War to Peace Transition in Nepal: Success and Challenges Ahead
Since 2006, Nepal is on transition from armed conflict to peace. However, in the last six years, Nepal’s peace process is in deep crisis. The major issues which have always remained central to the peace process include reintegration and rehabilitation of the Maoist ex-combatants, formation of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), writing of a new constitution. In this article, I discuss achievements and challenges surrounding these key peace issues. I contend that despite some progress made in terms of dealing with the Maoist ex-combatants, Nepal’s peace process has failed to successfully reintegrate them in to society. Further I argue that success in Nepal’ peace will largely depend on how and the way key political actors will forge new consensus and agreements, and work out viable options to forming a TRC and writing a new constitution without delay.
Armed conflict and civil wars are a blight upon human society, from which our contemporary world has not been exempt. Twenty six armed conflicts of various scale and intensity are active in South and South East Asia today (Parks, Colletta, & Oppenheim, 2013). Generally, armed conflict ends either through peace negotiation between a rebel group and the state, as was the case in Nepal, Timor Leste, Kosovo and South Africa, or it ends with a military victory when one side in the conflict completely crushes the opponent, as was the case in Sri Lanka.[i] Once an armed conflict is settled, a complicated phase, what is generally termed the peace-building period, begins - a time-consuming and transformative task. Armed conflict damages society, often with negative effects on the way family, society and local economic knit together and operate (Colletta & Cullen, 2000). For instance, during an armed conflict, many families are forcefully displaced; they lose their family members in the war while many young people join armed insurgencies as militants and combatants. As an effect of armed conflict, trust, reciprocal relationships, social interactions that are the building blocks of a cohesive society, erode, resulting into fragmentation of a society into various groups and sub-groups. Similarly, due to armed conflict, business people shut down, relocate or scale down their businesses which lead to losses of jobs and disruption of local economic activities. Further, basic service deliveries such health, transport and education systems and community activities become dysfunctional. Thus armed conflicts have long term effects on societies at large, and it takes substantially long time for them to recover from the damaging effects.
Building peace after armed conflict is a multifaceted process which, according to Hanggi (2005), encompasses activities around three major dimensions: security, political, and socio-economic. Smith (2000) suggests that post-conflict peacebuilding initiatives should focus on four major dimensions: creating socio-economic foundation, improving and maintaining security, building and strengthening institutional and political framework, and promoting post-conflict reconciliation.
In this article, I briefly discuss the armed conflict in Nepal, launched by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPNM),[ii] between 1996 and 2006. I will then discuss major issues that the peacebuilding process in Nepal has attempted to address. The major issues which have always remained central to the peace process in Nepal include reintegration and rehabilitation of the Maoist ex-combatants, formation of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), writing of a new constitution. I highlight some points which will be critical to conclude the peace process and build sustainable peace in Nepal.
From the Maoist Armed Conflict to the Peace Process
Nepal is a small country between India and China in South Asia, which has been ruled by a royal dynasty (the Shahs) for much of its modern history. The vast majority of people are still living in rural areas. Nepalese society, throughout its history, has been governed by a feudal system and caste hierarchies. As a few powerful elites from the capital, Kathmandu, ruled the country with very limited devolution of power, the disadvantaged and marginalised rural populace could not build good rapport with the highly centralised state system. As a result, power was consistently challenged from the 1930s onwards through dissidence, and at times armed resistance, by different ‘democratic’ forces, for early political parties operated mainly underground, many based in India. From the 1950s, Nepal was a fertile ground for radical communist political movement. In 1996, the UCPNM, small radical Maoist group active in the mid-western hills of the country, embarked upon armed insurgency by attacking a police post in the Rukkum district in February of that year. The insurgency gained further momentum after the UCPNM officially formed its military wing, the ‘People’s Liberation Army’ (PLA), in September 2001 (ICG, 2005). The formation of the PLA enabled the UCPNM to challenge the state, both politically and militarily. The conflict engulfed the entire state for a decade (1996-2006), resulting in the loss of more than 13,000 lives, more than 200,000 conflict-related internal displacements, and damage to physical infrastructures costing billions of rupees (Subedi, 2012, 2013) . The armed conflict ended when the UCPNM and the government signed a peace agreement on 21 November 2006. Since the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA), Nepal has entered into a post-conflict period, a critical juncture when it has to recover from the effects as well as legacy of the Maoist armed conflict. The CPA is the main document which not only lays foundation for the peace process but it also identifies key issues to building peace. The major issues stipulated in the CPA are reintegration and rehabilitation of the combatants recruited by the Maoist during the war, formulating a commission for trust and reconciliation and writing a new constitution of the country which has shifted from active monarchical system to a republican system since 2008.
Reintegration and Rehabilitation of the Maoist Ex-Combatants
Reintegration and rehabilitation of ex-combatants is a process by which people who joined armed insurgency (hence ex-combatants) return to their families and community and engage in peaceful livelihood activities so that over time they again become accepted in their communities. Reintegration and rehabilitation is a vital element in a process because if ex-combatants are not provided with a viable livelihood options, the chances of them returning to violent activities remain high (Colletta, Kostner, & Wiederhofer, 1996).
In Nepal, reintegration and rehabilitation of the Maoists’ ex-combatant was one of the highly important issues in the peace process. There were altogether 19,602 verified ex-combatants and 4008 disqualified (child soldiers and those recruited by the Maoists after the cease fire agreement was signed). In 2010, the 4008 disqualified ex-combatants were provided with a rehabilitation package by the United Nations (UN) organisation working in Nepal. The verified ex-combatants stayed in camps (known as cantonments) until end March 2012. Finally 15,602 ex-combatants opted for voluntary retirement with a cash package, while 1444 ex-combatants registered their interest to join the Nepal army. Those who preferred the cash package received an amount between Nepali Rupees (NRs) 500,000 and 800,000, depending on their rank and file in the Maoist army.[iii]
In many other countries, the standard practice of reintegration is that ex-combatants are provided with some sort of training to impart them knowledge and skill that will be helpful for them to earn a living. Reintegration programmes also include psycho-social counselling and support not only to ex-combatants but also their families (Annan & Cutter, 2009). This is important because ex-many ex-combatants have psycho-social problems and trauma because of their war-time experiences. However, in the Nepali context, the Maoist ex-combatants were provided cash rather than any training, skill and further support. Although an option for training was available, all the ex-combatants preferred the cash option. A vast majority of the ex-combatants spent the cash in building houses, investing in household expenses, educating their children and so on. With a very few exceptions, the ex-combatants generally did not misuse the cash in gambling, consuming alcohol and drugs or buying smalls arms etc which have often been the case elsewhere. However, as many of them have spent the cash in non-productive household consumptions, their economic situation is very critical at present. Most of them are unemployed and are having difficult time to find an employment in the competitive job market because they lack competitive and appropriate skills that would be necessary to find an employment. Many ex-combatants have already engaged in criminal activities and violence while others are being remobilised in contentious politics by the United Communist Party of Nepal Maoists and its splinter faction, the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoists (CPN-M). Further, several other Maoist factions (there are more a dozen of groups split off the Maoists) and criminal groups have reported mobilised ex-combatants in criminal and political violence. Thus, ex-combatants today are seen as a potential threat to peace and stability, mainly due to the possibility of their resorting to anti-social-violent means of gaining a livelihood.
Furthermore, many ex-combatants, who have an atrocious past, have experienced difficult times to be accepted in local communities. The vast majority of ex-combatants have not returned to their villages in the origin; rather they have settled elsewhere in urban and semi-urban areas. Relationship between ex-combatants and local community and the way the latter have reservations in accepting the former in the community are other issues that keep many ex-combatants alienated from wider society. Indeed, the cash-based approached used to reintegrate ex-combatants was a short sighted policy which helped to release ex-combatants from cantonments, but it failed to successfully reintegrate them into society. After the release of ex-combatants from cantonments, the government has declared that the peace process has concluded. This declaration, however, is false as the peace process cannot be completed without accomplishing other key tasks as discussed below.
Following the signing of the CPA, several historical changes occurred simultaneously. Most notable changes including the Maoists entering into the mainstream politics, replacement of the active monarchical system by a republican system, and the election of Constitutional Assembly (CA). An interim constitution was promulgated in January 2007 which stipulated a provision for writing a new constitution of the country by formulating a CA. Initially, the major political parties including the UCPNM agreed to hold the CA election on 7 June 2007. However, the date was deferred and the CA election held only on April 2008.
With a total of 601 CA members elected through a direct voting system and a proportional representation system, Nepal’s CA is probably one of the most inclusive ones in the history of CA in modern times. It consists of CA members from all caste and ethnic groups, while nearly 33 per cent are women. The inclusive nature of the CA in terms of caste, ethnicity and gender representation is very much applauded. Yet, despite the mandate that the CA election should complete constitution drafting in two years of time, the CA met with failure. This is because it could not come up with an acceptable new constitution. As a result, Nepal continues the search for a new constitution, six years after the end of a decade-long armed conflict and four years after the CA election.
A new constitution would have to be a guiding framework for creating a functional state with the distribution of powers in a federal system. However, the issue of federalism was one of the most contested issues on which the CA failed reach consensus. As the CA failed to meet a series of deadlines to finalise the constitution on its final extended deadline, it was dissolved on 27 May 2012. As a result, although Nepal has made some progress in terms of building peace, lack of a constitution has currently engendered political uncertainty, making a future of peace bleak at the moment.
An election for a new CA is scheduled for November 2013. But several political parties led by a splinter faction of the UCPNM have been threatening to obstruct the election. Public interest and sentiment is very much for the election which is essential for the country to overcome the present political impasse. However, whether or not an election will be possible on November 2013 will depend on how and on the way major political parties come to a negotiation table, build a common vision for the country and remain committed to write a new constitution. That the country is currently managed by a government of bureaucrats, and led by the Chief Justice demonstrates a political vacuum, without a constitution and constitutionally elected legislative bodies. This situation hampers peacebuilding, and if it is prolonged, it is quite likely to engender deep political crisis and instability which can sufficiently undermine lasting peace in the country.
In the meantime, retrospection on the crisis of previous constitution assembly amply suggests that even if an election will take place in November, the possibility of a constitution being written by the assembly is slim for several reasons. First, politic parties and groups who will lose the election will reappear as spoilers of peace process; they might take to the streets to influence their agendas. Second, a radical faction of the Maoist, the CPN-M along with it power allies comprised of more than 33 fringe political parties have boycotted the election. Leaving such a big and politically significant force out of the election process is not only going to increase election violence and influence the outcomes of the election. Third and perhaps more importantly, the constitution assembly election is again going to crowd of political figures who lack expertise and technicalities on writing a constitution on such a critical juncture. There is a popular belief that the constitution assembly is only going to be space of political bargain and a process likely to be captive of few senior heads of major political parties who will set the agendas. Even if a constitution will be written, it will not certainly accepted by those political forces which have been left out of the election process. This raises a validity, essentiality and efficiency of constitution assembly which only looks like a ‘necessary evil’ in the current political transition in Nepal.
None of the countries in the world have become able to produced perfect constitution at once. A noble constitution can only be achieved through an evolutionary process, meaning there is always a room for improvement. Considering different limitations and potential pitfalls of constitutional process in Nepal, perhaps there might be two potential ways forward. First, there is a need to involve all and every major political forces in the constitution election. But the election preparation has moved too far. This option appears to be a distant possibility now. Second, it is high time for Nepal to rethink if a constitution assembly is a right mechanism to write a constitution particularly in a juncture where the prolonged peace process has produced so many different forces with their own narrow agendas. An election process is quite unlikely to accommodate these different voices. As a result denial of the outcome of election result and concomitant political backlash is inevitable in country where democratic practice has not yet taken a root. Thus, writing constitution through a mechanism forged by power agreement and power sharing between major political actors will perhaps give a chance every potential spoiler to be heard.
Formation of Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Reconciliation between victims and perpetrators from the war-time is one of the most pressing issues in the current peace process. The need and demand for social reconciliation is higher in the west and far west regions than in the eastern and central regions of the country. This is because the effect of the Maoist armed conflict was more intense in the west than in the eastern parts.
The CPA has clearly made a provision to form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in order to provide justice to war time victims, punish serious war crimes, and promote reconciliation. However, due to lack of political consensus between the UCPNM and other political parties, reconciliation has not been achieved as of today. The UCPNM has pushed for a ‘blanket amnesty’ for war-time perpetrators as a major condition in the TRC bill, while others, including the Nepali Congress (NC) party and the Communist Party of United Marxist and Leninist (CPNUML) have opposed this condition. The idea of blanket amnesty is to grant an amnesty to all war -time perpetrators without charging them for their past offences. A certain degree of amnesty should be indispensable in a politically negotiated peace process because amnesty provides an incentive for former rebellion leaders to engage in reconciliation process. The current problem surrounding TRC is what is called ‘peace and justice dilemma’: peace and justice are conflicting in the sense that justice in the form of amnesty can undermine peace while too much emphasis on peace can paradoxically undermine the minimum threshold of justice deemed necessary for a peace process to be complete. There is no universal formula as how to strike balance between peace and justice. In the case of Nepal, certain degree might be essential to win the former rebel leaders’ commitment to the TRC.
A degree of political stability is essential for a TRC to be formed. As the current focus of the peace process has overtly shifted to constitution writing, formation is TRC is likely to be significantly delayed until a new government is formed. But public demand of TRC has increased exponentially. In this situation, even if the fully-fledged TRC is not formed, the government would practically start a ‘minimalist TRC’. In other words, we can start documenting truth, but put justice and reconciliation for next steps. The experience from other countries including South Africa shows that even documenting trust takes several years. Therefore, if trust finding starts immediately, at one hand it will at least deliver a message that the government and key political actors are committed to a reconciliation process. On the other hand, by the time trust documentation is over, a relatively strong government may have been formed, which then carry reconciliation and justice processes will forward. At present, truth documentation can be entrusted to legitimate or capable exiting institutions such as the Human Rights Commission.
However, targeting amnesty is notorious challenge. In the transitional process, if war crime is prosecuted, former rebel leader may defect the peace process; therefore it will be essential that certain leaders may be provided amnesty. Given the acute need to reconcile between victims and perpetrators, there is a need to concentrate on non-political and informal ways of reconciliation at the community level. Social reconciliation methods could be accomplished by bringing the adversary groups into contact and interaction through various means such as development work and social dialogue. Sports, arts and cultural events, such as street theatre, cultural festivals, arts competitions, etc. could also help in advancing social reconciliation.
Along with social reconciliation, psycho-social and economic support to conflict victims remains yet another serious but unaddressed issue. Conflict victims, especially women and children, who have survived the brutal conflict, suffer from post-conflict traumatic disorders. Although it is hard to estimate the exact number of people suffering post-war trauma and psycho-disorders because no study has been conducted on this issue so far until now, social harmony in post-conflict Nepali society will be less likely unless reconciliation together with addressing psycho-social needs of conflict victims is accomplished.
Nepal’s peace process is currently in deep crisis. Although some progress has been made in reintegration of ex-combatants, they are still suffering from a livelihood crisis and lack of social acceptance. Adopting a cash-based approach to reintegration, Nepal has left a crack in the peace process. Future of peace in Nepal largely hinges on writing on a successful construction, but Nepal has to find politically renegotiated and accepted inclusive process and mechanism as writing a new constitution through an elected constitution assembly seems unlikely at the present context. Peacebuilding is not just writing a peace agreement or a new constitution. It is about rebuilding healthy relationships between civilians as well as between citizen and the state. It is also about creating a harmonious society with people enjoying peaceful livelihood and a sense of safety and security. Formation of TRC should be started immediately. The Maoists should give up their demand for blanket amnesty while the opposition of the Maoists should realise that a certain degree of amnesty should be essential to strike a balance between peace and justice. It is essential that the government immediately starts what I have called a ‘minimalist TRC’, which means it should start with documenting truth while justice and reconciliation can be dealt with over the time.
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[i] The Sri Lankan military defeated the insurgent organisation, the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in 2009.
[ii] Having been merged with the Communist Party of Nepal (Unity Centre-Masal) in January 2009, the formerly known CPNM is now called the Unified Communist Party of Nepal Maoist (UCPNM). Henceforth, UCPNM is used to refer to the Maoist party which was the mobiliser of the armed insurgency.
[iii] One US dollar is equivalent to roughly 100 NRs at present.