Nepali Times
Let the talks begin


The ceasefire has held for ten days now. But an even more difficult job lies ahead; agreeing on guidelines for dialogue, negotiating a common agenda, keeping factions left out of the peace process together, and not losing sight of the goal.

There are worrying signs that political parties excluded from the process are getting agitated. The cabinet hasn't been able to decide on the composition of its negotiating team even though the Maoists have named a squad leader in ideologue Baburam Bhattarai.

However, sources tell us secret contacts between the government's dialogue coordinator, Narayan Singh Pun and the Maoist team is taking place at an undisclosed location near Swayambhu, while there are reports of King Gyanendra meeting some of the the senior Maoists leaders also on Thursday. Pun's effort is to make as much progress as possible and not get distracted by the political wranglings. In a rare interview he told us, "It is a very long and complicated process. We must have patience to see this through."

Government spokesman and Minister of Information, Ramesh Nath Pandey, denies disagreement within the cabinet about Pun's mediation role and also that state-owned media is downplaying him. "This is not true," Pandey said. "The government has extended full support to Minister Pun."

So far, the scalebacks have come from the Maoists' side-calling off a two-day bandh and the cancellation of an indefinite nationwide education strike starting this month. For its part, the army has slightly relaxed its controls on movement of people and food in the western region, but checkpoints on highways are as strict as ever and curfews in various urban hotspots have not yet been lifted.

"The Maoists look more sensitive and serious towards making progress compared to the government," says Iswor Chandra Gyawali, editor of the banned Dishabodh, a pro-Maoist paper who was released from jail by the Chand administration after a year behind bars.

For his part, Pun says he is trying to avoid repeating past mistakes. One thing going for him is that both sides are more serious about finding a negotiated solution to the conflict than they were in 2001. Those talks failed when the rebels walked out of negotiations accusing the government of being too rigid.

Rights activists say it will be important for the two sides to first agree on a code of conduct including a complete cessation of all offensives, violence and extortion by both sides. The others would be to initiate confidence-building measures, not wait for talks to start before launching relief and rehabilitation efforts in the hinterland. "They should have guidelines and, if need be, get international agencies to monitor compliance on the ground," says Sudip Pathak, of the rights group, HURON.

But all these details will pale in comparison when the hard bargaining on substantive issues actually start. The two sides need to agree on an immediate setting up of an all-party interim government (perhaps including Maoist
ministers) and elections to a constituent assembly to change the constitution. In his address, Chand made a pointed reference to Nepal's "monarchial culture", hinting that this was non-negotiable.

While the government and the parties bicker away, the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal has been busy this week calling up leaders of political parties from his hideout. So far he has spoken to Madhav Kumar Nepal, Narayan Man Bijukchhe and Girija Koirala. Dahal reportedly told them his group did not favour direct
negotiations with the king and would like to see the party leaders at a roundtable conference.

"We have had one week of peace, but there is no clear idea who is holding these talks, under whose authority," constitutional lawyer, Bipin Adhikari, told us. "How can an illegitimate government hold talks with the Maoists on behalf of the Nepali people?" There seems to be no alternative to the monarchy, the Maoists and the parties getting together, and that seems to be a greater hurdle than even getting Baburam and Pun together.

With the Maoists willing to come out into the political mainstream, non-Maoist forces, too, will have to unite to protect their interests. This is possible only if the king and parties agree to sort out their differences and sit on the
same side of the table.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)