Nepalese hit streets – again – for change

Citizens protested Wednesday to force political parties and Maoists to continue the peace process.

Building peace with Maoist rebels has proved more difficult for Nepal's mainstream political parties than ousting an ambitious absolute monarch from the seat of power.

Just three months after massive street protests forced King Gyanendra to reinstate parliament, thousands of citizens took to the streets again Wednesday in a bid to prevent differences between parties and Maoist rebels from hurting the peace process.

About 2,000 people in Kathmandu blocked traffic in a peaceful rally that continued for about one hour. Members of a Maoist student organization also participated. Police kept an eye on the gathering but did not intervene, although they did arrest some two dozen physically challenged people at a rally that was on its way to participate in the sit-in.

Civil society leaders are worried by the slow pace of the peace process and recent bitter verbal exchanges between those in government offices and rebel leaders. The pressure campaign aims to push for quick resolution of the armed conflict that has left the country with nearly 14,000 dead and an ailing economy.

Rights activist Devendra Raj Panday, who is former president of Transparency International – Nepal, says that the campaign became essential with the country's mainstream political parties attempting to prolong the life of the parliament – which is supposed to be supplanted by an assembly that will write a new constitution – by evading the main issues.

"Since the seven parties signed an accord with the Maoists last year to end the king's rule, elections to an assembly to draft a new constitution have been the common objective," says Mr. Panday, who has played an active role in building popular support for democracy and lasting peace for the past one-and-a-half years. "We suspect the parliament is putting elections to the assembly on the back burner," he adds.

Civil society leaders have accused the government and the parliament of wasting precious time in endorsing irrelevant declarations.

"The peace process is not result-oriented," says Shyam Shrestha, editor of Mulyankan, a political journal. "Action has not been taken against Army officers who violated human rights during the April uprising. A date for assembly elections has not been announced. Worse, the mainstream parties have not improved," he adds.

Nepal's political parties established a record of misrule and disarray during their rule from 1990 to 2002. It was King Gyanendra's extreme antidemocratic measures that united them – and spurred the massive participation in the April uprising by people from a variety of backgrounds. That uprising yielded a cease-fire and agreement to move toward a constituent assembly that would write the new constitution.

Since the reinstatement of parliament on April 24, citizens and popular leaders have been closely scrutinizing the parties' actions.

On Wednesday, professionals and ordinary people joined the civil society's campaign in Kathmandu and in some 30 of 75 districts of the country.

They were motivated by concern over a letter sent by Maoist leader Prachanda to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on July 24, labeling as "provocative" the contents of a letter sent to Mr. Annan by Nepal's Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on July 2.

In the letter, Prachanda objected to the prime minister's request to the UN to "assist in the monitoring of combatants of the Maoists and decommissioning of their arms" and to "monitor to assure that the Nepal Army is inside its barracks."

"Such arbitrary and unilateral application of two different yardsticks to the two armies is highly objectionable and totally unacceptable to us. Particularly any talk of 'decommissioning' of arms of only the People's Liberation Army before the election to the constituent assembly is just unthinkable," he said in the letter.

Prachanda mentioned in the letter that he and his party came to know of the contents of Mr. Koirala's letter to the UN through the media after nearly three weeks.

"... the letter was written and sent unilaterally and secretively without any consultation with us, [and] in utter violation of the spirit of ongoing negotiation between the Government of Nepal and the CPN [Maoist group]," he wrote to Annan.

While deputy Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli said that the Maoists violated their agreement with the parties by sending their own letter to the UN, there is overwhelming public sentiment that the government made a mistake by not consulting with the Maoists before drafting the letter.

The eight-point agreement signed by the mainstream political parties and Maoists on June 16 states that the two sides agree "to request the UN to assist in the management of the armies and arms of both sides, and to monitor it for a free and fair election to the constituent assembly."

Three members of a UN team arrived in Kathmandu Wednesday, while the head of the team, Staffan De Mistura, and other members will arrive Thursday.

While the team will be in Nepal for nine days to assess the UN's possible role in resolving Nepal's conflict, a senior UN official here has said that the world body can assist only if the government and Maoists are absolutely clear on what they seek. "The UN can only be of assistance if it's absolutely clear what it has been asked to do," said Ian Martin, head of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal, according to The Kathmandu Post.

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