- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

Late last month, 14 months after the deployment of the army against Maoist insurgents, both the government of Nepal and the rebels fighting the monarchy declared a cease-fire, indicating a desire to settle their disputes peacefully.
King Gyanendra, who took over executive power from elected politicians on Oct. 4, had been reportedly seeking to end the insurgency through talks, and had used several interlocutors to contact the Maoist leadership. Rebel leaders had reportedly made it clear they were interested in talks, provided they led to a positive political outcome.
They also insisted that, as a precondition for a cease-fire, the king's government withdraw its terrorist label of the Maoist party, cancel its Interpol "red-corner notice" for the arrest of top-ranking Maoist leaders and nullify the bounty declared on the heads of top rebels.
For more than four months, King Gyanendra's government ignored the Maoist preconditions until a Maoist hit squad assassinated Krishna Mohan Shrestha, chief of the Armed Police Force (APF), along with his wife and a bodyguard, on the foggy morning of Jan. 26 as the three were taking a walk.
The 15,000-man APF was created in 2001 to fight the Maoist insurgents. Many human rights organizations, including Amnesty International (AI), have blamed it for many human rights abuses in the countryside, including extrajudicial killings of innocent civilians suspected of being Maoists or Maoist sympathizers.
The assassination of Mr. Shrestha terrified the Katmandu-based counterrevolutionary elite, including King Gyanendra. His government quickly held an emergency meeting and decided to accept the Maoist preconditions for a cease-fire by withdrawing the terrorist label, bounties and the Interpol arrest warrants against top rebel leaders.
The government promptly communicated to the Maoist leadership its willingness to call a cease-fire and open negotiations on three key Maoist demands: convening a round-table conference, forming an interim government and holding elections to a Constitutional Assembly.
On Jan. 29, Maoist supreme leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ("Prachanda") declared a cease-fire in response to the government's proposal, and the government did the same within two hours.
The dramatic turn of events and the speed of the king's offer took many political observers and party leaders by surprise. Nonetheless, these developments provoked euphoria among many Nepalis, who feel the door to a political solution has been opened, and hope this process will continue until peace is restored throughout the country.
The Maoist insurgency entered its eighth year two days ago. In the past seven years, the insurgency and counterinsurgency operations have claimed the lives of more than 8,000 Nepalis nearly 6,000 of them in the last 14 months, following the army deployment in November 2001.
Many human rights organizations, including AI, have noted a kill ratio of 5-1 in favor of the government forces. AI said in its December report it believes that half of those killed by government forces are civilians who only gave food or shelter to the Maoist guerrillas.
Those who believed deployment of the military would bring the Maoist insurgency under control after the police had failed have been proved wrong. Despite the declaration of an emergency and the sweeping powers given to the military, the insurgency continued to expand as government forces were forced back to the safety of the cities and district headquarters.
Facing superior modern arms supplied by India, the United States, Britain and Belgium, the ragtag Maoist militia, employing the primitive tactic of human-wave attacks and Maoist theories of guerrilla warfare, put the government armed forces on the defensive. As a result, a strategic stalemate has emerged, but the Maoists are closer to seizing power in Katmandu.
The Bush administration is alarmed at the success of Maoist rebels in Nepal and concerned the war might cause regional instability.
"The Maoists are doing very well and the government of Nepal seems to be unable to pull together to deal with the issue," Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca recently told reporters from the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
"This is an area of great concern to us. The situation in Nepal is really not looking very good," she said.
The administration backed King Gyanendra in the war. It asked Congress for $20 million in military support for Nepal in 2002, but Congress cut that back to $12 million. The United States has supplied Nepal with 2,000 M-16 assault rifles and promised 3,000 more. In addition, 49 U.S. military personnel are training the 60,000-man Royal Nepali Army (RNA) in counterinsurgency operations.
Foreign powers backing Nepal's government against the Maoists India, the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Community have seen some grounds for cautious optimism in the recent cease-fire.
Nepal's politics since the Oct. 4 royal takeover is divided into three camps: the monarchists, political parties advocating limited constitutional monarchy and the Maoists seeking a republic.
The political parties have become sandwich filling between the two armed protagonists the monarchists and the Maoists. Without the participation of centrist political parties, however, any peaceful settlement seems unlikely.
At the moment, the monarchists and Maoists both seek the support of centrist political parties. The rebels have been saying they will support multiparty democracy if the centrist parties support the Maoist party's republican agenda. The king says Nepal's welfare lies in the coexistence of monarchy and a multiparty democracy.
This clear competition between the monarchy and the Maoists for the support of the centrist political parties indicates that democracy is not a hostage in the civil war.
Maoists have formed a five-member negotiating team with Baburam Bhattarai, the president of the Maoist Provisional Government, as coordinator.
In an interview after the declaration of cease-fire, top Maoist leader Prachanda said the success of the peace talks would depend on a serious approach by all sides, including King Gyanendra and the political parties. He also threatened to break the truce if he suspects foul play by the government side during the negotiations.
Prachanda also laid down preconditions for the government to meet as confidence-building measures in the peace process. He said that before the talks begin, the government must:
Release jailed Maoist cadres.
Provide information about those who have disappeared in police custody.
Revoke the anti-terrorist law.
Provide equal access to government-controlled media.
Send the army back to its barracks.
Work to frame a mutually acceptable code of conduct for the dialogue.
Owing to internal differences, the government has not yet announced its negotiating team, except to appoint Minister Narayan Singh Pun as its chief coordinator. The government seems to be trying to include a few negotiators from the political parties to make the team look more representative of the party-monarchy nexus.
The political parties, however, consider the present government unconstitutional and the creature of King Gyanendra, and question its authority to negotiate with the Maoists. However, the parties are not unanimous about how to deal with the issue.
The Nepali Congress (NC), the largest party in the dissolved parliament, seeks that parliament's reinstatement. The second-largest, the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) party, prefers an all-party government before any negotiations with the Maoists.
The country seems to have returned to square one since the Maoists walked away from the negotiations in November 2001.
Then, the government's refusal to entertain the Maoist demand for a constituent assembly caused the breakdown of negotiations, leading to emergency rule and deployment of the military.
The continued failure of military operations to disarm the Maoist guerrillas appears to have led to a realization among the political elite that election of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution is the only way to resolve the crisis peacefully.
Maoist sources maintain that a cease-fire was made possible after the royal palace agreed to entertain all three of their demands a round-table conference, formation of an interim government and elections to a constituent assembly.
Political party leaders, however, have questioned the king's authority to entertain these demands.
It is too early to be optimistic about a negotiated settlement of the civil war in Nepal.
First, it is not clear who the participants of the round-table conference would be. Second, the Maoists will certainly demand leadership of the interim government a claim likely to be denied by the royal palace and the parties. Third, the monarchists are aware republican sentiment is increasing in the country and fear that a constituent assembly will abolish the institution of monarchy.
This has led them to float the idea of a conditional constituent assembly that would reserve a well-furnished room in the new constitution for the king.
The Maoists, who demand a republic, are unlikely to agree. Indeed, they see a democratically elected constituent assembly as providing a graceful exit to the monarchy.
Even if the monarchists and the rebels agreed that a constituent assembly would have the final word, there is no guarantee the well-armed warring parties would abide by the results.
To guarantee that the will of a constituent assembly is carried out, the involvement in the peace process of truly neutral international agencies, such as the United Nations, is likely to be helpful.
Chitra Tiwari is a Washington-based free-lance analyst of international affairs specializing in South Asia. He can be reached by e-mail at cktiwari@erols.com.

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