Solheim’s Test

From Republica Daily (31 January 2012)

The arrival of Erik Solheim, Norway’s Minister for International Development, provides occasion to evaluate the efforts of Western governments on the peace process and constitution-writing in Nepal. Both activities are dangerously stuck at the moment, and it is important to seek answers as well as support from all who have sought to play a role.
The overwhelming blame for today’s deadlock on peace and constitution lies within Kathmandu’s polity, including the party leaders young and old, the civil society ‘stalwarts’, the opinion-making intelligentsia and the scholar-consultants. They have been unable to speak truth to power, cowered in the face of radical populism, and failed in the fearless commitment to pluralism that marked our recent forbears.

However, the international community must also be answerable vis-à-vis the quicksand that has snared our peace and constitution-writing. India’s involvement in Nepal is of course pre-eminent, and its role in our ‘peace politics’ is a story all its own, receiving constant attention but poorly understood. Meanwhile, we must not forget that Western donors and diplomats have more influence in shaping trends in Kathmandu than they do in any other South Asian capital. This is one of the few places in Asia where the expatriate can be an activist or ‘player’, which demands concomitant humility in trying to understand the host society.

The high regard Kathmandu has for the donor-diplomat is the result of the decades of development, but also the romance of the West among the urban middle class of a non-colonized society. The checkbook which supports ‘projects’ across the socio-political spectrum also generates influence if not power from the capital to the districts: the peace-and-constitution machinery is today oiled almost entirely by Western funds.

Besides their long-term engagement with Nepal, the donors and embassies help provide perspective on the present, as when flagging the abandonment of local governance, promoting the rights of marginalized communities, or raising alarm on human rights and transitional justice. At the same time, the ubiquitous availability of funds at this moment of societal churning has dulled the political instinct of civil society. Activists involved in critical current issues, from feminism to peace, federalism and democracy, have been depoliticized and transformed into workshop organizers. Grant-recipient scholars have scurried to fit their reports to be the perceived tilt of the ‘diplo-donor’.


Norway has been one of the most ‘liquid’ donor institutions of the past decade; and it has been invested in the peace process since before the Maoists came above-ground. Minister Solheim, active on peace matters from Sri Lanka to Sudan to East Timor, has Nepal in his portfolio of interests. With financial stakes in Nepal’s hydropower development, the Government of Norway has a better window on our sociopolitical reality than many Western capitals.

A series of US diplomatic communications exposed by WikiLeaks provides a perspective on Oslo’s positioning on our peace process, confirming the general perception that Norway has nicely cultivated the Maoists. Tore Toreng, former ambassador and till recently Oslo’s special envoy on Nepal, told the US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake in February 2010, according to one leaked memo, that “the Norwegians have a long history of contact with the Maoists and can thus communicate clearly and directly with the Maoist leadership”. He also suggested, “Minister Solheim wants to adopt in Nepal the approach he used in Sri Lanka of regular high-level visits to Nepal to maintain momentum in the peace process.”

At the critical juncture when he arrives in Kathmandu, what ‘approach’ will Minister Solheim take? Will he use Oslo’s carefully nurtured influence with the ex-rebels to steer Nepal at this penultimate moment towards peace (immediate disbandment of cantonments, for one) and a democratic constitution? Nepal can use all the international help it can get on these matters, for the values are universal.


The international community, as a whole, has remained silent on the stark reality that our constitution-writing has proceeded under duress, with the largest political party holding on to its private army throughout the last four years of the Constituent Assembly. One presumes no one wants to saddle Nepal with an autocratic system, where one party supremo calls the shots and federalism is merely ceremonial. It does not help that the diplomatic corps of today does not feel the pulse of the People’s Movement of April 2006, when the citizens stood up en masse for an end to both royal autocracy and violent politics.

The misreading of Nepal’s ‘peace politics’ by the influential embassies has been a bane, intensifying tensions and polarizations. Over the past half-decade, many diplomatic missions took their cue from the reports of the United Nations Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) and the International Crisis Group (ICG). The leadership of both organizations maintained a monochromatic outlook on our society, regarding the parliamentary parties (mostly social democratic) as conservative defenders of status-quo, and the UCPN (Maoist) as the party of transformation. The Maoists’ one ‘sin’ of waging violent politics was seen to have been erased through their participation in the elections of April 2008. The report-writers of UNMIN and ICG are long gone, but we are left with their legacy, in the worldview of so many diplomats.

Back in May 2006, immediately after the People’s Movement, a leaked US embassy memo presents as Solheim’s the view that “it was unrealistic to expect the Maoists to give up their weapons before the completion of a peace process, and that constituent assembly elections were just one step in that process.” Interpreting the language once removed, the Constituent Assembly seems to have been perceived as a tool of the peace process rather than the institution to write Nepal’s democratic future.

As late as February 2010, Ambassador Toreng told the Americans that “the Maoists need assurances… before they will be willing to empty the cantonments completely, and that the international community must support work toward consensus in order to bolster more moderate forces, such as Prachanda.”

Going by the WikiLeaks revelations, Oslo has regarded the UCPN (Maoist) as being cornered by the other forces rather than vice versa. Does Oslo still maintain this understanding, when the Maoists have been part of our national establishment for nearly half a decade? And is Chairman Dahal still regarded as a ‘moderate force’, despite the scare-mongering, demagoguery, triplespeak, opportunistic ultra-nationalism, wealth-amassing, and dreadful exploitation of the Maoists’ own cadre and ex-combatants?

Minister Solheim, a strong-willed politician who does not shirk controversy, may like to seek answers to these questions before he departs Kathmandu. The minister will have to try and evaluate whether the personable Maoist chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, has sought to exploit the Norwegian goodwill to bolster and consolidate his personal and his party’s position at the cost of pluralism, peace, development, communitarian cohabitation, economic growth, investment and prosperity for the people at large.


Nepali society is teetering on the edge as Minister Solheim arrives. We seem headed towards a least-common-denominator constitution in which universal values of pluralism, democracy and human rights would be adjusted on the platform of ‘compromise’. The negotiations on the truth and reconciliation commissions points to blanket amnesty. The federalism definition is tilting towards identity rather than economic geography, which would deliver Bantustans hurting the poorest communities even as the Dalits are offered the sop of ‘non-territorial federalism’.

A directly-elected presidential or prime ministerial system would deliver a centralized ‘elected autocracy’ that would make mockery of federalism.The Nepali people deserved better, but instead they are entrapped by a docile civil society, feeble parliamentary politicians, and the influential diplomatic community that refuses to speak aloud as Nepal is pushed towards political atavism. It is not too late for Minister Solheim to evaluate his Ministry’s engagement with the UCPN (Maoist) and come down firmly and openly on the side of lasting peace and a democratic constitution. A willingness to bring one’s power of persuasion to bear would surely be rewarded in Nepal’s rise as a peaceful democracy and inclusive society, rather than a place left in tatters with the best of intentions.

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