Nepali Times
Can’t fail this time


Once there was the political will, everything else fell into place. Even so, there was finger-biting tension on that rainy Wednesday morning this week when it was touch-and-go till the last minute. As ministerial mediator, Narayan Singh Pun, shuttled back and forth between the Maoist leadership and the cabinet room until the ceasefire agreement was done.

The question many are asking is: Why did King Gyanendra and the Maoists decide to patch up now?

The Maoists were beginning to feel the pressure from a cadre base that grew too rapidly, and was getting out of control. A newly-beefed-up army could drag on the war. And they were also feeling the squeeze from New Delhi, which was getting anxious about a possible spill-over, as well as Americans running around its backyard. Then, there was a real danger of being slotted into America's terror list.

King Gyanendra, on the other hand, needed a peace dividend to bolster his own legitimacy and that of a government he appointed four months ago after sacking an elected prime minister. The king had staked everything on his October 4 move, and needed to pull this rabbit out of the hat.

Whatever the behind-the-scene tradeoffs, the announcement on Wednesday inspired hope among war-weary Nepalis that this may finally be the beginning of the end of a seven-year conflict that has cost more than 8,000 lives and ruined the nation.

"This is a major breakthrough, but there is a big challenge ahead now to make the ceasefire stick and carry on the negotiations," one senior government official told us Thursday. He said the negotiations had been tortuous. "Till the last moment, we knew it could have gone either way." The government conceded to lifting the terrorist label, an international warrant and the bounty for the heads of senior Maoist leaders--all in return for the immediate ceasefire call.

A truce is the first step to build confidence in negotiations. This ceasefire can't be like last year when executions, extortion and plunder continued nationwide while the talks took place.

"The peace process has already started," Lt Col Pun told us Thursday morning, "I am very optimistic that we will see lasting peace." The ex-Royal Nepal Army helicopter pilot-turned-aviation entrepreneur-turned-politician is suddenly in the limelight as the main architect of the negotiations. He has been credited with making initial contacts with the top Maoist leadership two months ago and mediating between them and the palace. The government has named him chief coordinator in coming negotiations.

The next step will be direct talks between Pun and possibly Babu Ram Bhattarai from the Maoist side to iron out the facilitation procedures. Asked if these negotiations would take place outside Nepal, one senior government official said, "I don't think there is any need. This is our problem and we need to solve this ourselves." Then, the two sides will get down to the nitty-gritty of Maoist demands of a roundtable conference of political forces, constituent assembly elections and an interim government.

By getting Ram Bahadur Thapa (Comrade Badal) involved early in the negotiations, Lt Col Pun has ensured that the main Maoist personalities are on board. But the question is, are there other hardliners out there who will keep on fighting? Also, will the political parties play ball? The signs are not good. They are miffed not to have been consulted and are fearful about fallout on their own futures.

The UML has the most to lose if the Maoists emerge as a mainstream party, and it will likely emerge from Janakpur more radicalised. The Nepali Congress has been caught flat-footed, and had not even issued a statement till late Thursday. Party leaders tried to put on a brave face, and said neither the monarch nor the Maoists had shown a readiness to find a peaceful outcome.

It is clear that however dramatic the initial announcement on Wednesday, the real work has just started. The road ahead is rocky. But this process cannot be allowed to fail because if it does, the alternative is unthinkable.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)