So the Magical Number for Nepal’s Peace Process is 6,500 (?)

Leaders agree on number of Maoist guerillas to be integrated

KATHMANDU, NOV 01 – The peace process that was started five years ago in 2006 is likely to witness its logical conclusion. The meeting of the top brass leaders of the major political parties—Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, UCPN (Maoist) and the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha—on Tuesday agreed on contentious issues of the peace process.

UML leader Bhim Rawal announced the deal amid a press conference organised at the PM’s residence.

The leaders have agreed to integrate 6,500 former Maoist combatants into the Nepal Army in an individual basis, Rawal informed. Likewise, the rehabilitation package has been agreed upon Rs. 600,000 to Rs. 900,000 as per the rank of the combatants.

Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, NC President Sushil Koirala, UML Chairman Jhala Nath Khanal and Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar as SLMM’s representative signed on the “peace deal” at Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s official residence in Baluwatar.

Meanwhile, Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal held a talk with his deputy Mohan Baidya—leader of the party’s hardliner faction—so as to take him into confidence.

The background: how they bargained

KATHMANDU, NOV 01 – Even though top leaders of the three major parties are inching towards consensus on integration and rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants, the Maoists and non-Maoist parties are still divided on other components of the larger package deal.

A meeting among top guns of the UCPN (Maoist), Nepali Congress and CPN (UML) witnessed a heated debate on Monday after NC, the main opposition, expressed reservations on a call for a package deal in the peace process, constitution making and power sharing put forth by Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal. NC President Sushil Koirala ruled out accord on contentious issues of constitution making and power sharing until a tangible progress in the peace process is had.

Negotiators have said talks are headed to a positive direction and that they could find a meeting point in the next meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. The number of combatants to be integrated and the golden handshake scheme to be offered to combatants wishing to be rehabilitated are major contentious issues that are being discussed during the negotiations.

During the three-hour-long meeting at the Park Village Resort, Budhanilkantha, the NC and the UML proposed that the upcoming deal should mention that the number of combatants to be integrated will not exceed 6,000. In the meeting also attended by Maoist Vice Chairman Mohan Baidya, Dahal said that the agreement should mention integrating between 5,000 and 7,000 combatants.

A Maoist Politburo member close to Dahal said, the Maoist chairman is ready to accept the integration of 6,000 combatants, but wants to play it safe by providing less room for criticism from the hardliners. The hardliners have been mounting pressure on Dahal to not accept anything less than 8,000 combatants coupled with the demand for combat role for the integrated force.

NC has been rejecting the Maoist demand of Rs 600,000 to Rs 900,000 for combatants opting for rehabilitation and voluntary retirement. It has proposed that the package should be between 300,000 and 600,000. UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal, in Monday’s meeting, urged leaders to be flexible by accepting the cash package between Rs 500,000 and Rs 800, 000.

Negotiators from both the sides confirmed that they could find a meeting point on integrating 6,000 combatants and providing cash package worth Rs 600,000 to Rs 700,000. The meeting has entrusted top leaders to finalise the agreement with a time-bound calendar and present it in Tuesday’s meeting.

The establishment faction of the Maoist party wants to strike an agreement before the party’s central committee meeting scheduled for November 3. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and Dahal are in a mood to sign the deal before their upcoming trips abroad.

Bhattarai is scheduled to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the Saarc Summit to be held from November 10 in Maldives. Dahal plans to leave for New York on November 5 to hold talks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on the development of Lumbini.

During the three-party meeting on Monday, Dahal reaffirmed his party’s commitment to peace and constitution and stressed the need of a package agreement on contentious issues of statute drafting, formation of a national unity government along with a deal on the peace process. He also committed that the regrouping of combatants would be completed within a month after an agreement on the package deal.

Responding to Dahal’s plan, NC President Sushil Koirala urged the Maoist chariman to not deviate from recent efforts to secure a deal on the peace process first. UML Chairman Jhala Nath Khanal echoed Koirala’s stand, saying that a package deal can bear fruit only if there is tangible progress in the peace process on the ground.

To prevent the talks from spiralling into another round of acromony, former PM Madhav Kumar Nepal urged the leaders to take forward the negotiations as per a recommendation made by the three-party taskforce ahead of Bhattarai’s visit to Delhi.

After Nepal’s intervention, two leaders from each party–Dahal and Bhattarai, Koirala and Krishna Sitaula and Khanal and Nepal–held a separate meeting for half-an-hour and entrusted on the top three leaders the responsibility of finalising a joint proposal with a built-in time-bound calendar and presenting it in Tuesday’s meeting.

Recent talks among the parties focused on resolving five contentious issues regarding integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants–numbers, modality, norms of integration, rank determination and rehabilitation package.

The Maoists have expressed willingness to address the issue of returning property seized during the conflict, dismantling the paramilitary structure of the Young Communist League, formation of the truth and reconciliation and disappearance commissions.

And here’s the Nepali Congress story:

KATHMANDU, NOV 01 – A series of positive statements on the peace process in the past one month reflects a tactical shift in negotiation and public relations (PR) strategy adopted by the Nepali Congress, which, the party leaders hope will counter the party’s ‘obstructionist image.’

The new approach stems largely from conviction among the NC leaders that a generally positive approach in public presentation on matters related to the peace and statute drafting processes will help claw back the party’s ‘unfavourable’ image.

NC leaders say they have now realised that the Maoists have all along handled themselves extremely well before the media, when in fact they were pushing for tough bargain in the actual negotiations. This has led to the grand old party, which prides itself in leading the charge in ‘numerous democratic struggle’, being presented in negative light.

“We will be extremely amenable to fulfil the public aspirations for peace and constitution,” said NC President Sushil Koirala, speaking briefly at the Maoist tea reception in Kathmandu on Monday–hours after attending negotiations among the three major parties.

The remarks are part of NC’s careful strategy to get the public messaging right in a bid to avoid being seen as a ‘status-quoist,’ according to NC leaders.

“We are very serious about completing the peace process,” said NC leader and a member of the Special Committee, Minendra Rijal. “But we haven’t done enough to present ourselves favourably in the press. So we thought this is the right time to be proactive.”

The new efforts come amid a growing perception that the Maoists were doing more to complete the peace process despite strong opposition from hardliners among them. This has earned the former rebels some accolades among the international community–especially after the Maoists handed over the keys to arms containers on September 1.

“In our meetings we have been telling NC leaders to be more amenable,” said a Western diplomat last month.

A February 2009 US embassy cable dispatched from Kathmandu on the eve of US Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher’s visit to Kathmandu also sheds some light on how the NC was perceived even among countries that had been critical of the Maoists in the past.

“The GON (Government of Nepal) has made little progress on the wider peace process, and bickering within and among the political parties has not helped matters. The opposition NC party complains about the Maoists’ lack of implementation of previous agreements, especially returning seized land and reigning in the YCL, and other parties even within the ruling coalition share the complaints. Nevertheless, the NC tends to appear as obstructionist more often than not.”

NC leaders say that they are aware of these perceptions and that they are now doing more to counter it.

“Our public presentation of the peace process has been flawed for quite sometime,” admitted NC leader Gagan Thapa, who along with others, has advised the party leadership to do away with “too much negativity” in public remarks. “It has done quite a lot of damage to our public standing.”

NC President Sushil Koirala is said to be convinced that adopting a ‘non-obstructionist’ approach on the peace process coupled with an increase in engagement with the Maoists will ultimately help the NC’s image. A semblance of progress in the peace process also provides a useful diversion from NC’s internal problem for Koirala who is under strong pressure from the Deuba camp for unilaterally dissolving the party’s sister wings.

However, NC leaders make clear that the positive vibes in the media, in part, come as a reciprocation of the Maoist gesture rather than a ‘unilateral action.’

The party president’s point-man on the peace process, Krishna Sitaula, argues that it is the ‘change of heart,’ among the Maoists, particularly Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai that drives his party’s response.

Even party President Sushil Koirala feels that Dahal and Bhattarai will have to be encouraged to take the peace process forward. Koirala has publicly prodded Dahal to act as a statesman and take risks to take the peace process forward. If the peace process is concluded, NC, too, gets the credit, and if polarisation within the Maoists leads to a split within them, the party benefits equally, goes the thinking, according to some NC leaders.

“If you look at the negotiations, there hasn’t been any substantive change in our positions,” said NC leader Rijal. “Maoists say they are serious about completing the peace process. Even if it’s their bluff, it is high time we call their bluff.”

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