Nepal’s Aimless March
As Nepali Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal was addressing the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, drawing developed nations’ attention to the danger global warming posed to his country’s pride—Mt Everest, the tallest peak in the world—another, more imminent danger, threatened the nascent republic.
Nepal’s former Maoist guerrillas, who had waged war against the state for 10 years before signing a peace deal in 2006, were marching in the capital city Kathmandu, proclaiming a new state.
“This is a symbolic gesture,” Maoist deputy chief and coordinator of the ongoing protests, Dr Baburam Bhattarai, told ISN Security Watch. “When we signed the peace agreement, it was decided that Nepal, a Hindu kingdom, would become a secular federal republic. We have abolished Hinduism as the state religion and ended monarchy. However, feudal, regressive forces, who do not want power to be decentralised, are trying to prevent the restructuring of the country. We have begun announcing the formation of 13 states to create public awareness about federalism and pressure the government into keeping its pledge.”
In addition, the Maoists have called for a three-day general strike nationwide starting 20 December, with the veiled threat of more general strikes for an indefinite period in future, though in the peace pact they have pledged not to create any further disruption.
“We have been forced to call the strike as the government betrayed us,” says Bhattarai. “We fought a war to end autocracy and establish people’s sovereignty. However, the army, which helped [deposed King] Gyanendra come to power [through a bloodless coup in 2005] is still calling the shots. Unless the army is brought under the control of an elected government, Nepal remains under the danger of military rule.”
The brief honeymoon between the Maoists and the major parties, who came together during the king’s military-backed rule, began souring after the fall of the royal regime in 2006 and an election in 2008. The election, which chose a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution by, for and of the people, saw the Maoists emerge unexpectedly as the largest party.
The Maoist-led government that came to power in August 2008 ran into trouble when it tried to implement a key clause in the peace agreement: merge its People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with the national army. The integration was opposed by then-army chief General Rookmangud Katawal, and when the government sacked the general, the move backfired.
The fired general was immediately reinstated by President Ram Baran Yadav, a post created to replace the king as the constitutional head of state. The allies in the coalition government pulled out, accusing the Maoists of acting unilaterally, and the eight-month-old government collapsed in May.
Since then, the former guerrillas have been opposing the new coalition government under veteran communist leader Madhav Kumar Nepal. From May, they have kept parliament under a virtual blockade and have begun disruptive street protests, demanding that the government “correct” the “unconstitutional” step taken by the president.
An artificial peace
The government says it is the Maoists who are flouting the peace pact.
“We agreed in the peace pact that the new constitution would restructure Nepal into federal states,” the prime minister told the media after the Maoists’ declaration of a new state on 11 December. “By doing it unilaterally, the Maoists are destroying the raison d’etre of the constitution and the constituent assembly.”
With a new war of words escalating between the ruling parties and the Maoists, there is now growing doubt whether the new constitution will be promulgated on the scheduled date, 28 May, 2010. Even if the ruling parties, under tremendous pressure from the UN and other international donors to meet the deadline, manage to do so, there is increasing fear the new statute will not cement peace.
“This is an artificial peace,” says political analyst and veteran journalist Yubaraj Ghimire.
Though the Maoists have not raised arms and the government hasn’t resorted to repressive measures to prevent their protests, neither side has kept its commitment, Ghimire tells ISN Security Watch.
“The government’s limited interest is in staying in power,” the journalist says, adding that it has not yet formed any of the commissions it promised, including those intended to punish war crimes committed by the Maoists and security forces, such as the commission for the disappeared, which will investigate the fate of over 1,000 missing people, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“The Maoists have also not returned captured public property or kept other commitments because they know they can get away with that,” Ghimire says.
Even if a new constitution is implemented in time, Ghimire predicts it will not be the “people’s constitution” Nepalis are looking for. “The 11 constitutional committees mandated to draft the constitution were not able to reach out to people due to lack of time and other factors,” he says.
“Now they will try to write a new constitution on their own, arguing that since they were elected by the people, they have the people’s mandate. So the same thing that had happened with the [scrapped constitution of] 1990 will happen again.”
Ghimire says the 1990 constitution was a good statute. However, because it was drafted by then-King Birendra, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist and the Nepali Congress (the two current ruling parties), a lot of people felt left out. “The same thing will happen with the new constitution,” he says.
The Maoists themselves, who fought for the new constitution, are also unhappy.
“We won 40 per cent of the votes and have the people’s mandate,” says Bhattarai. “Yet we have been kept out of the power-sharing. The president, though only a titular head, created a bad precedent by reinstating the army chief sacked by an elected government. If the move is not corrected, the new constitution will come under the shadow of military rule. There could also be an attempt to dissolve the constituent assembly so that the ruling parties can enforce a constitution serving their own interests.”
Human rights on the back burner
The greatest disenchantment with the new constitution comes from the victims of the civil war.
Jitman Basnet, a lawyer, was arrested by the army in 2003 for writing articles that criticised the king’s opulence and urged punishment for an army patrol that killed 21 people in eastern Nepal during a ceasefire.
For 258 days, Basnet remained blindfolded with his hands manacled in a torture camp run by the army in the heart of the capital. After he was released following international pressure, he formed the Lawyers’ Forum for Human Rights, which is fighting cases against the then-chief of the army Genernal Pyar Jung Thapa and other officials who ran the torture camp. However, the cases are still dragging on in court and none of the accused has been brought to justice.
Basnet’s disenchantment grew this month when yet another army officer, charged with the killing of a 15-year-old schoolgirl, managed to evade arrest. Major Niranjan Basnet was expelled by the UN from the peacekeeping forces in Chad after his record became known and asked to return to Nepal. But despite a court warrant for his arrest, the army has refused to hand him over.
Basnet says no constitution or laws alone can give justice. “All the government and army officials who committed gross human rights abuse are still in powerful positions,” he says bitterly. “As long as the accused are in powerful positions, victims can’t expect to get justice. The new constitution will not change anything; it is a great betrayal of the people.”
By Sudeshna Sarkar