After a decade of conflict, Nepal's Maoist rebels formally joined a political process over the weekend with a pact that appears to move the country decisively toward peace.
Optimism is palpable in the country after a landmark meeting Friday between the prime minister and rebel leader Prachanda that laid the groundwork for a new government. The deal calls for drafting an interim constitution in 15 days, forming an interim government with Maoist participation, announcing a date for constituent assembly elections, and dissolving both the parliament and rebel-run local governments.
It's heady stuff for a country that less than two months ago was mired in a stalemated conflict. Since street rallies forced a political turnabout, Nepal has journeyed steadily toward peace as leaders displayed a strong spirit of compromise, say analysts.
"Peace prospects are bright, thanks to good intentions demonstrated by both the negotiating sides," says Sudheer Sharma, the former editor of Nepal, a popular weekly news magazine. "With the willingness to compromise and accommodate, Prachanda has left the rigidity that is often associated with Maoism.... [The Maoists] are into open politics now."
But tempering some of the optimism is the failure of the pact to address the most contentious issue: Maoist arms and fighters.
"The agreement is a development in the positive direction, but much will depend on arrangements to neutralize the role of Maoist armed forces during the interim period leading to elections of constituent assembly," says Prakash Chandra Lohani, vice-president of the Rastriya Janashakti Party.
In a nod to concerns about violence harming the election process, the two sides have decided to invite the United Nations to manage the armed forces and weapons of both the Maoists and the former Royal Army.
But Mr. Lohani insists that glaring ambiguities remain on this issue.
"Under whose control will the Maoist army be when they join the interim government in a month? Will the UN be able to manage arms within that timeframe? Unless these issues are resolved, the whole idea of free and fair elections does not hold," says Lohani.
While the Maoists agreed on a cease-fire code-of-conduct with the government on May 26, they have continued to extort money and issue threats to journalists, thus violating the code, according to Kantipur, the largest daily newspaper.
Nepal's rebels, who have waged a violent war for a decade to topple the monarchy, are believed to have a People's Liberation Army (PLA) of approximately 10,000 fighters. The rebels control 75 percent of the country's territory where party leaders and activists have been unable to operate since the last general elections were held seven years ago.
Analysts say that if Maoist leaders continue to control the PLA, their participation in the interim government would be problematic.
"The parties should be very careful," says Prateek Pradhan, editor of The Kathmandu Post. "Prachanda should promptly resolve the issue of arms. Otherwise, he or his comrades shouldn't join the interim government," he says, arguing that if Maoists continue to control an armed group, peace would be threatened in the event that the results of constituent assembly elections are not to their liking.
"And when they join the interim government in a month, which army will be the legitimate state army: the PLA or the Nepali Army? The Maoists are pushing the argument that PLA is the legitimate state army while the Nepali Army is the residue of a rejected regime. This is dangerous," says Pradhan.
Problems notwithstanding, leaders of the major parties are upbeat. "The destination â€“ constituent assembly election â€“ is set now. The only big issues that remain are the future of the monarchy and the structure of the future Nepal," says Bam Dev Gautam, an influential leader of Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist. Mr. Gautam added that the rest are "small issues" that can be taken care of with mutual consent.
Beyond Friday's agreement, journalists and ordinary citizens closely followed the details of Prachanda's first public appearance in nearly 30 years. Prachanda, whose nom de guerre means "The Fierce One," was provided security by his longtime foe, the state army, both at the prime minister's residence and at a modest downtown hotel.
The dialogue with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala and top leaders of the alliance of seven democratic parties represented the highest level talks ever between the rebels and the government.
Prachanda, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, has been pushing for a republic ever since the insurgency started in February 1996. However, after talks, he said that parties are free to go to the elections â€“ to take place by May 2007 â€“ with their own stand on the monarchy. In his 30-minute speech to the press, he came across as a rather accommodative visionary with great oratory skills, contrary to his image as a rigid revolutionary.
Even staunch royalists have congratulated him for that. "I was deeply impressed by Prachanda's presentation of his vision of future Nepal," says Ramesh Nath Pandey, who was foreign minister in King Gyanendra's cabinet. "I must also add that he demonstrated admirable nationalist sentiment."
However, those who have been in contact with the rebel chief for quite sometime now point out that flexibility is not an excuse for rushed agreements.
Arjun Karki, the president of NGO Federation Nepal, an umbrella body of Nepal's nongovernmental organizations, says that the flexibility is because the Maoists are in a hurry to join the government. "They have demonstrated flexibility on a number of issues in the last couple of years. But the peace process remains very fragile, especially because it is being conducted without transparency and without participation of conflict resolution experts," he says.
Mr. Karki, whom the government named as a member in a cease-fire code of conduct monitoring committee announced on June 15, was not even asked for consent. "Neither did the government inform me that I was named. I came to know only from newspapers," says Karki, adding that such opacity won't help the peace process.