Nepali Times
Peace in pieces


This is how violently destructive civil wars begin: when hardliners call the shots, vested interests benefit from an escalation of violence, and those who call for a negotiated settlement ate not taken seriously.

Peace is on everyone\'s lips: they\'re just not doing much about it. One politician more than any other has staked his political career on peace: Sher Bahadur Deuba. But he is caught in a web of intrigue within his own party, and can\'t make his move. "The talks are now at a standstill," Deuba admitted to us in a candid interview.

It has been a year since then-PM Krishna Prasad Bhattarai gave his protege the mandate to seek a negotiated solution, and put him in charge of a peace commission. There were a flurry of chits between him and Maoist leader Comrade Prachanda, then for the past four months: nothing.

The Maoists are really not in a big hurry to talk. They have already made their political point by stating their willingness to negotiate, even as they plan for their post-monsoon offensives. For its part, the government is spending Rs 6 billion to raise a paramilitary police force and deploy new weapons. It wants to wield a bigger stick before agreeing to sit down.

Off stage, factions within the Nepali Congress are busy with some serious backstabbing in the run-up to their party convention in January. A Deuba coming up with some peace breakthroughs could upset their plans. Neither Deuba nor his party chief, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, are good communicators at the best of times. These days, they only talk to each other through their media mouthpieces.

All this confusion has worked well for the Maoists who have spent the past few weeks making their presence felt in the capital with some pipe bombs. Though the bangs were magnified many times over by the media, the rebels did succeed in sending a loud message: that they were capable of hitting even the Valley if they so wanted.

Most of Deuba\'s early spadework has now been wasted. He had got Prachanda to agree to talk in return for minimum conditions: make public the whereabouts of Maoists arrested by police, release those jailed for insurgency and call off the police offensive. Recalls Deuba: "Prachanda was not only willing to talk, but also to call off all action during the talks. I believed him, although I can\'t tell what was behind his willingness."

The government claims it has done its bit: the talks have the sanction of both the executive body of the ruling party and the government, and says it has already released over 100 rebels from jail, including Dev Gurung, a central committee member of the CPN (Maoist). But the Maoists have not responded to Deuba\'s latest call for talks, made through a statement in late August.

"I don\'t think they are satisfied," says the Kathmandu-based editor of a weekly close to the Maoists. "They want the specific whereabouts of at least three senior leaders, Dinesh Sharma, Danda Pani Neupane and Matrika Yadav."

The government\'s response has been muddled. Ministers have even questioned Deuba\'s mandate, and threatened to disband the peace commission. Koirala himself needles Deuba at every opportunity for failing to resolve the crisis despite all necessary authorisation provided. Deuba says he still has access to Prachanda if needed, but it is evident that he\'ll have to start from square one even if the party gives him a real go-ahead.

If the Maoists were showing off their pipe bombs in Kathmandu, the government has been trying to show its presence in Rolpa and Rukum. Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Poudel has just returned from a two-week tour. He told us: "The government is clear on talks, as a democratic party, for us dialogue is a conviction, not a strategy."

Poudel has been trying to sell the government\'s development package for the insurgency-hit districts, and faults the Maoists with not being serious about talks. "They have not stopped terrorising the masses, they blame the government for everything. They are using the talk of talks as a strategy, not a way to resolve the crisis."

One political analyst who has been following the Maoist strategy closely is Shyam Shrestha of the leftist Mulyankan magazine. He does not doubt that the Maoists were at first serious about talks. "It was the first time that they had shown any flexibility in the five years of their war," says Shrestha. "The proposed development package and armed police force may have led them to suspect the government\'s seriousness about talks," he adds.

Shrestha, however, does not rule out that the Maoists may have been buying time to consolidate their gains in their "base areas". "I don\'t think they ever believed they would attain the goal of the revolution through talks, but they needed the time."

All the Maoists had to do to score public relations points was appear serious about talks. Recently, they took the media on a tour of the regions under their command and got wide coverage of an open public meeting held on 26 August in Korchabang, Rolpa.

Meanwhile in the ruling party there are increasing signs of disarray. "The enemy is at the gates, but we don\'t seem to trust each other on how to deal with it," a source close to Deuba said. "By fighting each other, we have shown them our soft underbelly, and given them more confidence."

That is also the message the Congress party is giving to other opposition parties. Among them the UML has taken a vacillating love-you-hate-you position vis-a-vis the Maoists. The object apparently is to keep damage-which have not been very high with the UML compared to other parties-at present levels. But the party is well aware of how the insurgency is being handled.

UML\'s Subash Nemwang says: "The Deuba commission is confused, it does not seem to know if it should hold talks, nor does it seem to have a clear goal."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)