While the optimism and euphoria of the arrival of loktantra (the new Nepali coinage for ‘people’s democracy’) has dissipated somewhat since King Gyanendra stepped down on 24 April 2006, the Nepali peace process is unquestionably progressing. Economic inclusion will take longer, and full social inclusion may have to wait for a generational change, but the upcoming Constituent Assembly process will nonetheless offer an opportunity to lay the groundwork for these seismic changes to begin.
Nepal was never going to be able to move the peace process forward at the breakneck speed with which it started; nor was it feasible for the overly optimistic political timetables that were promised to be met. Nevertheless, having had a temporary government made up of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), the country has now moved to an 8-party interim government. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has handed over most of its weapons to the United Nations, and has officially entered the government. Power no longer resides with the king. The country’s political leaders can be proud of this record, achieved within a year in power.
Democratic transitions are always turbulent, and conflict transformation is a daunting and complex task; Nepal is engaged in both. The country has many overwhelming challenges to face, not least that of ensuring that what emerges is a Nepal-specific democracy – not an Indian, or an American, or a European one. Only a Nepali democracy that takes strength from the Nepali population, after all, will survive.
Transition and transformation
Transitions to democracy are fluid, unstable and volatile, and moving people from resistance to participation is not easy. A state and society moving from authoritarianism to democracy must transform existing power relations throughout the society, a process that is inevitably accompanied by sporadic violence at various levels. This is not to suggest that Nepal can afford to be complacent about the absence of justice and law and order; nor can parallel structures, such as those set up by the Maoists, run indefinitely. But it is important to understand that the transition will not be smooth, and will take time. The objective is to reach an agreed, inclusive democracy that is based upon stable and predictable political relationships, and volatility should slowly decrease as the transition progresses.
Conflict transformation is not about returning to the past, but about building a new future. This requires several simultaneous transformations – of the conflict parties; of political, social and economic relations; of institutions and cultural attitudes. Such fundamental changes do not take place in unison, and the varying speeds with which different organisations and relationships evolve have a knock-on effect throughout the system. In Nepal, as elsewhere, it is the rebel group that is under the most pressure to change. However, it is extremely difficult for any conflict party to transform if little else around it changes; a much larger canvas for transformation is necessary. It is, of course, essential for the CPN (Maoist) to reign in its cadres and accept the norms and boundaries of democracy, but this will not happen in isolation.
There are groups in Nepal that are likely to offer strong resistance to fundamental change in political relationships. These include the army and the bureaucracy, both founded on a culture of patronage and nepotism. The Nepal Army, having grown in size exponentially to meet the challenge of the insurgency, will need to adjust to Nepal’s new security requirements, and transform into a modern, integrated, professional army. The bureaucracy will also have to be revamped in order to be able to respond to the changing times, and meet the needs of the population. In past experience in Sri Lanka, for example, an entrenched bureaucracy proved an obstacle to governments seeking to implement negotiated agreements.
The process in Nepal is slowing down, which is necessary for consolidation. Indeed, this is a process not of months but of years, though observers may have been taken aback by the initial momentum it gathered with the People’s Movement of April 2006 and its immediate aftermath. In South Africa, the citizenry still considers itself to be in a transitional period, 13 years after the first post-Apartheid election. However, the volatility of the transition will not even begin to subside until substantive agreements have been made on the future of the country. In Nepal, the political parties are reluctant to enter into negotiations on the future compact of the state and society until after the Constituent Assembly elections. Eight years, an insurrection, a period of autocratic monarchy and a popular people’s movement have all passed by since the last democratic election, and no one has any real idea of the electoral strength of any political party, least of all the electorally untested CPN (Maoist). The parties themselves live between hope of what an election might deliver, and fear that they will suffer rejection. Thus, the parties, unsure of themselves, are unwilling to risk engaging with issues until they become critical.
Other democratic transitions suggest that it is during this period that practices and norms become embedded in the nascent democracy. Therefore, it is important that there is early progress on the structural aspects of democracy to ensure that, for example, the values of inclusion and democratic practice are embedded, rather than those of corruption and nepotism. This is at least Nepal’s fourth attempt at a democratic transition (after 1950, 1960 and 1990), which suggests that early progress on such issues is crucial.
Despite the use of the term ‘peace process’, it is precisely process that is often lacking in building peace. Including in Nepal, process is generally understood as procedure – for example, the sequencing of events, rather than the complex web of relationships and analysis that underpins how the process functions. Agreements focused only on outcomes do little to change either the underlying conflict structure or the causes of the conflict. The inherent authoritarianism of Nepali society and its political system militates against an approach that focuses on how the parties relate to each other to achieve a shared vision of what is now widely referred to as a ‘New Nepal’. The milestones that have been reached in Nepal through elite negotiation are impressive, but there remains a question as to whether this style can deliver the transformative forces necessary for a sustainable and secure Nepali democracy. Power-brokering and crisis-management approaches have both, in fact, contributed to the problem with the setting of the date of the Constituent Assembly elections, and the subsequent blame game when it came time to come up with a more realistic timing.
Promise of constituency
The citizens of Nepal were first promised a Constituent Assembly in 1950, when the Ranas were overthrown. Nearly a decade of political turmoil thereafter led to a compromise between the then king and the political forces, which instead led to a general election, in 1959. The short-lived experiment in democracy was brought to a close the following year, and the autocratic king-led Panchayat system was introduced. The demise of the Panchayat system in the spring of 1990 as a result of the People’s Movement did not lead to a Constituent Assembly – instead, an understanding with King Birendra led directly to a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, which is what was quashed by Gyanendra, until he was defeated by the second People’s Movement of April 2006. The unfulfilled demand for a Constituent Assembly was central to the People’s Movement, and there is a historic fear that it may be snatched away yet again.
And so, the Nepali people are still waiting for the Constituent Assembly promised back in 1950. In mid-April, they learned that they will have to wait a little longer, after the Chief Election Commissioner declared that it was not possible to meet the promised date of 20 June. Since April 2006, various election dates have been pulled out of the political air, but June had appeared just about possible when it was first announced. However, the work of the Election Commission – compiling voting registers, producing ballot papers – takes time, and could only commence once the political decision-making about the method of elections and constituencies took place and was cemented in law. Delays in that process have made it impossible for the Election Commission to do its job on time.
This situation has been known and understood for some months. However, instead of addressing the problem, the political parties have engaged in talk of abnormal elections for abnormal times. No one was willing to take the political responsibility of announcing the delay, which was finally left to the Election Commission. The assumption is that the election can now not be held until after the monsoon, which probably means not until the end of October or early November, to make time for the post-harvest Dasain and Tihar festivals. There will be several ramifications of this delay, each of which will need to be managed. There have already been complaints about the conditions in the Maoist cantonment camps, for instance, including the fact that these shelters were not made to withstand a monsoon season.
Since the Constituent Assembly is the necessary negotiation site for the big questions regarding Nepal’s future, uncertainty on these questions will most likely continue for another six months. This may adversely affect the law-and-order situation, though it does give more time for the state to organise the justice sector, and to dismantle the parallel Maoist structures (although there does appear to be some political reluctance to tackle these contentious issues). Currently, the Maoists are increasing pressure on the interim government and the Parliament to take a decision on abolishing the monarchy – and the subsequent question of republicanism – prior to the Constituent Assembly. It would not be ideal for an unelected interim parliament and government to take such fundamental decisions, which would be monumentally stronger if made by the Constituent Assembly. But fear that postponement may mean cancellation could lend support for earlier action on the question of monarchy.
Democratic inclusion and exclusion have become central to political discourse in Nepal, and successive demonstrations demanding rights for various groups have become the norm in the cities, especially Kathmandu. But it is in the Tarai plains that exclusion has exploded in a dangerous identity conflict.
Since April 2006, there has been a strong pattern of mobilisation in the Tarai, where the simple bipolar conflict between the Maoists and the government has been replaced by a complex and dynamic ethnically-based conflict. The Madhesi people of the Tarai, who are of ‘plains origin’, have long been treated as outsiders, which is qualitatively different to the ‘insider discrimination’ experienced by the Janajatis and Dalits of the hills.
The Madhesi people were treated as second-class citizens more than were other groups, due to the hill identity taken on historically by the Nepali nation state. In the modern era, there has also been a denial of citizenship to many, as the Pahadis (hill people) fear Indian infiltration through the open border to the south. Having for the past decade promoted the rights of excluded peoples, the CPN (Maoist) saw the populous Tarai as a lucrative vote bank. Both Madhav Kumar Nepal, the head of the mainstream Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), and Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s home constituencies are in the eastern Tarai, and there is a strong history of involvement in the democratic struggle in the plains.
But, high expectations after Jana Andolan II (the 2006 People’s Movement) led to a series of protests, some violent, across the Tarai. The violence increased through 2006, provoked by groups including the Maoist-breakaway Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha (the JTMM, which has since broken into two additional groups) and other groups espousing violence. The Madhesi Peoples’ Rights Forum (MPRF), led by an ex-Maoist, was initially a peaceful organisation but has also become implicated in violence.
Fear of not being proportionally elected in the course of the Constituent Assembly elections led to great disaffection, particularly among the Madhesi people of the eastern Tarai. On 25 December, violence in the plains came to a head after a Tarai strike was called by the Nepal Sadbhavana Party-Anandi Devi (NSP-A), a member of the SPA government, to protest the signing of the interim constitution. The response by both the police and CPN (Maoist) cadres was coordinated and violent. Violence continued across the Tarai – further inflamed by incidents at Lahan in mid-January – even with the occasional offers of talks being made by the government.
The official response to the unrest in the Tarai has been clumsy and confused. The first instinct of the government and the CPN (Maoist) – which was already in the interim parliament and preparing to joint the interim government – was to use force to try to quell the protests. This merely fuelled the indignation and determination of the Madhesi groups, however, and aided their mobilisation. The strong role played by the Maoists in using force also lent a hollowness to the offers to negotiate by the CPN (Maoist) Madhesi leader, Matrika Yadav. More than two dozen died in what many called the ‘Madhesi Jana Andolan’, but the government seemed to be insensitive to so many deaths – more than the total of the April 2006 People’s Movement.
In March there was a clash of a different nature in Gaur, between MPRF members and Maoist cadres and sympathisers. At least 27 were beaten to death with bamboo poles and more than 40 others were injured, most of whom were affiliated with the Maoists. The deaths shocked Nepalis, and ended any claim to pacifism on the part of the MPRF. The violence also showed the level of disappointment and resentment many Madhesis feel towards the CPN (Maoist).
A hurried amendment
As the violence mounted, the government appeared to panic, and unilaterally amended the interim constitution to change the government structure to a federal system, with guarantees of representation for disadvantaged groups in all state bodies. It did not, however, specify as to how these constitutional objectives were to be achieved. This was a classic case of doing the right thing the wrong way, and only succeeded in buying a 10-day respite in the Tarai violence.
In times of conflict, the tendency is to concentrate on what will end the conflict. The government’s handling of the constitutional amendment illustrates the problems inherent if the eventual solution is not the culmination of a truly inclusive process. The timing of the promulgation of such solutions is also important, as windows of opportunity open and close quickly in conflict situations. The constitutional amendment failed to stem the Madhesi conflict both because of its unilateral nature and because it was too little, too late. The Madhesis saw it as a concession that had been squeezed out of the government, rather than a right freely granted. It was therefore heavily scrutinised and found wanting in its lack of elaboration on how federalism and inclusion would be granted. Madhesi leaders subsequently drew the conclusion that they would have to continue to agitate in order for these constitutional clauses to become a reality. So far, there have been no official negotiations with the Madhesi groups.
Even the concession that was granted by the government, to increase Tarai constituencies, was given as a gift from on-high, rather than through a process of negotiation. As such, the Madhesi groups who might in fact have celebrated did not do so because they were shown not to have been involved. The position that the government took was bolstered by Maoist hardliners, who were fuelled by internecine tendencies. This, in addition to the rebels’ inexperience in the arena of co-operation and pluralism, seems to have led the government to bungle in addressing the Madhesi situation.
The government response to the violence in the Tarai has made other affected groups unhappy, particularly because an impression has been created that you have to be violent to be heard. The restive hill ethnic communities – as well as the Tharu of the Tarai, who largely see themselves as different from the Madhesi – are at this time extremely disgruntled. Of course, it is important that the government does not respond only to those bearing arms, or those causing law-and-order problems. The issues of inclusivity should be negotiated with all affected groups, particularly non-violent ones. Otherwise, Nepal’s transitional process will become an exercise in encouraging the use of arms. Care should also be taken to not incorporate constitutional clauses of apparent inclusion that are themselves exclusionary. Inclusion needs to be on the basis of individual and collective fundamental rights, rather than lists of those entitled to rights, which would automatically exclude those not on the list.
Despite these formidable obstacles, there is currently a strong will for peace in Nepal at the highest political levels. Political will is the single most important element in any peace process, and if more attention can be paid to the process and to the wider transformation agenda, peace can prevail in Nepal. With the Constituent Assembly all but officially postponed as of this writing, Nepal’s citizens can hope that the fragile peace and the turbulent return to loktantra will both be consolidated on the road to the Constituent Assembly elections in late autumn of 2007.
~ Liz Philipson is at the London School of Economics, and is a student of the conflicts in Sri Lanka and Nepal.