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Last Updated: 09/20/2004
The UN is the Answer for Nepal
Natalia Riveros

UN peace facilitators could help the Nepalese to draw up a viable compromise, perhaps engaging the parties and the civil society in “constitution making” as itself a part of the process of conflict transformation.They could help overcome the problems of mutual distrust, and ensure transparency and compliance with the code of conduct. UN resident coordinator in Nepal, Matthgew Kahane, has said that UN help could build trust in both sides to facilitate the resumption of the peace negotiations. Unfortunately, the government of Nepal can veto UN mediation because the UN can only intervene if it has the consent of all parties.

Towards Conflict Transformation in Nepal: A Case For UN Mediation

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The history of the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal is the history of governmental repression, structural social marginalization, and widespread poverty. The transition to democracy, beginning in 1990, has been accompanied by the parallel emergence of a Maoist insurgency that has been openly fighting the government over seven years. There have been two attempts to negotiate peace one in 2001 and another in 2003 and both failed. As the conflict escalates, internal frustration and insecurity mark the daily lives of the majority of the Nepalese people.

This article analyzes the phenomenon of the Maoist movement in Nepal. In spite of the particular ideological and political aspirations of the movement, there seems to be a wider national and international consensus on the legitimacy of some of its demands. Thus, the purpose of this analysis is to explain and interpret the Maoist movement as a manifestation of the weakness of the country s political and socio-economic structures, and to take the opportunity to revisit the reasons why there have not been qualitative changes under the new democratic system of government.  The word opportunity is emphasized because although the Maoist insurgency has not -or not yet - degenerated into wider predatory violence as seen in other contemporary conflicts, [1] under the current political atmosphere, potential exists for further deterioration and degeneration of the conflict. The fact that there has been a relatively short period of armed conflict also gives Nepal an advantage to learn from the successes and failures of other countries facing similar challenges.

Through an overview of the roots and the main features of the ongoing conflict, the role of the main political actors, and the reasons that contributed to the failure of past peace negotiations, it will be argued primarily:  1) in dealing with the insurgency, the government has adopted a military approach that rather leads to what Johan Galtung describes as the structural violence of status-quo [2]; 2) since the Monarchy and the main political parties do not seem to benefit from the incorporation of key Maoist political demands in the negotiations table -namely the creation of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution- and the status quo rather preserves their political interests, Nepal is not capable at the moment to initiate a genuine peace process without the mediation efforts of the United Nations.

1. Synthesis of the Contemporaneous Conflict in Historical Perspective

The contemporary conflict in Nepal cannot be understood in isolation from the political history of the country prior to 1990, the main socio-cultural dimensions that have characterized the pattern of relations between the members of a heterogeneous society, the unique geographic features of the country, and the low indexes of human development that point at Nepal as one of the least developed countries of the world.

1.1   Political History Prior to 1990

The establishment of the Rana Dynasty in 1846 marked the beginning of a period of self-imposed isolation and economic stagnation. According to D.B Gurung, this dynasty maimed and mutilated the nation for 104 years. [3]The Rana regime was overthrown in 1951, with the collaboration between the Nepali Congress Party and King Tribhuven (then exiled in India). In 1959 the first general elections were held, but the following year King Mahendra retook direct control through a bloodless coup.[4]

The 1962 constitution established the so-called Panchayat System, notable for its ban on political parties. King Mahendra and subsequently his son, King Birendra, ruled as absolute monarchs until 1990.[5]

1.2   Geographical Features

            Some of the causes of Nepal s social problems can be partly attributed to its remote location and unique geography. The presence of great mountains[6] in the north, and a veritable jungle in the south, has been a mayor obstacle to communication within the country. The inaccessibility of some of these regions has also minimized the prospects for intra-regional economic integration, and contributed to the isolation of the rural people from the centers of power.

1.3   Inherited Socio-Economic Structures

The constructed caste system with hierarchical levels of membership is rooted in the Hindu religious tradition.[7] A national legal code established in 1854 assigned each ethnic group to a specific position in the castes hierarchy, regulating the life of the citizens in detailed aspects of their social life. Each community was granted rights and duties; therefore, belonging to one group or another had important political and economic consequences.[8] Over sixty-one distinct ethnic groups have been identified in Nepal.[9]

The caste system consisted of four main levels: the Brahmins or noblemen at the highest level, followed closely by the protectors or warriors (Chhetris), then the merchants (Vaishya), and the Dalits, who were the members of the untouchable caste. Although the caste system was abolished in 1960 and is now prohibited by the constitution, for groups historically associated with particular castes it has been difficult to lose their family s prior association.[10]It is important to note that the policies of the Rana regime and the Panchayat system worked to preserve the caste system of social stratification, clearly favoring the higher castes. Both regimes advocated a policy of one country, one religion, one nation, [11] which led to the suppression of the native languages and cultures.

1.4   Human Development

            The impact of the socio-political system described above is reflected on the low levels of overall human development and the patterns of distribution of economic and political power:

            The United Nations Development Human Development Report 2003 places Nepal 142 in the Human Development Index Rank.[12]With a predominantly rural population, it is estimated that the top 5% of the people control 40% of cultivated land, and the bottom 60% only 20% of it. In addition, Brahmin, Chhetri, and Newars,[13] occupy 48%, 26%, and 15% of office level positions respectively.[14]There are also high levels of illiteracy (adult literacy rate in 1998 was 39.2%), lack of access to basic health services (approximately 5 doctors for every 100,000 people), and approximately 94% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture endeavors.[15]Finally, to illustrate the high levels of income disparity within the Nepalese society, a study published by the Nepal South Asia Centre estimates that 71 per cent of the wealth is in the hands of the top 12 per cent of the households, and only 3.7 per cent of the national income reaches the poorest 20 per cent of the country s family. [16]

2.  Transition to Democracy and Consolidation of the Maoist Movement.

2.1   The Rise of The Maoist Insurgence

The Communist movement[17] has a long history in Nepal. From the beginning it was driven by two major groups: moderates and radicals.[18] This distinction is important because the moderates are found today in the Communist Party of Nepal  (Marxist Leninist), whereas the top leadership of today s Maoists is said to have come from a party established by the radicals in 1974 known as the Forth Convention. [19] Although there were also divisions within the Forth Convention (mostly pragmatists vs. hard-core extremists), the different political strategies adopted by both the moderates and the radicals suggest that the radicals[20] have been more consistent with the political platform behind their participation during the democratic movement. In contrast, the moderates have adopted a rather flexible strategy, now accepting the parliamentary means to expand their power and influence, just as any other regular political party.

In order to understand why the Maoists decided to abandon the parliamentary democratic system, calling instead for an armed revolution, it is necessary to review some events of 1990.

The pro-democracy movement of Nepal was launched on February 18, 1990. Remarkably, behind this movement were not only the political parties united (the Nepali Congress Party and the United Left Front: a coalition of 7 leftist parties), but also the civil society and student movements participated in massive demonstrations against the Panchayat system.  The movement was called off on April 8, after the King announced the removal of the ban on the political parties.[21] The coalition between the Nepalese Congress (NC) and the United Left Front (ULF) subsequently announced that the minimum demand for a multi-party system had been accomplished and decided to form part of a interim government composed by members of the NC, ULF, independents, and King representatives. Baburam Bhattarai, current Maoist political leader, criticized the NC-ULF for adopting a policy of compromise. [22] Similarly, other leftist organizations took up a confrontationist path, criticizing the inclusion of palace nominees. The hard-line parties continued to press for elections to a Constituent Assembly as a means of delivering a genuine people s constitution rather than have a document handed down by the establishment as was the case. [23]

2.2    Constitutional Gaps

While the 1990 constitution could be considered a progressive instrument in the sense that it includes strong provisions against discrimination and a expanded list of civil rights, there are also important contradictions within the constitution that have contributed to the political crisis.

One of the main contradictions is that while freedom of religion is proclaimed, the constitution formally declares Nepal as a Hindu Kingdom and engagement in religious proselytism is prohibited. Another important gap of the constitution is that it does not clearly define the limits of the power of the King: he remains as the Chief Commander of the military, and preserves emergency powers that can be exercised on the advise of a Council of Ministers whose majority is also appointed by the King.[24] There are also inconsistencies between the constitution and the civil code [25] of 1963, which contains several discriminatory provisions contradicting some of the new liberties of the 1990 constitution. This contradiction is relevant considering that the constitution and the civil code together constitute Nepal s national law.[26]

Similarly, many human rights activists criticize the composition of the government s administrative system[27] as not representative of the population and inconsistent with article 2 of the constitution, which states that Nepal is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual nation irrespective of religion, race, caste or tribe. It is often asserted that Newars and members of the former Higher Hindu castes disproportionately hold the majority of government positions.[28]

It is worth noting that the Maoist demands expressed in 1996 have much in common with the grievances of 1990. Commenting on the cracks in the 1990 consensus, [29] some analysts argue that the governments since 1991 should have brought dissenting elements into the mainstream so that the insurgency would not have gained the support it did. The following analysis will focus on how, besides the weakness of the 1990 consensus and the constitutional gaps discussed above, the successive governments bad performance and deficient response when dealing with the insurgency has also been a major cause behind the rise and consolidation of the Maoist movement.

Shailendra Kumar Upadhaya,[30]who was appointed by the government as a peace facilitator for the 2003 negotiations, during a forum sponsored by the Human Rights Commission, made reference about how the lack of freedom of expression and political repression contributed to the rise of the insurgency in Nepal. He referred to Krishna Bahadur (now the Maoist spokesman), who while being a member of parliament for the district of Rolpa, initiated a campaign in favor of improving the basic needs for the communities of that area. When former Prime Minister Koirala (from the NC party) visited the region, there were black flag demonstrations against him. Consequently, many demonstrators were detained and sent to prison. He argues that the Maoists decided not to contest in the 1994 elections because they thought it was a farce anyway. [31]

On February 4 1996, the Maoists submitted to the government a list of 40 demands. The demands are divided in three sections: 1) demands related to nationalism (concerning Indian excesses and expansion over Nepal); 2) demands related to the public and well- being (political demands); and 3) demands related to the people s living (economic, and social demands.) As it was mentioned before, these demands do not differ from the main complaints expressed after the 1990 constitution was proclaimed. The main demands included the elimination of all the privileges of the Royal family, the drafting of a new constitution through a constituent assembly, guarantees for exercise of civil rights, and basic services for poor rural areas. The Maoist movement formally began with the proclamation of a People s War on February 13 1996, (few days before the deadline for the 40 demands was over) with attacks on police and military installations in 6 districts of remote areas of the west of the country.[32]

At the moment it is believed that Maoists operate to varying degrees in 68 of the 75 districts of Nepal. The areas under their influence are mostly backward areas where the reach of the government is difficult. Many of its cadres are drawn from the deprived section, frustrated due to the lack of fulfillment of expectations after the restoration of democracy. Simultaneously, the Maoists have exploited the peasants dissatisfaction regarding land ownership in the rural areas where the land is comparatively less productive. They collect funds through tax collection, voluntary donations, extortion from rich businessman, and bank robbery. They have been able to maintain a support structure through the investment of the taxes collected in village development programs in the areas they control. Interestingly, about 1/3 of the guerrilla squads are woman and every village has a revolutionary women s organization. [33]

Although the political, economic and social conditions of Nepal in the mid 1990s make it easier to understand the initial success of the Maoist movement, it has also brought much suffering to the population they claim to protect. The presence of forests and the difficult accessibility to the strongholds of the Maoists are advantageous for guerrilla operations; however, the presence of the guerrilla also impedes the development of these regions as the constant clashes with the armed forces paralyze the activities of its inhabitants. In addition, the military and the police often persecute the population of these areas, accusing them for giving alleged support to the guerrillas. As the war goes on, and violence increases with no concrete signs of a possible military or political victory by the Maoists, it could be presumed that the initial enthusiasm with the Maoist movement has diminished. Since the Maoists are increasing their presence throughout the country, they need to recruit more guerrillas an one cannot be sure on how many of the new comers are voluntarily or forcibly recruited by the Maoists.

2.3   Deficient State Responses

It could be said that the governmental response to the Maoist insurgency has been rather incoherent. While the government often acknowledges that poverty fuels the insurgency, economic plans for assistance to rural and Maoist affected areas have been temporary setups, without long-term development planning.[34]Furthermore, as it will be emphasized later in this section, the military approach also exacerbates the problem.  In trying to explain the lack of a coherent response from the government, it is necessary to consider two important points:

First, because of the political instability,[35]the governments of the day have become more concerned with their survivability rather than governance. Second, it is important to recall that the parties in power after democracy was restored were mostly concerned with the overthrow of the partyless system, and thus they lacked the policies and programs to deal with the social and economic issues they had to confront. It is also widely recognized that the Nepali Congress Party (NC), who has governed for over 10 out of 12 years of democracy, is often engaged in power struggle within the party, [36] and corruption scandals.

2.3.1   Military Approach

            Some analysts have suggested that the reason why the governmental has opted for a military approach to deal with the Maoist movement is that it is considered an internal security problem instead of a political problem [37]deserving due consideration. The adoption of this approach is particularly worrisome for several reasons:

            First, the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) and police forces have been widely criticized by local and international human rights institutions for being the main source of direct violence. According to the Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), a local human rights group, since the civil war started (February 1996) until December 2003, approximately 8,610 people had been killed; 5, 841 of the cases are attributed to the government, and 2, 769 of the cases to the Maoists.[38]  Amnesty International estimates that approximately 10,000 lives have been lost during the internal conflict; one particularly important aspect of this report is that it suspects that more than 4,000 of the approximately 7,000 killed by state agents were innocent civilians. [39]

            Second, after the attacks of September 11 2001, the Maoists are considered as terrorists not only by the government but also by the government of the United States, whose increasing military assistance to Nepal is certainly reinforcing the military approach. On November 1st 2003, the US declared the Maoists a threat to US national security,[40] and when the US assistant secretary for South Asia visited Nepal in December 2003, she assured the government of continued US support in the war against Maoists. <A title="" style="mso-footnote-id: ftn41" href="#_ftn41" name="_ftnref41