Nepali Times
Peace now, talks later


The guns have been silent for one month now. The relief can be seen on the faces of people on the streets, the villagers returning from India to their districts in the western hills and the increase in tourist arrivals at Kathmandu airport.

But for many Nepalis, especially in the districts of Dang, Rolpa, Rukum and Salyan, all this is too good to be true. This is not yet peace, they say, the two sides are just resting and they will start again like they did in November 2001. The public has a right to be sceptical, especially since they don't see signs of the peace process starting anytime soon and the confidence gap between the government and the Maoists seem to be as wide as ever.

There seems little doubt that the Maoists are more prepared for peace. They announced their negotiation team led by Baburam Bhattarai within a week of the ceasefire announcement, and sent its two-man advance team of Krishna Bahadur Mahara and Dinanath Sharma to lobby extensively with political leaders, civil society and selected media in the capital. Their main message: we haven't struck any secret deal with the king, we want the political parties involved in the peace process.

For its part, the government is yet to announce a full-fledged negotiation team. Worse, it seems the reason is wrangling in the cabinet over who will get the limelight. The government's chief peace coordinator, Narayan Singh Pun is beavering away behind the scenes, and has tried to put on a brave face by predicting that the peace talks will start within two weeks after the finishing touches on a code of conduct is agreed upon. In his first press meet in a month, Pun said on Wednesday, "The Peace Bus is leaving, either you get on board or you get left behind."

The all-party meet convened by Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand last week to forge a political consensus for the peace process turned out, as expected, to be a fiasco. All the main parties stayed away, and even his own RPP boycotted the meeting fuelling rumours that Chand's days in office are numbered.

Meanwhile, political parties are caught between lukewarm public support and the need to show that they are still a force to be reckoned with. Public opinion blames the national leaders of the parties for the failures of the past 12 years, and wants to give the king and his team a chance to restore real peace. By threatening to put a spanner in the peace process, the parties have dug themselves further into the mire. However, the parties are right about one thing-the king needs their support for the peace talks with the Maoists to take shape and succeed. In this, the parties also have the backing of India and the West.

"We want a parliament, either through elections or through re-instatement," Girija Koirala told a select press meet on Thursday. He also disclosed that he had met Prachanda and Baburam exactly a year ago and got a verbal commitment that the Maoists would support the preamble of the constitution. If correct, this was a major breakthrough since it would mark the first time that the Maoists have said OK to constitutional monarchy and parliamentary multiparty democracy. Koirala said he immediately relayed this Maoist concession to King Gyanendra, who instructed him to find out the Maoists' "final bottom line". Koirala said he told the Maoist leaders they would have to make a written commitment, and this came promptly three days later in a statement to "respect the gains of the 1990 peoples' movement". The political parties took this as an oblique acceptance of the constitutional preamble. However, as Koirala recounts, the shaky Deuba government couldn't capitalise on this progress and the war continued for another year.

What is intriguing is why Koirala should make this revelation now. The Nepali Congress leader seems determined that the king cannot ignore a party that got over one-third of the popular votes in the 1999 elections and he wants to put pressure on the king to either reinstate parliament or declare elections.

For the UML, too, the future is uncertain. Squeezed by a resurgent monarchy on one side and the Maoists on the other, the UML has to tread carefully. If the Maoists join the mainstream, the UML would be the biggest loser. Madhav Kumar Nepal flirted with the idea of accepting the palace's offer to be prime minister, but seems to have decided that it would be politically suicidal to do so in a party that will be radicalised in the next elections.

"We don't mind the Maoists coming out, we encourage them to give up violence and enter peaceful political competition," the UML's Iswor Pokharel told us. "But we don't think this government has the mandate or the capacity to lead a peace process."

"The Maoists seem quite serious about a peaceful resolution this time, while the government looks utterly confused," concludes Bhogendra Sharma, who was one of the rights activists who met the Mahara-Sharma duo on Tuesday. Sources say a high-level team comprising former chief secretary Karna Dhoj Adhikari, former chiefs of the Royal Nepali Army Satchit Shumsher J B Rana and Dharmapal Barsingh Thapa, and former police chief and RPP leader Dhruba Bahadur Pradhan, have been put into place to devise the government's peace strategy.

Like Pun, the team will also be briefing the king directly and take orders from him if necessary. "As in the 29 January ceasefire, the role of the royal-appointed cabinet and the prime minister would be to legalise the understanding reached between the monarchy and the Maoists," one insider told us. While the palace still has misgivings about the Maoist demand for elections to a constituent assembly (so as to dilute the powers of the monarchy), Maoists are wary of growing international interest in Nepal's peace process. "They would not want the direct involvement of the United States or Britain in the peace talks but would accept mediation by neutral, international agencies," said a source close to the Maoists.

Bhogendra Sharma of the human rights group CVICT also says that the presence of an international mediator would remove obstacles in neogtiations and put into place confidence-building measures. "Rather than taking up the complicated political issues at first, both sides should discuss humanitarian issues in the beginning followed by political and military matters over a period of extended negotiations," Sharma says.

One rights activist who returned to Kathmandu this week after taking part in a Swiss-sponsored conflict resolution seminar in Geneva told us he expects the peace talk to be a complicated and long-drawn out affair. Trust is of paramount importance, and he is worried that the lack of trust between the king and the parties will not help the peace process. For now, the parties and the royal-appointed government are circling each other warily. It would help if they could resolve their difference before the peace process starts. But, as Naryan Singh Pun says, he is not going to wait for that to begin negotiations.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)