February 22, 2009
Dissension within the Maoist Party
On the evening of February 9 in Kathmandu, unidentified assailants opened fire on Shakti Bahadur Basnet, Prime Minister Prachanda's personal secretary. Maoist spokesperson Dinanath Sharma was quick to blame the attack on “elements opposed to change in the country and those hell-bent on disrupting the peace process." Prachanda chimed in a few days later at the “Maoist Peoples’ Liberation Army Day” by saying, “Recent violent activities targeting our party makes it clear that reactionary forces do not want the Maoist party to continue serving the people.” But these days the party is under fire from its own party members and the mood among Maoists is defensive and volatile.
Officially, the Maoists prefer to stress opposition outside party membership. The day after the shooting, Minister for Information and Communications Krishna Bahadur Mahara accused other political parties represented in the Constituent Assembly (CA) of trying to topple the government. The indictment comes at a time when the 18 Constituent Assembly parties, including the Nepali Congress, are demanding to immediately convene the legislative session of the Assembly to settle the contentious issues of new ordinances.
Ten days later, on Feb 20, politiburo Maoist leader Devendra Poudel “Sunil” lambasted CPN (UML) for what he described as the party’s “dualistic character”, suggesting that some of its leaders were trying to forge a new political alliance with main opposition Nepali Congress and other parties while still being a part of the present government. “UML can’t morally forge an alliance with other parties while still being a part of the present government,” he cautioned.
(Many read this remark as a preemptive strike against the likelihood of UML party leader KP Oli’s imminent election as UML party chairman. Oli is a well-known and strident critic of the Maoists. To add to the tug-of-war, it is feared in some quarters that Oli’s win in the elections might result in a formal split within UML.)
But perhaps Poudel should spend less time admonishing other parties and concentrate more on the division within his own party.
On February 11, Central Committee member Matrika Yadav quit the party and struck out on his own, promising that his new party would be revolutionary in character and would fight for the rights of victimized and segregated Madhesis, dalits, indigenous and marginalized communities. (Matrika recently paid a secret visit to China, which seems to have emboldened him.)
Then on February 18, on the 14th anniversary of the People’s War, Matrika upped the ante by lambasting Prachanda’s record as Prime Minister. He called him an “opportunist” who had lost touch with his rank-and-file proletariats, of being guilty of empty rhetoric, of nepotism and myriad other transgressions:
“Those who should have advocated and championed the causes of the down trodden are seen in self-promoting highly selfish acts. …The party is sinking under the weight of debt, however, the party leaders in the upper echelons are amassing wealth for their personal ends. …Prachanda was a benevolent political persona [as long as] he remained as Prachanda and steered the people’s war, however, when he turned into Pushpa Kamal Dahal, he instantly became the same Dahal who was once upon a time a teacher. …New landlords like Prachanda, Narayan Kaji Shrestha alias Prakash and Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai have already taken birth in the so-called party which carried revolutionary credentials.”
The most significant point of Matrika’s diatribe against Prachanda, however, is that the country was spinning out of control and the possibility of a return to civil war was now real. On February 21, during a press conference in Sarlhai district, he warned that his new party was prepared to take up arms if his demands are not met, which include 1) land provisions for the landless settlers of Terai, 2) emancipation of Pahadis (people from the hilly regions) and Madhesi communities, 3) adequate wages to all laborers, 4) compensation to the families of martyrs of People’s Movement 2006 and 5) free education to their family members.
Matrika’s list of ultimatums, totally unrealistic given the already fragile peace process, seems intent on destroying Prachanda’s equlibrium, in spite of the hell it would unleash on the people of Nepal. The people of Nepal do not have an appetite for another civil war. No matter what people may say against Prachanda (and no matter what he may say at Maoist rallies), he understands that, although renewed armed conflict might appease hotheads in the near future, it is not a viable long-term solution for the country.
Confounding the already bad news for the Maoist party -- on February 20, in Biratnagar -- 105 Maoist leaders and activists announced that they were leaving the party. This group included member of the Maoist affiliated Young Communist League (YCL), as well as Maoist district leaders and Maoist aligned trade unions. Particularly in the Terai districts, former rebels are voicing their disillusionment with Maoist leadership, accusing them of having strayed from the “revolutionary path.”
One way or another, the lack of solidarity within the Maoist party has unsettled the peace process.
Studying the Fragility and Danger of a Half-Baked Peace Process
The International Crisis Group, one of the leading independent, non-partisan, sources of analysis and advice to governments on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict, just published their 2009 Asia Report. The summary for Nepal was cautionary and troubling. Here are some excerpts:
Despite successful elections and a lasting military ceasefire, Nepal’s peace process is facing its most severe tests yet. Major issues remain unresolved: there is no agreement on the future of the two armies, very little of the land seized during the conflict has been returned, and little progress has been made writing a new constitution. Challenges to the basic architecture of the 2006 peace deal are growing from all sides. Key political players, particularly the governing Maoists and the opposition Nepali Congress (NC), need to rebuild consensus on the way forward or face a public backlash. International supporters of Nepal must target assistance and political pressure to encourage the parties to face the threats to peace.
…the Maoists have not fully adjusted to democratic politics, nor has mainstream politics adjusted to their arrival. There is little unity of effort or intent among the governing coalition partners. Opponents of the Maoists talk up the prospects of a government collapse. Conservative wings of both the NC and the moderate Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), the largest coalition partner, have been reinvigorated. In the face of continued instability, armed protest and burgeoning identity-based movements, the immediate threat to Nepal is not Maoist totalitarianism but a dangerous weakening of the state’s authority and capacity to govern.
Maoist commitment to political pluralism is still highly questionable. Debate within the party – renamed the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), UCPN(M), following its merger with a smaller group – shows the goal of a communist “people’s republic” is still in place. Although leading the government, Maoist leaders continue to threaten renewed revolutionary struggle and the “capture of state power”. Such threats have been underlined by cadres’ continued violent behavior and an apparent drive to consolidate alternative power bases through affiliated organizations like trade unions.
However, the essence of the peace process, from the November 2005 agreement between the CPN(M) and the mainstream seven-party alliance onwards, was a double transformation. The Maoists were to renounce violence and accept multiparty democracy and international human rights norms. The mainstream parties were to develop more inclusive and democratic internal structures and renounce the bad behavior that had weakened the post-1990 exercise of democracy. The old politics was discredited and still faces the challenge of renewing itself – with the established parties needing to earn legitimacy.
The Maoists have made a greater effort to change than other parties but their democratic transformation is far from complete. They should take the lead to rebuild confidence by unambiguously renouncing violence and reaffirming their commitment to political pluralism. The Nepali Congress is in a state of organizational and political disarray. The Maoists’ coalition partners also face internal power struggles and tough policy decisions. In short, the democratic alternatives to the Maoists are alarmingly weak: the other parties suffer from exclusiveness and weakened support and offer no fresh options to complete the peace process.
The state of public security and law and order is worrying. Although the incidents that draw most attention – killings, explosions and shutdowns – have all decreased since peaks in the first half of 2008, there is little sense of stability. Districts across the Tarai, from the eastern and central heartland of the Madhesi movement to the far west, continue to be plagued by insecurity and, in many areas, a near collapse of governance and policing.
The common struggle against the monarchy was not the sole foundation for the original negotiations, nor were the initial talks based solely on parties’ self-interest. The search for peace was a powerful, and popularly backed, rationale. All sides knew that the deal deferred some important, difficult topics but they were right in opting to tackle them within a peace process, however contentious, rather than allowing the pursuit of a perfect deal to threaten a return to war. Despite significant political differences, this spirit of consensus underpinned a remarkable peaceful transition. Nepal’s political leaders must urgently rebuild this collaborative spirit and recommit themselves to seeing through the process.
Recommendations to Maoists leadership included:
1. Start the process of restoring confidence by unequivocally reaffirming the ceasefire and CPA conditions on ceasing all political violence and the commitment to political pluralism, in word and deed.
2. Fulfill the prime minister’s promise to put the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) under the control of the AISC and end the practice of PLA commanders speaking publicly on sensitive political issues.
3. Fulfill outstanding peace process commitments, in particular:
a) demilitarizing the Young Communist League (YCL) and vacating seized premises it currently occupies;
b) promptly discharging under-age and otherwise disqualified combatants from the cantonments, cooperating with the government and international agencies on rehabilitation programs;
c) respecting press freedom, human rights and political pluralism;
d) returning property seized during the conflict; and
e) cooperating with investigations and prosecutions of alleged crimes committed during the conflict and ceasefire periods.
Recommendations to the major established parliamentary parties included:
1. Make efforts to win back popular legitimacy by:
a) reforming party structures with serious steps towards internal democracy and increased responsiveness to popular demands;
b) taking urgent steps to improve the representation of women and marginalized ethnic, caste and regional groups at all levels of party structures; and
c) considering, at the individual party level or collectively, a renewed public commitment to the promises for changed behavior embodied in the 2005 twelve-point agreement accompanied by a clear program of action.
Recommendation to the International Community, in particular India, China, the U.S., EU, UN and Donors:
1. Recognize that the peace process is fragile and incomplete and maintain a commitment to high-level political engagement.
For the complete International Crisis Group report, go to: www.crisisgroup.org
Attacks on Journalists
According to the annual February report released by the International Press Institute (with members numbering from 115 countries), freedom of press in Nepal faces serious threat despite the hope that restoration of democratic rule would improve the situation.
The Federation of Nepali Journalists recorded a staggering 342 press freedom violations in 2008, including a significant escalation in the number of physical attacks on journalists and media organizations. Three journalists have been killed in Nepal in the last year.
The International Mission, which includes the International Press Institute, calls on the authorities to undertake prompt and impartial investigations of all crimes journalists.
One journalist, Prakash Singh Thakuri, has been missing since July 2007. Late last year the government withdrew charges against the accused kidnapper. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal assured the International Mission that the case would be reopened.
The International Mission is also deeply worried over attacks on media organizations, including Kantipur, Himal Media, Ankush Daily, Ramaroshan FM and the APCA Group. “Such attacks on media workers, publications and property are unacceptable. Those responsible must be held accountable for their actions. …Free and open debate is being undermined with journalists and media being forced into self-censorship, seriously jeopardizing the peace and democratization process under way in the country.”
The report goes on to explain that a pattern in the attacks and harassment is discernible. “Critical reporting is being met with violence and perpetrators go unpunished. The authorities are failing in their duty to prevent, punish and redress the harm caused by such attacks. The violations of journalists’ rights is [sic] a direct infringement of the public right to information. Furthermore, the links between political parties and some the perpetrators of these violent acts are a matter of serious concern and would indicate the acceptance, and possible complicity, of those political parties in the violence. The Nepali constitution and international covenants that Nepal is signatory to place an obligation on the state to prevent these abuses.”
“Conditions for women journalists, already seriously underrepresented in the profession, are of particular concern as they are more vulnerable to attack and harassment, and are being forced to leave their work and sometimes to move away from home due to such pressures.”
A moment of silence to remember Uma Singh.
“The International Mission notes that as of now, not one person has been convicted for a criminal act against journalists and media organizations, and calls on the prime minister and government to follow up their commitment to end impunity. The International Mission insists that all acts of violence against journalists and the media end immediately.”
(The International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission visited Nepal from 5 to 8 February to undertake a rapid response assessment of the press freedom situation in the country. The International Mission was represented by ARTICLE 19, International Federation of Journalists, International Media Support, International Press Institute, Reporters Without Borders, UNESCO and World Press Freedom Committee.)
Nepal, with a population of approximately 27 million people, continues to be a food-deficit country struggling to recover from an 11-year civil war. It ranks 142 out of 177 countries in the Human Development Index in 2007.
The end of the civil war in November 2006 followed by the institution of a new government in May 2008 left Nepal’s citizens hoping for changes that would improve their lives; however, many people continue to live in near crisis conditions – with continued civil unrest, limited access to food, livelihood opportunities, or basic social services.
Food security is pervasive with 41 percent of the population undernourished.
Most families survive as subsistence farmers with 24 percent of the population living on less than US$1 per day. Malnutrition rates in some communities are above emergency levels.
In some areas, chronic malnutrition rates for children under 5 are 80 percent with acute malnutrition rates as high as 23 percent.
Conflict, high food prices, chronic food insecurity, and frequent natural disasters have put millions of people on the edge of hunger and in need of immediate food assistance.
Recent THOMAS REUTERS FOUNDATION report on food crisis:
The World Food Program (WFP) just released a statement that, while high food prices have exacerbated the situation in Nepal, the U.N. agency is running out of money and desperately needs more than $40 million to feed hungry people in the Himalayan nation.
Although chronic food insecurity is a persistent problem in Nepal, WFP said the global food crisis had left far more people vulnerable, including villagers in fertile areas.
"Prior to the global food crisis, the most food insecure people were in the remote mountain and hill areas of the mid and far west of Nepal," Richard Ragan, country director for the WFP in Nepal, told AlertNet.
"With the onset of high food prices, we have seen this vulnerability expand to include small farmers and landless people living in the most agriculturally productive areas in the country."
Last year, high energy prices, bio fuels, greater emerging market demands and speculation pushed up food costs across the world and sparked riots, strikes and protests in many countries.
Food costs have stabilized in many places, but prices in Nepal remain relatively high because of steep fuel costs, which bump up the price of transporting food.
Other factors driving up costs in Nepal include the small number of large rice suppliers, an Indian export ban on lentils and low food stock levels. Major flooding in 2008 has also contributed to problems in Nepal - one of the world's poorest countries.
The majority of Nepalis are subsistence farmers, but many cannot grow enough food for their needs and have to top up with whatever they can afford to buy.
However, price increases of up to 35 percent for key items such as musuro (broken lentils), which are an important source of protein for poor families - have made even basic staples unaffordable.
The prices of coarse rice and cooking oil rose 17 percent and 30 percent respectively last year, according to WFP.
"For people that exist on razor thin margins they can ill afford even a 2 percent increase in food expenses," said Ragan.
He described the situation as "very serious" with approximately 80,000 people across the country having less than two months of food stock.
In the rice, wheat and millet-growing districts such as Jumla, Dolpa and Mugu which are the worst-hit, half of households surveyed by WFP have faced food shortages over the last year.
Reports also indicate that acute malnutrition in children under five is above 26 percent in some communities - well above emergency levels.
Ragan said the situation was further compounded by the fact that the affected areas are remote and isolated places, making it difficult and expensive to transport food there.
A $109 million appeal, which WFP launched last May is about 60 percent funded, allowing it to help 1.5 million people. Ragan said the agency urgently needed donors to make up the shortfall so that it could assist the remaining 1.2 million people.
Nepal receives more than 60 percent of the cost of its economic development from international donors including the United Nations.
The State of the Nepal Army
Of all the various Nepali leaders central to the peace process, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Rookmangud Katawal stands alone in sheer constancy. While others tailor their speeches to the demographics of any given crowd – thus giving them the air of weather vanes jerking to the vagaries of the wind – Katawal exudes stalwartness, a rare commodity these days in Nepal; it is garnering him increasing respect from a variety of political forces. Stiff opposition does not faze him. The man simply does not vacillate. The tumbleweeds blow hither and yon while Katawal stands above the dust-up unmoved.
To give but one contrasting example: On February 11, Prachanda met with US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher in an effort to assure the diplomat that the Maoists should be stricken from the US. terrorism blacklist. And yet the next day Prachanda appeared at the People’s Liberation Army’s anniversary ceremony, assuring his rank and file that their militancy remained legitimate within in the context of the new regime and that the capture of the State was still a priority. It’s the same old question: Where does Prachanda really stand?
This is not a question one need ask when discussing General Katawal.
In early February, when the controversy commenced over Katawal’s announcement of recruiting 2,549 soldiers to replace vacant posts, Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal” cried “insubordination” and ordered a halt to the process, citing that it would violate the Comprehensive Peace Accord the Maoists signed with the previous government. Thapa warned that action would be taken against the army if his orders were not obeyed.
Katawal calmly proceeded and got his 2,549 troops.
Chiran Jung Thapa recently provided an interesting commentary (Nepal News) on the recruitment dispute, including the pertinent fact that it was the third recruitment drive since the signing of the Peace Accords:
The previous two went by without any hiccups. The latest one, however, stoked a war of accusations between the Defense Minister and the Nepal Army.
The whole saga began when Maoist Deputy Commander Chandra Prasad Khanal accused the Nepal Army of breaching the Comprehensive Peace agreement (CPA) by opening new recruitment. He also issued warnings stating that the Maoists too would begin recruiting personnel into its military ranks if the Nepal Army did not halt its process.
The next day, following Khanal's remarks, the former UNMIN captain - Ian Martin raised a red flag. On December 23rd, UNMIN released a press statement stating that the "Nepal Army's new recruitment breached the Ceasefire Code of Conduct, the CPA and the Agreement on Monitoring the Management of Arms and Armies (AMMAA)" Then, the Defense Minister joined the fray by sending a letter to Nepal Army ordering it to halt its recruitment process.
In response, the Nepal Army hit back with its own rebuttal. It insisted that the process was carried out in accordance to the existing laws and regulations. It further clarified that it was recruiting only to fill the vacant positions and the procedure was executed in compliance with the Article 126(5) of the Interim Constitution. Employing the article 5.1(2) of the CPA and article 5.1 (clause 9) of the AMMAA to prove its point, it argued that these legal provisions only call for “no additional recruitment” but allowed it to maintain the previously apportioned numbers.
It further reasoned that there were no reservations from any quarters in the past. Neither UNMIN nor the Maoists had objected during the previous rounds of recruitment. It pointedly remarked that UNMIN and the Defense Minister had not objected during the initial stages and alleged their objections in the final stages (two months into the process) as whimsical and sinister.
The element that has added a further twist to this tussle is the external support the Army received. Both internal and external forces seem to have sided with the Army. Ironically, most political parties including Nepali Congress, UML, and MJF who had previously labeled the Nepal Army as a slavish institution serving the Monarch, have staunchly supported the Army in this row.
Chiran Jung Thapa goes on to point out that the Nepal Army, with General Katawal at the helm, has “subtly enhanced its democratic image” by
embracing the verdict of the constituent assembly elections, not digging its heels on behalf of the Monarchy, abiding to the terms and conditions of the Peace Accords, and by not meddling with the political landscape…
On February 13, Katawal was summoned by the parliament’s National Interest Preservation Committee. He dismissed the row he had allegedly had with the Defense Ministry, characterized it as an internal matter and said, “I will talk about this issue only to the authority where I am supposed to talk.”
Instead of incensing the committee, his resolute manner and adroit handling of questions seem to have left at least some of his interrogators smitten. When asked about his resolve to make the army more inclusive, Katawal cautioned that the change would not be overnight but that inclusiveness was very much a part of the army’s agenda.
More importantly, Katawal submitted a 106-page proposal that demanded a referendum on numerous issues of national security, including a recommendation that there be the formation of a separate National Defense Council chaired by Katawal to advise the government and head of state on issues pertaining to national security. (The provision of the Chief of Army Staff being a member of the National Security Council had been scrapped while endorsing the Interim Constitution.)
Katawal also addressed the cost of ignoring lawlessness in the Terai, as well as the question of Indian and Chinese interests: “Growing extremism, terrorism, refugee crisis, violence, famine, border encroachment and communal disputes in Nepal and its spillover effect in the neighboring countries may eventually force the regional and world powers to intervene in Nepal in order to safeguard their own interest.” He emphasized the need to solve the border dispute between India and Nepal and urged it be sorted out in a “scientific and judicious manner. …Nepal-Indian relations will always remain in a strained state if the border dispute is not solved diplomatically.”
Although this will play poorly within the Maoist party, it is Katawal’s unfailing “security first” message and his advocacy for diplomatic solutions –not to mention his non-hysterical deportment -- that is gaining ears in the power rooms of Kathmandu.
But as Chiran Jung Thapa warns in the conclusion of his article:
…the Nepal Army and the Maoists have not buried the hatchet yet. Despite the veil of formality, they have kept their distance and view each other with utmost distrust and disdain. Hardly have the Maoist leaders in the government shown interest in apprising themselves with Nepal Army's affairs. Apparently, the Defence Minister has not entered the Nepal Army's premises for inspection until date. And the Army too continues to maintain its recalcitrance when it comes to absorbing former Maoists rebels.
But if push comes to shove, the Army still retains the largest guns. Its numbers and firepower still remain unparalleled. By embracing the verdict of the constituent assembly elections, not digging its heels on behalf of the Monarchy, abiding to the terms and conditions of the Peace Accords, and by not meddling with the political landscape, the Nepal Army has subtly enhanced its democratic image. And by doing all these, it has certainly placed itself on a better stead when compared to the unruly and erratic Maoist demeanor.
The Maoists, however, are still a force to be reckoned with. They have emerged victorious in the CA election and now head the government as the largest party. The combination of its armed outfit and its political affiliates still make a potent mix. No other political force in the country has this kind of brawn. And with the keys to the State's treasury in its pocket, the Maoists remain formidable.
Regardless of who comes out on top, however, this tussle only breeds more uncertainty and instability. At a time when fractious politics, spiraling economy and escalating anarchy is bedeviling the nation, such a ruction only exacerbates the situation.
At this dire moment, Nepali people are yearning for peace, stability, and prosperity; not another bloody bout. Indeed, both are very capable forces and represent the people of Nepal in their own ways. But, moving the nation forward will require a synergy between the peoples. To institutionalize peace and promote prosperity, all must work hand in hand not hack each others' hands off.