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Peace process on hold as Nepal's Maoists protest

world Updated: Nov 16, 2009 07:27 IST

He is famous for his fiery speeches, but Nepal's Maoist leader Prachanda projected a dramatically different image last week when he danced in the streets with one of the country's top actresses.

Pictures of the former warlord grinning awkwardly as he jigged with the star during a mass anti-government protest dominated newspaper front pages in Nepal, where the former rebels have been working hard to soften their image.

For a man who spent years hiding in Nepal's jungles and hills, directing a Maoist guerrilla war that left at least 16,000 people dead and brought the Himalayan nation to its knees, it was a dramatic transformation.

The Maoists fought a decade-long civil war with the state that only ended in 2006, and are still listed as a terrorist organisation by many governments, including that of the United States.

But they won landmark elections last year and formed a government that lasted for eight months, before losing power in May when the president overruled their attempt to sack the head of the army.

Since then, they have severely hampered the coalition government that replaced them after their administration fell six months ago by holding regular protests and preventing parliament from sitting.

The peace process that began when the war ended in 2006 has also ground to a halt, and last week the Maoists brought tens of thousands of supporters on to the streets of Kathmandu, blockading the main government building, in a show of strength following the failure of negotiations with the ruling parties.

"The numbers they were able to mobilise and the fact they were able to keep control and maintain the peace indicate the protest was a success," said Maoist expert S D Muni, a professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.

"It also showed the government is incapable of dealing with this kind of challenge. They have succeeded in keeping the Maoists on the fringe, but there has been no advancement in the peace process which is so crucial."

The Maoists, who have around 40 per cent of the seats in parliament, argue that the president's move was unconstitutional and has compromised civilian supremacy over the military.

They are demanding a formal apology and a parliamentary debate on the issue, and have repeatedly refused to join the new government as a junior coalition partner.

The head of the UN mission in Nepal (UNMIN) this month warned the UN Security Council of the "urgent need to de-escalate the tensions and to find a framework for taking the peace process forward."

Karin Landgren said trust between parties continued to dwindle following the fall of the Maoist government in May, and warned that the mandate of UNMIN -- set up to oversee the peace process -- could not continue indefinitely.

Aditya Adhikari, political writer for the Kathmandu Post daily, said the former guerrillas were committed to the peace process, but only "insofar as it helps in their larger objective of expanding their control."

"They don't want a return to guerrilla war, they prefer to struggle through other means," he said.

"But ideologically they still believe in the necessity of violence to create a new social order. Most of them likely feel that another bout of confrontation is quite likely."

Senior Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai recently admitted there were "conflicting views" within the party over how to proceed, and observers say party activists are growing frustrated with the lack of movement.

Bhattarai recently sparked fears of a return to violence when he spoke of a "final insurrection to capture state power" in an interview with the World People's Resistance Movement, a British-based ultra-left organisation.

But he subsequently downplayed the remarks, insisting they were aimed only at reassuring party cadres.

"It's not unusual for the Maoists to turn two different faces to two different audiences," said Michael Hutt, professor at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies and an expert on Nepal.

"If there's a loss of direction there is a danger of different opinions emerging, but the Maoists have tended to be less divided than other political parties in Nepal."

The Kathmandu Post's Adhikari said the Maoists had not found the switch from insurgency to mainstream politics easy.

"There is a failure... to convince the cadres of the efficacy of open politics," he said. "But strategically, their skills are superior to those of (rival parties) the Nepali Congress and UML."