- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

Nearly a year after an alliance of seven parties and the Maoist rebels in Nepal undertook a democracy movement, leading to the collapse of King Gyanendra’s autocratic rule, the Himalayan country is preparing June 20 elections to a Constituent Assembly that will draft a new constitution to decide, among other things, the future of the 238-year-old Shah monarchy.

Despite skepticism about the fragile peace between the former Maoist rebels and the seven-party alliance (SPA), that government survived and created a 21-member interim coalition Cabinet on April 1, with the Maoists on board and Nepali Congress party leader Girija Prasad Koirala continuing as prime minister.

After being sworn in, Mr. Koirala, leading Nepal’s government for the sixth time, said: “This is the beginning of a new chapter in Nepal’s history. I urge all to leave behind minor differences and move forward together to reach our goals.” He promised that his government would devote itself fully to establishing peace and security in the Himalayan state.

While the prime minister’s party kept the Home, Defense, Finance, Peace and Reconstruction ministries, the Maoists took over Communications, Local Development, Physical Planning and Works, Forest and Soil Conservation, and the ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare.

Moderate on board

Another moderate communist party, the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML), which has similar strength as the Maoists in the interim legislature, got the Foreign Affairs, Education, Agriculture, General Administration and Tourism ministries.

Six Maoist leaders, led by Maoist lawmaker and spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara, have joined the Koirala-led interim coalition Cabinet. Other Maoist ministers include peace negotiator Dev Gurung, and Hisila Yami, wife of Baburam Bhattarai, who holds the No. 2 position in the Maoist party.

Mr. Mahara, the minister representing the Maoist party said, “We will focus on holding the Constituent Assembly elections and work in consensus with other parties in the government.”

Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, welcomed the formation of an interim Cabinet as the beginning of a new Nepal and said that the existence of a “dual state” in Nepal had ended. He added that his party has not joined the “old mainstream,” as is often portrayed in the press, but created a new mainstream and has embraced the democratic parties into the new order.

Maoist lists priorities

Maoist chairman Prachanda outlined the priorities of his party as ensuring the election of a Constituent Assembly in a free, fair and fearless environment, to provide immediate relief to the people, and to orient the state toward new progress in the long term.

The Maoists have risen from hunted guerrillas a year ago to the pinnacles of power. Analysts say the ministries to be headed by Maoists are large, with substantial budgets, which will give them an opportunity to implement their version of development and social welfare in Nepal and continue their influence in rural areas.

Nepal watchers say the political deadlock in Nepal that began when the Maoists began their “people’s war” in 1996, started to make ease in November 2005, when political parties, hounded by Gyanendra’s autocratic rule, joined the Maoists with a 12-point understanding to end the 238-year Shah monarchy.

A popular uprising in April 2006 forced Gyanendra to capitulate, opening the way to serious peace negotiations between the moderate political parties and the Maoist revolutionaries. Foreign governments with interest in Nepal were quick to endorse the new developments.

India approves

Welcoming the formation of the interim government in Nepal, a press statement by India’s Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi said: “The formation of the interim Government marks another step forward in the implementation of the peace process … the Government of India looks forward to working with the interim government to further strengthen India’s traditionally close and mutually beneficial relations with Nepal.”

On behalf of the European Union, Germany’s ambassador in Nepal, Franz Ring, congratulated the new interim government, saying: “The promulgation of the interim constitution and formation of an interim parliament and government, are important milestones in the peace process in Nepal.”

Ian Martin, special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, congratulated the eight parties involved and called on them to create a more inclusive democracy, establish effective law enforcement, provide a future for former combatants and embark on wider reform of the security sector.

The U.S. Embassy in Katmandu voiced “full support” for Nepal’s peace process in a statement, and urged the new government to create an atmosphere for free and fair elections by “vigorously enforcing law and order throughout the country.”

U.S. pledges aid

U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty, who had opposed bringing the Maoists into the Cabinet “until they improve their behavior,” said U.S. assistance would continue to the new government.

Formation of the interim government was made possible after protracted negotiations between the Maoist rebels and the seven-party alliance for nearly a year after the April uprising of last year, producing several understandings and agreements.

As part of the peace accord, the Maoists confined their People’s Liberation Army of 31,000 fighters to the 28 cantonments and locked up nearly 3,500 weapons under U.N. supervision.

Analysts say Nepal’s transition from being riven by a deadly insurgency to peace has not been easy, and is not likely to be easy in the future. They note the growing regional, ethnic and sectarian tensions that have plagued Nepal since early this year.

Since January, sectarian violence has hampered life in southeastern Nepal, where some groups among the Madhesi people seek greater autonomy. Some demand outright independence.

Deadly ethnic strife

At least 60 persons have been killed in sectarian violence since January, and on March 21, 29 persons were massacred in clashes between former Maoist rebels and supporters of an ethnic political group, the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (MPRF). Human rights groups said the MPRF hired professional killers from India and fired indiscriminately on a Maoist meeting in the town of Gaur, in southern Nepal.

Critics of the conflict say Madhesi people have genuine grievances because they were historically neglected in the politics and administration of Nepal. The rise of the MPRF points to its penetration by disgraced monarchical elements and Hindu fundamentalists opposed to the new secular arrangements under Nepal’s peace process.

While the coalition government plans to hold elections to a Constituent Assembly on June 20, there are concerns about its ability to manage free and fair elections that soon. The chief election commissioner, Bhoj Raj Pokhrel, has indicated it may not be possible to hold elections by June 20, given the lack of election laws, delays in registering an estimated 17.5 million voters and delineating electoral constituencies, training more than 100,000 election officials, and lack of time to invite international observers.

Rural security unsure

Moreover, press reports from Nepal say the security situation in the countryside — particularly in southeastern districts where agitators have used arms against government supporters — is not favorable for conducting elections. However, the government is determined to hold them and has issued orders to hand over all illegal weapons within a week or face stern legal action.

Analysts say failure to conduct elections on schedule would push Nepal back into a constitutional crisis, and likely destroy the peace process. The monarchy could be made a scapegoat and Maoists could agree to postpone voting on condition that the monarchy be abolished and Nepal declared a republic.

Writing in Nepalnews.com, an online publication, Sanjaya Dhakal, a newspaper columnist, warned that “the formation of an interim government must not end up as an ‘April Fool’ joke on the people of Nepal, who have bitter experiences of being fooled in the past by the people in power.”

Chitra Tiwari can be reached by e-mail at ckti[email protected]verizon.net.

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