Nepal’s Troubled Tarai Region – ICG Report
“International Crisis Group” Report
Nepal’s Troubled Tarai Region
Asia Report N°136
9 July 2007
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Unrest in the Tarai plains has exposed the weaknesses of Nepal’s peace process, could derail elections for a constituent assembly in November and, if not properly addressed, could start a new form of conflict. Madhesis – plainspeople who are some one third of the country’s population – have protested, sometimes violently, against the discrimination that has in effect excluded them from public life. Weeks of demonstrations and clashes between political rivals recently left several dozen dead. The government has offered to address issues such as increased electoral representation, affirmative action for marginalised groups and federalism but has dragged its feet over implementing dialogue. Tension had been building for several years but was largely ignored by the political elites and international observers, and the scale of the protest shocked even its own leaders. The problems will only be resolved by strengthening the national political process and making it both inclusive and responsive – starting with free and fair elections to a constituent assembly later this year.
The Tarai plains stretch the length of the southern border and are home to half the total population, including many non-Madhesis (both indigenous ethnic groups and recent migrants from the hills). With comparatively good infrastructure, agriculture, industrial development and access to India across the open border, the Tarai is crucial to the economy. It is also an area of great political importance, both as a traditional base for the mainstream parties and as the only road link between otherwise inaccessible hill and mountain districts.
The leaders of the Madhesi movement face difficult choices: they have mobilised public support but have also angered powerful constituencies. They now need to decide between a strategy of accommodation or continued confrontation. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) has emerged as a powerful umbrella group but lacks an organisational base and clear agenda. It is entering the electoral fray but if it is to challenge the established parties, it must first deal with rival Madhesi politicians competing for the same votes. There has also been a proliferation of Madhesi armed groups; some have expanded significantly in numbers, and their strategy and attitudes will affect the political process.
The mood among Tarai residents is increasingly confrontational, with collapse of trust between most Madhesis and the government. Most believe that further violence is likely. Unresolved grievances and the hangover from the Maoist insurgency, especially the lack of reconciliation and the greater tolerance for violence, make a volatile mix. The unrest has given a glimmer of hope to diehard royalists and Hindu fundamentalists, including some from across the border, who see it as a chance to disrupt the peace process.
The mainstream parties have changed their rhetoric but are as reluctant as ever to take action that would make for a more inclusive system. Strikes in the Tarai squeezed Kathmandu but not enough to force immediate concessions. Mainstream parties, particularly the Nepali Congress, rely on their Tarai electoral base but are unsure how to deal with the new state of flux. Unable to compete with Madhesi groups in radicalism, they have also been ineffective at communicating the positive steps they have taken, such as reforming citizenship laws. Competition within the governing coalition is hindering any bold moves. For the Maoists, the Tarai violence was a wake-up call: much of it was directed against their cadres, whose appearance of dominance was shattered. Nevertheless, they remain well organised, politically coherent and determined to reassert themselves.
Engaging in serious negotiations will be a delicate process, with no party wanting to lose face. But the key issues are clear and still offer room for a reasonable compromise:
fair representation: the critical issue is ensuring the electoral system gives Madhesis a serious stake in the constituent assembly;
federalism and autonomy: the government’s commitment to federalism has yet to translate into action; without pre-empting the constituent assembly, steps are needed to demonstrate more serious intent, such as formation of a technical research commission that could develop a knowledge base for future discussions;
rebuilding trust: confidence in national and local government will only come if there is decent governance, public security based on local community consent and improved delivery of services;
redress for heavy-handed suppression of protests: demands for compensation, honouring of dead protestors and follow-through on a commission of enquiry need to be met; and
steps towards affirmative action: some immediate moves to increase Madhesi representation in parties and state bodies could pave the way for longer-term measures to remove inequalities.
Fixing the Tarai means first fixing some issues in Kathmandu and then dealing not only with Madhesis but all excluded groups. Cross-party unity in listening to grievances and pushing for their resolution through a legitimate, elected constituent assembly is the only way to a lasting solution. This requires a change in outlook and a delicate political balancing act: the Kathmandu government must do some things immediately in order to earn Madhesi trust but deciding any major issues before the elections to the constituent assembly could compromise the constitutional process. Despite the instability, elections are still possible and essential. But reshaping state identity and institutions to make all Nepali citizens feel part of the nation is a long-term task that will present challenges in the constituent assembly and beyond.
To the Government of Nepal:
1. Address the reasonable demands for political participation of all excluded groups (not just those whose protests have forced attention) by:
(a) undertaking to discuss and resolve grievances not only with protest leaders but also with concerned parliamentarians, local community representatives and civil society representatives;
(b) starting back-channel communications to draw armed factions into peaceful dialogue, while emphasising that they must sign up to the political process; and
(c) using all available leverage to control armed groups and other organisations founded in reaction to the Madhesi movement, draw them into negotiations and prevent the communalisation of Tarai issues.
2. Show willingness to make concessions on the basis of equal rights for all citizens by:
(a) revising the electoral system to ensure fair representation of Madhesis and all other marginalised groups, including a fresh delineation of constituency boundaries if the mixed electoral system is retained;
(b) improving communication, ensuring the government’s approach is clearly explained and that there are means to invite and pay attention to citizens’ concerns;
(c) sending senior party leaders to the Tarai – as eight parties together not individually – to explain what the government has done and is doing to improve representation and make the constituent assembly a meaningful, inclusive exercise;
(d) implementing some immediate affirmative action measures to boost Madhesi presence in the civil service;
(e) initiating discussion on options for federalism, their implications and how to implement them; and
(f) honouring Madhesis killed in protests, compensating their families and those injured, supporting the commission of enquiry into the state’s handling of the movement and guaranteeing its recommendations will not be ignored.
3. Demonstrate firm commitment to constituent assembly elections by:
(a) agreeing promptly on an acceptable electoral system, preferably by ensuring the Electoral Constituency Delimitation Commission delivers a revised proposal within its extended deadline that addresses Madhesi fears of gerrymandering;
(b) announcing a realistic election timetable;
(c) developing election security plans with support of all political constituencies and communities; and
(d) insisting that other issues should not be addressed by further interim constitutional amendments but instead be left to the constituent assembly as the sole legitimate forum for resolving them.
4. Restore law and order and rebuild trust in local administration and security forces by:
(a) improving community relations through meetings between chief district officers (CDOs) and Madhesi political actors and intellectuals; holding meetings to listen and respond to the public’s concerns; and ensuring that local government offices are well staffed, performing basic duties and more accessible;
(b) balancing deployment of armed police with a greater emphasis on civil and community policing;
(c) starting discussion on using affirmative action to redress ethnic and regional imbalances in the security forces through recruitment, training and promotion; and
(d) considering the transfer of district administrators and police chiefs responsible for excessive security action and the appointment of more Madhesi officials in sensitive districts.
To Madhesi Political Leaders and Opinion-makers:
5. Continue pressing for fair electoral representation and inclusion within the framework of the constituent assembly by:
(a) rejecting violence, devising forms of protest that do not adversely affect the economic and social life of people in the Tarai and bringing armed groups into the political process;
(b) taking part in the elections to the constituent assembly;
(c) showing flexibility on the new electoral system if the government commits itself to fair representation; and
(d) cooperating in the commission of enquiry and seeking to redress grievances by judicial means.
6. Avoid replicating exclusive models at the regional level and work to reduce communal tensions by:
(a) making space for women’s voices in the movement and on negotiating delegations;
(b) ensuring representation of Muslims, Tarai janajati communities and all Hindu castes including Dalits; and
(c) not insisting on a unitary Madhesi identity if it is unacceptable to some communities.
To the National Political Parties:
7. Consult excluded groups within and beyond parties and start to explore detailed policies of concern to them such as federalism and affirmative action.
8. Wherever possible build eight-party consensus and also involve parties not represented in government, including the legislature’s official opposition.
9. Implement Comprehensive Peace Agreement commitments on representation of marginalised communities within parties, explore ways to make party leaderships more representative and pay greater attention to the concerns of Madhesi and other activists within parties.
To the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN):
10. Extend technical support to inter-party discussions on development of revised electoral models.
To the International Community:
11. Continue to support the peace process, stressing respect for the principles enshrined in peace agreements and urging full implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the interim constitution.
12. Maintain momentum for elections with both positive political pressure and practical assistance, welcome the announcement of a realistic election timetable and maintain strong public support for the process.
13. Support resolving the demands of Madhesis and other groups within the framework of the peace agreement and following its principles.
14. Donors offering development and peace process assistance should consider additional help for building Madhesi civil society capacity and supporting serious, independent academic research into issues affecting all marginalised communities.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 9 July 2007
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