Nepali Times
"Prachandaji has told me personally that if there is progress in talks, then the People’s War could be halted."


How do you read the recent government overture for talks, and Chairman Prachanda's response?

It is very positive because there had been no moves towards talks form any side after the Dinesh Sharma debacle, it was as if all communications had broken down. Ram Chandraji (Deputy Prime Minister) has made the effort, and it is positive. The Maoists have also told me they are serious about talks. Till Tuesday (6 March) the government had not responded to the Maoist demand to make public a list of disappeared people. But at least the deputy prime minister has made public a list, it may be an incomplete list, but it forms the basis for resuming talks.

Both sides say they want to talk, but talk about what?

The government wants the Maoists to join the mainstream, under the constitution. The Maoists want to include everything, including what the government considers non-negotiatiable aspects. But even the Maoists said at the informal talks between Ram Chandraji and Rabindra Shrestha (in November) that talks are about compromise. Some fear that talks are useless because the Maoists want a communist peoples' republic and the government won't hear of it. But Rabindra repeatedly told us: "We communists are pro-republicanism, we will continue to raise the issue. But we are also clear that everything we put forward may not materialise right away. We will try to get as much as we can and you will do the same."

Many also say: why just a constituent assembly, why can't a peoples' republic be on the agenda? The conflict may go on while talks are underway, so the Maoists are also saying why don't we fight under rules set out in the Geneva Convention. If both sides agree to abide by Common Clause 3, then violence and murders will stop. The clause bars you form killing unarmed people, people not party to the conflict, you have to treat the wounded, you cannot do anything to those who surrender, you cannot abduct. That would be an achievement in itself.

The Maoists have also proposed an all-party meeting. The Nepali Congress or Maoists alone cannot have a constitutional amendment. They have hinted there is the need for a national consensus from the king down. Prachandaji has told me personally that if there is progress in talks then the people's war could be halted. And the prime minister has told me that there could be a general amnesty and compensation if talks succeed. There seems to be some thinking going on in the leadership of both sides about a post-talks scenario.

What is the reason for this sudden mellowing?

It didn\'t happen overnight. The talk of talks began with the launching of the People's War in 1996. Human rights groups met the then prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who said that we should try to get talks started. I sent messages, and the Maoists were positive. They wanted the government to make a public call for peace, write them an official letter and they would reply. The Sher Bahadur peace committee was formed, and the Maoists said they\'d come to the table if the minimum environment was created, make known the whereabouts of those disappeared, withdraw fabricated charges, form an impartial commission to investigate incidents like Khara and end state terrorism. Contacts stopped only after the Dinesh Sharma episode. Ram Chandraji was trying, well, not with me, but with Kapil Shrestha, Bhakta Bahadur Shrestha and others to restart talks. The Maoists repeatedly inquired of me if there was a fresh proposal from the government.

When was the last time the Maoists asked you about a government proposal?

They had asked if there was initiative for talks some time before Ram Chandraji took the recent initiative.

What makes you think that talks are still possible?

We have both the PM and the DPM saying there should be talks. The Maoists are also saying they are very serious about talks. After the Dinesh episode, Prachanda told me on the phone that he'd join talks if the four conditions were met. He even said I could take responsibility for talks on their behalf if the conditions were right. I believe there is commitment on both sides.

Are the 40 demands still the main issues in the agenda of future talks? If so, how can those demands be resolved through talks?

I don't think the 40-demands are very important. It was submitted by the United People's Front (UPF) and not the NCP- Maoists. The UPF has been disbanded, but the 40 points are still taken to be the Maoists' demands. I think the political issues at their conference last month are more important.

Isn't that also a shift?

I think that is flexibility. If they have given up the demand for a constituent assembly then I take it as a positive sign. They may have assessed public opinion-it is more reasonable. Ram Chandraji has said that the Constitution we have is a people's constitution, why do we need another one. But it is also true that this may be more acceptable than the demand for a constituent assembly. I think the only problem is getting the two sides to the table, and that's why the human rights groups agreed on a common mechanism for facilitating talks. Neither side is talking because of the absence of a mechanism. But what is the agenda? The government asked the Maoists to suggest one. The Maoists say we'll bring the agenda to the table. If the government is proposing talks, maybe it should come up with an agenda.

What should this agenda be?

There could be differences on what to talk about, like the issue of the constituent assembly. The moment the Maoists raise the issue of a republic there could be differences. There could be differences about replacing multi-party democracy with communism. The government has said clearly these are the non-negotiable aspects of the constitution. For their part, the Maoists have accepted that talks are about give and take.

Will the constituents of the Maoists allow their leaders to talk about anything short of their main goal?

It is unclear. Some leftist groups say that Maoists should accept the constitution and come to the mainstream, which will also aid the left movement. The Maoists have their own constituency. They had a constituency in the early 1990s when they had nine seats in parliament. Now they have a special type of support, not just geared towards collecting votes, but which has helped them establish people's rule. They don't believe in the parliamentary system, the purpose of their people's war is to destroy the existing system and establish a new communist state. That is the long-term goal of the people's war, which has made an impact nationally. So how can they give up everything at once? The NCP Maoist cannot suddenly say ok, we'll talk and return to parliamentary politics. They may also believe that with or without talks they will continue on their path and even reach the capital in, say, five years. Those of us for talks have to think about the issues that could come up after the talks begin, there has to be homework. Many say the government has not done enough homework and that is why they are asking the Maoists for an agenda.

What the Maoists have clearly said is they will present the agenda at the table. The two positions are so entrenched, it may be better not to have a pre-determined agenda. That is why they may be taking a practical approach, let us get to the table first and discuss the agenda there.

Is there space for foreign governments to mediate?

I think that we should make that effort ourselves. If we need mediation, we should do it on our own, not hand over the responsibility to foreigners. But if we fail and don't have the ability or we lose interest, then the foreigners can come in. But they need to be apolitical, like the Red Cross, which says it can provide humanitarian support.

There is talk about International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)?

I have contacted the ICRC myself and so have other groups. We have almost reached the stage for talks. Suppose talks are about to begin at the leadership level and Baburam Bhattarai himself is to come, the logistics and safe-passage have to be worked out. How will he come-in a taxi, a bus, or a government vehicle? There are issues of security involved and his supporters might not want him to travel under police escort. In such a situation there could be a role for the ICRC. If both sides agree, it can even arrange a venue, in Nepal or abroad. If Baburam was to come, he may need a helicopter, and even that can be arranged.

There is now a new Maoist strategy. Some say Maoists have softened, others say it's a classic communist hammer and anvil approach. How do you read the new position?

On one side there\'s the possibility of talks. On the other the Maoists are doing everything as a communist party, having ideological debates, deciding on strategy. They have not stopped the war, and if it escalates, there could be civil war. Those who fear a civil war should be serious about talks. If there are no talks, the Maoist party will continue to grow in influence as they have in the past five years. Another argument is that talks may never materialise and the Maoists need to be crushed. I heard Prachanda once say, "If the efforts are aimed at crushing us, then we're all ready to die rather than surrender. At least we will make history." Violence could be benefiting some, there are profits for those dealing in arms. Those groups may not want talks. The Maoist supporters may say we\'re finally having a revolution in Nepal, why go for talks.

You seem to be well informed about the Maoists. What could be their strength now, in terms of core cadres? Weaponry?

I don't know much. I have not visited the war zone yet. I have been to Rolpa twice, but I could not go to the villages. From them I have heard that their numbers have grown. We hear figures of 25,000. The worry is that the government sometimes talks about using the military or the Armed Police, which could force the Maoists to upgrade their weapons. There is a dangerous mafia involved in the arms trade, and I have heard that they have reached the Maoists and told them "We will supply you arms on credit, and get them across the border." If talks cannot take place the Maoists would be trapped into taking the arms.

It is feared that the missing Maoists may have been killed. Do the Maoists want the government to say so and so has been killed.

Yes. It is a matter of formality. The Maoists' suspicion was confirmed two years ago when a delegation had gone to meet Krishna Prasad Bhattarai when he was prime minister. Kirti Nidhi Bista, Rishikesh Shaha, Krishna Prasad Bhandari and myself had gone to express concern on those that were missing. Krishna Prasad Bhattarai interrupted and said in English: "They are already killed." On Danda Pani Neupane, there are doubts about his living. It is suspected (that he may be dead). But the party cannot make that announcement formally without some basis. Ram Chandraji has told me that after he become home minister the government had not allowed police to kill anyone under their control.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)