By Suchita Mathur – The world applauded when the Nepali government and the Maoist rebels signed a comprehensive peace agreement last November, ending a decade-long civil conflict and laying the groundwork for a parliamentary democracy. International observers expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for peace in a nation where a Maoist insurgency left an estimated 13,000 dead and a monarchy had presided for centuries. But less than a year after the settlement, increasing political crime, armed militancy in the Terai plains, and poor state capacity are colliding to endanger Nepal’s fragile democracy.
Sustainable peace in Nepal will have a positive impact that resonates beyond national boundaries. An inclusive and committed democracy in the region would reduce Nepal-India border insecurity and provide a model for other developing countries attempting political transitions. Therefore, both the international community and regional actors such as India have a vested interest in ensuring that current instability does not completely derail Nepal’s democratic and peace processes.
Recent news of Nepal’s security situation makes last year’s optimism seem premature and even naïve; however, getting the peace process back on track is possible and should be the highest priority for domestic groups and also supporters of democracy promotion around the world. Upcoming Constituent Assembly elections later this year provide a concrete first step on the path to ameliorating political inequalities and forging a stable Nepal.
The current political drama began in February 2005, when King Gyanendra dissolved the House of Representatives, declaring a state of emergency and assuming direct power. While this dismissal of government was meant to increase royal power and enable a crackdown on Maoist rebels, the declaration of palace rule instead precipitated the emasculation of the monarchy and the Maoist entry into government. After three weeks of public protests, the King reinstated Parliament in April 2006. A seven-party coalition resumed control and formed an interim government removed the King as head of state under an interim constitution.
Last year’s agreement between the government and the Maoists stipulated UN involvement in arms and election monitoring and that the interim government include Maoist ministers and members of parliament. While the interim parliament incorporated the former rebels as a legitimate political party and member of the Eight-Party Alliance, the accord left numerous groups without formal representation. These include victims of caste and ethnic discrimination and most notably, the Madhesi people of the Terai plains.
The question of Nepal’s historically marginalized groups poses the greatest challenge to the continuation of the peace process. Madhesi frustration with the government has been running high since it accommodated the Maoists despite their ten-year campaign of brutality. The Madhesi, who make up one third of Nepal’s population, have cultural and linguistic links to northern India that distinguish them from Nepal’s majority and as a result have endured economic discrimination and under-representation. They argue that the interim constitution has not corrected these long-standing inequities.
Other minority groups have voiced similar complaints and demands for regional and ethnic autonomy have led to the formation of several armed groups in the Terai, most with secessionist goals. The result has been a prolonged period of clandestine violence against the state and other ethnic and political groups. Elsewhere in the country the security situation also remains precarious; a recent UN Secretary General report warns that general crime rates have jumped across Nepal. Despite the mounting instability, there is little reported increase in police activity or judicial prosecution.
Nepal’s Chief Election Commissioner cautioned last month that holding the Constituent Assembly elections slated for November 22 would be impossible if present levels of insecurity persist. The Election Commission has already pushed the election back once because the Eight-Party Alliance could not agree on the electoral framework in time for the original date. The UN Secretary General noted that this postponement led to internal and external loss of confidence in the governing alliance and a breakdown of the political process. The democratic and peace processes would additionally suffer considerable losses of legitimacy if the security situation forced another deferral of the elections.
Regaining a foothold on the peace process is vital because instability in Nepal and particularly the Terai could quickly escalate and acquire a cross-border character. Nepal’s Terai runs alongside India’s underdeveloped central states, a region that already suffers problems of insecurity. For years, Indian Maoist rebels known as Naxalites have been sporadically fighting a low-level insurgency against the state in border areas. Naxalites and Nepal’s Maoists have been reported to maintain close ties and Indian officials in past years have warned that border districts were vulnerable to unified Maoist activity.
While any type of protracted violence in Nepal’s southern plains directly threatens the Indian boundary states, the current situation is exceptionally threatening because much of the fighting in the Terai is between Nepal’s Maoists and Madhesis. India has an obvious stake in promoting security in Nepal, as links between the Naxalites and the Maoists increase the likelihood of cross-border violence. Last August the Indian Prime Minister identified Naxalism and terrorism as the biggest threats to India’s internal security; if unaddressed, the growing communal and political violence in the Terai could destabilize the already volatile Nepal-India border areas.
In the past two years, Nepal has experienced a dramatic shift in its political environment. As a developing country racked by internal conflict and instability, Nepal presented a fairly unremarkable case. But from being an exclusionary constitutional monarchy, it embarked on a path toward parliamentary democracy and attempted to embrace national diversity. Nepal has until recently provided a practical model of how countries in similar situations can reconcile internal divisions and foster peace.
If the international community cares about encouraging democracy throughout the developing world, Nepal is a valuable test that cannot be allowed to step off the path to peace and security. With a collaborative effort by the international community and all domestic actors to strengthen law enforcement, rein in violent factions, and safeguard minorities’ rights, Nepal can resume the arduous process of becoming a democratic state that helps, not hinders, regional stability.
Suchita Mathur is an intern for the Regional Voices: Transnational Challenges project at the Stimson Center.