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Growing fragility of Nepal's peace process

By Joanna Jolly
BBC News, Kathmandu

Maoist supporter with a party flag
There is little common ground between the Maoists and their political rivals

More than three years after Maoist rebels negotiated a ceasefire with Nepal's other political parties, the country's peace process is looking increasingly unstable.

A political stalemate between the Maoists and the government is crippling the country and threatening to undermine the November 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA).

In the past few months, Maoist-led strikes and street protests have brought the capital, Kathmandu, to a standstill.

A Maoist-protest campaign in parliament has meant it has been unable to legislate, leading to a backlog of more than 60 bills.

'In peril'

The democratically-elected assembly charged with writing Nepal's new constitution has also been disrupted, leading to fears that it will not meet its May 2010 deadline.

Nepalse soldiers
The army is still suspicious of the Maoists

In December, a Maoist-led land grab by thousands of workers in Nepal's far west led to clashes with armed-security forces. Four people were killed, including a policeman.

"The peace process is in peril," says Ram Saran Mahat, a member of the Nepali Congress, one of the political groups that makes up the 22-party coalition that now governs Nepal.

"The main reason is that the Maoists are not sincere. They are not honest in implementing the process," he says.

The Maoists, who won the majority of votes in elections in 2008, disagree.

In May they resigned from government after the president overruled their decision to sack the army chief. The former rebels say the president's move was unconstitutional.

Their programme of civil and parliamentary disruption is aimed at forcing the government to debate this issue, something the government refuses to do.

"When we signed the peace agreement, we made total commitment to multi-party democracy," says Maoist vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai.

"If the president's move is not corrected, then democracy and the republican system in Nepal are in danger. So that's why we want to correct this issue before we do anything else."

'Dangerous situation'

As the gulf between the Maoists and Nepal's governing coalition widens, the initial goodwill that led to the signing of the 2006 peace agreement is evaporating.

People in Nepal
The country has been hit by repeated strikes

Although neither side says it wants a return to conflict, neither is also taking part in the negotiations needed to shore up the peace process.

"The political clan have thrown away some opportunities and a lot of credibility," says Rhoderick Chalmers of the International Crisis Group.

'This is a dangerous situation. The longer you leave it the harder it is to address.

"Any peace process that stalls for years tends to end up in trouble. There is a nasty track record of any peace process stalling beyond four to five years slipping back into conflict," he says.

Central to Nepal's peace process is the integration into the national army or the rehabilitation to civilian life of more than 19,000 former Maoist fighters.

Since the end of the conflict these fighters have been confined to 28 camps throughout Nepal, their weapons locked in containers under United Nations supervision.

The plan to integrate several thousand of these former Maoist combatants into the 96,000-strong Nepal army now looks unlikely. A special committee set up to oversee this has made little progress.

Meanwhile the army looks increasingly unwilling to accept any Maoist fighters, expect at the lowest entry level, into its ranks.

Many analysts believe its strong stance is backed by India, which maintains close ties to the national army, providing training and equipment.

India was instrumental in bringing the Maoists to the negotiating table at the end of the 10-year civil conflict.

However, many feel that Nepal's southern neighbour now mistrusts the Maoists, and questions whether they are committed to democracy rather than armed conflict.

Marginalised

"In India itself, the challenge of Indian Maoists have multiplied and a section of the Indian establishment probably feels that the risk of a Maoist government in Nepal backing the Maoist movements in India is too high to be even taken," says Nepali journalist CK Lal.

Villager in Nepal
Land reform remains a contentious issue

Land reform is another key demand of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in need of further debate.

Although only 18% of this mountainous country is suitable for cultivation, how to divide this up is contentious.

Redistribution of land is unlikely to make a huge difference to Nepal's population, more than half of whom live in poverty.

But land ownership does bring security and entry into society for the marginalised and destitute.

The Maoists are still in possession of land they seized during the civil conflict. The issues of compensation and land ownership need to be debated by the political parties, observers say.

"Land reform has to be done in a way that all the stakeholders, all the parties, are satisfied," says Jagganath Adhikari, from the Nepal Development Research Institute.

"What Maoists have done may be popular, but it's not the solution for sustained peace. It will lead to another conflict," he says.

Justice, too, is an issue that has become stalled because of the political stalemate.

Not one person has been prosecuted for crimes against humanity committed during the 10-year conflict, during which more than 13,000 people were killed.

Nepal's political parties all say they are committed to democracy and to the writing of the new constitution.

But unless they resolve their political stalemate and address the key issues underlying the peace process, the new constitution will not be enough to unite the country - and a return to conflict is increasingly likely.



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