Nepal hits standoff in negotiations over future government

Exactly four months after Nepal's government started peace talks with Maoist rebels to end a violent conflict that has left more than 13,000 dead, summit talks between Nepal's ruling alliance and top Maoist leaders were adjourned abruptly and indefinitely Sunday after barely 15 minutes.

Analysts blamed the impasse on the talks' "package" approach, where negotiators are expected almost simultaneously to tackle both political and disarmament issues at one summit meeting.

"Had the two sides sought to settle issues one by one, much progress could have been made by now," said Sudheer Sharma, a political commentator and former editor of Nepal magazine.

At the heart of the standoff are seemingly mutually exclusive demands: The Maoists claim that the military harbors lasting loyalties to the King, and refuse to forfeit their weapons until an interim republican constitution abrogates the monarchy. The ruling alliance, meanwhile, refuses to allow the Maoists into an interim government before they disarm.

The breakdown comes after several rounds of failed negotiations. For the population of one of the world's poorest nations, the adjournment of the talks, which had been billed as decisive, dashed hopes for an immediate end to the conflict and a new era of peace and economic development.

"The two sides have led down excellent principles in the form of past agreements. But there is no objective plan to implement those agreements," says Subodh Pyakurel, chief of Insec, the leading human rights NGO in Nepal. "The peace talks are gradually turning into a private affair between Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist chief Prachanda."

Mr. Pyakurel was hopeful, however, that the immense pressure from regular citizens would compel leaders to resolve the protracted negotiations.

The negotiators had agreed on a peace-building road map that includes drafting an interim constitution, dissolving parliament, and forming an interim legislature including Maoist representatives.

While the two sides agreed on Oct. 10 to hold elections for a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution by May 2007 – a key rebel demand since they started their "people's war" 10 years ago – they have been unable to agree on whether the constituent assembly elections should precede or follow the rebels' disarmament.

"The government seems intent on separating us from our arms before sorting out key political issues," says Krishna Bahadur Mahara, the head of the rebel negotiating team. "Still, if the government agrees on a republican interim constitution, we are willing to show maximum flexibility on the arms issue."

But the interim constitution drafting committee does not have the mandate to decide the fate of monarchy, says Ram Chandra Poudel, general secretary of Nepali Congress (NC), the largest party in the ruling alliance.

"Therefore, we are saying that the constituent assembly is the only legitimate body to decide whether the country remains a monarchy or becomes a republic," Mr. Poudel says.

The first summit talks were held on June 16, when Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda, meaning "The Fierce One," made his first public appearance after nearly 30 years.

Nepal's Maoists began their "people's war" to end the monarchy and restructure the state in February 1996. King Gyanendra staged a bloodless coup on Feb. 1, 2005. In November 2005, the rebels entered into an agreement with an alliance of seven mainstream parties to overthrow the king's authoritarian rule. After nationwide protests in April 2006, the king stepped aside and reinstated the parliament, which, in turn, swiftly stripped the king of all his powers, including his control over the military.

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