New premier urges talks with Nepal's Maoist rebels

Lawmakers approve elections for assembly to rewrite constitution

May 01, 2006|By HENRY CHU AND BIKAS RAUNIAR

KATMANDU, Nepal -- The Nepalese parliament voted yesterday to call elections for an assembly to redraw the country's constitution, an action that could signal the beginning of the end for the monarchy that has ruled this Himalayan kingdom for more than 200 years.

During the same session, the newly sworn-in prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, asked Nepal's Maoist rebels, who have waged a bloody decadelong insurgency in the countryside, to come to the bargaining table.

"I urge the Maoists to renounce violence and to come for dialogue," Koirala said to widespread approval from members of the house.

By tackling the issues of a constitutional assembly and the Maoist rebellion as its first orders of business, the parliament clearly showed its intention to address problems that brought it back into power nearly four years after King Gyanendra dissolved the body.

For nearly three weeks in April, thousands of protesters every day brought Katmandu to a standstill to demand that democracy be restored and the process of revamping the constitution initiated.

More than a dozen demonstrators were killed by police as the protests continued in spite of curfews and Gyanendra's refusal to give up absolute rule. Last Monday, the king capitulated, agreeing to reconvene parliament, which reopened Friday.

Setting up a constitutional assembly was a key demand by both the Maoists, who agreed to support the peaceful pro-democracy movement on the streets, and by many of the protesters themselves, who became increasingly vociferous as the demonstrations dragged on about booting the king and establishing a full-fledged republic. Yesterday the parliament unanimously approved calling elections for a constitutional assembly but did not immediately outline a timetable for the process.

A key consideration will be the role of the insurgents during the assembly elections and the difficulty of conducting a free and fair vote if the rebels remain under arms and on the offensive. A small reprieve surfaced last week when the rebels announced a three-month cease-fire, but any redrafting of the constitution would take much longer than that.

The insurgency has cost 13,000 lives over the past 10 years; it was to suppress the Maoists that Gyanendra justified his sacking of the government in February 2005, saying he needed unfettered power to mount an effective crackdown.

The goal of the opposition political alliance that resumed its seats in parliament is instead to coax the rebels to negotiate and work within the system. In an agreement struck between the alliance and the Maoists last fall, the rebels agreed to play by democratic rules if a constitutional assembly was called.

Now the challenge is to hold them to their word. Many here distrust the insurgents; indeed, hours after the cease-fire was announced, rebels abducted 11 soldiers in eastern Nepal, later releasing eight of them.

Koirala, the new prime minister, was sworn in yesterday morning at the royal palace, taking the oath of office before Gyanendra, the man whose autocratic rule he sought to end as one of the senior leaders of the opposition alliance.

Koirala, now in his early 80s and in his fifth stint as Nepal's premier, is in failing health. The king asked after Koirala's health before the swearing-in ceremony.

Henry Chu and Bikas Rauniar write for the Los Angeles Times.

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