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Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 126 / Asia

Nepal’s Peace Agreement: Making it Work

Nepal’s government and Maoist rebels have signed a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) declaring an end to the ten-year civil war, paving the way for inclusion of the rebels in mainstream politics and June 2007 elections to an assembly that is to write a new constitution.

Executive Summary

Nepal’s government and Maoist rebels have signed a comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) declaring an end to the ten-year civil war, paving the way for inclusion of the rebels in mainstream politics and June 2007 elections to an assembly that is to write a new constitution. The deal has been welcomed by an optimistic public but implementation will not be straightforward: some central questions remain, and there is a serious risk the elections could be delayed, putting strain on the whole process. The UN has very high credibility but it will not last indefinitely, especially if there are delays. International support for its monitoring of both the two armies and the elections will be critical.

The peace agreement charts a course towards elections for a constituent assembly (CA) following formation of an interim legislature and government including the Maoists. In a detailed agreement on arms management, the Maoists have committed to cantonment of their fighters and locking up their weapons under UN supervision; the Nepalese Army (NA) will be largely confined to barracks. The constituent assembly, to be elected through a mixed first-past-the-post and proportional system, will also decide the future of the monarchy.

The CPA was signed on 21 November 2006 after months of slow progress following the success of the April 2006 mass movement that overturned King Gyanendra’s direct rule. The talks were sporadic and at one point came close to collapse. The Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) government was criticised for a lack of urgency and clarity; the Maoists pursued negotiations with more coherence but paid less attention to democratic methods. The process has now delivered significant results but some of the problems that characterised it since April – primarily a lack of solid dialogue mechanisms, poor facilitation, little attention to confidence-building and an opaque, elite-driven approach – may continue to dog the next stages.

The deal has its origins in the November 2005 SPA-Maoist agreement signed in New Delhi, which provided a basis for the April movement and a guiding framework for subsequent compromises. However, it represents a temporary convergence of interests more than a permanent shift in the underlying outlooks and interests of the sides. The SPA and the Maoists retain different visions for Nepal’s future institutions, and individual parties’ electoral interests will come increasingly to the fore. The peace accord will not in itself alter the exclusionary characteristics of public life or deliver urgently needed economic progress.

The significant remaining hurdles will all be exacerbated if elections are postponed:

Weak governance. Post-April confusion turned into a worrying power vacuum across the country, which the Maoists were quick to exploit. The government has failed to re-establish law and order and democratic governance. Control over the civil service, election commission and distribution of local posts – always key bones of contention for mainstream parties – may be particularly intense in the run-up to CA elections.

No deal on security structures. The Maoists want their fighters to be half of a new, downsized national force while the NA still wants them entirely disarmed. Neither army sees itself as defeated, so compromise will be difficult, and lack of progress may cause unrest among cantoned Maoist soldiers. With the NA suspicious of the peace process and yet to embrace democratic control, the Maoist demand for more solid guarantees is understandable.

Maoist behaviour. At least until November, the Maoists continued extortions and abductions while showing little sign they are ready for meaningful power sharing and opening up of democratic space. Demilitarising their politics will require more than just laying down weapons; without this, chances for free and fair elections are limited.

International involvement in the peace process has been mostly low-profile and supportive. The government and Maoists have asked the UN to take on new tasks and provide immediate assistance, and public expectations are high. But getting an effective monitoring force on the ground quickly will be a challenge: questions of mandate, funding, logistics and staffing need to be resolved quickly.

Nevertheless, the peace process has some momentum, which gives good grounds for Nepalis’ optimism. With continued compromise, political will and solid international support, a lasting peace is possible. Apart from shaping future institutional arrangements, the talks have agreed proposals for social and economic transformation – topics of immense public concern. However, only free and fair elections can give a government the necessary decisive mandate. Nothing should be allowed to put them off.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 15 December 2006

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.