As part of its Asian season, People & Power looks at the unravelling hopes for peace in Nepal as the country’s constituent assembly elections are postponed.
In one rural community in Nepal’s Kathmandu valley, villagers gather to watch a performance by an activist theatre group called Sarwanam. The play tells a story the villagers know too well.
Some 13,000 people died in a Maoist insurgency in the country last year.
Sarwanam aims to promote peace. Ashesh Malla, the director of the theatre group, says: “We want to promote democracy and human rights through our plays. It’s our hope that we can bring change to this country.”
For a while their dream looked like it could become a reality.
In April 2006 hundreds of thousands of Nepalis took to the streets calling for an end to the king’s autocratic rule.
|People & Power|
It was a pro-democracy march of historic proportions – one marked by unprecedented cooperation between Nepal’s political parties and the Maoists.
The king buckled in the face of such overwhelming opposition and agreed to hand power back to the people. He called for elections to be held as soon as possible.
In November 2006 the government and the Maoists signed an historic peace accord. Both sides agreed to a code of conduct governing their ceasefire and promised to hold constituent assembly elections.
After a decade of turmoil, peace looked like a genuine possibility.
But today the process seems to be unravelling.
The streets of Kathmandu, the capital, reflect the tensions simmering across the country. Student activists are up in arms over the alleged beating of some of their leaders by members of the Maoist youth wing, the Young Communist League or YCL.
|Maoist soldiers have been confined to their
Sujata Koirala from the Nepali Congress party says: “The Maoist YCL, they were beating up women. They went into the women’s college, they beat up women. They beat up journalists.”
The Maoists deny such accusations. They say they are honouring the peace agreement, confining their soldiers to cantonments and putting their weapons in storage. They have also asked the UN to monitor the ceasefire.
Ian Martin, the head of the UN mission in Nepal, says: “The very basis of the agreement was that both armies, the Nepal army and the Maoist army would stay out of the election process, would be in their cantonments or their barracks under UN supervision.”
The Maoists make the point that they have not agreed to disarmament just to have their weapons monitored by the UN. Control of the weapons still rests with them.
But reports of lost weapons and missing soldiers have triggered fears that combatants are leaving their camps to join the YCL in a campaign of intimidation.
Trouble is also brewing in other parts of the country.
In January this year, thousands of Madhesis, or plainspeople, took to the streets of the Nepali lowlands, or Terai, in what became known as the Madhesi movement.
|The government sent armed police to deal
with the Madhesi demonstrations
Upendra Yadav, a Madhesi leader, says: “We Madhesi have been discriminated against for over 200 years. They have taken political power away from us, and are ruling us like a colony.”
It was a sentiment that resonated with the millions of disenfranchised people living on the Terai. But the depth of their anger caught many off guard.
Martin says: “It certainly took almost everybody in the international community and in Kathmandu by surprise, the extent of the Madhesi Andolan, as it’s called here.
“By then, I thought we had achieved some understanding of the depth of the Madhesi grievances although certainly, we didn’t predict the way they were to be transformed into a movement.”
The government responded to the demonstrations by sending in armed police. At least 29 people died in more than two weeks of unrest.
‘Politics by violence’
The months that followed saw a mushrooming of militant Terai groups – armed gangs willing to murder, kidnap, extort and intimidate in the name of the Madhesi cause.
Yadav says: “Those people are not part of the movement. They are just a lawless group who are killing people and looting. They are basing their activities on violence. It is politics by violence.”
But that is the type of politics many Nepalis seem to know best. They have spent a decade observing the “dirty war” between Maoist and government forces.
Deepak Thapa, a political commentator, says: “What the Maoists have done to Nepal is introduce a politics of violence on one hand, and on the other, they have also raised expectations to a certain level. The Maoists made it seem that what the marginalised groups had been expecting from the state seemed within reach.”
The new Nepal
The elections, which were scheduled for November 22, have been postponed until at least mid-March, while temperatures in the country continue to rise.
Nepal’s fragile eight-party alliance is fraught with infighting as politicians jockey for position.
Earlier this month the Maoists dropped their demand that the monarchy be abolished before the ballot – a demand that many argued was just a stalling tactic.
Having joined the mainstream, the party now holds 83 seats in the interim parliament. There are doubts they will win that many in a free and fair election.
Koirala says: “I don’t trust the Maoists. They are changing their stand every day. They don’t have a stand. They are losing their credibility internationally and nationally, you know.”
The interim government is also losing its credibility as strikes and demonstrations paralyse the country.
Every day new groups converge on the capital, chanting slogans and demanding that their rights be recognised.
Everyone, it seems, wants a say in the new Nepal.