Nepal crisis Start dialogue under UN auspices

Simon Tisdall

Trying to wipe out the Maoists militarily while destroying Nepal’s democratic institutions is not likely to work.

When King Gyanendra dismissed Nepal’s government last February and imposed emergency military rule, his stated reason was the urgent need to quell the Maoist insurgency that has claimed an estimated 12,000 lives since 1996 and caused enormous social and economic damage. But nearly nine months later, with army abuses running unchecked, democratic and civil rights suppressed and parliament still suspended, the Maoists remain undefeated. Indeed, the insurgents currently control most of the country beyond the main towns. As a result, Nepal’s future as a viable, unified state is increasingly in doubt.

Civilians have borne the brunt of atrocities perpetrated by both sides, a UN report said last month. ‘Nepal is experiencing a grave human rights crisis marked by the killings of civilians, disappearances, torture and crimes against children... Disciplinary action by state authorities to secure accountability for violations was limited,’ it said. It noted that the Maoists had called a ceasefire - but also that the truce was temporary and the Royal Nepalese Army had not reciprocated. Nepal’s worsening plight raises broader questions about the responsibility - and inaction - of the international community, despite the destabilising impact that Nepal’s implosion could have on the wider region.

When he launched his palace coup, King Gyanendra in effect told Nepal’s main foreign supporters - India, the US, and Britain - that they faced a simple choice. Back me, the King said, or risk an anarchic communist takeover. India did not respond the way the King had expected. It suspended military aid and demanded the restoration of democratic rule. Washington and London have more or less followed suit.But there has been little in the way of effective follow-up pressure on the King. Some analysts say Delhi will not push too hard for fear of exacerbating Maoist insurgencies in the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh bordering Nepal. It may also be opposed in principle to attempts at international mediation, as has always been the case in disputed Kashmir. In Washington, an argument is reportedly raging between those in the Pentagon who agree with the King that defeating communism is all-important and those, in Congress and the State Department, who insist democracy comes first.

King Gyanendra attended the SAARC summit in Dhaka (12-13 Nov.) that was previously postponed because of the coup. That suggests growing acceptance of his authoritarian rule by other regional leaders. These and other factors may help explain why no concerted Aceh or Sri Lanka-style internationally endorsed peace process has been launched.

Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine, Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said India’s tough line with the King, while limited in scope, was nevertheless significant. ‘This move could prove to be a watershed in Indian foreign policy. India has never made democracy or human rights promotion a significant part of its diplomacy, regularly using the slogan “non-interference in internal affairs’’ as a shield against criticism.’ But Adams also warned time was running out. ‘The possibility that the Nepali state might collapse is becoming ever more real.’ In the absence of peace talks, and because of the deep mutual distrust between the King and army on one side, and the opposing Maoists on the other, he suggested using ‘human rights protections as the organising pri-nciple for political progress’.

‘Although the UN has been frozen out of political negotiations, the UN office of the high commissioner for human rights was invited to establish a large monitoring organisation,’ Adams said. ‘Both the Nepali government and the Maoists have made public commitments to work with the UN human rights office. In the absence of peace talks, (it) may end up being the only confidence-building and conflict resolution game in town.’ A new study by the independent International Crisis Group also suggests ways forward, in particular by accepting that military defeat of the Maoists is unlikely and that their violence obscures genuine grievances. ‘Through force of arms and force of ideas, the Maoists have emerged as a formidable political organisation,’ the study said.

‘The Maoists have brought into sharp focus the failure of past gestures towards land reform; ethnic, gender equality, and regional issues; social and economic iniquities; and decades of failed development... The Maoists are not the next Khmer Rouge, nor are they a terrorist organisation that refuses to talk,’ it said. Rather, the insurgents were pragmatists who had long called for ‘international facilitation of a peace process’.

In other words, trying to wipe out the Maoists militarily while destroying Nepal’s democratic institutions and alienating its friends in the process is not likely to work. Far better that King Gyanendra swallow his pride, reverse course before it is too late - and commence a dialogue under UN auspices.