Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ex-rebels quit Nepal government

Ex-rebels quit Nepal government

Associated Press
Tuesday, September 18, 2007 (Kathmandu)

Nepal's former rebels quit the government on Tuesday and threatened widespread protests, sparking a political crisis that threatens to undermine this Himalayan nation's peace process.The one-time rebels, known as the Maoists, say they have no plans to renew their armed revolt. They were planning a mass gathering in central Katmandu later on Tuesday where they were expected to detail their plans for protests against the government, which they say has been too slow to declare Nepal a republic and meet their other demands.The withdrawal from the government was confirmed by senior minister Ram Chandra Poudel, who is a member of the Nepali Congress, the largest party in the administration.
Nepal polls no sure thing


By Dhruba Adhilkary KATHMANDU - All things being equal, as many as 17.6 million Nepali voters could conceivably to go the polls on November 22 to elect a Constituent Assembly to draw up a new constitution. And prevailing indicators show that country's major political forces are in favor of abolishing the monarchy to pave the way for a republican federation.
Members of Nepal's Election Commission are busy making preparations so voters throughout the country can make educated decisions at the polls.
"So far our efforts have been concentrated on educating voters about the distinct differences between the upcoming polls and the [traditional] parliamentary elections," chief election commissioner Bhojraj Pokharel told Asia Times Online.
But whether voters, a good percentage of whom are illiterate, have been fully able to understand the importance and objectives of the pending polls isn't certain. One primary issue has been the decision to use a mixed system instead of a proportional system of election.
The education efforts could be moot if threats by the Maoist party are followed through. On Saturday, Maoist chairman Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda) met with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and threatened to quit the government and boycott the polls if his party's 22-point charter of demands was not met on Monday.
Prachanda told Koirala that the Maoists would launch a national protest to press their demands, which include abolishing the monarchy and declaring Nepal a republic before the November 22 election and scrapping the mixed system in favor of a proportional election system.
However, two other major Nepali political forces, the centrist Nepali Congress and moderate leftist Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), have rejected the Maoists' demands, saying that a new amendment to the present interim constitution would be needed and there is not enough time to do so before the November elections. But Maoist leaders have said the interim coalition government is empowered to make constitutional changes, even this late in the game.
The Nepali Congress and UML leaders also charge that the Maoists are trying to find an excuse to stay away from polls because of their rapidly declining popularity. The Maoists' history of violence and intimidation, particularly in Nepal's rural areas, isn't likely to give them a sizable number of seats in the proposed assembly of about 500 members.
Their alternatives are then either to wait for the political situation to shift or go back to the mountains and try to revive the violent insurgency they carried on for 10 years. Since their prospects for immediately reviving the rebellion are not bright, Prachanda also has publicly called for rescheduling the election for next April or May.
India's interest in seeing the polls happen on time and without wrinkles is also muddying the waters. Indian Ambassador to Nepal Shiv Shankar Mukherjee's remarks at an Indian Independence Day ceremony at his embassy on August 15 are being cited frequently in Nepali media.
Mukherjee's statement that "no excuse can be given for not holding the elections, except perhaps by an act of God", sounded to many Nepalis less like friendly advice and more like a royal command from the likes of the embattled Nepali King Gyanendra, who lost his status as head of state in April 2006.
A "secret" audience between Mukherjee and Gyanendra wherein the ambassador reportedly "offered [unknown] assurances" to the king also has drawn the ire and speculation of Nepali media.
Last Wednesday, a prominent editorial writer, Madan Mani Dixit, referred to Mukherjee as someone sounding like a "second king". In another article published a day before, in a pro-Maoist weekly, former Nepali Army general Kumar Fudong referred to reports that claim more than 1,600 persons in Nepal are on the payroll of India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). How consistent, effective or relevant RAW can be is another matter.
That New Delhi, which enjoys a close relationship with Washington, is playing politics in unstable Nepal has been reported even in the Indian media. "New Delhi, of course, has little leverage in Pakistan and cannot hope to play the sort of role there that it did in Nepal's case," The Times of India wrote in the context of former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif's second exile to Saudi Arabia.
Whether New Delhi stands to make any sustainable gains by getting too deeply involved in Nepal's affairs remains a matter of conjecture. It already has the Kashmir problem and there are separatist movements in the northeast. The movement to create independent Khalistan in Punjab led to tragic events, including assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi. In more recent times, India's own Maoist insurgency has spread like wildfire. Telangana, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu are some of the India's other trouble spots. If not stopped straight away, of all these challenges to New Delhi, Nepal's would inevitably be the biggest one.
In any case, how meaningful would Nepali elections be if Maoists indeed boycotted them? Not very, in the opinions of local analysts. "Holding polls without Maoist participation won't be an easy task," said Ameet Dhakal of the Kathmandu Post newspaper. Indeed, if Maoists cannot be included in the elections, the entire peace process based on pacts and agreements signed in the past would be meaningless.
As a consequence, issues Maoists took up on behalf of poor and deprived sections of the society would thus remain unattended, leaving room for more discontent and resentment. Another dimension of the problem is related to fear emanating from Maoist plan to "actively boycott" the polls - which many take as code words for disruptions that could endanger the safety of candidates, poll officials and voters alike.
However, Prime Minister Koirala says he is fully committed to the November 22 polls. He also keeps assuring Kathmandu-based ambassadors as well as visitors from the United Nations, Washington, London and Beijing that the existing transitional phase will not last for long.
But the immediate question is: What happens if the authorities fail to hold the polls on November 22? First, the legitimacy of both the coalition government and interim legislature would be questioned and the chief of the Nepali Army, General Rookmangud Katawal, has already broadly hinted that the armed forces might be the first national institution to raise the question.
One emerging scenario is a Bangladesh-style military coup with a civilian face.
A "neutral" government would be set up and requested to conduct elections to produce a legitimate government that, in turn, would complete the peace process that the present coalition began last year. Whether the army would leave any space for Maoists to compete in electoral politics in such an arrangement is unclear because of their history of combat between 1996 and 2006. In any case, if it is required to mount a "rescue mission", the Nepali Army is likely to delay, if not scuttle, the process to the abolish the monarchy.
The other possible alternative is for the United Nations to take a larger role, as it has done in a number of trouble-torn nations. The present UN mission in Nepal was established last year through a Security Council resolution and in the context of peace initiatives.
In a worst-case scenario, New Delhi could dispatch its "peacekeeping force" as it did in Sri Lanka in 1987 - though that proved a fiasco after India lost more than 1,100 soldiers.
Should New Delhi begin to take steps for direct action, it would be seen to have been done through tacit understanding with its "strategic partner" - the United States. The US administration would not discourage measures as long as these appeared aimed at encircling China. What would be Beijing's reaction to such a maneuver? It depends on its priorities, either further thawing of its relations with New Delhi or defending Nepal in exchange for safeguarding its interests in Tibet.
(Dhruba Adhikary, who has been a Dag Hammarskjold fellow, is a Kathmandu-based journalist.)
(
http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/II18Df02.html)

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