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Maoists refuse to conform in Nepalese power struggle

The Nepalese prime minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal, says the country's peace process is wavering after the Maoists left the government last month.

KATHMANDU // The Nepalese prime minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal, said yesterday the country's peace process was wavering after the Maoists left the government last month. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist leader known by his nom de guerre, Prachanda, quit his post as prime minister and withdrew the Maoists from government last month after the president, Ram Baran Yadav, overturned his decision to sack the army chief over his alleged failure to integrate the former rebels into the country's regular armed forces.

"The peace process is stalled and it is not moving forward smoothly," Mr Nepal, 56, told Reuters in an interview at his red brick house. "The Maoists want to show that they are honest about peace. But their behaviour is not so," Mr Nepal said, sitting under the photographs of people killed three years ago during protests against the now deposed monarchy. "They need to transform and change their behaviour. Otherwise they will be isolated."

Since leaving government, the Maoists have regularly obstructed parliament sittings, organised general strikes and burnt the new leader's effigy in protests. On a recent morning, a narrow street near a government building in Kathmandu was clogged with cars and pedestrians as protesters blocked the street, waving red flags, flinging empty plastic bottles in the air, and chanting revolutionary slogans.

A helmeted battalion of policemen in riot gear, wielding batons, shields, and tear gas canisters looked on. Nepal's Maoists laid a similar siege to government offices across the country this week, blocking the entry of officials and paralysing business for two hours. The protests recalled the days of the decade-long civil war, which the Maoists ended in 2006. Even though they have catapulted themselves from an underground army of guerrilla fighters to a part of the political mainstream, they still hold an uncanny power to paralyse the state.

Last year, the Maoists formed a government after winning parliamentary elections with a thumping majority, but they quit just eight months later after an acrimonious power struggle with President Ram Baran Yadav over the decision to sack the army chief, Rukmangad Katuwal. The Maoists, still hankering for power, now find themselves relegated to the opposition benches of the Nepalese parliament. This tiny Himalayan kingdom has had 18 governments in the last two decades. And the new government, a loose coalition of 22 political parties, faces a major test of stability amid the growing political violence.

The Maoists, led by Prachanda, meaning "the fierce one", have threatened to set up parallel governments in some districts of Nepal. "We are planning to launch an urban uprising to safeguard a democracy in peril," Prachanda told the Nepali press this week. He also ominously warned Mr Nepal's government not to provoke the former Maoist guerrillas to move out of UN-monitored cantonments, where 23,000 of them are currently sequestered, and reignite a war against the state. Some hardliners still espouse the old Maoist view that the state "should be captured through rebellion".

At the heart of the dispute lies the integration of the country's two armies - the conventional army and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of the Maoists, which was to happen as part of a 2006 peace accord that put an end to a bloody, decade-long insurgency. The Maoists accused the army chief of failing to integrate former rebel fighters and sacked him, a decision that was reversed by the country's president, angering the former rebels.

The army, backed by other mainstream political parties - and tacitly supported by India, with whom Nepal shares a long border - is vehemently opposed to integrating all PLA cadres into the army. And Mr Nepal said only up to 5,000 combatants who fulfil the criteria could be absorbed in the army - the rest will have to be given alternative jobs. But, the prime minister said, the future of the Maoist fighters must be settled before the new constitution was written.

"Otherwise, it will hamper the work in the constituent assembly", he said of the body dominated by the Maoists and tasked to prepare the new constitution. The government has tried to cajole the Maoists to come to the negotiating table - Mr Nepal invited Prachanda to join his government - but the Maoists' decision depends entirely on the future of the two armies. "This country needs civilian supremacy, not military supremacy," said Dev Gurung, the former Maoist minister of law and justice who led one of the protests.

"We had the people's mandate to govern. This government doesn't." Even though Mr Nepal has the numerical strength in parliament to form a stable government, the Maoists remain a force to reckon with. CK Lal, a Kathmandu-based political commentator holds the Maoists "unfit to govern, and unfit to stay in the opposition". "But if an election were to be held today," he added, "they would win hands down. And not just that - they would significantly improve their tally."

While a majority of other political parties appeal to the urban middle class, which make up only 17 per cent of the population, the Maoists hold mass appeal among the millions of rural poor and urban working class. "The Maoists are increasingly blurring the line between the state and party," said Aditya Adhikari, the op-ed editor of the daily Kathmandu Post. "They may be a nuisance to the urban middle class, but they have a broad support among the rest."

achopra@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Reuters