Nepal: From People Power to Peace?
Nepal: From People Power to Peace?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 115 / Asia

Nepal: From People Power to Peace?

King Gyanendra’s capitulation on 24 April 2006 in the face of a mass movement marked a victory for democracy in Nepal and, with a ceasefire between the new government and the Maoists now in place, the start of a serious peace process.

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Executive Summary

King Gyanendra’s capitulation on 24 April 2006 in the face of a mass movement marked a victory for democracy in Nepal and, with a ceasefire between the new government and the Maoists now in place, the start of a serious peace process. Forced to acknowledge the “spirit of the people’s movement”, Gyanendra accepted popular sovereignty, reinstated parliament and invited the mainstream seven-party alliance to implement its roadmap – including election of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution in line with the parties’ five-month-old agreement with the Maoists. The international community lost credibility by attempting to pressure the parties into an unworkable compromise with the king and must now work hard to support a difficult transition and peace process while avoiding similar mistakes.

The pro-democracy movement was a victory for the Nepali people on four fronts:

  • Over the king. Nepal witnessed changes in mood during the several weeks of protests and strikes in April but there had long been widespread discontent with the king and his direct rule. The mass defiance of curfews to march against the monarchy following the king’s misjudged first offer on 21 April was a decisive popular verdict which – even in the face of the massed ranks of loyal security forces – left the king with no option but surrender.
     
  • Over the parties. People remained suspicious of the parties, both on the basis of their mixed record in government and their perceived willingness to do a deal with the king against the country’s best interests. Nevertheless, most hoped sustained pressure would force the parties to provide representative political leadership in tune with public sentiment – an approach that has so far yielded concrete results.
     
  • Over the Maoists. Maoist support, much as mainstream democrats are loath to admit it, was crucial to the movement’s success. But people did not rally under the Maoist flag, even in rural areas where the insurgents had directly urged their participation. While most endorsed elements of the Maoist agenda they did not heed calls for a revolutionary insurrection and sent a strong signal that people power is a constraint on the actions of the rebels as well as the palace and parties.
     
  • Over the international community. Nepal is particularly exposed to external influence. Sandwiched between regional superpowers and long dependent on foreign aid, its leaders and people have often looked to outsiders at times of crisis. This time India, the U.S. and some European powers did help to create the environment for a democracy movement but were brushed off when they appeared to press for an unpopular solution to end the crisis.

The fact that the people at large, rather than purely party- or Maoist-organised action, forced the king’s final climb down puts them in their rightful place at the centre of Nepal’s politics and acts as a powerful constraint on misbehaviour by the major players. That they did so in the face of a coordinated international campaign to halt the protests means they need not be beholden to outside forces – this was a victory they won for themselves. That they successfully encouraged the parties to stand firm against the ill-advised external pressure bodes well for fostering genuine national ownership and direction of a peace process and constitutional reform.

The people’s movement vindicated the parties’ November 2005 twelve-point agreement with the Maoists, without which the movement would never have been possible. It also conclusively rejected the proposition that reconciliation between the palace and the parties to fight the Maoists was the only way forward. Encouragingly, the parties and the Maoists have reaffirmed their commitment to their joint peace plan. Solid self-interest underlies the twelve-point agreement; though there is no guarantee, implementing it successfully is still the most attractive option for both sides.

Nepal’s much maligned political parties have recovered much of the popular credit they had squandered while in office and while leading the earlier half-hearted “anti-regression” campaign against royal rule. However, the initial moves to form the new government were less inspiring, with squabbling over the allocation of ministerial portfolios delaying the process. The government of 84-year old Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who was sworn in on 30 April, is only an interim administration, with limited legitimacy to act in areas other than pursuing the existing roadmap for ending the conflict. It faces four immediate challenges:

  • keeping the peace process on track;
     
  • containing the king and controlling the army;
     
  • planning for constitutional change; and
     
  • responding to calls for transitional justice.

The international community will win back respect in Nepal if it helps the government as it tackles these challenges in an environment which remains precarious. The country is not yet back to business as usual. Donors must understand that their role should be to safeguard the difficult transition from people power to peace.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 10 May 2006

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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