Nepali Times
Let the talks begin

The long-awaited dialogue between a government panel and negotiators from the Maoist side started Thursday-just over one month after Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba assumed office and declared a truce with the rebels.

The talks are being described as "preliminary" by both sides and began Thursday morning at an undisclosed location on the outskirts of Kathmandu. As expected, the first round was a getting-to-know-each-other session which also agreed on housekeeping rules like security for negotiators and disclosure of details of talks to the press. The Maoists are said to want the talks to be open, while the government wants a certain degree of confidentiality.

On Wednesday, Maoist negotiators came above ground amidst a high-profile function in Panga village near Kirtipur where they addressed a gathering of about 2,000 largely supportive people. Chief Maoist negotiator Krishna Bahadur Mahara in a hardline speech said his group was not going to compromise on the basic demands: abolishing the constitutional monarchy, setting up an interim government and passing a new constitution.

Speaking from a stage festooned with Maoist banners, Mahara said: "We are never going to work under this decrepit constitution, the government is dreaming. They shouldn't treat us like another parliamentary party, these talks are between two governments."

Mahara and two other Maoist negotiators, Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and Agni Sapkota were covered in vermilion and flanked by unarmed Maoist militia in camouflage fatigues (see picture).
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba had said that these three points were precisely the non-negotiables in any future talks with the Maoists. And at a public function on Wednesday he said flatly that a republic was out of the question. "There will be no compromise on the constitutional monarchy," he said. The seemingly-intransigent positions of the two sides could be posturing ahead of talks. Even so, given their rigidity, it appears unlikely that the talks will yield dramatic results anytime soon.

The three Maoist negotiators are believed to be second and third-echelon leaders and probably don't have the party's mandate to take major decisions on their own. While all this is going on, Home Minister Khum Bahadur Khadka has made a mysterious dash to New Delhi. Although officials said it was ostensibly for "health reasons," there is speculation that the real talks are taking place in India while the Kathmandu talks are a decoy. One possibility is that Khadka may even be meeting Maoist supremo Prachanda somewhere in north India.

The Maoist leadership seems to have everything planned down to the last detail. Prachanda who was in Siliguri, India when we last heard from him, has also suggested new dates for the next two rounds, one in Rolpa, a Maoist stronghold, and another in Kathmandu. The strategy is to organise as many public meetings as possible using the truce, get mileage in the media and project rebel strength. The reasoning seems to be: even if the talks fail the Maoists will have built up a popular base and placed themselves firmly in the public mind. This is already working: the pictures in the newspapers and the visibility of red flags give the general public the impression that the Maoists are in the capital and about to declare a peoples' republic.

The government's negotiating panel consists of Deuba-loyalist Chiranjibi Wagle, Narahari Acharya and members of other parties, whose names have not been made public.

The three Maoist leaders left the capital Thursday to address pre-planned mass meetings in Janakpur, Nepalgunj and Butwal wth the same message Mahara delivered in Kirtipur. The Maoists have been staging a series of mass meetings nationwide as a show of strength and are scheduled to hold a big meeting at the open air theatre in Kathmandu on 21 September.

Prachanda has demanded that the second round of talks be held in Libang of Rolpa district to coincide with a major gathering of Maoists in their stronghold. However, the government is opposed to Rolpa as a venue.

Now that the talks are underway, Deuba has fulfilled a promise he made after ousting Girija Koirala on 21 August after a bitter and long-drawn intra-party fight. The Maoists have had a chance to regroup and re-analyse the situation after the royal massacre when, they have admitted, they miscalculated the public mood against the monarchy. Both the government and the Maoists have also realised that public opinion is strongly in favour of peace talks, and neither would want to be seen to be throwing a spanner in the peace talks.

Sources close to both the government and the Maoists told us if there is a chance of a compromise it will have to be about the constituent assembly and interim government. For this, the Maoists will make a symbolic climb-down on their demand for a republic and the government may consider far-reaching constitutional reforms without actually scrapping the 1990 statute.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)