Nepal rebels try talks, not guns

The Maoists, who have respected a cease-fire since January, say they want to spur change from within.

For most of the past year, while Maoist guerrillas were launching one of the most brutal campaigns ever against the Nepalese government, Krishna Bahadur Mahara lived in hiding.

Mr. Mahara - who refuses to discuss this time in detail - was part of the top leadership of an organization that had led a seven-year insurgency that left 8,000 Nepalis dead.

But Friday, as the Maoists' top negotiator, Mr. Mahara is waging a very different kind of People's War, as they call their insurgency, to change Nepal's social and political system from within.

Mainstream politics may prove a frustrating stop-and-start process, he acknowledges, unlike the rapid military sweeps his party achieved over the past seven years of insurgency. But Mahara says his party is ready to seek its goals - an egalitarian republic, led by his party - without the gun.

"Our military men are not just soldiers, they are also political activists," says Mahara, sitting in the office at the Maoists' new headquarters in Kathmandu. "We are not that dogmatic. Just because we talk, it doesn't mean that we lose everything we have gained thus far."

For diplomats and politicians here, Nepal's peace process is one of the rare positive stories in the region - and a pause in a civil war that has brought Nepal close to economic and political ruin. A January cease-fire halted fighting that killed some 8,000 Nepalis, more than 6,000 of them in the past year. Now, many Nepalis are using the moment to get a closer look at the Maoists, or Maobadis, and to assess whether they have the temperament for the give-and-take of parliamentary politics.

Yet a mere peace process brings little solace. A previous round of peace talks in 2001 ended after a few months. But while it is uncertain that the two sides have anything of substance to agree to, there is some benefit in simply talking.

"The people at the top of the Maoists are very politically motivated, disciplined, and highly educated, but the people at the bottom are not educated at all," says Arjun Kumar Karki, president of a coalition of nonprofit groups, who has kept close contact with Maoist leaders. "These lower-level fighters don't see any opposition parties in their districts, and they don't see any government forces, so they think they have won the war already."

For Maoist leaders like Mahara, persuading their own people to support peace talks may be a top priority. Nepal has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, at 27 percent, and the Maoists have traditionally drawn their strongest support from the poorest of the poor.

Yet, the fact that the Maoists could be so popular in Nepal - while communist parties elsewhere have largely disappeared or changed their ideologies - is testament to the ineffectiveness of the many sparring democratic parties since Nepal first allowed parliamentary government in 1990, Nepali analysts say. Rang- ing from right-wing monarchist to radical communist, with few parties in the center, they have spent a decade pulling each other down, with 11 governments in the past 12 years.

The government of Prime Minister Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who resigned last week, citing a desire to help end the political unrest, has been close-lipped about the peace process.

"We do not believe in ... talking to each other through the press," says Ramesh Nath Pandey, minister of information and communication. "But ... progress is satisfactory, and we will build up confidence.... If they are earnest, this is the safest way to find a lasting peace."

Madhav Kumar Nepal - who heads the largest opposition party in parliament, the United Marxist-Leninist wing of the Communist Party, and is considered to be the front runner for prime minister - says the Maoists' cease-fire is welcome. But he calls for "a real dialogue on real issues," including the "illegal" intervention of the king into parliamentary politics. Last year, King Gyanendra replaced the elected prime minister with Mr. Chand, and maintained a harsh state of emergency that suspended many civil liberties.

"We asked the Maoists to not break the cease-fire and go back to the jungle, but rather, unite with other opposition parties and make people aware of the dishonesty of the government," says Mr. Nepal. "They should raise their voices peacefully ... rather than use terror."

During the past year, Maoists have attacked government buildings and schools, kidnapped and killed police, civil servants, and teachers, and sabotaged power stations and roads. This behavior has pushed the US to put the Maoists on their terrorist watch list.

The US has applied pressure in other ways, giving $4 million to Nepal for military training and officer exchanges and $12 million for the purchase of small arms. Yet US policy toward Nepal is tilted more toward development, with $38 million for programs for the US Agency for International Development.

"Putting them on the watch list is a way of saying, 'Let's see how they behave,'" says Constance Jones, spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Kathmandu. "They could take themselves off the list by their actions."

But Mr. Karki, leader of the nonprofit coalition, holds a dim view for the prospect of lasting peace. The Maoists are so convinced they are right, he says, that "they don't really listen to criticism," even from their own people.

Nobody questions, for instance, that Nepal's poorest citizens have been deprived of development for so long that a rebellion was almost inevitable. The disagreement comes over the solution: should Nepal be turned into a parliamentary democracy or an authoritarian communist government that uses repression to change society radically into a egalitarian, if brutal, society.

"If we had elections after the peace talks, the Maoists would not win, because the people are angry with them - they didn't deliver on their promises," says Karki. "So there won't be elections. It will all just go back to war. "

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