Nepal’s Faltering Peace Process and the Way Forward

Remarks at DFID Staff Retreat by Kul Chandra Gautam
Godavari, 22 September 2009

I feel really flattered and delighted to be asked to share some of my personal perspectives on the current situation in Nepal, especially as it relates to the peace and development processes.

I claim no particular expertise or deep insights on these topics, as I have been away from Nepal for much of my adult life, dealing with global issues of child rights, the well-being of women and children and human development working with UNICEF around the world.

I should actually be here to listen and learn from you, as most of you at DFID in Nepal devote most of your time trying to analyze and assist Nepal’s peace and development efforts as your full-time job.

Next to our immediate neighbours, India and China, the United Kingdom has been Nepal’s oldest and most steadfast international friend. And whereas, quite understandably, there are bound to be occasional misunderstandings, suspicions and conflict of interest among immediate neighbours, the relationship between Nepal and the UK, especially in the latter’s post-colonial period, has been marked with great warmth, trust and friendship.

Unlike most other donors, including the multilaterals, the UK has a longer history of deeper understanding of Nepal’s development challenges. It is also viewed by most Nepalis as having no petty vested interest.

That is why I often find DFID’s analysis of Nepal’s development challenges as among the most insightful and objective, and untainted by other unrelated political or economic interests or geo-strategic agenda.

The people-to-people relationship between Nepal and the UK is, of course, quite exceptional. In the past one and half century, Nepali Gurkhas have helped the UK in every major war that it has been involved in – from the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, to the 1st and 2nd world wars, from the war in the Falkland Islands, to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

300,000 Gurkhas fought for the British in the two World Wars, suffering a staggering 45,000 casualties. Commensurate with such huge sacrifice, I understand that proportionately more Gurkhas have won the Victoria Cross and other medals than any other comparable contingents of the British Army.

The British recognition of the Nepali Gurkhas’ bravery is indeed quite exceptional. In the history of the world, I have never heard of any other example where a victorious army built a monument in honour of their defeated enemies, as the British did for Nepalis after the 1816-1818 war between our two countries. That monument still stands today in the Uttaranchal state of India, much of which used to be part of Nepal two centuries ago.

The admiration is mutual. I cannot imagine any other person from any other country receiving the kind of warm welcome that Juliana Lumley got in Nepal during her recent visit.

Besides the Gurkha link, thousands of Nepalis have studied and live in the UK, and consider it their favourite destination abroad. Even for someone like me who did not study in the UK, most of my intellectual mentors have been British philosophers, litterateurs, professors and development professionals.

(No time to name names – but they range from Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Eglantyne Jebb, Hans Singer, Barbara Ward, Richard Jolly, Mark Malloch Brown, and of course, many British poets, laureates, and politicians).

And let me single out BBC and its Nepali language service for its extraordinary coverage of events in Nepal. At a time of severe censorship of the press during King Gyanendra’s emergency rule in 2005, the BBC Nepali service was a precious little window to our beleaguered homeland to millions of Nepalis all over the world. Even today, I find BBC’s Saajhaa Sawaal as one of the finest gauge of uncensored public opinion on current Nepali affairs.

Nepal has many other donors, of course, some even larger and occasionally more generous than the UK. But we have also seen how some of them just pack up their bags and leave, or drop Nepal from their priority list in favour of some African countries or other Asian countries which are seen as more needy or better performers. They are not quite fly-by-night donors, but their lasting interest in Nepal is far less certain than that of the UK.

I mention this with a very important thought in my mind. In most other post-conflict countries, we have usually seen a massive reconstruction and development programme to consolidate peace and offer the people a genuine peace dividend. This has not happened in Nepal, partly because our political transition is taking quite a long time and we cannot really claim to be in a post-conflict situation. We are actually in a state of no war, no peace.

But one day soon, peace will surely come. Our people are getting really tired of violence, lawlessness and impunity. Some of us are now beginning to work on a “rollback violence” campaign that is bound to get some momentum.

And I would urge DFID to be ready for that day, when we will ask you to take a leadership role to mobilize massive international support for an ambitious reconstruction and development programme that will help change the face of Nepal.

Remember, peace and development are two sides of the same coin. We need peace to promote development, and we need development to sustain peace. And we see DFID playing a major role in both.

Now, let me say a few words about the peace process as I see it evolving.

We had all hoped that after the signing of the 12 Point Understanding in 2005 and the People’s Movement of 2006, we would go through a transition period of 2-3 years in which elections would be held to the Constituent Assembly, a new Constitution would be drafted, and a stable political situation would emerge with normal periodic elections delivering a progressive, pluralistic democracy.

But we do not see this scenario playing out as we had all hoped. It appears that our transition will be much longer than we would wish it to be.

As the peace process unfolded, it became clear that the major parliamentary parties of the 7 party alliance had a one-point agenda: how to bring the Maoists to political mainstream. They were not able to articulate any other agenda in a manner that captured the imagination of the people.

The Maoists on the other hand, went to the people with many outlandish promises of rapid and radical socio-economic and political transformation. To some extent, the Madhesi parties, especially MPRF, rode to electoral success based on similar promises.

With their unexpectedly poor performance in the CA, the former major political parties were caught off-guard, disorganized and unprepared to confront the much better organized Maoists (and to some extent the Madheshi parties) effectively.

The Maoists actually had no patience for the niceties of a liberal democracy and wanted fundamental changes (such as the declaration of a republic, federalism and secularism) forcefully introduced in the Interim Constitution itself without waiting for the Constituent Assembly.

They seem to want to use the Constituent Assembly as a rubber-stamp to sanctify their revolutionary programmes which they would coerce other parties to accept through pressure from the street, as well as the CA, sparing no method fair or foul.

Having become the largest party in the CA, the Maoists enjoyed a certain legitimacy which emboldened them to push through their agenda from inside the Government, as well as from the outside through muscle power vested in the YCL and their other fraternal organizations.

But when they were leading the Government, the Maoists miscalculated and weakened themselves by getting distracted with too many side issues – e.g. the appointment of priests at the Pashupatinath temple; the appointment of unqualified party hacks in the Nepal Academy, letting loose their trade union goons to intimidate the press and private businesses. And finally, they overplayed their cards in trying to dismiss the Chief of Army Staff without going through proper procedures, which backfired on them.

But the Maoists still continue to call the shots and set the agenda of public discourse even from outside the government. The other parties seem to be on the defensive all the time.

The peace process continues to be incomplete and fragile, mainly because the other parties do not trust the Maoists’ genuine commitment to a pluralistic democracy. But the level of deep mutual distrust, lack of political maturity, and short-sightedness among other party leaders is also contributing to the delay and deadlock in the peace process.

It is worth recalling the chronology of events that led to the 12 Point Understanding, which laid the foundation of the whole peace process. Two key factors led to the 12 Point Understanding: 1) King Gyanendra’s repressive policies that helped unite the parliamentary parties with the Maoists against a common enemy – the King, and 2) the CPN-Maoists’ expressed commitment to a multi-party democracy following their party convention in Chunwang, in Western Nepal in mid-2005.

That Chunwang meeting was seen as a watershed event. The Maoists said that they had gone through a thorough, soul-searching analysis of why so many Communist regimes had failed in the world in the past century, and how Nepal’s communists could avoid such mistakes.

Following this analysis and introspection, the Maoists had come to the conclusion that the downfall of many communist regimes was due mainly to the fact that they had become one-party dictatorships and as such they had stopped being creative, competitive and innovative.

To avoid such fate, and to remain a vibrant Communist party of the 21st century, the Maoists had decided – or so they said – to subject themselves to competitive elections in a multiparty democracy.

This seemingly genuine commitment of the Maoists that came out of their Chunwang meeting, gave the other parties, and India, enough confidence to enter into the 12 Point Understanding. Many of the rest of us also gave the Maoists the benefit of doubt.

After all, we argued, if the Maoists abide by the norms of competitive multi-party democracy to pursue their generally progressive socio-economic agenda, why not cooperate with them for the sake of peace?

Indeed, in the early years of their movement, the Maoists had taken up a progressive social agenda – opposing the caste system, supporting women’s liberation, championing the cause of Dalits, Janjatis, Madhesis, and broadly the poor and down-trodden, and campaigning against such social evils as gambling, alcohol abuse, and many superstitions. Such populist measures had won them much genuine popular support.

To attract the support of the indigenous communities the Maoists dangled the carrot of ethnic federalism with the right to self determination. This helped them to recruit many cadres and combatants from among various ethnic communities.

But over time the Maoists turned viciously violent and intolerant. They turned to extortion and intimidation on a massive scale. Much of their support came from fear rather than from genuine popularity. In the minds of many Nepalis, they were neither Robin Hood nor the Good Samaritans, but often brutal and brainwashed militants.

Except for some self-serving ethnic leaders who wanted to cash in on the Maoists’ need to appear to be the champions of the marginalized communities, most free-thinking people recognized that once in power, the Maoists were likely to adopt a highly centralized political system giving their central party leadership all control over regional, local and community affairs – as in the USSR, Yugoslavia and China, and renege on their promise of self-rule to the minorities as was the case with Lenin, Stalin, Tito and Mao Ze Dong.

Many Nepalis are now recognizing the cunning tactical approach of the Maoists to temporarily align with anybody – including staunch royalists – but then to discard their allies or “useful idiots” readily whenever they no longer serve their purpose.

In pursuit of their ideological objective of ultimately capturing State power, the Maoists seem prepared to be surprisingly flexible in their tactics, but doggedly determined to pursue their long-term strategy.

As I said, many Nepalis are beginning to realize the Maoists’ extraordinarily skillful Machiavellian ploys of using what an ancient Hindu scholar of state-craft, Chanakya, called sama, dana, danda, bheda (reciprocity, generosity, retribution and favouritism) to achieve their long-term objectives.

But curiously, many of our foreign friends, especially the more progressive European donors, and some UN officials, seem to be more enamoured by the Maoists’ seemingly progressive socio-economic agenda than being frightened by their subtle and not so subtle pursuit of their deeply authoritarian political objectives.

The admittedly messy, unprincipled, opportunistic, corrupt behaviour of the NC, UML and other liberal democratic parties seem to disenchant some of our European friends more than the ruthless, violent methods with which the Maoists pursue an undemocratic ideology that the Europeans have firmly rejected in their own continent.

Yes, the serious flaws of the democratic parties must be denounced and corrected. But history shows that some of the intrinsically authoritarian or totalitarian flaws of the Maoist ideology are actually incorrigible and therefore should be denounced even more vigorously.

Yes, democracy is a very imperfect system of government. It does not have the kind of “perfect”, “scientific” validity that Marxist, Leninist, Maoist claim for their ideology.

Recently we saw a terrible scandal of British parliamentarians involved in receiving corrupt payments. We saw democratic principles deeply damaged during the Watergate scandal in USA. Every day we hear about one scandal or another in India, and many European democracies.

Yet, we would not argue that because of such imperfections, Europe too should once again try “scientific socialism”.

But it seems like some of our “progressive” European friends think that perhaps the Maoist vision for Nepal might actually be better for the Nepalese compared to a messy liberal democracy led by our corrupt, nepotistic, vision-less non-Maoist political parties.

I even hear some folks saying that perhaps Nepal is not yet ready for democracy and that a dose of benevolent dictatorship might not be so bad for Nepal.

In justifying, accepting or tolerating some of the Maoist excesses as “necessary evil”, I sometimes hear people citing how deeply unjust, unfair, discriminatory and oppressive the Nepalese society has been against certain communities and marginalized groups. To combat such deep-rooted “structural violence”, the argument goes, perhaps one can justify or acquiesce to the kind of political violence that the Maoists practice. And now some of the ethnic and regional groups are emulating them.

A further argument used very effectively by the Maoists and some of their gullible sympathizers is that liberal democracy had utterly failed to deliver any social justice or economic development during the decade of the 1990s. Selective data are used by the Maoists and some ethnic activists to “prove” this point.

I do not have the time today to dwell on this issue at length, but this sweeping allegation is empirically untrue.

A careful study of Nepal’s Human Development Reports, progress reports on the Millennium Development Goals, and reports produced by DFID and other donors over time would present a more balanced picture.

Yes, development in Nepal has been uneven and unequal, and none of us are satisfied with its pace or quality. But I can cite dozens of countries in Africa, other parts of Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere who find themselves in a similar situation or even worse than Nepal.

Would we justify a violent Marxist-Leninist-Maoist revolution in all those countries as a response to their inadequate and inegalitarian development?

Sometimes the Maoists argue that their use of violence is justified because it is a response to deep-rooted “structural violence” in Nepal. Some progressive leftists, including Europeans, seem to buy such argument and condone such violence as a “necessary evil”.

I know from many UN studies that at least half the Member States of the UN – nearly 100 countries – could be said to have the kind of structural violence that Nepal suffers from. Would we consider it normal and acceptable “necessary evil” if violent insurgencies were unleashed by armed groups in every other country of the world?

And let us not forget that it was the democratic dispensation under the admittedly imperfect 1990 Constitution of Nepal that allowed so many voices of the marginalized groups to be raised for greater justice and equity that the Maoists skillfully hijacked as their agenda.

It is also worth recalling that the main target of the Maoist insurgency initially was not the monarchy as such, but parliamentary democracy itself. In fact, the Maoists were quite prepared to strike a deal with both King Birendra and King Gyanendra a number of times.

Dear friends, I have digressed a bit from my original topic. But the point I wanted to make is this: that two wrongs do not make a right. And that the imperfections of liberal democracy as practiced in Nepal, or in the UK and many other countries, do not justify the kind of Maoist excesses or their outdated core ideology that has been thoroughly repudiated all over the world, and especially in Europe.

DFID should certainly be aware of what Sir Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the rest”. Today in Britain or elsewhere in Europe, you would certainly not choose any benevolent dictatorship over an imperfect democracy, nor should you recommend one for others – with all due diplomatic respect, of course, for each country’s sovereign right to choose its own system!

Now, back to the peace process, currently the seemingly biggest hurdle is the unresolved issue of “the rehabilitation, integration and management” of Maoist combatants. A related issue is the need to make Nepal’s security forces more democratic, inclusive and representative of the diversity of Nepal’s population.

These two issues can, in fact, be addressed in a manner that would offer us a win-win proposition that would be in Nepal’s best long-term interest.

As some of you may have seen, I have written and spoken on this issue recently. And to my pleasant surprise, I have heard that some of the ideas I proposed seem to have resonated well with all parties – including the Maoists, the NA, and other parties represented in the Special Committee and its Technical Committee.

So if we are guided by what is in the best national interest of Nepal, and show just a little bit of flexibility, finding a workable solution to the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants, improving the diversity and professionalism in the NA, and even gradually shrinking Nepal’s security forces numerically while enhancing them qualitatively, is eminently feasible.

We also have many other pending issues such as the need for a Truth and Reconciliation commission, need to deal with issues of the disappeared and victims of conflict, etc. In my view all these issues are not insurmountable.

But the crux of the matter remains lack of mutual trust among our political party leadership, and within that, doubts about the Maoist sincerity in supporting a truly pluralistic democracy. These doubts have been further compounded by Prachanda’s Shaktikhor video-tape, the resolutions of the Maoist party conclaves at Kharipati last year, at Paris Hill a few weeks ago, and more recent provocative statements arguing for every Nepali to be armed with a gun or threatening a million deaths in the next people’s revolt, etc.

All of these make people nervous, and wonder if the Maoists’ solemn commitment to a pluralistic democracy that came out of their Chunwang convention is still valid.

From what I have said so far, you might tend to conclude that perhaps I am a bit too paranoid about the Maoists, a bit too uncritical of the shenanigans of other parties, and pessimistic for Nepal’s future.

Actually, none of that is true. And in fact, I am very optimistic for Nepal’s future.

Ever since I came back to Nepal for good after being abroad for 4 decades, I have been traveling around different parts of the country looking for good things that are happening especially at the local community level, which might augur well for Nepal’s future. And I am happy to report that there are at least 6 positive trends that I have observed which make me very optimistic for this country’s future.

  1. Women’s empowerment and people’s awareness: When I travel around the country I am amazed to find how aware people are of what is going on in the country. The level of education is rising. People’s awareness about their rights is growing. The most inspiring example I have observed is the empowerment of women. During my travels and interactions in many districts, I found women – not just young and educated ones, but even the middle-aged and still illiterate women – amazingly aware of their rights and the rights of their children; daring to speak up, lucid and fearless. I have been particularly impressed with the Women’s Federations, their cooperatives and, especially, the Paralegal Women’s Groups. Listening to them, convinced me that we need not worry about any form of authoritarianism taking deep roots in this country. They simply will not allow it or tolerate it for long.

(Incidentally, I understand that DFID might be funding a major expansion of Women’s Paralegal Groups. Let me tell you: you could not make a better investment than that in shaping Nepal’s democratic future).

  1. Thriving Mass Media: Ever since the 1990 people’s movement, Nepal’s independent mass media has been flourishing and thriving, and has generally defied attempts by the royal regime as well as by various political parties to intimidate and manipulate it. All points of views are expressed, with no holds barred. Nepal has been a pioneer in community-based independent FM radio stations, and thanks to these and the penetration of other media, people all over the country now have access to diversity of viewpoints.

The freedom of press, of course, offers opportunity for propaganda, even hateful messages and sensational news, but it seems to be balanced by countervailing viewpoints. No future regime is likely to succeed in regimenting the Nepalis and snatching away the free spirit of the media. This will be a strong bulwark for a pluralistic democracy in Nepal.

  1. Real Progress in Human Development: Many Nepalis tend to make sweeping statements about how nothing good ever happened under previous regimes, and Nepal has not made any progress at all. The fact, however, is that while Nepal is not a shining example of exemplary progress, it is also not among the worst performers. In terms of the Millennium Development Goals, Nepal is actually on track to achieve quite a few of the goals – such as reduction of child mortality, maternal mortality, access to drinking water supply, basic education, community forestry, etc. (in which, by the way, British aid has played a very helpful role).

Nepal’s development performance is much better than that of Afghanistan, Burma, Haiti and many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, while it is far behind the Asian economic tigers. Certainly the 10 year conflict retarded Nepal’s progress that was beginning to pick up momentum after democracy was established in 1990. But in spite of conflict, Nepal continued to make some progress. With peace and a more inclusive democracy, Nepal can be expected to regain and accelerate its development momentum.

  1. Vitality of Non-Governmental and Private Sector Development: There are many examples of impressive community-based development activities, private-sector led entrepreneurship, and NGO-led innovations in Nepal. These range from micro-hydel projects, micro-finance schemes, telecommunications, tourism, education, health and other sectors. Many Nepali-led innovative development schemes have won prestigious international awards.

The new Nepal will have to find ways to promote more effective public-private partnerships, and not be overly state-dominated and centralized, allowing private enterprise and community-based developments to flourish with the state providing a conducive regulatory framework.

  1. Positive Potential of Non-resident Nepalis: While we lament the brain-drain of many educated Nepalis, and ordinary workers going abroad because of the difficult economic circumstances at home, in the long-run Nepali diaspora is likely to be a powerful engine for Nepal’s development. It is largely the remittances of the Nepali workers abroad that sustained Nepal’s rural economy during the decade of conflict. Currently low-skilled Nepali labourers are exploited by both unscrupulous Nepali employment agencies and foreign employers. But if this sector were properly regulated and proactively promoted, the benefits to Nepal would far outweigh the disadvantages.

Non-resident Nepalis are not just sources of remittances; they can be innovators, investors and agents of social change in Nepal. As in several other countries like Ireland, Israel, India and elsewhere, we can imagine a day when NRNs will be a dynamic force for positive change in Nepal.

  1. Goodwill of International Community: Nepal is lucky to enjoy the friendship and support of many international development partners, like DFID. Except in the imagination of our conspiracy theorists, Nepal has no external enemies and plenty of friends with tremendous goodwill. If we Nepalis can put our house in order, and come up with some sensible, ambitious reconstruction and development plans, we can expect generous support and solidarity from the international community.

The fact that Nepal is between two of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies, can be harnessed for Nepal’s great benefit.

Dear friends, I could, of course, cite a long catalogue of Nepal’s problems and constraints that could obstruct or derail Nepal’s development. But I believe that the combined power of the six positive virtues that I just described make me confident of Nepal’s bright future. And I know we can count on DFID to be our strong partner in building that bright future.

(Mr. Gautam is a former Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations)