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Long stalemate after Maoist victory disrupts life in Nepal

By Anup Kaphle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2010; A06

KATHMANDU, NEPAL -- For a decade, he carried a 9mm pistol and battled government forces in almost every corner of Nepal as part of a Maoist insurgency that ravaged this majestic Himalayan nation.

Today Basudev "Pawel" Ghimire and thousands of other rebels live in U.N.-monitored camps -- their guns locked away, at least for now. They are the most visible symbol of a political stalemate that has brought Nepal to an awkward and volatile standstill.

A 2006 peace agreement and a surprising Maoist victory in 2008 elections earned the rebels' political party a central role in governing the country. But the Maoists and the Nepalese military and political establishment have been unable to agree on a deal to allow the Maoists to govern.

The resulting deadlock has disrupted life in this nation of nearly 30 million people, and caused jitters from Kathmandu to Nepal's two giant neighbors, India and China.

The latest casualty was Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, who resigned last week after failing to solve the political dilemma, including how to reintegrate the Maoists and their highly trained soldiers into Nepalese life and governance.

Maoist leaders are demanding that all 19,600 members of their People's Liberation Army be accepted into the same national security forces they once battled.

But opponents, including some military leaders, argue that the rebels should be disbanded, permanently disarmed and sent back to their villages, fearing that they would undermine the military and the country's fledgling democracy.

"We fought for a reason," said Ghimire, who lists "national defense" as his only interest on his Facebook page. "We are trained to kill, make bombs and detonate bombs. Now you expect us to go back and plow the farms again?"

At least 12,500 people died, and an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 were internally displaced, during Nepal's 10-year insurgency, which started in 1996. It began as a rebellion by a few dozen men influenced by communist icons Mao Zedong and Karl Marx, and grew into a national movement aimed largely at dislodging the country's centuries-old monarchy.

Under the 2006 peace accord, the rebels agreed to disarm under U.N. supervision and compete in national elections. The Maoists shocked the nation two years later by sweeping elections that ultimately led to the abolition of the 230-year-old monarchy.

The Maoists initially took power in the world's newest republic, in the high-altitude shadow of Mount Everest. Eight months later the Maoists abruptly quit in a dispute over a decision to fire the army chief.

Since then, the Maoists and the ruling parties have been at an impasse -- including over the drafting of a new post-monarchy constitution. Both sides have set a deadline of next year for finalizing the document, but analysts said such deadlines are essentially meaningless in the current political environment.

"If the Maoists and the ruling parties don't move on integration, constitutional issues and power-sharing, we will only be postponing the crisis," said Prashant Jha, a political analyst based in Kathmandu.

Concerns of a Maoist-led government have spread across the border to neighboring India, another democracy struggling with a violent Maoist insurgency. India was also rattled by China's decision to send several high-level military and political delegations to Nepal during the period when the Maoists were in power.

"The Indians fear efforts by Maoists to change the geopolitical balance of the region by cozying up to China," said Prashant Jha, the political analyst.

In camps across Nepal, the former rebels await word on their fate.

On a recent day at a camp in Jhyaltungdada, a small village in western Nepal, about 900 foot soldiers passed the time playing chess and soccer, updating their Facebook status on shared laptops and having heated political discussions.

Dandapani "Dabin" Bhattarai, 25, who said he ambushed government forces all over the country during the insurrection, echoed the common sentiment here that the former rebels should be allowed to join the security forces en masse.

Critics have argued that allowing all members to join could be a destabilizing factor inside the 96,000-strong national army.

"I'll join the national army if all of us are integrated together," Bhattarai said. "But if they filter us and integrate individually, we will understand that their goal was to humiliate us after tricking us into signing the peace agreement."

Army officials say that they are not against the integration process as a whole but that they cannot recruit politically indoctrinated Maoists.

"No way that any political cadre can be integrated in the army. Before the integration starts, they must be disassociated with active politics," said Brig. Gen. Ramindra Chettri, spokesman for Nepal's army.

While the United Nations is nominally in charge of the camps, the Maoists seem to be in control. The combatants in the camps regularly receive robust military and physical training and intense political indoctrination.

Walking past the U.N. offices inside the camp, Ghimire pointed at a massive white container and said, "Our guns are inside those containers. But what the world doesn't know is we are the ones guarding them and we won't have any problems accessing them."

Ram Sharan Mahat, a senior leader of the second-biggest political party, Nepali Congress, said there is no possibility of permanent peace in Nepal as long as the Maoists have an organized army -- even one living in the U.N.-monitored camps.

Baburam Bhattarai, vice chairman of the Maoist party, said he hoped that the political deadlock could be broken and an agreement reached on the fate of the rebels.

"We have no intention of going back to war," Bhattarai said. "But if one side violates the peace agreement, then there is a danger of conflict relapsing again."

Among the soldiers cooling their heels in the camps, there seemed to be less optimism.

"I hope the government understands that at least 95 percent of the People's Liberation Army members will happily go and fight a war for another decade," Ghimire said.

"Now, would they rather have us fight alongside them or fight against them?" he said. "That is a decision they have to make."

Kaphle traveled to Nepal on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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