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Fulfilling the Promise in Nepal

Given the complex political forces at work presently in Nepal, it will need skilful political and civil leadership, besides international cooperation on the part of the UN and Nepal's neighbours, to fulfil the promise and energy of the April people's movement

Lattar from South Asia

Fulfilling the Promisein Nepal

Given the complex political forces at work presently in Nepal, itwill need skilful political and civil leadership, besides internationalcooperation on the part of the UN and Nepal’s neighbours, to fulfilthe promise and energy of the April people’s movement.

KIRSTY HUGHES

A
fter April’s people’s uprising in Nepal, the king is still in his palace in Kathmandu and noisy traffic rumbles past on the streets outside. It is almost as usual, with desperate security forces no longer wondering how to stop the crowds storming the gates. Instead, it is outside the reinstated parliament, which met for the first time on April 28, that demonstrators gather to make sure that the democratic fruits of the people’s movement are not wasted.

This is the clearest symbol of the power shift in Nepali politics: the king for now is weak, while all hope for a peaceful and democratic future rests in making sure the new government and parliament, full of old faces as they are, build successfully on the power and mandate of the people’s movement. But many Nepalis expect that if the democratic transition falters and the king sees a chance, he will once again attempt to intrude. As Devendra Raj Panday, one of Nepal’s main civil society leaders, says: “if the monarchy survives even in a very damaged form, it will strike back again and again, so let’s build democratic institutions slowly and have faith in them”.

There are still plenty of royalist sympathisers in Kathmandu who hope that, as in the past, the pendulum will soon enough swing back their way again, and who conspiratorially mutter that the whole uprising was engineered by India, while also claiming the new seven-party alliance (SPA) government led by G P Koirala is already under the thumb of the Maoists. For now, it is the democrats and optimists who have the upper hand.

Much will depend on the success, or otherwise, of the government-Maoist dialogue over the next two-three months, which will start as soon as a code of conduct for the talks, and for the ceasefire, has been agreed. Kishor Shrestha, editor of the Jana Aastha weekly, says, “We’ve bitter experience of coalition partners. So what will happen with the Maoists, and with the different political cultures, and even if their weapons are under UN supervision, they will have a loud voice and Koirala won’t like it. So it’s not easy but we have to do it.”

Framing a Dialogue

On top of the agenda for the dialogue is how to move towards inclusive elections for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution for Nepal, and what form the assembly will take. Despite the centrality of the demand for a constituent assembly much less attention has been given by all sides as to exactly what it should do, and how it should operate.

The dialogue is also expected to lead at its conclusion to an interim government that will include Maoist representatives, and possibly an interim constitution (if one is not agreed earlier). One key issue in the talks will be how to move to free and fair elections in a peaceful atmosphere. This means both the Maoists and the Royal Nepalese Army, and the armed police, putting their arms beyond use, with strong, probably international monitoring in advance of the elections.

As Sagar Rana, head of international relations of the Nepali Congress (Democratic) puts it: “the elections can’t be held unless the Maoists give up their arms” and goes on to comment that “there are only two possible outcomes of the constituent assembly acceptable to the mass of the people: either a democratic republic (the most likely) or a constitutional monarchy with a ceremonial, not active, king”.

UN officials are already looking at what help they can offer, not least with their wide experience of the technical details of ceasefire monitoring, and arms management in such situations including return of armies to barracks, with arms locked away and monitored. Even under its current human rights mandate, the UN could play a significant monitoring role but to go further in assisting with demobilisation of military forces a new mandate would be needed.

Kanak Mani Dixit, editor ofHimalis keen to see this: “We are lucky the UN presence [office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] is already in place. It just needs a little reformatting of its mandate to allow peacekeeping, monitoring the ceasefire and even demobilisation and management of arms.”

All this assumes that the army will play ball and cooperate with the new government, rather than maintain their allegiance to the palace. Many are calling for the rapid placing of the army under parliamentary control, a change of staff at the helm, and a name change to remove the “royal” prefix. US assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher, in Kathmandu at the start of May, met the chief of staff of the army though not the king, and insisted that: “The army made it clear that they are going to support the political process and support the civilian authority”. Whether this happens is central to Nepal’s ongoing peaceful democratic transition. Few think it will be easy, let alone guaranteed.

Keeping this show on the road is a tough challenge. Timing may be key here. Negotiations on arms management, decommissioning, and the constituent assembly will be difficult and take time. So the hope of some that an interim government may be formed within three months and elections to the assembly held before the end of the year are optimistic. But many think that if all goes well elections could be held within a year, and delay beyond that would start to raise doubts. Even then, writing the constitution may take a year, followed by a referendum on it, followed by new elections for a fully legitimate democratic government.

Even on the most optimistic count, the process could take at least two years. Given the complex political forces at work in Nepal, it will need much political and civil leadership and skill to fulfil the promise and energy of the April people’s movement, and move all the way to lasting peace and democracy.

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Email: hugheskirsty@gmail.com

Economic and Political Weekly May 13, 2006

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