In the midday heat, Jeevan Budha sits on a rickety wooden armchair stranded in the middle of an open, bone-dry field. He’s speaking with a young Nepalese female graduate student about why his side—the country’s Maoists, formerly a guerrilla group and now a political party—will correct the failure of previous regimes to address women’s rights in Nepal. The country’s Maoists, who fought a bitter insurgency from 1996 to 2006 and now are locked in a political stalemate with their adversaries, have presented themselves as being on the righteous side of history. “Weapons are not powerful—powerful are those who have strong ideas and humanity,” says Budha (whose Yoda-like phrasing could simply be a matter of idiosyncratic translation). But, ultimately, it is as much their weapons as their populist ideology that makes the Maoists potent.
Budha oversees the Seventh Division Cantonment, a barracks of disarmed Maoist fighters in Kailali District, a rugged, isolated southwest corner of this poor South Asian country. In 1996 the Maoists launched a war to replace the parliamentary monarchy with a “people’s new democratic republic,” promising to end centuries of crippling social and economic inequality under royal rule. A decade later—after at least 13,000 people were killed, the monarchy was abolished, and the insurgents’ efficacy in recruiting fighters and political adherents had far surpassed the expectations of the state Army and political establishment—both sides signed a peace treaty to be temporarily monitored by the United Nations. It stipulated the creation of a new constitution and truth and reconciliation committees, as well as the integration of both armies into one national defense force. The rub: the Maoists’ estimated 19,000 combatants would have to be confined to barracks, where they’d be disarmed (though it’s not clear their weapons are entirely inaccessible) and temporarily monitored by U.N. officials.
After several extensions, the U.N. Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) charged with overseeing the country’s postwar transition says it’s packing up for good. And its scheduled departure on Jan. 15 has cast further doubt over the fate of Maoist combatants, whose confinement had been one of the few stabilizing developments in an otherwise fractious, unfulfilled peace process. Nepal has been functioning with only a caretaker government for more than six months following a no-confidence motion, and leaders appear more at odds than ever. Sixteen attempts to vote in a new prime minister have failed. Work on drafting a new constitution designed to address inequality has stagnated. Some analysts warn that the peace process could soon tailspin. “There has been so little trust and agreement between the parties, and the situation is getting worse,” says Damakant Jayshi, a local political columnist.
The mission’s outgoing chief, Karin Landgren, told reporters Monday that the U.N. was “confident the parties will come to some agreement” before Jan. 15 on a new system for monitoring cadres in the cantonments. Her grim assessment earlier this month to the U.N. Security Council was likely more candid: she described the peace process as “largely deadlocked” and referred to the specter of a renewed Maoist revolt or a state Army-backed coup.
A recent poll on public attitudes by the U.S.-based Carter Center’s office in Katmandu echoed her sentiment. The study, which polled more than 3,000 Nepalese, described the public as “disillusioned” and “pessimistic” that a new constitution would be completed by the May deadline, which is already a one-year postponement from the original date. For its part, the royal family, which not long ago was a revered authority in many quarters of the country despite its often callous rule, continues its downward spiral: would-be crown prince Paras Shah (son of deposed King Gyanendra Shah) was temporarily detained last month after he fired a handgun into the air at a hotel dinner following an argument.
Though the Maoists have officially been transformed from a guerrilla group into the Unified Communist Party of Nepal and earned the most seats (though not a ruling majority) in the 2008 election, many politicians and members of the public still view them as a radical force that, if in power, would push for divisive reform measures, says Manjushree Thapa, a Nepalese author who has written extensively about her country’s political history. The other parties, including the main opposition bloc, the Nepalese Congress, have failed to advance a substantive platform to counter the Maoists, she adds.
If the Maoists’ revolutionary tenor unsettles some, it also presents the former guerrillas with a potent bargaining chip, says Kunda Dixit, a columnist and co-owner of the country’s largest publishing house. “It lets them say, ‘If you don’t agree with us, we’ll go back to war,’ ” he says. (These fears are exacerbated by ongoing reports of political-related violence by the Maoists and groups affiliated with them.) Furthermore, says Dixit, even moderate Maoists who are at odds with hardline elements within the party may want to cultivate an image of their side as loose cannons to force compromises from their adversaries. But Kunda holds onto some cautious optimism. “It’s easy to underestimate how much has been accomplished: monarchy to republic in four years,” he says.
This bigger picture is easily obscured in the current climate of uncertainty. In the meantime, finding clarification from leaders about the country’s future may be difficult. Maoist spokesman Dina Nath Sharma, who dismisses claims that his party is saber rattling, says the Maoists will “try to settle by consensus” and engage only in “peaceful agitation.” He says this in the party’s headquarters in Katmandu, where a publication with glowing images of Mao and Stalin on its cover sits on his coffee table. The Maoists, he insists, have no intention of revoking multiparty democracy, as some critics suggest. So what path forward does he offer? “Not a Chinese model, not a Russian [Soviet] model. It’s our Nepalese model: it’s communism with multiparty competition.”