Time running out for Nepal
Time running out for Nepal
A peace agreement between the Nepal government and the Maoists is strained as fresh violence breaks out south of the capital.
By Sudeshna Sarkar
Kathmandu (23/03/07) – It was a solemn occasion on Friday at Kathmandu’s Tundikhel park, one of the foremost venues in the Nepalese capital for political meetings and cultural events.
Only last week, the ground had seen a colorful display of horsemanship and daredevil stunts by soldiers of the Nepal army. But now, instead of the usual air of festivity, there was grief, anger and shock as 28 bodies – brought to the site for mourners to pay their respects – lay on the platform in a grim reminder that things were not going right in a country finally looking forward to peace, progress and elections after a decade-old civil war.
Though the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) signed a peace accord with the seven-party government last year and pledged to lay down arms under UN supervision, fresh violence erupted in the southern plains on Wednesday, resulting in the death of at least 29 people.
The clashes occurred in Gaur, the main town in Rautahat district, about 160 kilometers south of the capital. Town residents told the media they had feared violence since an ethnic organization, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), and the Maoists vied to hold mass meetings in the same area at the same time.
“MJF supporters tore down the podium built by the Maoists,” eyewitnesses told television channels. “Then the Maoists struck back, lobbing bombs and firing guns.”
According to officials at the Maharagunj Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu, 28 bodies had been brought there so far. The toll could rise, with nearly 70 people still lying in various hospitals and at least 50 missing.
“The killings have shocked the international community,” the UN’s top official in Nepal, Ian Martin, said. “This confrontation could and should have been avoided.”
Martin heads the UN Mission in Nepal, mandated to assist in peace negotiations between the government and the Maoists and help with elections that are to be held by mid-June, as pledged by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala.
Though the UN envoy does not say out right that free and fair polls are impossible by June, he however, calls it an “ambitious electoral timeline” under “very difficult circumstances.”
There are three reasons why the prime minister’s poll plans could fail.
First, there is the question of time. The government has to complete the updating of the voters list, create new election constituencies and promulgate five election laws. It also has to form an interim government and parliament, which will conduct the election.
Then there is the issue of creating a conducive environment for peaceful elections.
“A credible election requires not only the management of arms and armies and the right laws and technical preparations, it requires a climate in which all political parties can campaign freely in all places, and all voters can vote free of any intimidation or fear of reprisal,” Martin said at a Thursday press briefing.
So far, the Maoists have proved the biggest hurdle to that.
Emboldened by the fact that they are no longer banned as a terrorist organization and poised to join the interim government, the rebels have unleashed a virtual reign of terror. They attacked mass meetings held by opposition parties, especially those linked to King Gyanendra, whom they want to unseat in the June election. They have also stepped up extortion and abductions of people they regard as enemies.
Last week, the Maoists abducted a hotelier from the capital who refused their extortion demands. “They tied my hands and legs and punched and kicked me in the face and head for two hours,” Hari Lal Shrestha, owner of Hotel Woodland, told the media after his release. “I was allowed to go only after I had signed a paper agreeing to pay them and let them use 10 rooms in my hotel free.”
The incident caused Nepal’s business community to announce an indefinite strike this week. It was lifted on Wednesday night only after the government and the Maoists gave written assurances that such crimes would be punished.
The third factor casting a dark shadow on the election is the new unrest simmering in the plains, which along with those killed in Gaur, has seen 60 people killed since January.
At least seven groups are demanding an autonomous state in the plains and an end to the exclusionary policy of not allowing plains people in the government, bureaucracy, judiciary or security forces. While the MJF, which has become the strongest plains organization, says it is unarmed and believes in peaceful protests, the others are armed.
These groups have threatened to oppose the polls unless their demands are met, just as the Maoists did earlier.
Armed bands in the plains have stepped up abductions, killings and attacks on police posts. Additionally, the Maoists, increasingly wary of losing their supporters to the MJF, have begun attacking the latter’s public meetings in the plains.
The first clash in January between Maoists and MJF supporters in Lahan town signaled a growing feud between the two groups that the government has not stepped in to quell. A 17-year-old student was killed during the January battle.
“The government is deliberately ignoring our plight at the hand of the Maoists,” Upendra Jha, central committee member of the MJF, told ISN Security Watch. “It is setting the Maoists on us to stamp out our movement for an autonomous state. When Maoists keep on attacking our meetings, how can the government hope to hold free and fair elections?”
US Undersecretary of State Henrietta H Fore, who visited Nepal this month, told the prime minister her government was worried by “two trends that, if unresolved, threaten Nepal’s democratic progress.”
“The first trend is the continuing failure of the Maoists to renounce violence, extortion and intimidation,” the US official said. “The second trend is the growing unrest among various ethnic groups in Nepal.”
The US ambassador to Nepal, James Francis Moriarty, has urged the government not to induct the Maoists in the cabinet until they have truly renounced violence. He also expressed misgivings that the rebels have not laid down all their arms or confined all their soldiers to the barracks, in violation of the pact.
The Gaur killings vindicate Moriarty.
“Violent clashes involving armed Maoists undermine their claim to be a mainstream political party,” Robert Hugins, US Embassy spokesperson in Kathmandu, told ISN Security Watch. “The Gaur incident underscores this. Mainstream parties in a democracy do not use weapons to advance their party platforms.”
The Maoists, however, say they were the victims in Gaur, not the aggressors.
“Most of those who died were Maoists,” Maoist MP and plains leader Matrika Prasad Yadav told ISN Security Watch. “Do you think that would have happened if we had been carrying arms? It’s a conspiracy to malign us, to stop us from joining the government and to sabotage the elections.”
Maoist head Prachanda blames King Gyanendra, Hindu “fanatics” from India across the border, who he says are royal allies, and “foreign forces,” meaning primarily the US.
Against this tumultuous backdrop, some believe that elections cannot be held as scheduled.
Sujata Koirala, daughter of the prime minister and a legislator from his Nepali Congress party, told ISN Security Watch that the Terai unrest and worsening law and order situation in the rest of the country indicated it would be impossible to hold elections by June.
“About 95 percent of our party leaders hold the same opinion,” she said. “But no one is willing is say it aloud.”
She found an unexpected ally on Friday in Sher Bahadur Deuba, the former prime minister of Nepal who was sacked by King Gyanendra in 2002 for failing to hold elections due to the Maoist revolt, then re-appointed in 2004 and again deposed in 2005, when the king decided to seize power with the help of the army and run the country himself.
Deuba, whose Nepali Congress (Democratic) party is a partner in the ruling alliance, said the elections should be postponed.
“Let’s not make this a prestige issue or blame anyone,” he said at an impromptu Friday press meeting. “But let’s put our heads together to amend the constitution and defer the election.”
Now that the silence has been broken, the next act depends on the Maoists and the prime minister.
The rebels have threatened to start another protest movement, although an unarmed one, if elections are not held by June. The prime minister has to contend with their displeasure while at the same time not appearing to lose face. Even this week, he told a visiting European Parliament delegation that elections would be held by June and ordered the government to start preparations on a “war-footing.”
However, there is growing public concern that if the government decides to rush ahead with elections, they would be flawed.
The Nepali Times weekly summed up the public opinion in its most recent issue.
“To be sure there are consequences to delaying the elections,” it said in its editorial. “But it would be disastrous to hold an election when the order of the day is a free-for-all wherever you look.”
Sudeshna Sarkar is ISN Security Watch’s senior correspondent in Nepal.
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