Nepal’s struggle to establish a constitutional government has been long and tumultuous. Beginning in 1996, a ten-year conflict between the Government of Nepal and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) left over 13,000 dead and approximately 1,300 forcibly disappeared. Hereditary chief ministers, known as Ranas, ruled the country for over a century before the monarchy took power in 1951. Nearly forty years later, a popular pro-democracy movement, the Jana Andolan (People’s Movement), spawned a series of violent street protests. But it took a civil war for the monarchy to finally agree to end its direct rule in 2006. Soon thereafter, the Maoists began peace talks with the parliamentary government, and in 2008 a nationwide election for a Constituent Assembly (CA) completely abolished the monarchy and declared Nepal a federal democratic republic.
Nearly a decade after the war’s end, Nepal continues to struggle with the effects of this turbulent civil war. Disappeared persons still have not been accounted for and few efforts have been made to ensure accountability. The Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) signed in 2006 included a number of promises, such as justice for the victims and their families, and an end to impunity. By some estimates both sides of the conflict may have committed up to 9,000 international human rights law or international humanitarian law violations, with enforced disappearances among the most serious. Earlier this year the government established two separate commissions, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Commission of Inquiry on the Disappearances, though little progress has been made.
A key point in the CPA called for the promulgation of a new democratic constitution that would ensure the protection of marginalized communities. Historically, Nepal’s nearly 28 million inhabitants have been highly stratified into some 125 caste/ethnic groups, and many were hopeful for social progress and greater equality under a new founding document. Efforts to draft a new constitution began in 2008, but the main political parties have yet to agree on a final version. A major stumbling block has been disagreement over the administrative division of Nepal. Having been centrally governed for more than two centuries, Nepalese politicians cannot agree on how to federalize the country along ethnic lines. A new president and prime minister cannot be elected until a constitution is adopted, further compounding the country’s governance issues.
The devastating earthquakes earlier this year seemed to break the seven-year stalemate, however. In the aftermath, the leading political parties agreed to organize Nepal into eight federal provinces, only to see dozens of small parties reject the deal. Since then, violent protests have erupted in response to subsequent proposals on the number of provinces. Ethnic groups across Nepal are demanding that a new draft of the constitution address their concerns. The Madhesi and Tharu communities both object to plans for their regions to merge with districts that they claim belong to political elites. The Tharus, a group that numbers about 1.7 million, want a separate province. The Madhesis and other groups, fear the proposed division of the provinces will diminish their political power.
The government has responded with violence. The Nepali Police and the Armed Police Force have reportedly beaten and even used lethal force against protestors. In turn, people in the streets have vandalized buildings and attacked officers, including one who was doused with kerosene and set on fire last month. Despite continuing protests from ethnic minority groups, the CA began voting on a draft of the constitution on Sunday.
With approximately 40% of the population living in poverty and the April earthquakes causing widespread devastation, an end to almost a decade of negotiations over the constitution could provide a modicum of much needed political stability. The current draft is supported by the three major parties, but the smaller opposition parties (about 9 percent of the assembly) are refusing to vote. As protests continue throughout the country, Nepal’s many challenges are likely to continue into the foreseeable future.