Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Nepal on brink again

Parties have 4 months to overhaul govt, cement peace after
years of war

KATMANDU, Nepal — After years of civil war and upheaval, Nepal's fate now rests with a bickering group of politicians who have less than four months to remake the government, write a new constitution and integrate thousands of former Maoist insurgents into the army they battled for a decade.

No one knows for sure what will happen if they fail.

"There will be a vacuum, and a danger of relapsing into the old days of conflict," said Baburam Bhattarai, a top Maoist leader. "Time is running out very fast."

The difficulties stem partly from the Herculean tasks facing the fractious nation.

It is trying to turn itself into a republic following centuries of royal rule; it is reorganizing the very structure of the country, creating new states to empower marginalized ethnic groups; it is hoping to cement peace by bringing the Maoists into politics and integrating them into the military.

"It's a very complicated moment in Nepal," said Sarah Levit-Shore, who has been running the Atlanta-based Carter Center's mission in the country for the past three years. "But it usually is."

The king of this poor mountain nation was gunned down in 2001 in a royal massacre that is still the subject of lurid speculation. His successor briefly seized absolute power before he was overthrown and the monarchy abolished. All the while, a Maoist rebellion raged, eventually killing 13,000 people before a peace agreement was signed in 2006 and an interim constitution adopted.

In 2008 elections, the Maoists won 40 per cent of the seats in the constitutional assembly, formed a government and then resigned last May in a power struggle with the largely ceremonial president. After smaller parties banded together to form a new government, the enraged Maoists repeatedly shut down the city with protests, blocked the roads where fuel is imported from India and paralyzed parliament.

Now the rival parties have to figure out a way to work together to merge the former insurgents into the security forces before a U.N. monitoring mission leaves on May 15 and to pass a new constitution before the interim document expires on May 28.

"The main problem is they are thinking about power, not constitution-writing and the peace process," said human rights activist Krishan Pahadi.

But the political battle is only a small part of the turmoil that has become routine for the Nepalese.

A severe energy shortage leaves Kathmandu without power for half the day. Water is even more scarce, and the economy is a shambles.

Protests are constant. One recent day, students marched through the capital to demand protection from Maoist toughs; hours later, civic groups held a sit-in demanding an end to the political impasse. The day before, hundreds of protesters demanding rights for lower castes marched past piles of rotting trash, remnants of a two-week-old garbage collectors' strike.

Meanwhile, chaos and gang violence plague much of the countryside.

"The people of Nepal are remarkably patient," said Rajendra Raj Pandey, a former finance minister. "But a point will be reached where they cannot take it anymore."

Before the impasse can be resolved, the Maoists say the must be allowed to form a new government.

The two parties currently in charge are demanding the Maoists disband their militia and send home the thousands of guerrillas staying in U.N. monitored camps across the country. The Maoists want to keep their force intact, as leverage in constitution negotiations.

"Until the political roadblocks are resolved, the final agreement on the constitution will not be possible," Cabinet minister Minendra Rijal said.

Even then, there remain huge arguments over the constitution itself. The parties disagree on whether the nation should be dominated by a president or a parliament, how many states there will be and what power they will have, how elections will be conducted, how to carry out land reform, and what role the courts will play.

And these disputes don't even take into account international calls for a truth commission to uncover wartime crimes committed by both sides.

Yet, there have been signs of hope in recent weeks.

The Maoists ended their near-constant street protests, began releasing thousands of former child soldiers from the camps, postponed a planned nationwide strike and allowed parliament to start functioning again.

They have also begun meeting with the leaders of the two rival parties to try to hash out their differences.

Karin Landgren, the head of the U.N. mission here, said there was more movement in the past few weeks than in the previous year and a half.

"My sense is that the pressure is quite helpful in focusing people's minds," she said.

Regardless, many politicians and analysts are skeptical the constitution drafting - already four months behind schedule - can be completed on time. Parliament can give itself a six month extension with a two-thirds vote, but that would require Maoist consent.

Rijal, the Cabinet minister, accuses the party of planning to dither until the deadline and then demand its rivals cave in on all the major issues in exchange for preventing the country from collapsing in chaos.

"They are smelling blood here," he said.

But both sides agree the conflict will have to be resolved in the negotiating room, not on the battlefield.

"We don't want war again," said Bhattarai, the communist leader. "Nobody wants war."

No comments: