Friday, December 23, 2005

Physical Policy


The last 48 hours have provided important insights into King Gyanendra's refusal to reciprocate the Maoists' ceasefire.
Even if you discount the Royal Nepalese Army's contention that the Maoists used the first three months of the ceasefire to buy weapons, two unlikely quarters have apparently vindicated the government's stubbornness.
The reality that terrorist activities continued during the first-phase of truce was documented by Insec, an NGO that could hardly be considered an ally of the royal regime.
True, 62 people were killed by the security forces and 13 by the Maoists during the truce period, according to Insec. But, then, it wasn’t the government that declared the ceasefire.
More importantly, 13 deaths and thousands of abductions hardly represent a diminution of Maoist terrorism – unless you count body bags as the sole determinant.
No less revealing was the letter Ian Martin, the United Nations' human rights czar in Nepal, wrote to the Maoists seeking clarification on "physical action" they have vowed to use to sabotage municipal polls scheduled for February.
Martin could be genuinely flustered. Could the rebels mean they would start picketing polling centers at dawn to prevent voters from getting in? Or block ballot boxes from leaving the polling centers at the end of the day?
Alas, the Maoists have earned such a reputation that few sane minds seem ready to credit them with any capacity for peaceful resistance.
For many Nepalis, "physical action" means murder and maiming. Kuber Sharma of the Hariyali Party – a minister of the first cabinet King Gyanendra formed that held the second peace talks with the Maoists – has advanced a very selfish reason for not participating in the polls. "No candidacy at the cost of life," one newspaper headline summed up Sharma as saying.
Kesar Bista, chief of the brand-new Democratic Party, registered his organization with the Election Commission but doubted the government's ability to hold the polls. But that was before he joined the council of ministers. Responsibility must have led him to revise that view.
Forget about Afghanistan, Iraq or Kashmir. Parallels can't stand up to common sense. The constitution is virtually silent on local bodies. There is no mandatory minimum turnout for an election to be considered valid. When you count the number of votes a candidate or party gains purely on the basis of the number of ballots cast, end of story. All the state media need to focus on is the percentage of votes won.
Unless the mainstream parties can touch off their much ballyhooed tsunami in time to block the election, they would probably be better off on the sidelines. Having key adherents elected as independents or as members of smaller parties would be a bonus.
An extended period in the opposition has its redeeming value. Ordinary Nepalis who celebrated the parties' triumphant homecoming in 1951 weren't too bothered when King Mahendra showed them the door nine years later.
Three decades later, the people celebrated the demise of the partyless system only to hail the dismissal of a democratically elected government 12 years later. It is axiomatic in Nepal that the government of the day is always worse than the one it replaced.
What about the Maoists? They took their chances with the king and later with the parties. They have warmed up to international aid agencies by pledging to work in the country's impoverished areas where they hold sway. Of course, much would depend on how much control Prachanda has over local cadres who have thrived demanding money from aid agencies before forcing them to scale back projects. For now, the United Nations folks are thrilled by the rebels' vow to adhere to the their Basic Operating Guidelines for aid and development work.
Crafty as they are, the Maoists might persuade Martin of their peaceful intentions without having to formally extend the ceasefire. What if they don't? They have used peace as a fa├žade so many times that if and when their genuine sincerity starts surfacing, it might not count for much. The royal regime would probably still be castigated, but not enough to turn into frowns the grins key members would be wearing.