Late in the afternoon on Jan. 22, a nondescript area in the Southern plains of Nepal got a rare moment in the international spotlight. In a carefully choreographed ceremony that was broadcast live across the nation, Nepal's caretaker prime minister Madhab Kumar Nepal and Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, jointly released balloons into the sky. The prime minister hoisted the triangular national flag over one of the Himalayan nations' seven Maoist camps, and took down the former insurgents' red flag bearing two AK-47s crossed over Mt. Everest.
And so a new chapter in the history of Nepal was begun. Or was it? Last Saturday marked the handover ceremony of former Maoist combatants from the hands of the United Nations to a multi-party special committee formed to decide their fate. Announcing the handover in a written speech, an unusually somber-looking Prachanda relinquished Maoist control of its 19,000 former fighters, a prized asset for the party that fought a decade-long war with state security forces. "Until now, you belonged to the Maoist party," said Maoist party chairman Dahal to the gathered crowd of soldiers. "But now on, you are under the government control."
The weekend handover follows the departure of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), created in 2007 a year after Nepal's Maoists and seven parliamentary parties signed a landmark agreement to end the nation's long-simmering conflict. UNMIN had a temporary mandate to monitor and supervise the Maoist fighters and their weapons as well as those of the Nepalese army to protect against another escalation into war. But it was only in the last moments before UNMIN's disbanding that Prachanda, who stepped down as head of government on May 4, 2009 but still commands the loyalty of the Maoist troops, agreed with the current government to transfer the control of the fighters to the special committee.
Prachanda's hesitancy reflected a widespread anxiety about the possible vacuum the international body's exit might create. Indeed, UNMIN's chief Karin Landgren, in her last report to the UN Security Council on Jan.5, had warned of "a real risk that the failure of the peace will become a self-fulfilling prophecy." In her report, she cited the fears among Nepalese about three possible scenarios: the prospects of a Maoist 'people's revolt' which the former rebels often raise to prove that they still stick to their revolutionary zeal; the likelihood of the president, who is the head of the state with ceremonial roles, stepping in should the parties fail to resolve the crisis; or an army backed coup, which has been widely speculated about in the local media. The report drew strong criticism from the ruling coalition, with the president clarifying that he did not harbor any such intentions.
After the ceremony, away from the Maoist cantonments, the political bickering immediately resumed in Kathmandu, with parties seemingly as polarized as ever. After 16 attempts to elect a prime minister in parliament have failed, the country is now run by a caretaker government. Ram Chandra Paudel of the centrist Nepali Congress party, the lone candidate for the prime minister, withdrew from the election on Jan. 12 after the Maoists and the communist party warned they would vote against him. Paudel's party said the withdrawal was intended instead to pave a way for fresh elections.
Nepal, sandwiched between China and India, has historically acted as a buffer between the Asian giants a factor often cited as the reason behind the nation's ongoing political deadlock. Maoist leader Chandra Prakash Gajurel, who spent years in an Indian jail when his party waged war, attributes the current impasse to the southern neighbor. "A section of Indian establishment holds that countries like Nepal are not only under its sphere of influence but it also has a right to interfere in their internal affairs," he says.
While the nation's leaders jostle for position, the pledges made at the end of the conflict in 2006 an inclusive constitution, federal and democratic state, independent judiciary, and reform in the army, among others remain unfulfilled. The most pressing issue remains the integration and rehabilitation of the former Maoist fighters into the national army. The Maoists say they should be integrated into the country's security forces in groups, resisting alternative approaches, but other parties have accused the former rebels of stalling in order to retain the former combatants while they bargain for power.
Meanwhile, a May 28 deadline slated for the ratification of the new constitution looms large. "The remaining four months seem insufficient for the constitution to be drafted and approved by a two third majority," says Nepali Congress leader Ramesh Lekhak. Maoists have proposed the constitution institute a federal state of 14 provinces based on various ethnic communities, a model they say will correct the historical discrimination against minorities by the central government. But other parties warn that such a structure might lead to the Balkanization of the country, with dozens of ethnic groups and about hundred different languages. "If we can't agree on the federal structure of the state, we should agree on its basic framework and buy time to forge consensus," says Lekhak.
Political analyst CK Lal has a more dour prognosis. A failure of the much-anticipated peace process, according to him, could again intensify the violence and ultimately lead to another war of independence. "If Maoists would launch such a war, then the outcome will likely be that of Pol Pot's Cambodia. If the right wing groups start it, the result will be like Taliban's Afghanistan," he says. "Whatever the outcome, it will be disastrous."