Diplomats’ Eloquent Silence and Growing SPA/Maoist Discord

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There was understandable hoopla generated by the first round of formal talks last Friday between the SPA government and the Maoists, wherein a 25-point code of conduct was agreed upon. Despite that, there are increasing signs of a distinct cooling in the ardour of the political romance between the SPA and the Maoists formalised in their 12-point pact, done in New Delhi and unveiled on 22 November last year, and subsequent follow-ups.

Likewise, while there is a gradual cooling of the post-24 April euphoria, it has been matched, as it were, by the eloquent and uncharacteristic silence on the part of the big guns of the diplomatic scene in Kathmandu. Taken together with statements and actions by their principals, the perception that there is now an unspoken move to save a nominal role for the King is quite unmistakable.

Back From The Brink?

To take up the latter first, let me open by pointing out that for quite some time now the Ambassadors of India, the US and the UK have not made public statements of any great political worth or substance. Indeed, these otherwise effusive and articulate gentlemen, who played such a significant and intrusive role in the events leading up to 24 April, have been seen but not heard.

Indeed, in the recent past there have been just two statements of any note. The first was by departing British Ambassador Keith George Bloomfield at a public forum. He said, “it is difficult to believe the Maoists until they lay down their arms.” Coming from a person who, until not very long ago, was gaga about the Maoists’ intentions, that is quite something.

Likewise, the US Embassy on behalf of the six-member Industrial Security Group, comprising also India, the UK, France, Germany and the EU, on the very day that the 25-point code of conduct was finalised released a statement expressing deep concern over continued Maoist extortion and violent intimidation of businesses and industries across the country.

The very fact that the Big Boys of the Diplomatic League are no more making rosy predictions about the new political dawn in, and the future of, Nepal is eloquent, in itself. Could it possibly – repeat, possibly – suggest that having witnessed the might and wrath of the Maoists from close and uncomfortable quarters during 19 days of the April typhoon, they have done a quiet re-think of their earlier political calculations? That, admittedly, is in the delicious sphere of speculation.

What is out in the open in the non-speculative arena, however, are revealing bits and pieces of putative “evidence” of their political masters’ and governments’ thinking on the subject. They cumulatively hint that having done what they have done to downsize the King, they are now in a mood to save for him at least a ceremonial or figurehead status – if possible. Let me now proceed with a short list of such straws in the political/diplomatic wind.

Straws in The Wind

Not too long ago, Richard Boucher, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs told a hearing of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific the following: “Until the Maoists take steps to change their character, we will not be convinced that they have abandoned their stated goal of establishing a one-party, authoritarian state.”

More lately, US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, commenting on a recent meeting in London between US Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns and Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran told reporters in Washington that “they were also going to call upon the Maoists to cease violent activity and to work to become part of a political process, a peaceful political process.”

Until quite recently, there appeared to be some daylight, to use an Americanism, between the respective positions of Washington and New Delhi vis-a-vis the Maoists. Now, apparently, even on this issue they are of “one mind.”

Most recently, Boucher termed as a “disturbing trend” the continued violence and extortion by the Maoists “despite proclaiming their adherence to a ceasefire.” Significantly, Boucher also indicated that the US wished to continue relations with the Nepalese Army but would seek guidance of political leaders. Combined with the fact that the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa is still around, despite demands for his head by many SPA constituents including UML chief Madhav Kumar Nepal, Boucher’s reference to the Army is clearly of more than passing import.

Meanwhile in New Delhi, as per a report in Himalayan Times, a high ranking South Block official said that the Nepalese government has not yet informed India and Interpol of the withdrawal of the terrorist tag from the Maoists and red corner Interpol notices against their leaders!

Likewise, it is significant that while the SPA government in Kathmandu has released Maoist detainees en masse, the government of India has not done likewise. Here, it may be recalled that Indian Left MP Sitaram Yechuri, who played such a crucial role in cobbling the SPAM pact and follow-up developments in Nepal, had suggested that the SPA government should formally request India to do so. As of this writing, it is not known if the SPA government has done so. What is known, however, is that the concerned Maoists are still languishing in Indian jails.

Before moving on it may be noted that a number of senior Maoist leaders have also publicly charged that the India and the US are striving to save a future role for the King. In this context it is also noteworthy that UML MP Raghuji Pant asked political parties, “especially the Nepali Congress, Nepali Congress (Democratic), Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Anandi) and the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party to be clear on their stance on the monarchy.” (Himalayan Times, 30 May 2006.)

Likewise, it is notable that Bishnu Bahadur Manandhar, general secretary, CPN (United Marxist) went public with the accusation, hinting at the Nepali Congress, that “the alliance has indeed a party which still is in favour of retaining ceremonial monarchy.” (Himalayan Times, 30 May 2006.)

Discord

Evidence of serious disagreements between the SPA and the Maoists is in fact quite thick on the ground. Let us focus our attention on a selective sampling of remarks and observations by the two sides that seemingly bear that out. For starters, we have Home Minister Krishna Sitaula (who led the government side at the Gokarna peace parleys last Friday), taking special time in parliament on Tuesday, expressing deep concern that the Maoists are not complying sincerely with the code of conduct and the 12-point pact. (The Kathmandu Post, 30 May 2006.)

Referring specifically to the slaughter of two individuals (connected with the NC) following their abduction in Rautahat “and the non-cooperation on the part of the rebels in returning the property of insurgency-displaced people”, Sitaula went on to grimly caution: “Such incidents may pose a challenge to the campaign for making people sovereign through constituent assembly elections.”

For his part, UML boss Madhav Kumar Nepal, speaking in Biratnagar while expressing his dissatisfaction over the non-dismissal of Gen. Thapa from the Army, forwarded a well-known UML demand: that the government reinstate local bodies (which had been dismissed by Sher Bahadur Deuba while prime minister and in which the UML had a clear majority).

That too is notable in the context of the growing discord between the SPA constituents and the Maoists as is evident from the following comments by prominent Maoist leaders – not to mention the fact that, as reported by the Himalayan Times on 30 May in an Itahari dateline, in clear violation of the second clause of the ceasefire code of conduct, armed Maoists put on an exhibition of arms and military tactics in Prakashpur in Sunsari district on Monday.

Dev Gurung, who sat across from Sitaula during the Gokarna talks, while addressing a gathering in Pokhara argued that the revival of the local bodies would force Maoists to return to war! In his own words, as reported by the Himalayan Times on 30 May 2006: “Time has changed and the 12-point pact between the seven party alliance and the Maoists has not been able to establish full democracy: so there is a need to form a wider republican front.”

Gurung, not surprisingly, reiterated his party’s demand that the House of Representatives be dissolved, and an interim government be formed with Maoist participation after a comprehensive political conference for the purpose of going ahead with the proposed constituent assembly elections.

As readers well know such a roadmap contradicts that of the SPA which is loath to dissolve the House before everything is set for CA elections.

For her part, another Maoist leader, Pampha Bhusal, again according to the same source, declared that the revival of local bodies is a move to initiate counter-revolution.

Quo Vadis, Nepal?

A few days earlier, Maoist talks leader and spokesman, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, told a rally in Janakpur that “a force of the SPA is heading for the opposite direction.” In that rally, too, “a significant number of Maoists cadres in combat dress carrying khukuris were present at the meeting” – in clear violation of the ceasefire code signed and sealed a few days earlier. (Himalayan Times, 28 May 2006.)

In the fluid, uncertain scenario painted above would it be outlandish to ask: Quo Vadis, Nepal?

M. R. Josse is a writer on Nepal and the author of Nepal: Politics of Statemate, Confusion and Uncertainty and Nepali Politics 2002-03: Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods.