The King’s Ceasefire

The royal palace in Kathmandu and the Maoists have agreed to a ceasefire without consulting the political parties. How now to bring them into the upcoming talks, and how does a king deal with rebels who want to abolish monarchy?

The government of Nepal and the Maoist rebels announced a ceasefire on the night of 29 January 2002, the Maoists taking the peace plunge an hour and a half before the state. For the Kathmandu valley, still reeling from the gunning down of a top policeman, his wife and bodyguard only three days earlier, the news was the balm it so needed. Even though some would-be interlocutors greeted the news with scepticism tainted by disappointment ('nobody told us!'), and some political leaders viewed this coming together of two non-democratic forces with extreme caution, the rest of society seemed to accept with enthusiasm what the ceasefire offered. In the immediate offing was the stoppage of mayhem on the terraces and plains just as it had arrived in the valley, and there was the implied possibility of a larger peace and, ultimately, a negotiated end to a seven-year war in which nearly 8000 lives have been taken.

This is not the first interlude in Nepal's 'people's war'. In August 2001, the Sher Bahadur Deuba government sent a team to the negotiating table without a brief, who were sitting across from a Maobaadi side intent on buying time to consolidate and expand its campaign. 17 months since, this time around, there are significant differences. Three of the most obvious are the quiet in which the groundwork was laid, unique in a polity that is in the habit of advertising its exertions; the implicit participation of a proactive palace; and the weight of a rapidly strengthening army, deployed all over the country  (instead of a demoralised and under-equipped police) behind the government. At a time when the international community has been showing a keen interest in the conflict by enthusiastically offering mediating mechanisms and conflict-resolution expertise, some found it pleasant that the ceasefire process was an entirely 'Nepali' affair.

The negotiations required to convert the ceasefire, which is disadvantaged by its democratic shortfall, into a peace process will be tedious and challenging to say the least. The Maoists will likely have to deal with disgruntled elements turning renegade and splintering the movement – a serious problem for the country if it were to happen – and the state will have to evolve a formula that includes the political parties, for the moment out of government and not party to the ceasefire discussions.

Power vacuum

In July 2001, Sher Bahadur Deuba entered the prime minister's office by sidelining incumbent prime minister (also president of Deuba's party), the old horse in the Nepali Congress, Girija P Koirala. One of the reasons he was able to do so was that the Maoists refused to talk with a Koirala government. Proclaiming a ceasefire even before he had formally taken charge, Deuba paved the way for the Maoists to come above ground. Talks began in the month of August, and three rounds were held before the Maoists unilaterally jettisoned the negotiations in November by unexpectedly striking at an army barracks in Dang, western Nepal. As subsequently acknowledged by the Maoist leadership, the rebels used the peace afforded by the talks to regroup and rearm, and also to grow their roots in new areas such as the tarai.

The Deuba government, stung by the humiliating betrayal, responded by declaring a state of emergency, deploying the army against the Maoists, terming the Maoists as terrorists and atavistically placing a price on the heads of the rebel leaders. Contact between the government and the Maoists evaporated, while the people were caught in the tightening pincer of Maoist and army action. As the success rate of Maoist attacks – mainly against government offices in district headquarters – grew, the under-prepared army became increasingly defensive and the government withdrew from many villages, leaving a power vacuum that the insurgents were happy to fill.

The Deuba government was unable to come up with a fitting reply to the Maoist offensive. Human rights activists who offered to act as intermediaries had the confidence of neither the government nor the insurgents, while Deuba himself was willing but unable to initiate talks. The frustration of ineffective action began to tell on the Congress government soon enough. Faced with a Koirala-led offensive, Deuba dissolved parliament in May 2002, announced general elections, was unable to make them happen, and then proposed postponing them by up to 14 months. At that point, on 4 October, King Gyanendra – by his own admission more a person of action than his late brother, Birendra – sacked Deuba. He was replaced by Lokendra Bahadur Chand, a Panchayat era holdover and former prime minister, who was handpicked by the palace to head a cabinet of technocrats and politicians, the latter weaned away from their parties.

Meanwhile, the political parties sputtered and shouted, and certainly retained the ability to create trouble for the palace in the long-term, but were unable to spark their followings or the public against the king's action, not least because their hands were tied by the Maoists' gunning for the monarchy. Analysts saw little hope that the Chand cabinet, seemingly lacking political credibility, could untie the Maoist knot. This was the situation when one of the ministers in the king's cabinet is said to have begun secretly developing contacts with the Maoists about two months ago.

Narayan Singh Pun is a former army officer and helicopter pilot-turned-airline proprietor-turned-politician. A member of the community from which the Maoists draw their core strength in central Nepal, the Magar, Pun is a street-smart man who left a Nepali Congress ridden with bitter infighting to start his own Samata Party last year. Having contacted the rebels through their sympathisers in Kathmandu, Pun seems to have taken particular care to ensure that the top rung of the rebel military, represented by Ram Bahadur Thapa ('comrade Badal'), was part of the discussions. The ceasefire announcement, when it finally came, had the acquiescence of the topmost leadership of the Maoists. That the Maoists have appointed their senior leaders, including the number two-man and party ideologue, Baburam Bhattarai, and Badal, to the negotiating team, unlike earlier when a flimflam group were representing it, indicates that their intention is of real dialogue this time.

Maoist choices

The power dynamics in Nepali politics have shifted with the royal action of 4 October 2002, with the palace clearly wanting more of a say in national affairs that it believes the political parties grievously neglected. Kathmandu drawing room wisdom would earlier dismiss suggestions, and justifiably so, that the republican Maoists and the palace, the two diametrically opposed parties in the conflict for power, would (or could) engage with each other without the political parties as a buffer. But the recent developments belie that analysis. For reasons that one can only speculate on at the moment, the Maoists decided to recognise the palace as the power centre when they determined to make the move towards talks.

There are several reasons – political and organisational, national and international – why this time the Maoist call for a ceasefire may just be genuine and not a play of cynical strategy games like the last. The logistical challenge of managing its wildfire growth, supporting a brigade-strength fighting force on looted cash, the handicap of antiquated weaponry, the steady erosion of support from an intimidated countryside, and that the law of diminishing returns must have begun to set in with cadres getting restive over the failure in converting night-time strike missions into actual territorial gains – all these would have influenced the decision to engage in serious peace talks.

Also, with the change in the international climate post-11 September, whereby there is now a growing impatience with insurgencies from Washington, DC to New Delhi, the Maoists would have realised that it was only a matter of time before they started losing ground in Nepal. Statements made by Maoist leaders after the ceasefire indicate that they had deduced as much. Besides, an experience of the difficulty in planting true-red Marxism on Nepali soil, and the growing capability of the army that had, with international assistance, begun coming into its own for the first time in the war, would have influenced the leadership to cash in its chips while its military momentum was still on, converting success in the field into above-ground legitimacy at the centre.

At a time when the perception of rebel success was still strong, the choice before the Maoist leadership was clear. It could either step up the pressure through bombings and assassinations in Kathmandu valley – as seemed to have happened on the 26 January morning when Krishna Mohan Shrestha, the chief of the Armed Police Force, was killed. Or, it could bargain on the strength of its advances before the revolution went out of control.

With the successes of the insurgency over the last two years, the Maoists were faced with the choice of establishing a 'base area', where they would maintain fighters and protect the citizenry; or, committing themselves to a 'final offensive' and a do-or-die attack on the state. It had already been decided in the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) plenum two years ago that the creation of a base area was not possible. So instead, since last spring, the rebels had been gearing up to execute the second option, which would mean the taking of Kathmandu. Difficulties encountered in attacking the valley however made the future look suddenly uncertain, and the limits to how long the leadership could maintain troop morale on the basis of violent aggression on far-flung outposts began to become clear.

Keeping this in mind, the Maoist leadership seems to have decided on the latter option, no matter that it would now be required to engage with the central object of its seven-year campaign, the crown. In doing so, the leadership seems to have chosen a 'safe landing' over going with the cadres who overwhelmingly would want to continue the fight.

What now?

With the Maoist leadership committing to a ceasefire, the focus is now on the complexities involved in moving talks ahead. The dismissal of the elected government sublimated the divisions in Nepali politics so that it is now relatively easy to discern three distinct participants. The monarchy, supported by an appointed cabinet, and the Maobaadi on the radical left are already at the negotiating table. But the present arrangement leaves out the political parties who, for all their inefficiency (even in protesting their sidelining), are the legitimate parliamentary force. The political parties denounce the monarchy under King Gyanendra for evolving into an extra-constitutional entity, whereas the Maoist are by definition rallied against the constitution – even though there is a whispered suspicion that given a political berth commensurate with their ambitions the leaders will not be unwilling to accept the system essentially as it exists.

Before the unexpected ceasefire declaration of 29 January, there was much speculation, which has now been laid to rest by fait accompli, on who would talk to whom first — the king and the parties, the parties and the Maobaadi, or the king and the Maobaadi. With King Gyanendra unwilling to have much truck with the parties and the latter unable to unite among themselves to force his hand, it is the Maobaadi and the king (through his representatives in the cabinet) that have started talking. Nevertheless, in this three-way polarisation of Nepali politics, the proximity or distance of the political parties from the talks, as designed by the king and implemented by Pun, will be the key factor in the peace process. For the moment, the political parties are smarting from having been bypassed.

It may not be entirely impossible but it will be extremely difficult for the 'unnatural' discussions between the two extreme positions to yield results for the long term. At some point, presuming that parliamentary democracy is now a given in Nepal, the political parties will have to be brought into the process so that the talks continue to be viable. What mechanism would be best, and what will be adopted, is as yet an open question. But, the initial breakthrough having been achieved, it would be misguided for the king, Pun and the rest of the cabinet to believe that the peace process can proceed far without the political parties.

The Maoists have demanded an all-party roundtable conference, and a period of interim government, leading up to the election of a constituent assembly that will reformulate the constitution. This is the Maoists at their most flexible; the long-held demand for a republic, which had so far precluded the possibility of reconciliation, is no longer a precondition to or even a condition in the talks. There are even some indications now that the leadership may be willing to concede to constitutional monarchy. In talking with what is essentially the king's cabinet, the Maoist leadership has tacitly recognised the political authority of the palace.

Through the last 14 months, the Maoists claimed that they were preparing for a constituent assembly, and that their military activities and attacks were aimed at achieving this objective. However, a constituent assembly, burdened as it is with the flavour of bourgeois rhetoric, cannot be the aim of a movement that initiated a bloody and long war in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat. One assumes therefore that having amassed power through the gun, the Maoist leadership now wants a place within the power structure at the centre. Even as it has decided on its compromise, one that will keep the Maoists ahead even as talks proceed, the challenge will be to take along the rank and file, with whose blood its battles were fuelled.

Why now?

In the four months that this government has been in power, the rebels conducted fiercely successful attacks on security force positions and on district headquarters, having divided the country into 'east' and 'west' for strategic purposes, with Kathmandu as the centre. In the Nepali month of Mangsir (mid-November to mid-December) last year, the Maoists had announced a shift from the position of 'strategic balance' with the state forces to that of 'strategic offence'. As their supreme commander, Pushpa Kamal Dahal ('comrade Prachanda'), said in an interview, the Maobaadi sought to learn from the mistakes of the Sendero Luminoso in Peru, where "they took too long to move from the strategic balance stage to the final offensive". What was it then that broke their resolve and had them seeking accommodation with the state, when they are seemingly not weakened in any way?

A clear clue to why the Maoists decided to come to the negotiating table lies in the timing. With the political parties out, the Maoists have to deal with a monolithic power centre ungoverned by the exigencies of electoral politics. Also, the international wave of sympathy for all states that are battling insurgencies has meant that the Maoists were faced with a might larger than just the Nepali state. The steadfast support for the state and army from the US, United Kingdom and most importantly India, and oft-repeated reminders from China that it has no support for what it calls 'anti-government forces', must have made their impression on the Maoists. With the dilution of ideological principle on the hard road of reality, a show of strength and/or lasting power on the part of the state seem to have brought the Maoists to the negotiating table.

In particular, it is the position of the Indian government, expressed in the repatriation of Maoists captured in India and the logistical and training support being provided to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) that would have determined Maoist calculations. Besides the advantage they take of the open border for refuge, logistics and communications, and the assistance they derive from the Maoist groups in India, the action and inaction of the Indian government has enormous influence on the strength of the Maoists in Nepal. That the Maoists realise this is clear from the velvet glove treatment that they have reserved for the Indian state of late even though the foundation of the Maoists' extreme nationalism rests on anti-Indianism. This softness obviously has to do with the need to seek refuge in India, particularly after the Nepali army was deployed, knowing that the India had the ability to provide decisive support to the Nepali government. But, when the time came for India to reveal its hand, India showed that it had no inclination to oblige the Maoists. The former foreign minister, Jaswant Singh, described the Maoists as 'terrorists' even before the Nepali government had done so. The Indian stance would in no small measure have effected the decision to enter into talks, and any evolution in the Indian position will similarly continue to direct the Maoist position in the course of the negotiations.

Having come to the table in the 'strategic offence' phase of a trajectory that started with 'strategic defence' against the state, moving to 'strategic balance' during the 2001 talks, it will be interesting to see how the Maoists manage the many contradictions in their ceasefire initiative. One can presume that the larger proportion of activists and fighters, having been fed on propaganda of all-out war and having achieved success in the field, is against talks, as is the mercurial support group known as the Revolutionary International Movement (RIM). (RIM has taken as much energy from the Nepali Maoists as have the Maoists promoted themselves on the basis of 'international' support provided by RIM.) Now that the Maoists have made their compromise with the state, their ideological purity will be questioned by international supporters who had bandwagonned with them. RIM will now have to scramble together a justification for the sudden lack of revolutionary fervour in the Nepali comrades, who had thus far done them proud. But the Maobaadis would be more concerned with Nepali realpolitic than faraway friends.

The fact that the insurgents are now willing to talk to the palace and its representatives has to be seen in context. The same Maoists who had criticised the dismissal of the Deuba government as 'reactionary', who a year and half ago pronounced that kingship had effectively ended in Nepal with the death of King Birendra and forecast a natural progression towards a republic state, today seem willing to confabulate with King Gyanendra. The political parties, who must be criticised for their lack of enthusiasm for the ceasefire, do then have some bases for their suspicion of this 'unnatural' meeting. They are also worried that between the two unrepresentative parties, the insurgents and the palace, the former may be able to extract concessions that will be to the disadvantage of the parliamentary players who are expected to be included in the talks at some point.

The confidence visible in the palace's dealings of the past weeks comes from its assurance of the public's scepticism of the political parties. It also comes from the current US-led international campaign against 'terrorism', as much as it does from the established resilience of the Nepali nation-state. Undoubtedly, the immediate beneficiary of the ceasefire is King Gyanendra, who started his reign under the cloud of the royal massacre in June 2001, and who has been roundly criticised by the political parties for having bypassed them in appointing the Chand government.

With the ceasefire, the king has greatly gained in credibility for the immediate term. But the monarchy needs to think for the long term, and it will have to work with all the forces that have a stake or interest in the evolving scenario. None should feel excluded, and most importantly not the mainstream political parties, including the (currently divided) Nepali Congress and the (recently reunited) Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist).

Significantly, in the ceasefire statement, 'Prachanda' calls on the Maoist cadre to engage in "peaceful mobilisation". In all earlier instances, including in the statement that was issued for the 2001 ceasefire, he had called for the more ambiguous 'effective defence'. A party that is given to war, directing its cadre towards peaceful mobilisation, must be seen as having appreciably changed tracks.

Factors for talks

As insurgencies go in South Asia, the Nepali Maoist war is relatively young. It may have been on for seven years, but really got going countrywide only in the last three or four. And yet the toll that it has taken – on the psychology of the populace, in the debilitation of the economy and the diversion of political energy in a nascent democracy – has been massive. While the political parties have certainly a lot to answer for in bringing the country to such a pass in the 12 years of democracy, the Maoists are culpable for exploiting the inchoate politics and taking the country down a spiral.

The road ahead is mined with difficulties, and even while the Maoist leaders tackle renegades, the government – the king, Pun and the rest of the Chand cabinet – will have to take the political parties along if they are seeking a long-term resolution. There is much to be disentangled if the talks are to commence towards negotiations on an agreed goal, including on the actual mechanics of electing a constituent assembly if that is what it is to be. For the moment, the ceasefire is built on government concessions in lifting the 'terrorist' label, the international 'red corner' warrants and the price on the heads of the Maoist leaders. The Maoist gamble seems to be that they will have a significant presence in the constituent assembly and therefore will be able to land safely into power in a future central dispensation. If at some point that objective begins to look unachievable, they may restart the fight on the basis of the demand for a constituent assembly. At the most uncharitable, it is not impossible that the Maoists have called for a ceasefire mainly to consolidate their rapid growth. Their record certainly does not obviate this line of argument.

Narayan S Pun told the press, "In many areas there has already been an understanding between the Maoists and the government". If indeed such an understanding exists on matters of principle, it will likely create a real problem at the proposed roundtable conference. The political parties, civil society groups and human rights organisations may well find that their propositions and demands are being overridden because they are outside of the pale of understanding reached between the current negotiating parties.

But before the talks arrive at that stage, there are several other issues to be addressed. To begin with, the king who has preferred to go it alone thus far for reasons of principle and practicality must find a way of accommodating the political parties. The political parties must get over their initial suspicion of the process and build a constructive part in it, and say something other than their various mantras thus far; depending on the party – the reinstatement of parliament, the restoration of the earlier government, or an all-party government. The Maoists will have to deal with the weaponry, the rehabilitation of fighters, and human rights abuse and killing of political party workers. The government will have to answer for extra judicial killings and the death of innocents at the hands of the security forces. It will also need to redress the displacement of thousands of citizens, particularly in the west. One of the main points of discussion will likely be the RNA, which not only the Maoists but also the major political parties – the Congress and the CPN (UML) – would like to bring within the control of an elected government rather than the palace. Who will participate in the roundtable conference, and as important, who will be in the interim government, will be contentious issues, especially if the Maoists are looking to dominate the interim dispensation.

The announcement of ceasefire is the first glimmer of hope in a long time, and Nepal's spiral into an economic, social and political abyss has been momentarily arrested. It is now time for sober reflection and participation from all sides. If the Maoists could give up on points of principle out of practical considerations, surely the other parties too can reciprocate the flexibility. It may yet be that Nepal will arise out of these years of violence just as quickly as it entered them. Once we get over the shock of the Maoist leadership and (what is effectively) the king talking to each other, we will begin to truly appreciate that in Nepal anything is possible. And that it may not be a bad thing.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian