Nepal Backgrounder: Ceasefire – Soft Landing or Strategic Pause?
NEPAL BACKGROUNDER: CEASEFIRE – SOFT LANDING OR STRATEGIC PAUSE?
Driven by growing pressure on the battlefield, increasing international isolation and a sense that the time is ripe for political gains, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has engaged in a ceasefire with government forces since 29 January 2003. A 22-point "code of conduct" has been reached that will serve essentially as the military ground rules while peace negotiations proceed, although unfortunately each side has already accused the other of persistent violations and no strong, independent verification process is in place.
The potential for successful negotiations is higher than during a similar ceasefire that collapsed in 2001, but significant potential spoilers remain. Negotiations have been directly between the Maoists and representatives hand-picked by King Gyanendra. Mainstream political parties have not been given a seat at the table and continue to object that Prime Minister Lokendra Chand's government is unconstitutional and illegitimate. The parties, the Maoists and the palace remain locked in a three-way struggle for public support and strategic position, each hoping to use the other in its bid to control the state. The potential for miscalculation is considerable, and hardline elements in each camp appear willing to risk confrontation – even new violence – if they feel their needs are not being met.
In many ways, the crisis represents a failure to cement broader reforms or sounder institutional arrangements after the democratic uprising of 1990. The constitution drafted then was flawed and left the monarchy with considerable, but ill-defined powers. Since 1990, parties have engaged in systematic corruption and continue to be dominated by elite, older, often non-responsive leaderships. Failure to reform the police or army or account for their earlier human rights abuses and corruption, also furthered a general climate of impunity, and a heavy-handed and often lawless response by the security services gave the Maoists recruiting momentum in the hill country. The Maoists, while often portraying themselves solely as defenders of the common people, engaged in targeted political violence, widespread extortion, bomb attacks and assassinations before the ceasefire.
Issues such as the monarchy's role, control of the army, demobilisation opportunities for Maoist fighters, restoration of democracy, formation of a possible constituent assembly and establishment of an interim government will be central to negotiations. While it will be tempting for the royalist government to restrict these to the palace and Maoists, that approach would place Nepal's battered democracy in greater jeopardy, and perhaps even push the Maoists and the political parties together. Efforts by the palace simply to "go-slow" and hope the pressure to restore democracy will dissipate would likely prove counterproductive.
India remains deeply concerned about the potential for either a failed or Maoist state on its northern border. A destabilised state directly between China and India would have serious international ramifications. These concerns, as well as increasing U.S. military assistance to Nepal, may have helped push New Delhi to take a harder line with the Maoists and urge a negotiated solution. While U.S. policy has been largely monotone – directing substantial military aid to the government and rather simplistically viewing the conflict largely as an extension of the global war on terrorism – this also likely contributed to Maoist willingness to talk.
However, the forces driving the conflict – including the failure to curb the abuses of political leaders, the monarchy and security services alike – are complex. A misreading will only make tackling Nepal's fundamental needs more difficult while leaving the conditions for renewed conflict in place.
This initial report lays out the background of the conflict and analyses the positions of the various actors, both domestic and international. Subsequent ICG reporting will address specific issues in greater detail and offer policy recommendations.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 10 April 2003