Nepal shows the way

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 April, 2007, 12:00am

A massacre of Maoist protesters by a right-wing splinter group of ethnic Madhesis occurred on March 21 in southern Nepal. The tragedy threatened to derail the nation's peace process and undermine the interim coalition government. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, widely known as Prachanda, hinted at 'foreign interests' behind the massacre: 'It seems the American ambassador was very active [in the region],' he claimed. 'The chairman of the [Madhesi People's Rights Forum] met the American ambassador the day before the massacre. While there is no proof, it seems [the Americans] were involved.'

The Bush administration has labelled Nepal's Maoists 'terrorists' and refuses to communicate with them. But excluding Maoists from Nepal's political process - as the so-called democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan did with groups that held different views - is a formula for violence and disaster. These are models of what should not be repeated in Nepal or anywhere else.

Labelling and excluding political forces that hold views different from those of the Bush administration will only drive middle-of-the-road groups to take extreme and uncompromising positions. Such isolation is forced upon them by a US administration constipated by its own political theology.

'We become polarised in a world where terrorism is the result of ... everybody's identity being defined by what they oppose rather than contributing to a holistic whole,' said Ian Baker, an author of many books on the Himalayas and Buddhism and a long-term resident of Kathmandu. 'Every crisis is an opportunity.'

Nepal's Maoists support a democratic parliamentary system, market economics and religious freedom. Despite the massacre setback, Prachanda stuck with the peace process, not returning to the jungle. Rather, he intensified his efforts, hammering out an 11th-hour deal for the Maoists to enter the interim government as a legitimate party.

On Friday, the US ambassador to Nepal met the prime minister, insisting that the Maoists be excluded from the new interim government. That same night, Prachanda met the prime minister - leading to a deal on Saturday and final announcement of a new cabinet lineup on Sunday. The Maoists became Nepal's eighth party, assuming five cabinet seats in the interim government. This development has generally been welcomed by the international community. Ian Martin, head of the UN Mission in Nepal, said: 'I congratulate the leaders of the eight political parties on their willingness to share responsibilities in this transitional period.' The European Union supported the development as 'important in the peace process', while India's Ministry of External Affairs declared it 'another step forward in the implementation of the peace process'.

Only the US remained cautious and critical of the Maoists, saying: 'They must meet their commitments and at last join the mainstream as a non-violent political party.' This, of course, is what they have done, and wanted to do all along.

Nepal is squeezed between India and China, alongside volatile Kashmir. This is a region that should be defined by Buddhist and Hindu principles of peaceful coexistence, not destabilised by the importation of alien political models. Examples of misguided US foreign policy - in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq - should serve as stark lessons of what to avoid.

Nepal offers American foreign policy a fresh opportunity to break past patterns, and to adopt flexible, creative approaches towards building a better future for indigenous people - rather than forcing them to follow systems irrelevant to their own local reality. 'These [political] labels are structures in our mind that don't have to exist, and exist only because we buy into them,' said Mr Baker. 'In the Buddhist approach, the world can change in a moment as soon as our mind changes.'

In Nepal, on Sunday, that finally happened.

Laurence Brahm is a political economist, author, filmmaker and founder of Shambhala Foundation