Nepal: End of Peace Transition or Recurrence of Armed Conflict?

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Nepal has conducted elections for all three levels of government in several phases under the new federal structure of the constitution. The peace process that began with the Comprehensive Peace Process of 2006 between the Maoist insurgents and political parties went through several challenges –combatant management, constituent assembly, state restructuring etc. Now, with the final phase of elections completed on December 6, 2017, the peace process has arguably come to a logical end, paving the way for peace.

However, the main question now is: will Nepal have a quality peace? There is still a degree of skepticism among citizens in that respect, not least due to reservations of some regional and identity groups and monarchists, respectively, about the constitution. Moreover, the incidents such as the bomb attacks in the run-up to the federal parliamentary elections have reminded citizens about the violent Maoist insurgency once again.        

Some social science studies show that conflicts that end in a negotiated peace settlement between warring sides, i.e. governments and rebels, are much more likely to relapse compared to conflicts that end in a victory in which one side decisively wins. Especially in the cases in which rebels win, some argue, the likelihood of a renewed war is much lower. Nepal represents one such victory case in which the Maoist insurgency ended by an alliance between political parties and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist defeating the government of King Gyanendra. The Maoists got perhaps more than what they had expected, and the King’s regime did not have the condition to fight back, thus the war did not recur. (Incidentally, in some conflict literature, Nepal’s case is categorized as a “negotiated settlement” rather than “victory” as they are only considering the understanding between the Maoists and political parties)  

In cases where the conflict relapsed, most of them were waged by some splinter groups, but not mother rebel parties who signed peace agreements. This is exactly what happened in Nepal where the Maoist’s splinter faction of Netra Bikram Chand is found to be spreading terror on many occasions, allegedly including in the latest phase of elections in connivance with other spoilers. However, a conflict that remains ended for a ten-year period is not likely to recur; in fact, academic studies take just a five-year period,  one election cycle, as a unit of measurement for considering a lasting termination of war. The recalcitrant Chand’s modus operandi clearly shows that there is no condition, strength or agenda for a renewed war. Besides, since Chand’s senior fellow comrades and war architects like Prachanda and Baburam preferred the utilities of peace more than the utilities of war (a rationalist explanation), as it was expected, none of the Maoist factions was capable of waging an insurgency.

Likewise, as research show, conflicts that include identity politics are intractable and peace agreements that do not contain provisions of territorial autonomy in conflicts that include territorial or regional issues will lapse. True to such findings, what really came to shake the whole peace process in Nepal was identity politics –movement of indigenous groups, ethnic groups, and regional groups both from the hills and the plains – namely the Madhesi movement in the southern strip of Nepal. After the Maoist insurgency, it was in the Madhesi movement in which Nepal witnessed most killings. In fact, it was the violent uprising of Madhesi Janadhikar Forum led by Upendra Yadav (former Maoist himself) in 2007 forced leaders in Kathmandu to include the term “federalism” in the interim constitution. After a decade of tumultuous political course, Nepal has been federalized into seven provinces. Madhesis, and also other identity groups, still have some reservations about getting their fair share, but the two federalized provinces in the south and a democratic and progressive constitution render any armed conflict unreasonable.  The new constitution gives 78 electoral constituencies out of the total 165 to 20 districts in the south.  

However, although occurrence of any full-fledged armed conflict in Nepal is highly unlikely, the peaceful implementation and practice of federalism in Nepal is not warranted given the financial, geographical and psychological complexities attached to it. Federalism does not entail any particular governance model details, but varies country-wise, taking shape as it goes via the interactions between the federal center and local entities/states. The political spirit, leadership, and the role of courts on disputes over prerogative and power sharing are critical factors. The fragility of the new constitution was underscored by the defiance and bloodletting in the south. Similarly, the truth and reconciliation process regarding war-era crimes is still outstanding. Not to mention all other harmful by-products of prolonged political transition and weak law and order and their negative impact on the federal Nepal. Therefore, while there are no chances for a sustained armed conflict, the days of regular disturbances are perhaps not over yet. Nevertheless, such disturbances will not be sufficient to jeopardize Nepal’s overall governance and development.