Nepal struggles with democracy

Nepal is still fraught with tensions after decade long civil war, says Dr Jasmine-Kim Westendorf

Peace processes in civil wars are notoriously difficult endeavours, and often fail to establish lasting peace despite international community involvement and the investment of significant resources.

An example of a recent peace process is the south Asian country of Nepal. In 1996 its long-established monarchy finally gave way to a call for democracy, but fractures within the Communist Party saw the rise of the Maoists and a civil war which lasted a decade.

When the democratic government of Nepal was established in 2006 it marked the official end of a decade long civil war and a long drawn-out peace process with heavy involvement from the international community.

Dr Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, a lecturer in international relations at La Trobe University, has been examining international involvement in peace processes. She finds the case of Nepal to be of particular interest, as the underlying tensions that caused the civil war are not addressed and remain unresolved.

"The peace process in Nepal was complicated by competing factions and a monarchy reluctant to relinquish control," she says. "There was also a real impoverishment of a lot of Nepalese citizens, as wealth was concentrated on the Kathmandu valley. Many people in Nepal felt they had little capacity to influence the decisions that were affecting their lives."

"Nepal had a particularly violent civil war in the context of a democratisation attempt," says Dr Westendorf. "15,000 people died and there was a lot of displacement. It's not the kind of conflict that can be forgotten overnight."

Dr Westendorf's research involved interviewing people who were key in Nepal's peace-keeping operation and peace building process, including those in the United Nations, government departments, international NGOs and Nepali civil society.

She found that while the international community supported the establishment of democratic governance, the peacekeeping operation was a very 'light' mission, with a limited number of peacekeepers deployed. Little was done during this process to address the underlying tensions between the major parties in the conflict.

"While Nepal now has a democracy in place, almost a decade later there are still significant unresolved issues,"  Dr Westendorf says. "For instance, many ex-combatants haven't been effectively reintegrated into civilian life, remaining unemployed with few economic prospects. In addition, there's no constitution in place, and the writing process has been fraught with conflict. The most recent attempt has led to widespread violence, the worst seen in the country since the end of the war. Nepal is still trying to decide what a post-war democracy should look like and how the power should be divided between the various groups in the country."

Ultimately, while the international peace process was effective at bringing about disarmament and running a smooth election, little has been done to address the underlying conflict between groups in the country.

"Tension and inequality runs deep in Nepal and governance is undermined by bickering and individualised politics," says Dr Westendorf. "I don't think there's the risk of war breaking out again, and it doesn't need massive international intervention. But this sort of political instability could cause conflict on a local level."

A further event disrupting democratic development was the earthquake of April 2015 which killed 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000. Recovering from this event has been a gradual process, marred by underlying tension as to how relief funds are being distributed.

The Kathmandu district was the hardest hit and is receiving the most funds, but it is also the wealthiest area, and there are many places in Nepal which are still awaiting relief after being hurt by the civil war.

"There's some evidence that earthquake relief funds have been distributed unequally," says Dr Westendorf. "There is evidence of preferential treatment based on ethnic groups or political allegiances."

"The weaknesses in the peace process have left many in Nepal reluctant to re-engage with the international community in a post-earthquake context. The government in particular is quite fatigued with international involvement."

Dr Westendorf's research has examined the peace process and emerging democracies of a number of other countries,  in particular Timor-Leste. As in Nepal, the underlying conflict

in Timor-Leste has been mostly ignored by the international community, and Dr Westendorf sees there being a risk of civil unrest and violence breaking out again.

"I felt safe when I was in Kathmandu, it's by and large a peaceful country but the situation is different on the local level in disadvantaged areas," she says. "Timor-Leste is completely different. The tension and conflict are very much still at the surface and there's no easy solution. There could easily be violence in the streets again."