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Fragile Peacemaking Underway as Nepal Ushers in Democracy, Seeks Talks with U.S.

BY Admin  September 25, 2008 at 1:20 PM EDT

Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda; AP photo

Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who goes by the name Prachanda, or “the fierce one” in Nepali, was elected prime minister Aug. 15 after Nepal’s constituent assembly ended the Himalayan nation’s 239-year-old monarchy and declared the impoverished country a republic.

The assembly has two years to draft a constitution that speaks to the needs of Nepal’s multi-ethnic population of more than 29.5 million.

Prachanda made his first trip to the United States for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in late September. During a speech on the sidelines of the New York meeting, he said his government would maintain democracy and not nationalize the economy.

“There is serious confusion and misunderstanding about our overall position in terms of economic development,” he told the Asia Society think tank, according to Reuters. “We are not fighting against the capitalistic mode of production.”

He said his government was committed to the peace process and to democracy, while trying to raise living standards in his impoverished country.

“We are in a democratic phase and we are going to apply the democratic form of government — it is quite clear,” said Prachanda, who reportedly faced some tough questions from audience members skeptical of the leadership plans of the former guerrilla leader.

In April, Nepal held an election in which the Maoist-derived Communist Party of Nepal, led by Prachanda, won the largest number of votes and took 220 seats in the 601-member assembly. This election marked the first time Nepal had a mixed electoral system through representation and direct vote.

The Maoist party’s victory came as a surprise because of its underground status during the decade-long civil war, during which it didn’t participate in the political process and was widely labeled as a guerilla movement.

The Maoists formed a coalition with the CPN-UML, or the Unified Marxist-Leninists, and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, which represents the Terai region bordering India. The CPN-UML party took 103 seats and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum got 52. Members of the CPN-UML didn’t attend an Aug. 22 ceremony because of a dispute over the country’s deputy prime minister, Bloomberg News reported.

Prachanda named Ram Bahadur, an ex-rebel commander, as minister of defense of his coalition cabinet — giving the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) control of the army that Prachanda fought during the civil war.

Prachanda’s party is on U.S. terrorism blacklists and he was a wanted guerrilla until the 2006 peace deal that led to his party’s election victory this year. The U.S. is reported to have once provided weapons and training to the deposed king’s army to wipe out Prachanda and his Maoist guerrillas.

Despite the sanctions, Prachanda was granted permission to visit New York where he attended a gala dinner hosted by President Bush and spoke kindly of the U.S.

“As this is my first visit to the United States of America, I would like to extend my sincere admiration to the spirit of the American dream,” he said, likening events in Nepal to the American Revolution.

Prachanda told the Agence France-Presse that he did not broach the embarrassing subject of removing his group from the terrorism blacklists when meeting Mr. Bush, but said he was candid at a later meeting with senior U.S. officials.

“I asked them, ‘Tell my why the U.S. leadership has not changed their position and if there is some problem, we are ready to discuss,” Prachanda said. “Because we came so far in this process and if the U.S. leadership really wants this democracy … you should have to rethink about your position as soon as possible. It will be better for both U.S. and Nepal.”

The embattled nation is fraught with economic challenges, ranking among the world’s 50 least-developed nations, according to a United Nations report. Most families survive as subsistence farmers with 24 percent of the population living on less than $1 per day, according to the U.N. World Food Programme. As many as 2.5 million people need food aid because of natural disasters, drought and rising prices.

The economic situation in Nepal spurs many citizens to seek opportunities in other countries.

“Nepal is a poor country, so there’s a lot of migration to the Middle East, Malaysia, South Korea and the challenge is to provide jobs, health care, education and a livelihood,” said Sanjeev Sherchan, assistant director for South and Central Asia policy programs at the Asia Society in New York.

“Right now, the youth goes to the Middle East, and it’s not that they earn so much, but that opportunity doesn’t even exist in Nepal, which has an agricultural industry.”

The political instability and the decade-long Maoist insurgency also affected the education system. Schools often close down due to frequent strikes and demonstrations, and many Nepalese students seek to further their education in India, the United States and the United Kingdom, said Anup Kaphle, a fellow at the Atlantic Media Company in Washington, D.C.

“It’s very important that the new government at least make an attempt to create new opportunities so that the massive brain drain stops immediately,” Kaphle continued. “It’s important for the country as well as young people to work together in the building of the new republic.”

Tourism, once a dominant industry, fell sharply due to the civil war.

“Once the euphoria settles down, the people will have expectations,” Sherchan said. “People just want a functioning government that will start the process of drafting a constitution that will address their needs.”

Despite the changing tides in the country, Sherchan said Nepal’s political situation isn’t yet stable.

The president and vice president are from the south of Nepal, which has long cultivated ties to India. Vice President Parmananda Jha took his oath in July in Hindi rather than Nepali, which launched a violent reaction in a country that has long felt overshadowed by its southern neighbor.

A bomb was thrown at his house on Aug. 17, wounding one soldier, according to Al-Jazeera. Although some critics called for his resignation and others demanded that he take the oath again in Nepali, protests subsided after Jha apologized.

Nepalese have long felt India dominates their country, and Jha’s action inflamed that sentiment.

“Looking from a small country’s lens to India — this is a constant feeling that India is meddling,” Sherchan said.

India borders Nepal on three sides and because it is landlocked, Nepal depends on access to Calcutta’s port for trade. The border between them is very porous, and no visa or passport is necessary. Additionally, Hindi is the language that unites Nepal’s ethnic groups in the south.

Some imports come from China, Nepal’s northern neighbor, but the mountainous terrain between them makes India the bigger trade and tourism partner.

“For Nepal to be under India’s shadow is not a choice, it’s more of a necessity,” said Kaphle. “And while Nepalese often feel frustrated that India interferes too much in Nepal’s politics, we have to understand that as a landlocked country, we really do not have any choice.”

Despite the political upheaval, Nepal’s people appear to be giving the new party a chance.

“They had seen the same parties come and go,” said Sherchan of the Asia Society. “A coalition government would last nine months, 14 months — there were so many changes and even the king was active in changing prime ministers. The aspirations were not met of ordinary Nepalese.”

Even when the coalition would change, the same politicians and senior leaders would remain.

“The Maoists want to include younger faces, people from different ethnic groups, backward classes, women — they gave a sense of inclusiveness which is not the case of previous years,” Sherchan said.