Thursday, January 21, 2010

White Lies

Our leaders are at each other’s throats, but peace work is progressing behind the theatrics

John Narayan Parajuli, The Kathmandu Post

JAN 21 -Girija Prasad Koirala told European ambassadors last week that he did not share the dire assessment of the United Nations about Nepal’s peace prospects. What makes Koirala optimistic and not others? Perhaps the political developments in Nepal in relation to the peace process should not be taken at face value. There is more to them than meets the eye. Despite the bitter feud among the major parties and the propaganda war between the Maoists and those in the centre-right, there is a positive aspect that has been overshadowed by the public displays of acrimony. For example, we seem to have forgotten to attach enough significance to the release of disqualified Maoist combatants that has taken place at a time when relations between the Maoists and other parties are at their lowest ebb. If the strain on the peace process was so grave that it was teetering on the verge of collapse, why is there ongoing cooperation between the two sides? Moreover, parliament has surprisingly resumed without any public agreements being made.

Perhaps the answer lies in the approaches adopted by successful peace processes elsewhere. The Good Friday agreement that cemented the road to lasting peace in Northern Ireland should be of particular interest to the situation in Nepal. The peace process is far from complete, and it has been occasionally beset by dissident militants. More recently, even personal tragedies at the helm of affairs in Belfast have deferred the process. Early this month, Peter Robinson, the First Minister of the Northern Ireland executive, had to step aside for several weeks after revelations that his wife, a member of parliament and the local assembly, took monetary gifts inappropriately to help her lover. There are telltale signs that the First Minister knew about it and failed to report it. On Jan. 8, a car bomb believed to have been planted by dissident members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) critically injured a police officer — a reminder that even 12 years after the historic agreement in 1998, remnants of the conflict linger on.

But the details of how peace was secured through a complex negotiation process for almost a century-old problem in Belfast makes a fascinating read. There are some salient points that could be of use in Nepal. Of particular value is the approach taken to manage the expectations of the different constituencies that both the republicans and the unionists represented. The British and the Irish governments played an important role both publicly and privately in nudging the parties forward. Progress was made amid rows and public displays of mistrust among the parties in the peace process. The peace process in reality is much longer than the formal agreements. Subsequent agreements took place even after the 1998 agreement as the process moved forward.

Paul Dixon, lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster, has identified nine political skills among the individuals and parties involved in Northern Ireland that he believes gave the peace process momentum even during difficult times. Out of the nine, seven seem relevant in understanding the nuances and dynamics of the peace process in Nepal.

First, choreography and play-acting: Dixon points out that both the British government and Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, coordinated events such as the ceasefire through a back channel, yet they maintained room for deniability to manage unintended consequences or fallout. Apparently, the British government even advised the Sinn Fein leader how “best to manage public opinion and criticise the British government”. It is hard to tell if there is any ongoing choreography of the road to peace in Nepal, but the umpteen private meetings that have been held between the top leaders, despite the war of words in public, indicate that a certain level of coordination to manage expectations exists.

Second, smokescreen: Using “hostile rhetoric to disguise a marginally more accommodating stance”. The top leaders on both sides of the ideological divide tried to co-opt and appease “their hardliners by justifying a moderate move as an act of aggression”, whereas a compromise would be rationalised as “a gambit” to gain moral high ground that the opponent cannot match. Excessive rhetoric was utilised as a distraction to push the agreement forward. In Nepal too, the lack of consistency in public deliberations of both the first and second tier leaderships of all the three major parties and constant revisions of their positions suggest different “front stage and back stage realities”.

Third, salami slicing: Dixon argues that the momentum provided by the distraction of a smokescreen would then be used for articulating a more “accommodative line”. This will ensure that hardliners would not interpret it as selling out on ideology. We have seen this tactic being adopted more often by the Maoists. But even within the two non-Maoist parties, the conservative bloc has long accused its top leadership of “surrendering to the Maoists”. Since the fall of the Dahal government, this group has savoured a semblance of victory over the Maoists — securing influential positions in government and the ruling coalition. Recently, in the guise of escalating their agitation, the Maoists without much warning allowed parliament to resume.

Fourth, hard cop/soft cop: Politicians from the same party presented “different faces to different audiences” in a bid to win them over. The leaders of all the three parties make use of this theatrics. The label of hardliner or moderate is distinctly clear among the Maoists. But even within the NC and the UML, there are those who prefer reconciliation with the Maoists and others who favour a tougher approach, at least publicly.

Fifth, kite flying: This approach allows politicians to test the waters before deciding to take a new course of action or moderate their stance. Leaders would write an op-ed piece or ensure a deliberate leak to the press to gauge the reaction of either the party’s constituency or the wider public. Again, the Maoists appear to be leading in the use of this tactic.

Sixth, constructive ambiguity: The key agreements in the peace process were deliberately left vague so that the parties involved could interpret them in their own ways to claim a victory for them. Nepal’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement can be described as being constructively ambiguous — especially the clause dealing with rehabilitation and integration of Maoist combatants.

Seventh, necessary fiction: From time to time, outright lies have been told or given sufficient spin to amount to fiction. The purpose of doing this in Northern Ireland was to win over sceptics on both sides. Only time will tell how much fiction we have fallen for in Nepal. Have the politicians deliberately engineered a crisis from time to time to give momentum to the peace process?

It is hard to tell. There are many similarities between the process in Northern Ireland and Nepal. It is possible that the political skills employed for securing peace in Belfast has some resonance in Kathmandu. Of course, Northern Ireland had the relative advantage of concerted international support and mediators like Bill Clinton, John Major and Tony Blair. But without the character and commitment of local actors like Gerry Adams, David Trimble, John Hume and others, the process could have failed.