UNMIN’s Exit: Good for Nepal

By Murari Sharma

The fear about a military coup or Maoist revolt expressed by Karen Landgren, the outgoing chief of the United Nations Mission to Nepal (UNMIN), at the UN Security Council and statements from several Maoist leaders in Nepal manifest how deeply they are about the mission shuttering its door soon, as the government has decided not to seek its extension. While the mission’s departure might look premature to many, there is reason to panic. It might actually prove to be coup de grace to obstructionism, which is dragging the peace process, and help us take the process to the finish line faster.

I had read an instructive and interesting story as a student in India about coup de grace. A family fell into hard times after the breadwinner father died. Rather than working to make a decent living, his three sons sold their property and lived on the proceeds. At last, they only had their house and a legume tree in their backyard left. They lived in poverty on the meager income from the sale of the legumes. Once, their father’s fast friend came to visit them. In the evening, the mother cooked all the rice they had which was not enough for more than two people.

Citing fake reasons, two elder brothers did not eat. The guest and the youngest son sat down for dinner, but the son ate little pretending that he was not hungry that much. At night, the guest heard the brothers telling a legume buyer that they would accept whatever he gave because they could not bargain much due to the guest’s presence in the house. When the brothers went to sleep after the trade, the guest felled the legume tree and left. Few years later, the same guest came back to see how the family was doing. The family, now prosperous, treated him very well and expressed their gratitude for cutting off the legume tree and forcing them to work to make a living, which had made them wealthy.

Change, always unsettling, is often rewarding. The UNMIN’s impending departure has rattled many nerves, because its presence has been reassuring to many of us in that the United Nations, an institution where Nepal also has a stake and some voice, was watching over the peace process. I have witnessed in the seven years working with the world body, other countries, where UN missions have been closed, have often felt the same way, but become more self-reliant and stronger after the UN mission left, from Cambodia to Mozambique to Guatemala.

That is what I expect to happen in Nepal too. Once the UNMIN leaves, both the Maoists and the other political parties will have to either advance the peace process more diligently on their own or accept facilitation from a country that has more resources and political influence than the UNMIN to lean on the recalcitrant side. Either way, they will have to bridge the wide gulf on such key issues as the integration of Maoist combatants, formation of government and writing of the new constitution and carry the peace process to its logical end.

While the Maoists want all their combatants integrated into the army, other political parties and the military have opposed the idea. Their opposition has further intensified after a video footage of the speech given by Maoist Supremo Prachand at the Shaktikhor cantonment outlining his strategy to politicize the army and capture the state, was leaked to the media.

Nepal is heading to break all records of working under a caretaker government, which has already been more than five months. The process of electing a new prime minster has hit a tactical stalemate. Desperate to become prime minister again, Prachand used the UML President Jhalanath Khanal to kick out his own UML colleague Madhav Nepal from the chair. In apparent retaliation, the caretaker Prime Minister Nepal has prevented both Dahal and Khanal from becoming prime minister. And the Nepali Congress and Maoists would not support each other.

It has become increasingly clear that the constituent assembly would not be able to deliver a new constitution within the extended timeframe. While the Maoists want to write a “people’s constitution” and keep their combatants in cantonments until the general elections are held under the new legal framework, other parties want a democratic constitution completed only after the combatants have been disbanded. The technical reasons cited for a lack of progress, some of them serious, seem more to be the Potemkin’s village to hide their real intentions than real obstacles.

Unless these differences are resolved, the fragile peace process will continue to teeter and even collapse. The UNMIN’s reassuring presence was hurting rather than helping the process. For instance, too worried about the Maoist threat to walk away from the peace process, the UNMIN has treated the former rebels with kid’s gloves whenever they have breached their commitments — including the combatants freely walking in and out of cantonments with weapons on the UNMIN’s watch. This has encouraged the Maoists to maintain Manichean duality between revolution and peace, the latter as an obstacle to their objective. Because of this, the mission has not been forceful in criticizing other parties for their failures, either.

In the neighborhood, neither India nor China looks favorably at UN involvement in resolving conflicts in their backyards. New Delhi feels uncomfortable with the UNMIN because it has sent wrong signals to the Indian Maoists creating mayhem in the red corridor and emboldened those who want greater UN participation in the Kashmir issue. Beijing too is concerned that, taking a cue from Nepal, its troubled minority provinces might wish to insert the United Nations in their affairs. Therefore, both our neighbors would be happy to see the UNMIN’s back.

Whatever the reason, the UNMIN’s departure will be good for Nepal. It will force both the Maoists and other political parties to make new compromises and fulfill old commitments to advance the peace process. The Maoists will no more have the mission that has offered a curtain behind which they could continue paying lip service to peace while preparing for revolution, as their latest resolution has manifested. And other political parties will have to get their acts together to defend democracy and freedom, rather than shifting blame to the UNMIN.

What Nepal needs today is not lingering uncertainty on the UNMIN’s watch but fresh and more vigorous efforts to strengthen peace and protect democracy. Reducing poverty, educating people, and giving more voice to populace must be integral to such efforts. Therefore, let us ask the United Nations to deploy a robust peace-building mission with a well-funded and coordinated development agenda and not shed tears over the impending departure of the utterly ineffective UNMIN.

January 7, 2011

(Published in Republica of January 9, 2011)



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