Nepal has rare hope after years of uncertainty

AP News
Posted: Dec 02, 2011 6:47 AM
Nepal has rare hope after years of uncertainty

After years of political paralysis, the impoverished, war-scarred nation of Nepal appears finally to be moving forward.

Thousands of former Maoist rebels stuck in camps for five years are joining the army or going home to start new lives. Long-feuding political parties have called a truce and started talks on how to restructure the country.

The progress has stirred cautious optimism that this Himalayan nation _ one of the world's poorest _ can build on the hopes for economic development promised by the end of a brutal civil war five years ago and the abolition of the monarchy in 2008.

While major hurdles remain, including the writing of a constitution, any movement is seen as significant in a country that has had five coalition governments since elections were last held in 2008.

"The agreements are major achievements in terms of resolving issues relating to the Maoists," said Shridhar Khatri, an analyst with the Katmandu-based South Asia Center for Policy Studies. "It would not have been possible for the peace process and constitution making to proceed without this latest progress."

Political bickering has prevented the government from starting any major development projects in a country whose average per capita income of $490 makes it the 17th poorest, according to World Bank figures. About half the nation's children are malnourished, its roads are crumbling, fuel shortages are frequent and clean drinking water is scarce.

Though it has one of the largest sources of untapped hydropower in the world, Nepal faces rolling blackouts of up to 14 hours a day, because the government has not been able to build any new plants to harness it.

The government has been paralyzed by a rotating cast of opposition parties that plotted the toppling of whichever coalition was in power and then scrambled to form governments of their own. Negotiations focused more on who was going to lead the next coalition than on nation building. At one point it took 17 votes spread over seven months to get a new prime minister installed.

A major stumbling block was the future of the Maoist fighters, who remained stuck in U.N.-monitored camps since giving up their decade-old revolt in 2006. The Maoists, now a political party, wanted all 19,000 fighters integrated into the army and their commanders given high-ranking posts. The army and other parties balked.

The U.N. monitors eventually lost patience and left earlier this year.

Many of the Maoists' critics accused them of intentionally stalling the issue so they could use the unspoken threat of restarting the war as a negotiating tactic. They felt that threat needed to be removed before any political progress could be made.

The dispute stalled talks on forming a new constitution that was supposed to have been finished by May 2010. In a series of last-minute votes, the sides repeatedly extended the deadline, preventing a provisional constitution from expiring and saving the country from total political chaos.

Pressure began to build both at home and abroad to end the impasse. During Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai's visit to New Delhi in October, Indian leaders reportedly pressed him for a breakthrough. Neighboring India has major influence as the source of all the oil and most consumer goods in Nepal.

In early November, the parties struck a deal on the fighters, agreeing to integrate 6,500 into the army and send the rest home with cash.

"The integration of the Maoists fighters in the army was the biggest and most important hurdle in the peace process," said Hari Roka, a Maoist member in the Constituent Assembly, a temporary body charged with drafting the new constitution that also acts as a parliament.

Ramesh Lekhak of the Nepali Congress party, the main opposition, described it as "a key and positive development."

"If we can keep up this cooperation and dialogue among the political parties we can achieve a lot of things in a short period of time," he said.

Since the agreement, leaders of the main political parties have been meeting regularly to sort out differences.

They agreed to extend the term of the Constituent Assembly by six months. Though it was the fourth extension, there are greater hopes for progress.

The parties also managed to form a state restructuring commission, which has begun tackling the next thorny issue _ sketching a new map of Nepal by dividing it into states. Some want the new states to be formed on the basis of ethnicity, while others want them determined by geography.