Let People Power Prevail in Nepal
Let People Power Prevail in Nepal
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia

Let People Power Prevail in Nepal

As the people of Nepal rose to signal their final loss of faith in King Gyanendra, the key international players at last achieved a long-awaited unity of purpose in their response to a situation that has been deteriorating for years. Unfortunately, however, they came together behind the wrong solution, trying to force an unworkable deal on an unwilling population.

India, China and the US, with the European Union in support, led a push to strong-arm Nepal’s democratic leaders into accepting the king’s hollow offer of handing over limited powers. But the outside world’s reaction is too far behind events unfolding on the ground here in Nepal, where the Shah dynasty is now facing the end of its power and quite possibly its existence. The world must catch up with local popular sentiment if it is to stand any chance of guarding against a dangerously chaotic transition.

A few days back, locals from my neighbourhood in Kathmandu would not have dared defy a curfew enforced by ranks of well-armed soldiers. Now they march towards the city centre, with security forces giving in to the sheer weight of numbers and stepping aside. The almost carnival-like atmosphere of the protests last Friday, when people thought they might have persuaded the king to give in peacefully, have been replaced by a more grim resolve after the king’s evening speech.

“We are all revolutionaries now,” an old man told me: “We won’t stop until he’s gone” is a common refrain. Within hours of Gyanendra’s Friday offer, the diplomatic heavyweights publicly dictated their orders to the parties: accept the king’s offer and call off the movement for full democracy. The EU even sent its ambassadors to press the parties at the joint meeting they called to decide on their response.

Leaders listened politely to their case and, very firmly, rejected it. Nepal’s much-maligned mainstream parties thus proved decisively, if belatedly, that they could make the correct choice, rejecting the king’s offer on several grounds, all persuasive.

First, his offer would not bring peace. The king explicitly rejected the parties’ road map for peace, which is based on a freely elected constituent assembly that would write a new constitution and is a fundamental condition for the insurgents to disarm and enter mainstream politics. The road map is the only realistic plan to deal with the Maoists: the military’s counter-insurgency efforts have only strengthened the rebels.

Second, the proclamation put forward no political compromise. The king offered only a return to the status quo ante of January 2005, a system in which he appointed and dismissed prime ministers at will. He also made no mention of restoring parliament or refraining from legislating by decree. Despite a misleading translation circulated by the palace, Gyanendra made no affirmation of the people as the source of sovereign authority.

Third, the king’s Friday offer did not speak about control of the Royal Nepalese Army, his primary source of power. Any future government that does not have control of the army will inherently lack authority and be susceptible to undermining by the palace.

In rejecting the king’s offer, party leaders rightly judged the mood of Kathmandu and the country’s citizens. Had they accepted, they would have lost the trust of their own activists and the people at large – and would thereby have sacrificed the chance to direct and control an increasingly militant movement. This would have handed the Maoists the perfect chance to claim exclusive ownership of the anti-monarchical uprising.

But it is time to remember the Maoists. Whatever transition the next few days or weeks deliver, the new government will have to keep the focus on a peace process. Whether the final outcome is a constitutional monarchy or, increasingly likely, a republic, the end of royal power will only be the start of a long, tough road to a stable settlement. The world has still not learnt the lesson that there are no easy answers for Nepal’s troubles, no quick solutions or convenient compromises.

Faced with a range of difficult options, the political parties and the Maoists have at least managed to agree on the least bad: a route to a negotiated settlement that brings the Maoists into peaceful mainstream politics via a constitutional assembly. There are no guarantees that this will work but, sensibly managed, it offers both a peace deal and a chance to satisfy the people’s demand to have their say in how they are governed.

It is here that outsiders must still play a role – but a role guided by Nepal’s new government. Nepal’s friends should be ready to help in brokering and monitoring a ceasefire, ensuring the army accepts democratic control, using the leverage of eventual legitimacy to keep the Maoists on track and accepting and supporting a process of constitutional change that can lead to a more fundamental social and economic transformation.

The people of Nepal lost faith in their monarchy after the palace massacre of June 2001. The international community now has to learn to let go – and urgently help smooth a possibly messy transition.

AFP/Manish Paudel
Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.

Kathmandu/Brussels

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