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Sanjay Upadhya: Nepal - Truce Truculence

Nepal: Truce Truculence

By Sanjay Upadhya

The profound skepticism with which the Nepalese government has responded to the Maoist rebels' latest peace overtures would ordinarily appear irresponsible. A nation that has lost over 12,000 lives and countless billions in property over nine years of carnage is predisposed to clutching at even the weakest straw of peace.

Based on Nepal's experience, however, the government's stance is logical. During the last two peace processes – in 2001 and 2003 – the Maoists used the ceasefires and negotiations to reorganize and rearm. Once rejuvenated, they broke the truce and unleashed a bloodier spiral of death and destruction, prompting an equally violent response from the state. Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire have paid the heaviest price.

At a tactical level, the rebels this time succeeded in thwarting the royal regime's effort to garner international support for its fight against terrorism. King Gyanendra cancelled plans to lead the Nepalese delegation to the United Nations General Assembly after the Maoists' unilateral truce announcement, although government officials tried their best to deny any connection.

The Maoist ceasefire is widely being interpreted as a show of support to the mainstream political parties, which have been warming up to the rebels since King Gyanendra dismissed a multiparty government and took full political control on Feb. 1. In recent weeks, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists – the two largest constituents of the seven-party anti-palace alliance – have diluted their support for the monarchy.

Their failure to come out unequivocally in support of a democratic republic has alienated younger and more militant members. Admittedly, this section will have been enthused the most by the latest Maoist overture.

There is much more than meets the eye here. Maoist supremo Prachanda has ruled out the restoration of parliament – dissolved by Nepal's last elected prime minister in 2003 -- as a solution to Nepal's crisis. This is a blow to the Nepali Congress's freshly re-elected president Girija Prasad Koirala, who considers such a move the first step toward restoring constitutional rule.

Koirala was instrumental in articulating and achieving a modicum of understanding with the rebels to counter the palace's growing political assertiveness. Prachanda, for his part, would be the last person to forget that Koirala's party enjoyed a majority in the dissolved legislature. The rebel leader recognizes that a restoration of the house would restore an elected government. Such an eventuality would expose the rebels to the combined vigor of the palace and parliamentary parties.

This would explain Prachanda's sudden infatuation with UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal, whose is less enthusiastic about restoring a legislature in which his party would be relegated to its previous place on the opposition benches. The other members of the mainstream alliance, too, recognize the limited viability of a house that, even in normal circumstances, would have had completed its five-year tenure.

Although the mainstream alliance has mooted the possibility of an all-party government emerging from a restored parliament, deep suspicions and distrust among constituents continue. The history of their partnership is hardly reassuring. This leaves an interim regime and a constitutional assembly as the minimum point of consensus between the mainstream and the Maoists.

The Maoists are mindful of their other flank. Shortly after the ceasefire announcement, Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara ruled out the prospect of peace talks between his party and the royal government. Logically, this ruled out the possibility of a resolution of the bloody insurgency, considering the government holds all the levers of power. Instead, Mahara said the rebels would hold talks with the opposition alliance, members of civil society and the international community.

Where and how would the Maoists negotiate with them? What about the Maoist proposal for an active United Nations role, a demand backed by over 60 human rights groups but vigorously opposed by India? While answers were being sought, Prachanda issued another statement leaving open the prospect of dialogue with the royal regime if it reciprocated the truce. His next statement once again seemed to foreclose that possibility.

Prachanda's ceasefire announcement reinforces the reality that the Maoists still consider a "democratic republican order" as a temporary solution. The rebel leader simply ignored the issue of joining the political mainstream, a term he has derided in previous comments. And for good reason.

The Maoists believe things are moving according to plan. Their strategy involves a protracted "people’s war" and the surrounding of cities from the countryside they control, over the three phases of strategic defensive, strategic equilibrium, and strategic offensive. Clearly, the rebels, who believe they are now in the last phase, now aim to precipitate an urban insurrection.

From the Maoists' perspective, an alliance with the agitating political parties is feasible to the point of abolishing the monarchy. How far their enduring commitment to the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat would go in sensitizing pro-republic democrats remains unclear.

The circumstances surrounding the ceasefire announcement have thrown up another set of ominous questions. Prachanda ordered the truce two days after signing a statement with Ganapathy, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), reiterating their "pledge to fight unitedly till the entire conspiracies hatched by the imperialists and reactionaries are crushed and the people’s cause of socialism and communism are established in Nepal, India and all over the world." Coming after such fiery rhetoric, it would be difficult to see the Maoist ceasefire as an offer in good faith.

The confusion was confounded by reports in a section of the Indian media that the ceasefire was announced at New Delhi's behest to create international pressure on King Gyanendra, who has been cold-shouldering India. This has raised suspicions among many Nepalese who are traditionally wary of India's motives in Nepal.

Recent developments would vindicate such sentiments. In May, leaders of India’s Left parties, which support the ruling coalition in New Delhi, held consultations with top Maoist leaders, including chief ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, who were brought to the Indian capital by intelligence agencies. Prachanda, who months earlier had stripped Dr. Bhattarai of his party positions and at one point had described him as an Indian agent, suddenly rehabilitated Dr. Bhattarai under mysterious circumstances.

Moreover, Koirala and other top leaders of most mainstream parties took turns visiting New Delhi for consultations before a formal proposal for a mainstream-Maoist alliance was made public from both sides.

Irked by the sustained royal snub, New Delhi has begun reviewing its traditional support for constitutional monarchy. Because of divisions within the political and security establishments in the Indian capital, a formal policy shift has not been announced.

One section believes that the Maoists cannot be defeated militarily and that their emergence as a major political force in Nepal must be accepted. This section, primarily ensconced within the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, counsels that involving the Maoists in the political process – preferably in alliance with mainstream parties -- would moderate the rebels' rhetoric and policies.

The mainstream parties and the Maoists, which have enjoyed the patronage of New Delhi during different periods of their existence, would be more amenable to Indian security, political and economic sensitivities than a monarchy committed to expanding Nepal's sovereign space by, among other things, loosening India's stifling dominance of the kingdom.

The opposite section, representing the Indian home and defense ministries, rejects the very notion of moderating the Maoists. It believes that abandoning the kingdom to the rebels would only embolden Maoist insurgents in India, active in some 40 percent of the country’s 593 districts, to achieve their wider objective of establishing a compact revolutionary zone in South Asia.

Recent revelations in the Indian press that Nepal and China had signed a multi-million dollar arms deal during Nepalese Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey recent visit to Beijing would be enough to enervate those who consider the kingdom within India's exclusive sphere of influence. Despite the recent upswing in New Delhi's ties with Beijing, Chinese overtures to the royal regime are still seen by many in the Indian establishment as a step toward undermining India's strategic foothold in kingdom.

This development could generate greater pressure on the Indian government, which officially remains committed to constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy as the two pillars of stability in Nepal, to publicly announce a policy that excludes the monarchy.

Having achieved his principal objective – preventing King Gyanendra from taking Nepal's fight against terrorism to the United Nations General Assembly – Prachanda immediately started threatening to withdraw the truce. What about his conflicting statements about talks with the government? Already having come this far, the rebel leader might have thought he could entice the royal regime into a compromise on his own terms. The stubbornness of the government is likely to expose the truce for the farce it is.


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