Citizens of Nepal have been rejoicing since their political leaders agreed to a peace deal that ended 10 years of bitter and bloody civil war. The accord lays the foundation for a durable peace in Nepal, but much depends — as always — on its implementation. Two other factors will also have a profound influence on the prospects for peace: the work of a truth and reconciliation commission that will look hard at the past, and the creation of jobs — and hope — in one of Asia’s poorest countries.
Nepal has been wracked by a Maoist insurgency for over a decade. The civil war has claimed more than 13,000 lives. The guerrillas had joined the parliamentary process as a political party, but opted out to take up arms. They have been fairly successful, now controlling large parts of the countryside. When the government succeeded in retaking territory, it was usually because the guerrillas withdrew. Rarely defeated in battle, the guerrillas were also quite ruthless. Human rights groups accuse the Maoists of forcible recruitment, kidnappings and extortion.
The political equation in Nepal, however, is far more complex than a simple split between rebels and the government. The political establishment itself is divided between royalists and democrats. Tensions between the two have long been high; King Gyanendra has been suspicious and intolerant of political parties, and saw their activities as infringing on royal prerogatives. The growing insurgency gave him the opportunity to seize power in February 2005: He claimed he would end the disorder and corruption that permeated Nepalese politics as well as defeat the insurgency.
While the king proved unable to beat the Maoists, he did do one important thing: He united the opposition, bringing the various democratic parties together along with the guerrillas. They launched mass protests that culminated in a violent confrontation last April that left 19 people dead. The uproar that followed forced the king to restore the Parliament he had suspended four years earlier. It quickly stripped him of power and then convened peace talks with the Maoists. They responded with a unilateral ceasefire as a sign of good faith. That set the tone for the negotiations that bore fruit with the signing of the peace accord on Nov. 21.
Under the agreement, signed by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and Maoist rebel leader Prachanda, the rebels will join the interim Parliament, taking 73 of the 330 seats as the second-largest party after the prime minister’s Nepali Congress. An interim government is to be set up, but those details are still being worked out. The government will oversee national elections for a new Parliament that will write a new constitution and decide the fate of the monarchy. One of the rebels’ key demands has been an end to that institution. The Maoists have said they will respect the election outcome. Even if the monarchy is retained, Prachanda has said his group will work through the parliamentary process to bring about change.
The accord calls for the rebels and their weapons to be confined to camps; army troops will return to their barracks. The rebels are not giving up their weapons, however: They will be locked up and monitored by the United Nations with closed-circuit cameras. The rebels will retain the keys to the storehouses.
Can the Maoists be trusted? They say they are adapting to changed circumstances. They have honored the ceasefire, although human rights groups charge they have been recruiting new soldiers, and extorting and blackmailing ordinary citizens. This could be the work of local cadres, which raises the question of whether the guerrilla leadership can control its troops.
The peace process will be aided by the truth and reconciliation commission, which will examine human rights abuses and crimes committed by both sides during the civil war. Both sides need to be held accountable for their behavior during a bloody decade. An important precedent was set when a government commission concluded that King Gyanendra was responsible for the crackdown in April and the 19 deaths that followed. The panel rightly recommended that he be punished.
A final key component of the peace agreement is to repair Nepal’s battered economy. The country is desperately poor — one of the poorest in Asia — and the civil war and the more recent violence have done great damage to the tourist trade, one of Nepal’s most important sources of income.
Ironically, another key source of income is funds sent from abroad by migrant Nepalis. It is unclear whether peace will inspire them to come home. With a majority of the population under 25, Nepal must create jobs and opportunities, or war will resume — fueled by desperation and shattered hopes. That is a warning for all of Nepal’s leaders — and supporters of the new peace accord — that should restrain the celebrations.
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