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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South Asia > Nepal > Nepal’s Future: In Whose Hands?

Nepal’s Future: In Whose Hands?

Asia Report N°173 13 Aug 2009


Nepal’s peace process is in danger of collapse. The fall of the Maoist-led government, a mess largely of the Maoists’ own making, was a symptom of the deeper malaise underlying the political settlement. Consensus has steadily given way to a polarisation which has fed the more militaristic elements on both sides. While all moderate politicians still publicly insist that there is no alternative to pursuing the process, private talk of a return to war – led by generals of the Nepalese Army who have never reconciled themselves to peace – has grown louder. Outright resumption of hostilities remains unlikely in the short term but only concerted efforts to re-establish a minimal working consensus and a national unity government including the Maoists can avert the likelihood of a more dangerous erosion of trust. Strong international backing, with India eschewing short-term interference in favour of longer-term guardianship of the process it itself initiated, will be essential.

The immediate cause of the Maoists’ departure from government on 4 May 2009 was their bungled attempt to dismiss the army chief. As the consent for action that they had secured from coalition partners unravelled under external pressure, they pushed ahead unilaterally. Their legally dubious sacking order prompted an even more contentious intervention by the ceremonial president to countermand it. Maoist leader Prachanda quit on grounds of principle; the question of the balance of power between prime minister and president remains in dispute.

The Maoist resignation made the formation of a new administration an urgent necessity and, by Nepal’s standards, the transition was relatively prompt and smooth. However, the new government, led by the centrist Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), UML, is inherently unstable and incapable of addressing the most pressing challenges. Backed by 22 parties, it is yet to take full form and its major constituents are internally riven. Many UML leaders are openly sceptical of the new government, while the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) is now formally split. Between them, they have achieved the unlikely feat of making the Nepali Congress (NC) look the most cohesive and internally democratic of the non-Maoist parties.

The Maoists had not proved as effective in power as many had hoped. Moreover, they alienated two important constituencies: India (both by appearing to make overtures towards China and by refusing to become a pliant, moderate force) and the Kathmandu upper middle classes (by making them pay taxes and failing to deliver basic services, in particular electricity). Yet their main problem is their own refusal to give clear and credible assurances on their commitment to political pluralism and non-violence. Prominent ideologues within the party have given added credence to the argument that they will never alter their strategic goal of state capture and de facto totalitarian rule. In response, the leadership’s insistence that the party has embraced multiparty democracy has been less than fully convincing.

On the other side, the army has adopted a more overt, assertive political role. It is encouraged and supported by many who see it as the only credible opposition to the Maoists. It not only survived the republican transition but has thrived. Helped by timorous parties, it has successfully pushed for a substantial budgetary increase, protected its de facto autonomy, retained its full strength and pressed for new lethal arms imports – in breach of the ceasefire.

Behind much of the recent instability lies an Indian change of course. New Delhi framed the peace deal and acted as its de facto guarantor, pressing all parties to comply with its terms. Never able to digest the Maoist victory and uncomfortable with popular demands for change, it has pursued increasingly interventionist tactics through proxies in Nepali political parties while continuing its policy of ring-fencing the army as the most reliable bastion against Maoist takeover or anarchy. Its resolute opposition to all but token People’s Liberation Army (PLA) integration has unbalanced the peace equation without offering any alternative.

The background against which Kathmandu’s incestuous intrigues are played out is neither stable nor unchanging. Public security remains weak, alarmingly so in several areas. Local governance remains patchy at best and non-existent in places. Peace committees bringing together parties and civil society representatives are functional in some districts but lack a coherent agenda. Identity-based and other newer political movements are impatient with a constitutional process that, while not stalled, looks less and less likely to deliver a broadly acceptable new constitution on schedule. Civil society, a crucial force in the early stages of the peace process, is divided and demoralised.

India’s perceived partisanship has not helped international cohesion. From being the leader of the pack, successfully lining up other international players behind its strategy, it has become something of a lone wolf. It continues to criticise the UN mission, whose credibility was dented by a videotape showing Maoist leader Prachanda boasting that he had duped them into accepting vastly inflated PLA numbers. The UN would like to claim success and get out but cannot refuse requests to monitor arms as long as the situation – over which it has no direct influence – remains unresolved. In the meantime its role in preserving a fragile peace and affording Nepal some shelter from total Indian domination is under-appreciated.

Donors are keen to return to normal development activities and have been willing to fund the peace process. But their patience is wearing thin, conditions for business as usual are yet to materialise and international funding is subsidising a bloated and unaffordable security sector. The army alone far outnumbers the national civil service; it, cantoned PLA combatants and the paramilitary armed police are of no use in addressing the basic need for law and order.

It is true that all parties are still talking and there is a tradition of last-minute deals to stave off disaster. The same could happen again. But that should not obscure the fact that the rifts between the major players have grown wider and the grounds for compromise narrower. Averting a slide back to conflict will require a clear-sighted recognition of the dangers, genuine cooperation between Nepal’s parties to address them and much more solid international backing for the process, starting with a decisive lead from India.


To All Political Actors Party to the Peace and Constitutional Processes:

1.  Recognising that political consensus and a broad-based government are essential to the peace process,

a) work without delay to form a national unity government, acknowledging that the democratic mandate to lead it still rests with the Maoists;

b) give shape to the proposed high-level political coordination committee for purely peace process-related issues, ensuring it has a clear agenda, regular meetings and the necessary support to monitor and implement decisions;

c) prioritise cooperation at the local level, in particular by working together to make local peace committees effective bodies for dispute resolution and pursuit of reconciliation;

d) work urgently towards a deal on the long overdue re-establishment of local government bodies or all-party mechanisms alongside formation of a national government; and

e) put in place an overall peace process monitoring mechanism.

2.  Build confidence by:

a) adhering to the principle of consultation and consensus, focusing on practical measures to monitor and implement existing agreements;

b) recognising that unfulfilled commitments on all sides have contributed to a loss of trust and agreeing that reciprocity will be needed to move forward;

c) addressing the serious and substantive concerns over the president’s role by agreeing a clarification of his powers and ensuring his ceremonial office does not become a competing political power centre;

d) dealing with critical areas unaddressed by past agreements, in particular by developing plans for broader demilitarisation of armed groups, criminal mafias and party youth militias, not just the PLA; and

e) keeping the constitutional process on track and minimising the knock-on effects of delays that have already occurred.

3.  Support the Army Integration Special Committee (AISC) in its task of determining options for the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants by:

a) cooperating in reconstituting the AISC, recognising the need to offer balanced representation to major parties and to move promptly to substantive discussion of the major sticking points;

b) encouraging the technical subcommittee to continue its work while recognising that it is not in a position to resolve major political questions;

c) clarifying requests for international support to the AISC and its technical subcommittee, in particular by fully exploiting the capacity of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) to channel technical assistance; and

d) tackling the most contentious questions, in particular by discussing the numbers of combatants that could be integrated into the Nepalese Army or other forces, seriously considering benchmarks and timetables for substantive progress and being realistic about the near impossibility of meeting the latest six-month deadline.

4.  Make the most of international assistance, bearing in mind the risks of fading patience, by:

a) making full use of the UN and other international actors’ good offices as well as facilitating the work of UNMIN and ensuring it can complete its role in Nepal as soon as possible;

b) setting and adhering to benchmarks to achieve this, offering international backers evidence of progress and more solid indications that remaining elements of the peace deal are moving towards implementation; and

c) demonstrating in practice that unity across parties is the best way of preventing external intervention and prolonged, potentially intrusive, political engagement.

5.  Cooperate in boosting the legitimacy of the state and political parties by:

a) increasing internal democracy, building on successful examples such as the internal elections carried out by the UML’s general convention and the Nepali Congress’s parliamentary party;

b) bringing an end to party youth wings’ illegal activities, developing local mechanisms to ensure inter-party disputes do not lead to violent clashes and denouncing the use of violence for political ends;

c) without barring constructive debate, using party disciplinary measures to rein in senior leaders who make destabilising public comments that undermine the peace process; and

d) putting repeated commitments to greater inclusiveness and socio-economic transformation into practice, paying particular attention to the prospects for establishing new standards for implementing the goals of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women’s participation in peacebuilding.

To the Government of Nepal:

6.  Abide by the constitutional requirement to take important decisions on the basis of consensus among the major parties, including those not in government.

7.  Address public security concerns by recognising that political consensus is essential to restoring law and order and using all appropriate mechanisms, national and local, to build all-party support for effective policing and ending of political interference in operational matters.

8.  Address critical questions of justice and impunity by pursuing investigations and prosecutions, responding substantively to the most serious documented allegations of war crimes and basing new legislation on disappearances and the truth and reconciliation commission on wide consultation and international standards.

9.  Demonstrate commitment to establishing effective democratic control over the Nepalese Army (NA) and respecting the provisions of the November 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and Interim Constitution (IC) by:

a) bringing the NA under meaningful democratic control, including establishing parliamentary oversight, fully auditing expenditure and developing the constitutionally mandated work plan for democratisation and right-sizing of the army;

b) respecting the unambiguous ceasefire commitment to refrain from recruitment and weapons purchases;

c) carefully considering the conflict and development risks of increasing security budgets and focusing instead on fulfilling the constitutional commitment to determining the appropriate size of the NA and devising a sensible plan for reaching it;

d) issuing and enforcing clear orders to the NA to advise on national security policy when requested but refrain from expressing opinions on broader constitutional and political issues; and

e) making a first step towards full human rights vetting by refusing promotion to those accused of grave violations unless and until credible independent investigations have been carried out.

To the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist):

10.  Recognise that concerns over Maoist strategic intent are genuine and well founded and can only be addressed by concrete steps such as:

a) giving more solid guarantees of commitment to political pluralism both in theory (for example by reconsidering the proposal to ban political parties accused of supporting feudalism and imperialism) and in practice (for example by taking stern action against cadres who threaten, assault or obstruct members of other parties);

b) clarifying the specific questions raised by the Shaktikhor video, which appeared to substantiate charges of deception over combatant numbers and plans to use “democratisation” to politicise the national army; and

c) reaffirming the ceasefire and CPA conditions on ceasing all political violence, in word and deed.

11.  Convince other parties and the people at large of genuine intent to abide by the peace process, for example by:

a) ending the militarised structure and paramilitary activities of the Young Communist League (YCL), including its occupation of public buildings as de facto barracks;

b) promptly discharging ineligible personnel in the cantonments in line with repeated public promises, cooperating with government and international efforts to design and successfully deliver appropriate rehabilitation packages;

c) implementing other unfulfilled past commitments such as the return of seized property; and

d) cooperating with investigations and prosecutions of crimes committed during the conflict and ceasefire periods.

To the International Community, in particular India, China, the U.S., EU, UN and Donors:

12.  Publicly support the peace process and underline international expectations for its successful conclusion by:

a) emphasising the need for all parties to adhere to all aspects of the CPA, IC and other agreements;

b) supporting effective governance, while recognising that this will only be possible under a broad-based national government and urging all parties to make the compromises necessary to achieve this;

c) underlining that significant development and budgetary assistance is at risk should stable governance not be established;

d) pressuring all parties to use only non-violent methods to pursue protests and to avoid excessively disruptive tactics such as blocking the functioning of the CA; and

e) continuing to urge investigations into the worst alleged conflict abuses and offering technical support as appropriate.

13.  Strengthen international consensus and coordination by:

a) addressing the rift between India, which appears to have revised its interpretation of the peace deal, and other major players, who still support the agreements initiated and endorsed by New Delhi;

b) dispelling impressions of waste and confusion by getting a grip on the multiple, overlapping programs supporting critical areas like the constitutional process and security sector reform; and

c) maintaining a common strong emphasis on human rights, political pluralism and conflict resolution at the heart of all policies, including development aid and military cooperation.

14.  Recognising that delay in reforming the security sector is continuing to compromise all development efforts by draining resources and undermining political progress:

a) seek unambiguous assurances that affordability and accountability will be key criteria in any consideration of security sector budgets and policy, and that development funds will not be used in effect to subsidise an unsustainably large army;

b) push for democratic control of the security sector and discuss detailed plans for appropriate assistance;

c) urge prompt measures to address the pressing need for improved public security and offer support to such steps; and

d) explore ways to help train integrated NA and other security forces, in particular by offering conversion training for former PLA combatants, including at officer level if requested, and joint training to integrated units on working under democratic control, respect for human rights, etc.

To the Government of India:

15.  Given the enduring tradition of intimate Indo-Nepal links, use the special relationship constructively to secure both Nepal and India’s core interests without attempting to dictate, for example by:

a) making a clear, public recommitment to the fundamentals of the peace process;

b) offering public endorsement of the principle of PLA integration into the NA and other security forces, if agreed by Nepal’s parties and in the manner of their choosing;

c) building on India’s leading example of successful civilian control of the military and unique army to army links to offer support in areas such as building a functional defence ministry and training army officers and civil servants to work effectively alongside one another;

d) sending firm messages to the Indian army to support government policy on Nepal and communicate appropriate messages to counterparts in the NA;

e) considering positive steps to support security sector reform, including training for former Maoist combatants joining the security forces and assistance in reshaping policing to meet the needs of federalism and improved public accountability; and

f) supporting the UN’s role and using Indian influence constructively to assist in creating the conditions for the winding up Security Council-mandated operations.

To Members of the United Nations Security Council:

16.  The Security Council should underline its commitment to supporting the peace process but also its concern about weakening consensus and delays in addressing key steps by:

a) considering a Security Council visit to Nepal to understand the complex situation and hear directly from the main political actors how they propose to address challenges;

b) encouraging member states represented in Kathmandu to scrutinise progress, offer support as necessary and report publicly on progress or concerns;

c) making stronger public messages of support for UNMIN’s mission and for Nepal’s parties in taking prompt steps to conclude the peace process and restructure UN involvement to reflect the longer term needs of a successful post-conflict transition; and

d) engaging more closely with India to narrow differences in perspective and build more solid common ground on outside support for the peace process.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 13 August 2009