Nepali Times
Guest Column
Incremental appeasement


It has been almost two months since the ceasefire was announced. We were told that the government accepted three pre-conditions of the Maoists so peace talks could start immediately and also allow the Maoists to come above ground like any other constitutional political party. As a result today they can move around the countryside to propagate their views freely, build and expand their organisation, while still retaining arms.

The Maoists have the best of both worlds: this is a unique arrangement. Meanwhile, the talks have not started. The Maoists have added new demands: release of comrades, withdrawal of court cases, agreement on a code of conduct, confinement of the army to barracks, repealing the anti-terrorist and anti-subversion laws, etc. Now, a code of conduct hugely favourable to the Maoists has been announced.

Still, the peace talks seem elusive. The Maoists maintain that the government has not done enough to create appropriate conditions for talks, which could be delayed. The Maoists won't even sit for "goodwill talks" unless five of their central leaders are released from prisons, and court cases against their leaders are withdrawn.

This is all very reminiscent of the last ceasefire when they insisted on new demands even during the talks, a period they used to consolidate their positions and ultimately back out from talks. The prime minister is now mulling a general amnesty for all Maoist detainees.

The Maoists are once more cleverly manipulating the situation by extracting concessions and benefits one after the other in the name of "confidence-building". These concessions should normally be on the agenda for negotiations. For its part, the government has not demanded any concessions, making the whole process a one-sided affair.

The general perception is that the government is bending over backwards to appease the Maoists. It does not even have a commitment from them to renounce violence, a timeframe for surrendering arms or confinement of cadres to their homes during the ceasefire period. The government has so far failed to take action against Maoists still carrying weapons openly, intimidating and extorting from people in the countryside. The foundation of any good negotiation is "fair exchange", where both sides gain something of value in exchange for something tangible. It should be a win-win exchange.

This phenomenon of incremental appeasement is the other extreme to what Sher Bahadur Deuba was doing during the latter part of his premiership. Under pressure from the army, the Maoists started sending feelers for talks. But Deuba, stung by their earlier betrayal, said "No talks until you surrender arms". Desperate to restart talks, Maoist top leaders met GP Koirala in New Delhi and expressed their desire for talks. Afterwards, they wrote to the political parties to propose negotiations. The Maoists need a safe landing as much as the restoration powers-that-be need peace.

The recently signed code of conduct treats the Maoists as a rebel group, recognising the existence of their army, promises fair coverage of Maoist news in the government media, and gradual release of their detainees. Although the code speaks of releasing prisoners from both sides, the reality is that only the government will release detainees, since the Maoists say they have no prisoners.

All these steps help legitimise Maoist violence. As far as ordinary citizens are concerned, the only consolation is the Maoist agreement to stop extortion and intimidation, facilitate the safe return of displaced people to their homes and freedom of movement without fear. However, there is no proper mechanism to enforce these provisions. Intimidation and extortion are not likely to stop as long as one side with a history of unparalleled violence is armed and roams freely.

The peace code, of course, talks of a mechanism to monitor its implementation. This is easier said than done, given the topography and the lack of a tangible civilian authority where the real problem exists. As long as the Maoists hold arms, the exercise of the freedom of movement without fear will be theoretical.

An even more important aspect of the peace code is that it is supposed to represent an agreement between the government and the Maoists-amended or terminated by the two sides. Clearly, the present ceasefire does not yet involve the political parties, making a mockery of the government\'s charge that the political parties are not helping the peace process by absenting themselves from the all-party meeting called by the prime minister.

It is one thing to call the political parties to a meeting to brief them about political developments, but quite another to take them into full confidence and seek inputs on issues of vital national importance. In all major decisions taken so far-the ceasefire, the peace code, release of detainees and other understandings-the political parties have not been involved, except for invitations to perfunctory meetings.

The government didn't even respond to a written request by the Nepali Congress for a draft of the code of conduct while it was being prepared. Curiously, the code did not form part of the agenda even in the all-party meeting which the NC and UML did not attend. Every thing was done secretly between the two sides. Full transparency may not be possible on every sensitive issue, but informal consultation on matters of national importance is necessary.

(Dr Ram S Mahat is a senior Nepali Congress leader and former finance minister.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)