In Nepal, a chance to consolidate peace from the rubble
06 May 2015 by Devanand Ramiah
As the people of Nepal begin to rebuild their lives through the loss and sorrow that the April 25 earthquake has left in its wake, the country is faced with a choice that carries immense significance for its future.
Nepal was in the midst of a political transition when the earthquake struck. Since a 2006 peace agreement ended a civil war that has claimed more than 15,000 lives, political instability has plagued the country. Nearly ten years on, rival factions are yet to agree on a new constitution.
Conflict and disasters are no strangers to each other, particularly in Asia, which accounted for roughly 40% of disasters and about a third of all active conflicts, globally. Research and experience demonstrate how difficult recovery can be in conflict situations. Together they intensify the risk of future crises by damaging people’s natural coping capacities, worsening poverty and suffering. But two parallel experiences of disasters intersecting with protracted conflicts, in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, also show how disasters opens up a time-bound window for peace building and reconciliation, with actors across political divides coming together in a spirit of national unity.
Sri Lanka and Indonesia
In 2004 when the tsunami hit Sri Lanka, a ceasefire agreement was on the verge of breaking down due to the lack of trust between the two key negotiating parties: the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Norway, which was the mediator in the peace process, used the opportunity created by the disaster to bring both the parties back to the negotiating table and rebuild trust.
Following intense negotiations, the government and the rebels agreed on a process to provide relief and recovery in the conflict zones. A number of political factors including a subsequent court ruling that the agreement was not consistent with the constitution meant it could not be implemented in the end, dragging the country back to war. Nevertheless, the attempts of conflict resolution using the disaster as an entry point provided valuable lessons for peacemaking in the aftermath of the disaster.
The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatists had been fighting for independence from Indonesia for nearly three decades when the tsunami hit in 2004. To be fair, the conflict was already headed towards resolution, with a newly elected government having won on a peace platform. The tsunami created a sense of urgency to resolve the conflict and with the facilitation of former Finnish Prime Minster Martti Ahtisaari the parties reached a peace agreement in August 2005.
In both these examples, irrespective of the final outcome, the negotiations and attempts at peace making were by no means easy.
Nepal’s peace process has been a roller coaster ride since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the government and the so-called Maoist rebels in 2006. Since then there have been some impressive gains; among them a cessation of hostilities, promulgation of a republic and two successful elections for the constituent assembly.
However, Nepal has been struggling to move forward with nation building, and the constitution making process has been in a perennial state of impasse.
There are two lessons Nepal can learn from the Sri Lankan and Indonesian experiences. First, the opportunity needs to be grabbed before the window closes, and it requires third party facilitation - not necessarily external. The mediation can come from within Nepali society but will need to have credibility with all stakeholders. Secondly, the recovery process needs to take into account the local conflict dynamics, which will ensure that the recovery builds social cohesion, instead of widening differences.