- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

Nepal’s Maoist rebel leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, said in a statement Thursday that his party would participate in the third round of talks with King Gyanendra’s government to find a peaceful solution to the 7-year-old insurgency launched by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) to establish a people’s republic.

“We have decided to resume peace dialogues in accordance with the desire of the major political parties and the expectations of the people,” said Mr. Dahal, who is widely known as Prachanda, in a statement.

He also said the five political parties agitating against the king, demanding restoration of parliament and formation of an all-party government must be included in the peace talks.

The government negotiator and minister of communications, Kamal Thapa, quickly welcomed Mr. Dahal’s statement expressing willingness to hold a third round of talks as a positive decision and said the government would approach the five political parties to join the dialogue.

These announcements have given a sigh of relief to the people who had been worried over the possibility of renewed full-scale armed clashes between the Maoist guerrillas and the government security forces.

After six-months and two rounds of peace talks between the government and Maoist rebels following the Jan. 29 cease-fire, the two sides held formal talks on April 27 and May 9, but agreeing to a third round had proved difficult, due mainly to disagreement over what, if anything, was agreed to in the first two meetings.

Since then, the Maoists set more preconditions for the government, while the latter refused to restrict the movement of the Royal Nepali Army (RNA) to within three miles of its bases as verbally agreed by the two sides in May.

The RNA’s refusal to stay within the three-mile radius led to a change of prime minister, from Lokendra Bahadur Chand to Surya Bahadur Thapa. This led to dissolution of the government’s negotiating team and unraveling of the entire negotiation process.

Mr. Thapa’s government, however, promised to continue negotiations and formed a two-member team led by Kamal Thapa, the communications minister.

The Maoists asked the government to write them a formal letter inviting them to sit down for the third round of talks. On July 14, the government spokesman formally wrote to Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai asking him to participate in a third round of peace talks.

In a sudden turn, however, the Maoists shut down their public relations office in Katmandu July 20, citing “security concerns,” a few days after government agents arrested Bharat Dhungana of the Maoist public relations office. Upon his release a few hours later, Mr. Dhungana claimed that he had been blindfolded, handcuffed, and interrogated in a hostile manner.

After closing the office, all Maoist leaders suddenly disappeared from the capital, raising the specter of renewed hostilities. Mr. Dhungana later announced that it had become impossible for the Maoist negotiating team to work openly because of harassment from security forces, whose spies followed them on a 24-hour basis and had set up a listening post close to their contact office.

The communications minister and government spokesman voiced “surprise” at the closure of the Maoist contact office, personally guaranteeing the safety of the rebel negotiating team and promising safe passage to their destination in the event of failure of talks.

On July 23, Mr. Bhattarai, coordinator of the Maoist team, responded with a tough letter setting new preconditions for a third round of talks. The letter discounted the government of the prime minister as powerless and demanded that either King Gyanendra join the negotiations himself or issue a public statement that the negotiating team has full authority and that its decisions will be acceptable to the king.

The government was further asked to abide by the earlier decisions restricting the Royal Nepali Army to three miles of its bases, releasing three Maoist central committee members, disclosing the whereabouts of 322 persons who vanished during counterinsurgency operations, and stating clearly and publicly its position regarding the 23-point Maoist agenda presented at the first round of talks.

The 23 points include, among other things, a Maoist demand for a round-table conference, formation of an interim government and election of a Constituent Assembly.

The Maoist letter was also very hard on the United States, promising to fight U.S. military forces if they enter Nepal. The rebels have criticized the government for inviting “hundreds of U.S. military experts and advisers” into the country recently, saying this had seriously undermined Nepal’s national integrity and sovereignty.

“The RNA is turning itself into a Royal American Army, and working to abort the peace process and establish a foreign puppet military regime,” the Maoist statement said. “We want the immediate expulsion of all foreign military advisers and experts.”

The Maoists made it clear that a third round of talks cannot take place if King Gyanendra’s government, which they refer to as “the old regime,” does not fully and promptly implement the agreements reached during the earlier rounds. They also threatened to regard the government’s non-compliance with previous decisions as “unilaterally breaking” the cease-fire.

Mr. Bhattarai’s letter provoked a flurry of activity leading to several hours of consultations between the palace, the government, and security organs.

The security forces were put on high alert immediately after news of the closure of the Maoist contact office.

On July 25, the communications minister replied to the Maoist letter by outlining the government’s position and inviting the Maoists back to the negotiating table by the middle of August.

His letter asserted the authority of the government to make decisions, but did not address the Maoist demand for King Gyanendra’s presence at negotiations. It said the government was ready to negotiate with the rebels within the framework of a constitutional monarchy and a multiparty political system.

But the government spokesman’s letter categorically rejected the rebel demand that the RNA be confined to three miles of its bases, saying this had not been entered in the official minutes of the second round of talks. It also dismissed the Maoist charge that the RNA was acting as a “Royal American Army.”

Communications Minister Thapa’s letter further said the government was ready to release the three detained Maoist central committee members once the third round of talks is scheduled.

In a sharply worded Maoist response last Sunday, Mr. Bhattarai insisted that the government fulfill the preconditions outlined in his previous letter, adding that noncompliance by Thursday would be taken as government abrogation of the cease-fire. On Tuesday, responding to the Maoist ultimatum, the government released the three central committee leaders and made public the whereabouts of 35 of the 322 missing persons. The government, while refusing to restrict the army within three miles on grounds of sovereignty, promised not to use the soldiers against the Maoist guerrillas unless provoked.

The government also denied the Maoist charge that there were American military advisers permanently stationed and defended the agreement with the United States on antiterrorism cooperation on grounds that nonterrorist elements should not worry about it. The letter re-emphasized the government’s executive authority quoting a royal palace statement issued on the day of the appointment of Prime Minister Thapa. Finally, the government letter assured the Maoists that it will present its political agenda when the third round of talks begins.

Analysts describe Mr. Dahal’s positive response on Thursday to the latest government overture as a hopeful pointer for the talks, but they are cautiously optimistic about the outcome of the ongoing peace process.

The Maoists’ latest response has certainly opened the doors for government-Maoist dialogue but Mr. Dahal’s insistence on including the five-political parties in the talks does not appear easy, say the analysts. They further say that the resolution of conflict, in view of the conundrum of opposing values of monarchy and republic, does not appear easy.

Those who took the Maoists’ willingness to accept a cease-fire as a weakness were surprised at the tough stand taken by the rebels in the last two weeks.

The Maoists had cited international factors, particularly the possibility of foreign intervention — the United States — in Nepal’s civil war as the reason for their willingness to seek a peaceful settlement of disputes.

Now, with the United States appearing to have gotten bogged down in guerrilla warfare in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Maoists may believe American intervention in Nepal is less likely.

As tensions surfaced following the closure of the Maoist contact office in Katmandu, the royal government ordered security forces on high alert and increased security checks at hundreds of entry points to cities and government facilities. The army, police and security personnel reportedly meet daily, and troops and police on leave have been ordered to return to duty immediately.

Apart from a few small skirmishes, Nepal has been at peace since the Maoists and the government reached a cease-fire on Jan. 29. Before that, more than 8,000 people died in fighting.

It began in February 1996, when the Maoists announced the start of a “people’s war” to topple the monarchy.

The conflict involves a legitimacy crisis dating to adoption of the 1990 constitution. Its critics contend that the charter was the result of an unholy alliance between the existing political parties and the monarchy. The rigid 1990 constitution declared the monarchy sacrosanct, and its status unchangeable by constitutional amendment.

Those advocating a republic were stymied. Many analysts, including intellectuals in the mainstream parties, now agree that the constitution was not well thought out. Critics say it was sheer political thuggery. If the Maoists had not emerged, they argue, another group would have taken up arms, a line of thinking that has made Nepal’s Maoists an object of jealousy among noncommunist republicans.

Observers of Hindu polity argue that “constitutional monarchy” in Nepal is a contradiction, since a Hindu king receives his authority not from a constitution drafted by lawyers but from sacred texts. Thus, Nepal will remain an absolute monarchy or the king will be overthrown by revolutionaries. There is no middle way unless the constitution is changed to empower the people, they say.

At present, the monarchy, the established parties and the Maoists each claim to have support of the people. But monarchists and the parties hesitate to draft a new constitution through a Constituent Assembly as proposed by the Maoists. Analysts say the hesitation indicates the monarchy and parties are not confident of victory.

The parties and the monarchy have been at loggerheads over King Gyanendra’s dismissal of the elected government Oct. 4, 2002. The parties demand reinstatement of the dissolved parliament and formation of an all-party government, but the king is not listening.

Many observers believe the parties cannot gain momentum because their leaders are discredited and corrupt.

Concerns have been raised in Nepal over foreign involvement. At a time when the parties in conflict are talking to each other, Washington’s listing of the Maoists as “alternate terrorists” is increasingly perceived as hindering negotiations. The infusion of U.S. military hardware worth $17 million has not checked Maoist recruiting, according to critics.

But analysts belonging to different shades of opinion in Nepal suggest that the United States, which has no vital interests in Nepal, could play a constructive role by opening lines of communication with the Nepali Maoists and seeking a guarantee that they will not harbor international terrorists, but will respect the norms of multiparty democracy.

Since the insurgents believe their struggle is in an advanced stage of the second phase of “strategic stalemate” according to Mao Tse-tung’s theory of three phases of People’s War, they are unlikely to abandon the armed resistance unless a new flexible constitution is introduced to accommodate republican values and the Maoist Peoples Army is integrated with the state army.

Chitra Tiwari, a Washington based independent analyst of international affairs, was a lecturer of political science at Nepal’s Tribhuvan University. He can be reached at: cktiwari@erols.com

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