoist's call for the government to get the parties involved and their demand that King Gyanendra personally guarantee decisions reached. Interestingly, it is now Girija Prasad Koirala who appears even more anti-king than the Maoists. The five party alliance has flatly rejected calls by both the government and the Maoists to take part in the talks because they say it will give legitimacy to the royal government. Commentators have noticed an inconsistency here: the parties say no peace process will be successful without their involvement, yet they refuse to take part in it.

Public posturing and polarised positions have now taken the government and Maoists so far apart that many are wondering whether the talks are a waste of time. There is a widespread sense of foreboding that if this round gets messed up, it will go back to an even more brutal and violent conflict after the monsoon.

Kamal Thapa believes there is a middle path between the entrenched positions. "That is why we are having talks. There certainly will be some give and take," he said. Baburam Bhattarai told BBC Nepali Service on Wednesday that the government's rigidity was only a bargaining ploy. "Their stand on constitutional monarchy is for public consumption and it does not have any meaning," he said. That line of argument opens him to the same criticism: that the demand for a republic is also a negotiating ploy. Bhattarai admitted to the BBC, "It all depends upon the king. If he chooses to honour the people's wishes, the talks will certainly be positive."

The fact that both the sides have agreed to talk despite their rigid positions is itself proof they are ready for compromise, and everything else is muscle-flexing. It is now clear that international pressure played a big role in bringing the Maoists to the table, and it may have a bigger role in the peace process than is apparent. The US-UK line has been to speak softly and carry a big stick. "The international community will do what it takes to stop them [Maoists]," senior British foreign ministry official, Mike O'Brien, said during a visit last year.

But foreign involvement is a double-edged sword. Despite post-9/11 convergence of geopolitical interest in the region, India and China are still suspicious of increased American presence in the Himalaya. Both have ruled out outside mediation even in the peace process, saying that would give a legitimate government and rebel forces equal status.

Indian ambassador to Nepal, Shyam Saran, said on Wednesday, "Both the parties in the peace talks are Nepalis, and they are perfectly capable of solving the problem themselves, so there is no question of outside involvement."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)