A Path to Peace
By Professor Dr Brian Cobb
While the debates rage in Kathmandu, violence and disruption of the mechanisms of society ravage the countryside and bring immense suffering to the Nepali people. I humbly offer some observations and proposals that, unlike Mr Krishna Prasad Bhattarai’s, are neither magical nor contingent upon my becoming Prime Minister. I’m content to be a Bidesi who loves Nepal and its people.
The three significant factions dominating the debate and the nation, the Palace-Army coalition, the political parties, and the Maoists, all hold themselves out as the legitimate voices of the people. But arguably, these factions have the support and respect of a small portion of the population of Nepal, whose silent masses are ignored in the dialogues. Pious platitudes and impracticable promises fill the air, but it’s clear that the factions are pursuing their own and not the people’s interests. If we accept the premise that legitimate governance rests on the consent and support of the people, none of the factions can be regarded as holding moral authority. Instead, all rely on overheated rhetoric and violence to maintain their positions.
If I partially share the widespread pessimism that holds that Nepal is on the verge of becoming, if not already, a failed state, I contend that these views discount the strength of the people, especially the 92% living outside the Kathmandu Valley that seems to comprise the universe of the intelligentsia and the 80% living under medieval conditions in the villages. The Nepali people have survived for centuries in these hills and on the terai. They have endured war, famine, epidemics, oppression and poverty and thrived. Their strength, diligence, cohesion and adaptability give me cause for optimism.
The palace-army coalition currently dominates the Kathmandu scene. We can consider Mr Deuba as part of this faction. I have been, and continue to be, critical of this faction’s suppression of democracy, violations of fundamental human rights, brutality and intransigence. But it will not do to make them the scapegoats they have become. The king didn’t initiate this mess, and he alone couldn’t solve it. Neither will it do for Mr Deuba to misrepresent reality by calling the Maoists terrorists and criminals while glossing over the larger-scale atrocities of the police and army. Mr Deuba himself, in previous tenures, oversaw police operations that relied on murder, summary execution, torture, rape, arson and other horrendous acts, which placed him morally on a plane with those he so often and vociferously condemns.
The parties have acknowledged “mistakes” but never take responsibility for their crimes. Would a man who has murdered, raped and pillaged walk into a police post, declare that he has made a few mistakes and walk out free? The rampant corruption, nepotism, greed, arrogance, neglect of the vast majority of the population, caste discrimination, extortion, bribery, cruelty and simony created the fertile soil of social decomposition from which Maoism has grown luxuriantly. Is there any moral difference between a health minister who embezzles funds for pastoral care, knowing that people will die, and a Maoist who guns down fewer of those same people? No. Is there any moral difference between a politician who diverts school funding into Pajeros, mansions and bank accounts for himself and a Maoist who burns a school down? No.
The Maoists’ grievances against the government and most of their 40-point agenda are laudable. But their cruelty and large-scale human rights violations are horrific and unjustifiable; noble goals do not sanctify evil means. Terrorism, disruption of the lifelines of food and health care upon which the rural poor depend, and unjust administration of areas under their control have no place in a civilised world. Their premature resort to the overt violence of guns and bombs in response to the centuries-old structural violence that has left Nepalis with lives that fit Hobbes’s description, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” has inflicted more suffering and alleviated none. However, the fledgling democracy’s—or, more accurately, kleptocracy’s—pattern of misrule gave them little reason for hope of better things without extreme measures.
Despite Mr Deuba’s enthusiasm for ongoing war as the answer, the RNA staff, the US and India have admitted that a military solution is impossible and that its attempt will cost many more lives both directly, through weapons, and indirectly through starvation and illness. The only answer lies in a negotiated peace; the sooner, the better. How many more families will have to grieve for their slain sons and daughters? How many will more villagers have to starve or die of easily treatable causes? How many poor adolescents and young adults will have to shoot their relatives and neighbours? How long will Nepal’s meagre resources have to be used for making war instead of making a peaceful and just society? The Common Minimum Program does not specify that.
There is a way out. First, we must realise that there are no “good guys” in this drama other than the vast majority of Nepalis cowed into silence. None of the factions can claim either virtue or popular mandate. Second, the sections must accept that they cannot unilaterally impose their will upon the people and that compromise alone can solve the impasse. Third, it is clear that outside assistance will require for both successful negotiations and fair elections. Fourth, all must recognise that only the people, and not themselves, are sovereign.
Two significant issues obstruct the path to peace. The first is whether the elected officials or the palace should control the army; the second is whether to select a constituent assembly to write a new constitution or keep the old, tattered one. The parties and the Maoists favour the former positions and the latter.
The first controversy, control of the army, can be eliminated by a radical but rational scheme. First, Nepal’s only two neighbours, India and China, possess massive, sophisticated, nuclear-armed forces. Therefore, this country would be defenceless, with or without the army, in the unlikely event of an attack. Second, armies are always dangerous to democracy in developing countries because of the threat of coups d’etat, such as in Burma and Pakistan. Third, the 80,000 soldiers and support personnel could be deployed to provide education, health care, basic infrastructure and other pressing needs. That would give over 1000 peacemakers per district; had such a scheme been put in place in 1991, it is unlikely that the Maoist problem would exist. Instead of fellow Nepalis, the enemies should be the ignorance, illiteracy, disease, poverty and lack of basic infrastructure that leave Nepal near the bottom of the world regarding quality of life. Finally, the question of control would not be controversial. The armed police would remain under elected officials after the army converted to peaceful use following the demobilisation and disarmament of the Maoists.
The palace must give ground since the parties, the Maoists, and arguably most Nepalis favour a new constitution. It must realise it is on thin ice politically and would not survive a referendum. Its best option will be to consent to a new body if the parties pledge their delegates would continue to support a constitutional monarchy.
The Maoists must forswear future violence if they don’t get their way, an inevitable contingency in a democratic government. They must give up their demand to redeploy their military cadres and accept education, job skills training, and job creation as the solutions to the lack of education and opportunity that have driven the rural youth into military service, menial labour and prostitution. They must realise that their manifesto will serve as something other than the constitution. Ties with foreign militant groups must be repudiated and severed.
The parties must acknowledge that they, by the criminal acts, bear significant responsibility for this mess and that it will take a lot of work and good performance to regain the people’s trust. Serious measures must be implemented, such as requesting donor-country monitoring of foreign aid with extradition and trial in those countries for abuses. The noble sentiments so piously mouthed for so long must be transformed from hollow rhetoric into concerted action. They must learn that debate, compromise, and conciliation are the tools of democracy, not squabbling, arrogance and obstruction.
With a lot of goodwill and flexibility, the factions can partially redeem themselves, end this nightmare, and put Nepal on the path to peace, social and economic justice, progress and decency. To do otherwise is to compound their crimes and further undermine their claims to legitimacy.
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