Lest We Forget Nepal

Demonstrators wave flags in Kathmandu, Nepal.

by Shyama Venkateswar and Sanjeev M Sherchan

Asia Times, August 3, 2006

While war unfolds in Lebanon and India's and Pakistan's nuclear-backed dispute over Kashmir dominates news from South Asia, monumental changes are under way in Nepal, a country in post-conflict transition, which rarely attracts the attention it warrants and seems unlikely to do so now.

Yet the arrival of a United Nations mission last week in Kathmandu, charged with reporting back on how to help Nepal's shaky transition to democracy, is well worth international attention.

There is more at stake than replacing monarchical rule in the small, impoverished Himalayan kingdom. No less than in the neighboring Middle East, in South Asia causes and effects of armed insurgency versus democratic nation-building are regional and global, with profound implications for regional powers such as India, the "war on terror" and even nuclear politics.

Nepal's decade-long Maoist-led guerrilla movement has so far led to 13,000 deaths and disappearances as well as internal displacement, disruption for millions, wrecked infrastructure and economic stagnation. Since Maoist rebels and the political parties agreed to give peace a chance in April, the guns have mostly remained silent. But the future of Nepal's democratic process is uncertain. How can arguments over decommissioning rebels' weapons be resolved? What steps will ensure the current fragile agreement evolves into enduring peace?

These questions reverberate beyond Nepal's borders. Throughout South Asia, further progress toward stability and democracy requires a political process that can somehow unite disparate elements including traditional elites, armed insurgents and millions of landless poor. In this sense, with insurgent violence in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and most recently bomb blasts on Mumbai's commuter rail, Nepal's tenuous peace process is an important laboratory for finding regionwide solutions.

During Nepal's early experiment with democracy-building, Maoist rebels took part in government as the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists. Inspired by Peru's Shining Path and by Mao Zedong, CPN-Maoists long advocated total land reform - giving millions of subsistence farmers title to land they tilled for generations. Allegiance for youthful Maoist cadre members offered a chance to build utopia, and more concretely, food and employment, though not a long-lasting role in government. Multi-party rule, which began in 1990, suffered from fractious coalition politics, instability and misgovernance, and lacked a clear mandate for any single party. In 1996, the CPN-Maoists opted out, turning to armed struggle.

Three years ago, King Gyanendra reacted by usurping executive powers, ruling by decree, disfranchising the political parties and rolling back incipient democratic institutions. The stated rationale was restoring stability, but the result was more violence and economic and political collapse. In March, amid the seven political parties' demands to allow legitimate representation, widespread protests and growing international pressure, the king relented.

Now, UN political observers arrive at a pregnant, delicate moment, in which the ostensible conflict resolves, only to enter a new and difficult phase of trying to reintegrate armed insurgents into the political process, with terrorism and insurgency on the rise regionwide. Even as democratic possibilities emerge in Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia, countervailing forces are poised to pull them apart. How can they best be managed?

While one size doesn't fit all, one general lesson to draw from Latin American and African post-conflict zones is "don't rush". Where armed factions linger, a culture of democracy and consensus-building needs time to take root before a newly elected government is relatively safe from military coup. Norms and values of legitimate representation must gain understanding and acceptance before a state can make collective decisions and live with the outcomes.

Elections, and even intermediate steps toward democracy such as truth and reconciliation commissions, may have to wait until the Maoists buy into the process and all Nepal's stakeholders have more confidence in political procedures.The more immediate task is to convene a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution that can unite its various factions.

Nepal undoubtedly must determine for itself how best to do that. Yet it needs and deserves outside help. The UN's monitoring role and its current reporting mission are key. International civil society can also help by keeping Nepal's transition in the spotlight and by keeping humanitarian aid flowing.

But after Nepal's own people, the most important influence over Nepal's future should be India. No stranger to factional violence, India has relevant experience doing everything Nepal now must do: convening a constituent assembly, creating a constitution, achieving open public debate and building social consensus on intractable issues such as caste, and bringing disparate elements together into a workable democratic framework. India has also addressed its own feudal past by instituting successful land reforms in Kerala and West Bengal.

India can provide advice and technical help with Nepal's transition, while taking care not to offend nationalist sentiment or trample on Nepalese ambitions for democratic self-determination. The most evolved democracy of South Asian countries, India has the most to lose if the region slides any further toward conflict and terror and the most to gain from promoting stability and democracy in the subcontinent. But the rest of South Asia and the world has a stake in seeing democracy finally take root in Nepal.

Shyama Venkateswar is the director of the Asia Society's Asian Social Issues Program. Sanjeev M Sherchan is the senior program officer for the South and Central Asia programs at the Asia Society.