Nepal: From People Power to Peace?

International Crisis Group, Asia Report No. 115

ABSTRACT

King Gyanendra’s capitulation on 24 April 2006 in the face of a mass movement marked a victory for democracy in Nepal and, with a ceasefire between the new government and the Maoists now in place, the start of a serious peace process. Forced to acknowledge the “spirit of the people’s movement”, Gyanendra accepted popular sovereignty, reinstated parliament and invited the mainstream seven-party alliance to implement its roadmap – including election of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution in line with the parties’ five-month-old agreement with the Maoists. The international community lost credibility by attempting to pressure the parties into an unworkable compromise with the king and must now work hard to support a difficult transition and peace process while avoiding similar mistakes.

FULL TEXT

King Gyanendra’s capitulation on 24 April 2006 in the face of a mass movement marked a victory for democracy in Nepal and, with a ceasefire between the new government and the Maoists now in place, the start of a serious peace process. Forced to acknowledge the “spirit of the people’s movement”, Gyanendra accepted popular sovereignty, reinstated parliament and invited the mainstream seven-party alliance to implement its roadmap – including election of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution in line with the parties’ five-month-old agreement with the Maoists. The international community lost credibility by attempting to pressure the parties into an unworkable compromise with the king and must now work hard to support a difficult transition and peace process while avoiding similar mistakes.

The pro-democracy movement was a victory for the Nepali people on four fronts:

  • Over the king. Nepal witnessed changes in mood during the several weeks of protests and strikes in April but there had long been widespread discontent with the king and his direct rule. The mass defiance of curfews to march against the monarchy following the king’s misjudged first offer on 21 April was a decisive popular verdict which – even in the face of the massed ranks of loyal security forces – left the king with no option but surrender.
  • Over the parties. People remained suspicious of the parties, both on the basis of their mixed record in government and their perceived willingness to do a deal with the king against the country’s best interests. Nevertheless, most hoped sustained pressure would force the parties to provide representative political leadership in tune with public sentiment – an approach that has so far yielded concrete results.
  • Over the Maoists. Maoist support, much as mainstream democrats are loath to admit it, was crucial to the movement’s success. But people did not rally under the Maoist flag, even in rural areas where the insurgents had directly urged their participation. While most endorsed elements of the Maoist agenda they did not heed calls for a revolutionary insurrection and sent a strong signal that people power is a constraint on the actions of the rebels as well as the palace and parties.
  • Over the international community. Nepal is particularly exposed to external influence. Sandwiched between regional superpowers and long dependent on foreign aid, its leaders and people have often looked to outsiders at times of crisis. This time India, the U.S. and some European powers did help to create the environment for a democracy movement but were brushed off when they appeared to press for an unpopular solution to end the crisis.

The fact that the people at large, rather than purely party- or Maoist-organised action, forced the king’s final climb down puts them in their rightful place at the centre of Nepal’s politics and acts as a powerful constraint on misbehaviour by the major players. That they did so in the face of a coordinated international campaign to halt the protests means they need not be beholden to outside forces – this was a victory they won for themselves. That they successfully encouraged the parties to stand firm against the ill-advised external pressure bodes well for fostering genuine national ownership and direction of a peace process and constitutional reform.

The people’s movement vindicated the parties’ November 2005 twelve-point agreement with the Maoists, without which the movement would never have been possible. It also conclusively rejected the proposition that reconciliation between the palace and the parties to fight the Maoists was the only way forward. Encouragingly, the parties and the Maoists have reaffirmed their commitment to their joint peace plan. Solid self-interest underlies the twelve-point agreement; though there is no guarantee, implementing it successfully is still the most attractive option for both sides.

Nepal’s much maligned political parties have recovered much of the popular credit they had squandered while in office and while leading the earlier half-hearted “anti-regression” campaign against royal rule. However, the initial moves to form the new government were less inspiring, with squabbling over the allocation of ministerial portfolios delaying the process. The government of 84-year old Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who was sworn in on 30 April, is only an interim administration, with limited legitimacy to act in areas other than pursuing the existing roadmap for ending the conflict. It faces four immediate challenges:

keeping the peace process on track;

  • containing the king and controlling the army;
  • planning for constitutional change; and
  • responding to calls for transitional justice.

 

The international community will win back respect in Nepal if it helps the government as it tackles these challenges in an environment which remains precarious. The country is not yet back to business as usual. Donors must understand that their role should be to safeguard the difficult transition from people power to peace.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To India, the U.S., the European Union and Other Members of the International Community:

      1. Coordinate an approach based on explicit shared principles including:(a) establishing a Contact Group and complementary Peace Support Group, with the role of the latter all the more important now that a peace process is underway;
        (b) accepting that Nepal’s people are the drivers of international engagement and that in the changed domestic political environment its parties, civil society groups and other representatives are in a better position than before to make their own suggestions;

        (c) recognising that peace is the priority and “do no harm” the golden rule, while development agencies should continue to abide by their own Basic Operating Guidelines in order to keep pressure on the government and Maoists to do likewise;

        (d) holding a possible follow-up to the 2002 London conference on Nepal, perhaps modelled specifically as a Peace and Development Forum and requiring inclusive preparation and participation; the plan of Nepali civil society activists to start the process by organising their own conference in Kathmandu at the end of June deserves support and serious participation; and

        (e) ensuring inclusive and participatory development, both to address the root causes of the conflict and to ensure that development agencies’ activities no longer reinforce socially, ethnically or regionally exclusive models as they sometimes have in the past.

      2. Make stability and peace, not reforms and increased development, the top order of business, recognising the need to:
        (a) avoid rushing into ill-considered “peace dividend” packages since poorly planned injections of cash and other support could well be counterproductive;(b) remember that the new government is fragile and interim, its legitimacy based on popular support for a peace process, not a full-fledged government with legislative and governance capacities;

        (c) acknowledge that development assistance cannot be separated from the political situation and processes and ensure that political analysis informs any aid planning; and

        (d) evaluate government reach and administrative capacity in the districts, which is at least as important as change in top-level political environment.

      3. Support the peace process by:
        (a) helping monitor the ceasefire, if requested, and starting practical planning now for a small mission;(b) preparing to assist both armed parties with a gradual demobilisation and demilitarisation process;

        (c) using development and humanitarian assistance to consolidate peace by delivering services and opening up space for economic development;

        (d) encouraging international financial institutions to give the highest priority to macroeconomic stability and transparency rather than forcing ambitious reform proposals on the interim government; and

        (e) considering funding a thorough professional auditing of government, palace and military expenditure by reputable international accountants.

      4. Conduct relations with the monarchy in accordance with the following principles:
        (a) political leaders should meet with the king only if requested to do so by the government;(b) countries with monarchies should resist any temptation to reward Gyanendra for his climb down with continued engagement, which would only further erode international community credibility; and

        (c) Kathmandu-based diplomats should resist the temptation to rehabilitate royal cronies responsible for the worst excesses of royal rule.

      5. Engage carefully with the security sector in accordance with the following principles:
        (a) no resumption of lethal aid, especially now that the bilateral ceasefire renders it unnecessary;(b) channel all contacts through the civilian government, with engagement with the military predicated on concrete steps being taken to operationalise democratic control;

        (c) pressure to be maintained for full and transparent investigation of human rights abuses, including unresolved cases of forced disappearance, and for adequate sentencing of those convicted;

        (d) assistance to build politicians’ and civil servants’ professional management capacities;

        (e) support for the voluntary suspension of new contributions to UN peacekeeping missions until Royal Nepal Army human rights abuses are satisfactorily investigated and concrete steps taken to demonstrate democratic control; and

        (f) support for the civil police, who need to be strengthened to play a crucial role in maintaining law and order during the ceasefire.

      6. 6. Respect that transitional justice is a sensitive area where national ownership and decision-making is crucial but be prepared to offer the government the benefit of experiences in other countries and technical input, as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has begun to do by volunteering to share with legitimate authorities the findings of its own investigations into abuses.
      7. 7. Avoid competing for involvement in the constitutional reform process and heavy-handed assistance that could compromise the essential principle of a popularly endorsed constitution, but as requested by the government:
        (a) support a people-driven process, assisting where requested in funding or technically facilitating public consultations and a wide national debate; and(b) prepare to provide more detailed technical assistance where appropriate.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 10 May 2006

Source: International Crisis Group – Asia Report No. 115 – May 10, 2006

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