Nepal: “light at end of tunnel” —for tribal peoples too?

November 23, 2006 at 8:11 am Leave a comment

This optimistic June 26 analysis by Kavi Chongkittavorn in Thailand’s The Nation is one of the very few accounts we’ve been able to find that even mentions the question of Nepal’s indigenous peoples in the new order which is emerging. We’ve highlighted the reference to the Madeshi tribal people of the lowland plains of the country’s southwest side. Our own observations will follow.

Light at the end of the tunnel for Nepal

The euphoria in the Kathmandu Valley is as high as the Himalayas following the signing of an eight-point road map between the alliance of seven political parties and the Maoists.

The historic document commits to ensuring that Nepal becomes a liberal democracy in the future.

An interim government including the Maoists will be formed soon to prepare for constituency assembly elections within a year. An interim constitution is expected to be ready in the next week or two.

In the absence of violence and constant agitation, the Nepalese people are content and once more optimistic that their struggle for democracy has been realised, and they are hopeful that it can be sustained this time. Most importantly, the future of the much discredited autocratic King Gyanendra will be decided by commoners.

Political analysts here, including academics and editors, express confidence over the future of democracy in their country but caution that without a permanent peace, democratic inspiration will be short-lived. The Nepalese people need to settle societal and political conflicts without resorting to violence. This way, the country’s democracy can be strengthened and the progress of economic development assured.

“Our people power is unique, it comes from the grassroots and rural people. They really want democracy. They are not only the middle class, as in Thailand. They are the vanguard of democracy here,” explained Kanak Dixit, editor of Himal magazine, who was jailed three times for openly criticising the monarchy and breaking curfews.

He said now was the time for the Nepalese people to shape the future of their country. “We can start nation-building together from the beginning,” he said. The April revolution had brought Nepal the opportunity for a new society that would respect human rights, human dignity and give equal status to women and where fundamental problems such as corruption, social injustice and issues related to ethnic minorities would be addressed with urgency.

Anil Kumar Jha of the Nepal Sabhawana Party concurred, saying ordinary people will now have more say in determining their future. “Having one’s voice is an important step. The next one is to translate [talk] into action,” he said. As a representative of the Madeshi minority from the Terai plain, he hoped that minorities would now be able to participate more in mainstream politics.

At this juncture, any extended discussion on Nepal’s future ends up with lots of questions related to the role of the Maoists and their agenda. Scepticism is high as to their ultimate objectives.

Krishna Bahadur Mahara, spokesman of the Maoists, made clear to me in an interview that there would not be any denouncement of their use of force or decommissioning of their guerrilla fighters, who he said numbered as many as 30,000. Academics and journalists, however, said this number is inflated. Both the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and international community have urged the Maoists to condemn the use of violence and disarm before the assembly election. But the Maoists have resisted this proposal.

In his newly built and freshly painted office in Ghaneshwor, east of the capital city, Mahara expressed confidence that his guerrilla group would prevail in the constituent assembly election because of their struggle for justice for the people. “We are sure that our people will support us. That is why we are committed to a multi-party system and the outcome of the constituency assembly election,” he told The Nation.

That outcome, which is hard to predict now, could challenge the Maoists’ long-held position that Nepal should be declared a republic.

Obviously, the Nepalese people universally hate their king because of what he has done to them and their society as a whole. As Mathura P Shrestha, a civil-rights leader, put it: “In five years of his rule, Gyanendra has completely wiped out the 237 years of kingship.”

Intellectuals and the middle class here are concerned that the Maoists may not keep their promise and will return to the jungle. When asked about this, Mahara emphasised that the Maoists would accept the electoral outcome, but he refused to elaborate.

One of the major hurdles to be overcome is the future status of the Maoist fighters. Mahara said they should be integrated into the Nepalese Army – a demand that the national army is reluctant to accept. It seems as though anything could happen as all parties concerned are repositioning themselves during this interim period.

The international community, which is ready to provide financial assistance and economic aid package, wants to see the Maoists completely neutralised and disarmed. This could complicate the peace process if there is no compromise from all sides.

For the time being, the status of King Gyanendra hangs in the balance. He has been stripped of all power by the parliament following the victory of people’s power. At the moment, he remains a symbolic king until further notice. He even received diplomatic credentials from Thailand and South Korea recently.

Sudhindra Sharma, an expert on the Nepalese and Thai monarchies, said that more than 70 per cent of Nepalese surveyed recently wanted to maintain the monarchy as an institution, but most of them did not want the current king. All the key institutions in Nepal will need lots of adjustment in the interim period before the constituency assembly elections next year.

Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times, reiterated that the king’s behaviour during the interim period would serve as a barometer of his future. “If he is still plotting and wants to remain active, I think the Nepalese would vote for no king and go for a republic,” he said. If he repents and behaves himself on the other hand, then there is a good chance that he would remain a ceremonial king – a symbol for Nepal.

The best role for the king, some academics have suggested, would be akin to the Kumari, Nepal’s living virgin goddess, as both of them “say nothing, just wave”.

At present, the anti-king sentiment is so strong that if there were a national referendum on his future today, the Nepalese would definitely opt for a republic. However, middle class and urban dwellers express the hope that when the dust settles, the Nepalese will want to follow the middle path of maintaining the institution and making the king a symbolic figurehead.

In October, an analysis on the Democracy for Nepal blog noted that the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is actually part of a larger confederation under the Maoist guerillas’ general command which also includes armed ethnic liberation groups:

The Maoists are in general disciplined and united but still face problems in controlling their large movement. Since the CPN(M) was formed in 1995 it has not suffered a single split; in contrast, each of the major mainstream parties has been fractured at least once. Prachanda is unlikely to face a serious challenge to his monopoly on power within the party. Apart from Baburam Bhattarai, there are no other leaders of a stature sufficient to present a threat to his authority; Bhattarai himself has repeatedly insisted he has no designs on the leadership and may have been chastened by the disciplinary action he underwent in early 2005. But maintaining such discipline requires constant effort. Senior leaders spend significant time dealing with policy debates and trying to prevent disagreements from becoming damaging. According to the RNA, this has had a direct effect on operational effectiveness by distracting attention from the implementation of plans and strategy.

There are other tensions within the party but none at the moment pose a grave threat to its unity or operational capacity. The most obvious area of current and potential divisions is the relationship between the party and the various ethnic front organisations. In 2004 there were notable splits in Saptari, where Maoist leader Jay Krishna Goit separated from the Madhesi National Liberation Front, and in the eastern hills, where there were several defections from the Kirat National Liberation Front. These received significant press attention but the Maoists insist they are unlikely to cause serious damage to the movement. However, the fact that similar disputes have flared up again in the months following the royal coup suggests they do indeed represent a serious challenge.

Also a part of this guerilla federation is the Dalit Liberation Front, fighting for the rights of the untouchables.

Democracy for Nepal also featured an interveiw with Madeshi leader Anil Kumar Jha, in which he called the Maoists “totalitarian”, but acknowledged that they have won the support of Nepal’s oppressed and marginalized ethnic minorities. He called for a decentralized federalist system under the new constitution.

As with India’s Naxalites, a related movement, there seems to be a tension within the CPN(M) between a localist, autonomist and indigenist strain and a totalitarian, nationalist strain. It will be interesting to watch how this will play out in the political transition now underway.



Entry filed under: Articles.

The Story of the Nepali Plains Some light on other social and political issues

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