Nepal: Inconclusive Peace Negotiations and Beyond

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Are the much-heralded peace negotiations between the SPA, led by Prime Minister Koirala, and the Maoists, steered by Prachanda, headed South – despite five rounds of high visibility talks at the apex level since the ground-breaking one that took place at the Prime Minister’s Baluwatar residence in mid-June?

Then, as the worldly-wise will surely recall, a “historic” 8-point SPAM agreement was formalised to buttress their earlier “historic” 12-point accord unveiled on 22 November 2005 after it was crafted in New Delhi. Mention must also be made of the “historic” 5-point agreement of 9 August on dispatch of separate but identical letters by the Government and the Maoists inviting UN involvement as a facilitator in the unfolding peace process, including that for arms management and supervision of the envisaged constituent assembly (CA) elections.

Revealing Chronology

Unfortunately, to date, those five rounds of summitry between the two political groupings on reshaping Nepal’s political destiny – while guaranteeing sustainable peace, national harmony and the preservation of her sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity – have failed to secure agreement on a raft of key political issues including those relating crucially to the Monarchy, the management of arms and an interim constitution.

Thus far, the only accord reached is that relating to holding elections for a constituent assembly (which had already been agreed upon in the 12-point SPAM pact) by mid-June 2007 and its natural corollary: to constitute an Election Commission (EC) to oversee that process. It is instructive that, as per recent media reports, the Government’s nominees have not secured the approval of the Maoists Such an endorsement would seem to be an obvious pre-requirement specially given that the demand for CA polls, in the present context, was first raised by them.

As of this writing, SPAM negotiations have ground to an inconclusive halt with the venue and date of the next round of jawboning left to be announced in the future.

A quick review of the chronology of the recent SPAM talks may be illuminating.

  • To begin: the initial round of talks set for 27 September was postponed by a day at the eleventh hour. Various reasons were forwarded for that including the last rites of the Taplegunj helicopter crash victims, the PM’s busy schedule and the spate of traditional pre-Dashain activities. In the event, it only began the next day on 28 September.

    The upshot? Well, nothing really except the announcement that the next round would be held on 8 October after the Dashain holidays, an interregnum that the concerned claimed would be helpful for “homework” by both sides. Home Minister Sitaula soothingly informed the press: “We don’t have any differences over any issues. So the October summit will finalize everything.” (TKP, 29 September.)

  • Despite Sitaula’s optimistic prediction, at the 8 October parleys everything was reportedly discussed but nothing was settled (THT, 9 October.) Yet, it was claimed that the talks adjourned on a positive note. (TKP, 9 October.). In the event, despite nine long hours of pow-wowing a terse press statement unceremoniously thrown out to press representatives disclosed that agreement eluded the two parties on critical issues.

    Notably, a day earlier, DPM Sherchan had ridiculed SPA’s efforts towards the attainment of peace, telling the world that the political environment was “infested with cancer” (TKP, 8 October.) and thus unable to give birth to a political consensus.

    After the 8 October parleys, Maoist talks participant Dev Gurung blamed the SPA parties, particularly the Nepali Congress, allegedly preoccupied by a “traditional mindset” and influenced by foreign forces. (THT, 9 October.) Prachanda, for his part, declared: “There were attempts initially to send up back to the jungle but we overcame the situation and arrived at the eight point agreement of June 16.” (TKP, 9 October.)

  • Following a day’s gap, presumably for doing more “homework”, eight-hour long talks could not make a “breakthrough” (THT, 11 October). Indeed, as already mentioned it could do a little more than announce that a decision had been reached to hold CA elections by mid-June 2007. Despite arrangements for a press briefing at a Kathmandu hotel, no questions were entertained which speaks volumes not only about the fragility of the talks itself but also about the scant store that is placed on transparency and the public’s right to information even in these heady days of ‘loktantra.’

    Incidentally, during the one-day interval between formal talks, Maoist ideologue Baburam Bhattarai was quoted as charging: “The Nepali Congress is obsessed with courting the [state] army and is talking of managing the weapons of only the People’s Army.” (TKP, 10 October.) An even more revealing insight into the actual state of play of the SPAM dialogue was provided by the Maoist supremo through his spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara, thus. He disclosed that Prachanda told the PM that “everything would be settled within half an hour” if the NC gave up its stance on the Monarchy. (THT, 10 October.)

  • After yet another day’s interregnum, the fourth round of talks opened. Although once again much was made about an imminent “breakthrough” the top honchos wanted still more time to do “homework” presumably to deal with the issues on a package basis. Significantly, this round did not take much time. Yet, although Mahara told media persons the talks were taking time because they were headed for a “historic” decision, his colleague Agni Sapkota told a Maoist rally in Sindhupalchowk that there was “no giving up of arms” by the Maoists. (THT, 13 October.)

    Significantly, a decision was made therein to have a two-day gap before the next round of negotiations. According to published media accounts, Prachanda called for a two-day respite to enable him to seek the endorsement of his party for proposals before the summit. It was even speculated that “he may be planning to discuss the modalities for separating arms from the PLA with his party leaders.” (TKP, 13 October.)

  • The fifth round of talks held at the usual venue of the PM’s official residence at Baluwatar took place on 15 October. News reports published a day earlier on a meeting between the PM and Prachanda indicated that the former was “firm on the King’s role” but went on to also disclose that Situala, ever the optimist, predicted “tomorrow’s talks will settle major issues.” (THT, 14 October.)

    In the event, however, the fifth round turned out – amazingly – to be “a 360-second affair” (THT, 16 October) with a verbal terse announcement stating that talks had been postponed indefinitely, once again for more “homework”, although claims were still made about a growing consensus and an agreement in a week’s time.

    Apparently neither the PM or UML’s Madhav Kumar Nepal said anything, leaving it to NC (D)’s Sher Bahadur Deuba to open by suggesting that no haste be made, to which Prachanda responded “it’s all right.” And the talks ended right there.

    So, what is one to make out of the above chronology?

    An Impasse?

    Since it is fairly obvious that the Maoists are not in favour of arms management in a manner acceptable to many SPA constituents, including the NC, and that the Maoists have difficulty in accepting that the King be provided some space in a re-structured Nepal, and that the State army cannot be equated to that of the rebels, a point of no return could seem to have been reached.

    While it will not be too long before the true state of affairs is made known, this analyst now enumerates some general observations regarding the talks which, to his mind, seem to have entered a make-or-break point. Since neither side, apparently, is prepared – after five rounds of summit talks and hundreds of hours of informal talks at other levels – to make really significant concessions, an impasse appears to have been reached.

    That no visible mood of compromise, or of the spirit of let-and-let-live, is evident is depressing. So also are reports that Maoists violence and extortionist activities across the country continue unabated, despite the mantra-like chant of a goodly section of the media about imminent “breakthroughs”, frantic and endless “homework” and of “historic” agreements in the offing.

    Indeed, Bipin Adhikari has put his finger on the spot when, commenting on the talks, he observes: “As of today, the entire thrust is on power sharing, the promulgation of the Interim Constitution and the election of a constituent assembly. One needs to peel back the veil of media-induced deception to reveal exactly when, where, how and especially why the Maoists brought into the lies that they want to join the democratic mainstream – yet without signing a ceasefire agreement – continuing with kidnapping, killing and extortion, and without bidding farewell to arms…Just explain how a civic government is possible when one of the constituents intends to have its own private army and run a parallel government from a platform of legitimate power.” (TKP, 12 October.)

    The presence and behavior of hundreds of Maoist cadres, bussed to the venue of the talks, including that to media representatives other than their own, is also highly suggestive – and disturbing. So, too, their virtual control of access to the PM’s residence. Such indicators can hardly be regarded as auspicious harbingers of peace and societal harmony.

    Study in Contrast

    That aside, it has been made crystal clear to all that while SPA constituents are a house divided unto themselves, the Maoists, for whom talks are but a continuation of their “jana yuddha” by other means, have a clear vision of their ultimate goal: total political power. They will clearly settle for compromise only on the basis of cold calculation and necessity for serious compromise. And the latter attribute is clearly lacking at this stage.

    They have not surprisingly demonstrated that they are determined to move only at their own pace. Also, while pocketing government concessions as their due, there has been no signs of any obligation on their part to reciprocate moderation.

    Besides, their negotiating strategy would appear to be to get all their demands even before the “sovereign people” have the opportunity to decide on them in the promised CA elections. Such elections would be clearly be bereft of any political meaning.

    In sum, the prognosis as we enter into Tihar and the month of the “October Revolution” (which took place in November 1917, as per today’s calendar) is not encouraging, as is also suggested by the downhill direction the SPAM palavers seem to be heading.

  • 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.