The news last month from Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, came as a rare and surprising bout of joy. The country's prime minister and the leader of an insurgent Maoist group signed an agreement to end the bloody 11-year civil war that has killed 13,000 people, displaced up to 200,000 more, and caused untold human suffering.
The joy is justified because, after two failed peace deals, in 2001 and 2003, this accord offers genuine prospects of peace for the nearly 30 million people who live in the impoverished, Himalayan country.
The CNN news ticker seemed to whisper: "Nepal, rebels sign peace accord." But for many Nepalis, the deal is historic, comparable to the 1783 Treaty of Paris that helped conclude the American Revolution.
It was the moment of a lifetime, and I called my father, a retired Hindu priest who lives in a rural township in eastern Nepal. "Dad," I asked him, "is this happening for real?"
"They sound like they are serious this time around," he said. But he cautioned: "Only time will tell."
The historic deal enjoins the government and the Maoists to lock up their arms under UN supervision. That should help create an environment for a free and fair election to the Constituent Assembly (CA), slated for June 2007. The CA will choose between a monarchy and a republic, a key Maoist demand. The accord also outlines major reforms for land ownership, regional autonomy, indigenous rights, and civil liberties.
The signatories, formerly sworn foes, eulogized each other and described the agreement as "a miracle for the world to see." Girija Prasad Koirala, the elderly, ailing premier and the veteran of Nepal's democratic movement, applauded the ideological turnabout in Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda), who until recently was the country's most wanted terrorist leader.
In recent months, Prachanda (which means "the fierce one") has dropped calls for a communist republic, settling instead for a competitive, multiparty democracy. He has admitted that a purely Maoist utopia is now geopolitically impossible. By all indications, he is going mainstream.
Referring to his compromise with the Maoists and joint efforts to end the power of Nepal's monarchy, Mr. Koirala said it was every democrat's duty to bring non-democrats under a democratic framework. And he declared that Nepal had set an example that dialogue, not arms, is the way. He added: "Today, we have given a message to terrorists all over the world."
Prachanda, for his part, proclaimed that even countries arrogant with power would be forced to study Nepal's 21st-century revolution, a mix of armed uprising and nonviolent protests.
Behind the overture and joy, however, is a more- complex message. Nepal's challenge now is to manage an insurgent democracy radicalized by the ultraleft. Demo- cratic peace is far from won.
Monitoring arms and elections will not be easy. There is no guarantee that the Maoists will report all their weapons. Despite the accord, their excesses, in the form of abductions, extortions, recruiting, and forced labor, continue.
A critical test is accounting for thousands of people missing in the conflict, and finding a way to bring closure to the past human rights violations and atrocities committed by both sides. The proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission is likely to emphasize "forgive and forget," a stance consistent with Nepal's culture of impunity. It remains to be seen how fairness and justice will be played out in the new Nepal.
Foreign powers, such as the US, India, and Britain, have played a crucial role in prodding the parties in conflict to reach the accord. The world community's continued support is critical to waging peace.
At the heart of Nepal's problem are extreme inequities in wealth, power, and social status. About half the population is illiterate and the per capita income is just $1,400 in purchasing power parity. To correct course, Nepal must integrate into the global economy by making massive investments in human capital, education, health, and skills.
Solving everyday problems of basic survival requires a painstaking socioeconomic revolution. Without the embrace of democratic values that help sustain such efforts, democratic structures such as elections, a constitution, and a free press are merely slogans.
As my father tried to reassure me, it takes time to grow and mature. I hope that is what's happening in Nepal.
• Dharma Adhikari is a native of Nepal. He teaches journalism at Georgia Southern University.