- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

After a decade of civil warfare in Nepal that took nearly 15,000 lives, the Maoist rebels are very close to joining an interim coalition government with the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) as an equal partner.

The decision for Maoist participation in the government came eight days ago after a marathon 10-hour “summit-level meeting” among leaders of the seven parties and the Maoists at the residence of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala.

Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula flew Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who goes by the nom de guerre Prachanda, and his comrade in arms Baburam Bhattarai by helicopter to Katmandu from a guerrilla base in Nepal’s central mountains.

It was the first public appearance in 25 years by Prachanda, 52, since he went underground in 1981 to organize a communist revolution in Nepal. The news that he had entered the prime minister’s residence for talks electrified residents of the capital; nearly 500 Nepalese and foreign journalists gathered around the prime minister’s residence to get a glimpse of the elusive leader.

Analysts say Prachanda has now changed from a terrorist hunted by the former royal regime with a $700,000 price on his head to a peacemaker for urban residents and a political hope for millions of the poor in rural Nepal.

Eight-point accord

The talks between the government team led by Mr. Koirala and Prachanda’s Maoists produced an eight-point agreement for peaceful settlement of the 10-year-old civil war.

The SPA leaders and the Maoists agreed to:

• Write an interim constitution to replace the 1991 constitution within three weeks.

• Form an interim government including Maoists after the promulgation of the interim constitution.

• Dissolve the reinstated parliament.

• Dissolve the Maoist “people’s governments” all over the country.

• Merge the armed forces of both sides under the auspices of the United Nations.

• Announce the date for election of a Constituent Assembly.

• Implement the 12-point understanding reached between the SPA and Maoists last November and the 25-point cease-fire Code of Conduct signed by the two parties on May 26.

• Commit to a multiparty system, democratic norms, values and peace.

A ‘win-win’ situation

Describing the outcome of the talks as “historic,” Prachanda said: “No one had thought that the rebels waging war and the political parties involved in parliamentary politics would jointly make a revolution happen.”

The agreement has raised hopes of an end to the decade-long violence and political turmoil that have tormented Nepal. Analysts say the agreement is a “win-win” situation for the democratic parties and the rebels because the Maoists have received all they sought since changing their goal of one-party communist rule to multiparty democracy, without a military conquest of Katmandu, while the democratic parties retain democracy as their playing field.

Analysts say the U-turn by Nepal’s Maoists has made them quasi-Maoists, and hence not to be feared. In a recent interview published in the weekly magazine, Nepal, Prachanda, who took inspiration from the Chinese revolutionary Mao Zedong while leading the insurgency, has abandoned Mao as nation-builder, saying: “Mao [Zedong’s] People’s Republic cannot fulfill the needs of today’s world. It does not address today’s political awareness appropriately. Mao said cooperative party theory; we called it competitive party theory.

“We have said, let’s move from the conventional People’s Republic and develop it for the specifics of the 21st century.”

Prachanda has made it clear he favors political competition. He asked: “What was the result in the USSR where Stalin gave no place to competition and went ahead in a monolithic way?”

Some doubts remain

Amid peace euphoria in Nepal, some analysts caution not to celebrate yet.

Yubaraj Ghimire, a senior Nepalese journalist writing in the June 19 online edition of the Indian Express newspaper, observed: “That the talks, like two previous ones, may get derailed is something no one is talking about. … There are doubts and they are certainly not misplaced.”

Opposition to the agreement between the SPA and Maoists comes from the conservative elites linked to the disgraced King Gyanendra. While the elite can only express disgruntlement over parliament clipping the wings of the monarchy, they seem to have found an issue able to mobilize the people against the SPA in parliament’s declaration that Hindu-majority Nepal will be a secular state.

Military and police officers are reportedly demoralized by the ascendancy of the Maoist people’s liberation army and the militia, while their own leaders are being punished for supporting monarchic rule and as oppressors of the people.

The government seems to be walking a tightrope — trying to balance popular demand for punishment of those involved in suppressing the April uprising, while seeking the loyalty of the security forces to maintain law and order.

Observers detect a fear that demoralized security forces could create havoc in the country, leading to renewed violence. Some leaders of the SPA have warned the government not to bring the Maoists into the government before the rebels are disarmed under the auspices of the United Nations, a process that specialists say could take months.

Parliament at issue

The coalition partners are also critical of the government’s agreement with the Maoists to dissolve parliament, arguing it is needed until another representative body emerges after the Constituent Assembly elections.

Critics say the Koirala-led coalition government seeks to survive by appeasing the Maoists. The government’s supporters, however, say that the SPA exists at the courtesy of the Maoists, so it is natural for the SPA to be responsive to rebel needs and demands.

Mr. Sitaula, who was involved in negotiations with the rebels for more than a year, says he fully trusts Maoist leader Prachanda and that disarmament of the government and rebel armies will be completed soon, before the formation of SPA-Maoist interim government.

Krishna Bahadur Mahara, spokesman and a member of the Maoist negotiating team, told the British Broadcasting Corporation that differences remain between the two sides on how to manage the weapons. He said both sides are ready to demobilize their fighters, but would not do so immediately.

The rebels want to demobilize the two armies under United Nations auspices before Constituent Assembly elections, and merge the two armies afterward.

Timing still a factor

SPA leaders, partly under pressure from military experts on counterinsurgency and also from distrust of the Maoist rebels, seeks to disarm the latter with the help of U.N. authorities before Constituent Assembly elections.

The position of the United Nations is not yet known, though Secretary-General Kofi Annan has promised full support of the peace process.

Mr. Sitaula said on Wednesday that the Maoists had agreed to settle the arms issue “before formation of the interim government.”

“The United Nations will be invited soon to manage and monitor the arms of both the state and the Maoists before constituent assembly elections” are held, the minister said.

Nepal watchers say that while it may take some time to hammer out the differences between the rebels and the government, optimism prevails in Nepal that peace is waiting at the door.

• Chitra Tiwari can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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