Kathmandu, Sept. 10: A day before the Maoist negotiators were to meet their counterparts from the Surya Bahadur Thapa government in Dang for the third round of peace talks, the Royal Nepal Army killed 17 of their cadre. Those killed were unarmed and were holding a political meeting in Ramechhap district when they were picked up by the army on August 17. They were walked to a village two hours away, lined up and allegedly shot dead one by one in cold blood.
An inquiry into the incident by the National Human Rights Commission has been held. The commission visited the spot of the encounter last week and exhumed the bodies. Although the inquiry committee is yet to finalise its report, rumours are rife that the commission’s findings confirm the worst.
These killings by the army may haunt Nepal for a long time to come. They became the immediate reason for the Maoists abandoning the third round of peace talks with the government and revoking the ceasefire. However, there were other structural reasons also for the failure of the peace talks.
According to Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal magazine: “The nominated government of Surya Bahadur Thapa is incapable of conceding the political demands of the Maoists — only a government backed by the legislative process can concede them. If this government agreed to a Constituent Assembly, for example, it would be finished off (politically) by the movement launched by the parliamentary parties.”
In the third round of peace talks, the Thapa government had presented a concept paper to the Maoist negotiators on how far it was willing to go to meet their demands.
However, being an unelected government, it neither had the political strength to deliver on such promises nor the legitimacy to address the core concerns of the Maoists.
Shyam Shreshtha, editor-in-chief of the Left-wing magazine Mulyankan, said: “The concept paper rejected the notion of sovereignty of the people. It seemed to assume that an active monarchy would continue to exist. While accepting a round table conference leading to an interim government and then elections, the government told the Maoists clearly that it did not approve of a Constituent Assembly. The talks did not fail because of the Ramechhap killings — the deadlock was on the question of the Constituent Assembly.”
Padmaratna Tuladhar, one of the four facilitators for the peace dialogue with the Maoists, also felt that the talks failed because of the government’s refusal to agree to the Maoist demand for a Constituent Assembly.
Tuladhar said: “The Maoists wanted a round table conference leading to an interim government which would then organise elections to a Constituent Assembly. Their bottomline was the formation of a Constituent Assembly and the government was not agreeable to that.”
The Maoists, he said, had also become wary of the Royal Nepal Army. They claimed that the army was not under the control of the government and feared it wanted to encircle them. “There were incidents from both sides as the ceasefire and code of conduct monitoring committees had not been formed — although this had been agreed in the second round of peace talks. This crisis of confidence spiralled when the Maoists learnt of their cadre being killed in cold blood in Ramechhap. The government was also suspicious of the Maoists using the ceasefire period for acquisition of weapons and consolidating themselves,” he felt.
Since nothing was achieved in the six months of the peace process, “the Maoists felt that there was a conspiracy to weaken them”, Tuladhar said.
Although there seems to be a broad agreement among the different sections of Nepalese society on the need to reform the 1990 Constitution, there are differences over the nature of changes and the modalities of initiating change. This is what makes the whole situation confusing.
King Gyanendra does not want a Constitution that would curtail his power to act politically. The Nepalese political class, on the other hand, believes that changes are necessary precisely to limit the king’s role besides making the Royal Nepal Army fully accountable to the executive and creating an inclusive polity with adequate representation for Nepal’s ethnic and linguistic minorities.
The political parties which fought for the 1990 Constitution do not want to dump it. They fought for that Constitution for 30 years and it played a role in ushering in multi-party democracy in Nepal. They are willing, however, to amend it. The Maoists want to write a new Constitution all together. And while the civil society organisations and intellectuals are not averse to a Constituent Assembly, they want the Maoists to make out a political case and convince people that the only way out is a new Constitution.
Damannath Dhungana, former Speaker of Parliament and a facilitator in the peace talks, felt that the Maoists walked out because they found the government confused and not fully authorised to talk to them.
He said: “The Maoists have been pointing out that this government is unconstitutional and that the authority of the state still resides with the king. However, they did not say that they would talk to the king — they are farsighted enough to note that even a nominated government represents a larger section of the public opinion than the king. I think their demand for a new Constitution will ultimately have to be conceded. The Maoists are right in saying that the Constituent Assembly should be unconditional. If the people want a role for the king, they will not object to a constitutional role for him — he can be a reigning king like the monarchy in Britain but not a ruling king.”