More than two centuries of absolute rule in the Himalayan country of Nepal is set to end with a new deal (AFP) between the government and the country’s Maoists. The deal has brought the former rebels back into the political fray and paved the way for constituent assembly elections that may be held in April, following multiple postponements. The new assembly appears set to scrap the country’s monarchy, though the king was stripped (BBC) of most of his formal powers in April 2006.
A peace deal between the Maoists and the government in November 2006 put an end to a decade-long civil war that had resulted in thousands of deaths and wide scale human rights abuses by both the Maoists and the Nepalese security forces. According to Human Rights Watch, “Nepal ranks near the bottom of nearly all indexes of human well-being and development.” The long-drawn conflict has left the country impoverished and “seriously hampered aid distribution, health care and education.”
The peace agreement also brought Maoists into the political mainstream as a legitimate political party and contained violence between the army and the Maoists. It led to the establishment of a United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) to assist in establishing fair elections and monitor the management of arms and armed personnel both in the Nepalese and the Maoist armies. But a recent analysis by Security Council Report, an independent UN watchdog, says increasing criticism of the mission from both the Maoists and the government remains a critical issue. According to the report, UNMIN, which is likely to be extended, will have to face the challenge of being more effective within its current mandate. One Kathmandu-based journalist writes in the Asia Times that Beijing and New Delhi are not happy with the possible extension of the UN’s presence alongside their borders.
Landlocked between India and China, Nepal has also recently seen those countries’ governments compete for influence. India has long been one of Nepal’s largest military donors. Fearful that growing power of the Nepalese Maoists emboldening its own home-grown Maoists, the Naxalites, New Delhi provided extensive training and aid to the king’s military. But after King Gyanendra dismissed the elected government and declared executive rule in February 2005, New Delhi ended all military aid and began to support political parties in an effort toward democratization. Indian officials also worry that a strategic border area rich in hydroelectric and other energy sources (Hindustan Times) could fall under the sway of China or even Pakistan. According to Power and Interest News Report, China welcomed Nepalese instability as an easy way to establish its influence.
Yet abolition of the monarchy hardly guarantees stability. Social unrest and the growing discontent of marginalized ethnic groups loom ahead. The Foreign and Commonwealth office of the United Kingdom takes note of protests and rioting in southern Nepal in late 2006 and early 2007: “A number of people were killed during clashes with the Police. Protestors defied curfews, and vandalized government offices.” Moreover, the fate of thousands of armed Maoist guerrilla fighters remains uncertain. Maoists have demanded their People’s Liberation Army be merged with Nepal’s national army, but the government's unwillingness to integrate these former guerillas has already led to friction (Bloomberg).
“The capital’s political games increasingly fail to reflect the realities of a turbulent country,” concludes a new report from the International Crisis Group. The head of the UN mission in Nepal warns that, despite optimistic prospects, the fragile peace could yet come unraveled. His monitors have reported recruiting activity (ReliefWeb) by the Maoists and the national army, both in violation of the 2006 pact. A December 2007 report released by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights says “human rights have been marginalized and subordinated to political considerations in the peace process.”