REPORTING FROM KATMANDU, NEPAL -- Nepal took a step closer toward a comprehensive peace deal with an agreement forged to integrate about 6,500 former Maoist fighters into the nation’s armed forces and offer compensation packages to the rest.
In a seven-point deal, the Himalayan nation’s four major political parties late Tuesday also agreed to complete the stalled peace process within a month, hand over property seized during the civil war and prepare a draft constitution.
“I’m optimistic,” said Anagha Neelakantan, Katmandu-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, which carries out independent analyses. “It contains specifics, unlike previous agreements. It’s also broad-based, with a range of political parties signing on.”
Figuring out what to do with more than 19,000 former fighters, many poorly educated with few marketable skills, has been a major stumbling block since the Maoists ended their armed struggle in 2006.
Many in the army have resisted the introduction of their former enemy into their ranks, citing the Maoists’ lack of military discipline, although a bridge training program lasting up to two years should address some of those concerns.
Under the agreement, former rebels selected on the basis of fitness, age and other criteria will be limited to non-fighting roles, such as forest conservation, industrial security and social development work.
“The agreement is what the people have been anticipating for a long time,” said Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, whose party is the largest in parliament. “It is now our challenge to complete the peace process.”
Even optimists concede that a large dollop of caution is in order. The country has had four governments since an election in April 2008 and seen three deadlines blown to write a constitution.
“We’ve had three-point agreements, four-point agreements, six-point agreements,” said Nihar Nayak, associate fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi. “We can’t say this is the end of political standoffs in Nepal.”
And there are also cracks within the Maoist camp, where hard-liners have already voiced opposition to the deal. Among their demands: that more former fighters receive jobs in the armed forces, that they receive combat posts and that entire fighter units be transferred intact.
-- Rajneesh Bhandari and Mark Magnier
Photo: Nepal's former Maoist combatants participate in a physical training program in a camp in Chitwan, 50 miles southwest of Katmandu, in 2008. Credit: Pradeep Shrestha / AFP/Getty Images.