Trouble ahead in Nepal

While the major political parties are busying themselves in realpolitik, the rest of the country, especially the southern part of Nepal and the hilly districts of west, feel that there is no government to speak of
Subindra Bogati
17 January 2011

Having emerged only in 2006 from a decade of civil war, Nepal continues to be designated a ‘post-conflict’ country. The United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) made a low profile exit on 15 January. Widely regarded as a guarantor of peace and stability, UNMIN left at a critical juncture of Nepal’s peace process as the government of Nepal refused to extend its tenure again. Indeed, the reintegration and rehabilitation of former Maoist Army combatants and drafting of the new Constitution are still ongoing.  

The risks accompanying UNMIN’s exit are high. On 14 January, Maoists and the Government signed a last minute deal to transfer the UNMIN’s arms monitoring responsibilities to the Special Committee which is headed by the Prime Minister.  In the absence of a credible organization like UNMIN, now it is up to the major political parties to drive the peace process

However, there remain deep divisions between major political parties. If there is no consensus in forming a government, drafting a new constitution and reintegrating the former Maoist Army combatants, a few scenarios may be possible in the coming months. As reported regularly in the international and local media, there is a possibility that the Maoists might resume their ‘people’s revolt’. Alternatively, the President might step in to manage the transition. There is also a chance of an army-backed coup.

From a regional perspective, India might even seek to fill the void by assuming a more active presence. India has been involved in all the aspects of Nepal’s peace process from the twelve point agreement established in 2006 to bringing Maoist and non-Maoist to the negotiating table. And India was reluctant to accept the presence of UNMIN from the very beginning.

There are already signs of India taking on a more energetic role in the wake of UNMIN’s departure. For example, on 18 January, the Indian Foreign Secretary and her team will visit Nepal, where she is scheduled to meet key players in all the major political parties. The timing is prescient. Although India continues to advocate a more robust role for the Nepali government in deciding the direction and fate of UNMIN, the Indian government has always expressed reservations about a large international presence. Indian representatives have expressed concern that UNMIN has encouraged certain western countries to interfere and complicate what they see as an internal process.

Back to square one?

In the meantime, domestic wrangling over the political future of Nepal continues. Since June, Nepal is without a prime minister as the government is being run by a caretaker prime minister. The sixteenth rounds of elections have taken place to elect a new prime minister: but in vain. Indeed, most representatives of the major political parties are candid that the constitution may well not be in place by May 28, 2011. This means the future of Nepal’s political process remains extremely uncertain. It will be difficult to extend the deadline again since it was already extended, for a year, on May 28, 2010.

With UNMIN leaving, the Maoist Party claims that Nepal is back to where it was in 2006. Non-Maoist Parties, on the other hand, are saying that UNMIN’s exit will force internal actors to sue for peace. Indeed, representatives of both India and non-Maoist parties view UNMIN as harbouring a pro–Maoist bias. To them, the exit of UNMIN will in fact hasten the process of reintegration and rehabilitation of Maoist Army combatants. Yet this may be a superficial reading. Indeed, the real challenge resides in the ongoing unstable relationships between Maoist and the Nepali Congress, and the Maoist and India.

As of 1 January 2011, India joined 14 other countries on the UN Security Council, where they may encourage others to reduce the role of UNMIN and related international actors. Indian officials seem convinced that UNMIN has failed in its attempts to disarm the Maoist rebels and will not achieve this goal anytime soon. This is what Indian leaders keep telling their Nepali counterparts. It is also the belief of many leaders and analysts close to non-Maoist parties.  

There is a danger that with all of this high-level wrangling, the real threats of insecurity confronting Nepal may be missed. While the major political parties are busying themselves in realpolitik, the rest of the country, especially the southern part of Nepal and the hilly districts of west, feel that there is no government to speak of. The government of Nepal officially recognizes at least 109 separate armed groups operating in these hinterlands. Teachers, businesses and officials connected to village development committees are constantly targeted by such groups. But there is continuing confusion over the question of whether these armed groups are primarily political or criminal in character. Although such motives are often blurred in practice, there are nevertheless indications that many of these groups are politically motivated.

Many bandits are deemed to be in the service of local politicians and sustain linkages with national security forces, including the police. Likewise, youth groups affiliated to certain political parties are often held responsible for violence and extortion. In addition, 4008 Maoist Army combatants who failed to meet the UNMIN criteria for the integration and rehabilitation programme were discharged almost empty handed. There are clear signs of trouble ahead.

Few doubt that UNMIN has played a largely constructive role in the lead-up to the national elections of 2008. Its role in consolidating trust between the Nepalese Army and the Maoist Army combatants through a Joint Monitoring Coordination Committee (JMCC) has been praised as a positive example of international cooperation. However, UNMIN’s efforts to reach out to the armed groups in the Terai region triggered resentment from political parties and Indian officials.

More troubling, since the elections in 2008, is the failure of most political parties to maintain a ‘politics of consensus’ in order to establish satisfactory power-sharing arrangements. This has effectively hindered the process of constitution-drafting and the reintegration of the outstanding 19,602 Maoist Army combatants, two essential aspects of the peace process. The departure of UNMIN will effectively create a legal and political vacuum. If handled with care, Nepal’s home-grown peace process can still be taken to its logical conclusion, as long as parties maintain political will in a spirit of consensus-building. 

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