Monday, July 24, 2006

No New is Good News

The latest out of Nepal is a bus accident. 23 people are reported dead, after a long distance bus tumbled from the road in the Himalaya, landing in a river some distance below. Several wounded were reported to have been evacuated safely.

Behind this little Himalayan catastrophe lies a shadow of political significance. The real news implicit here is that the accident has nothing especially to do with the Nepali civil war. The accident is, of course, tragic, but is all too typical of a poor but peaceful developing country—poor road maintenance and aging vehicles make high rates of traffic fatalities all too common in the developing world. What is striking is that the international press would turn to Nepal, if it does so at all, for a story that belongs entirely to peacetime.

The other news just out of Nepal is the impending visit of a UN team to check on the status of the recent peace process that has tentatively ended a 10 year civil war between the government and Maoist rebels. Over the last few years, Nepal has lurched from bad to worse. Several years ago, the crown prince killed most of the royal family (himself included) in a family dispute. This left the king’s adventurist brother on the throne. When King Gyanendra suspended parliament in 2004, he drove the elected parties into an eventual alliance with the Maoists. The sudden loss of an already weak democracy was coupled with the unfortunate appearance that the Maoists, maybe, just might be winning the war. In any event, their repeated blockades of the capital did little to ease the fears of a weary population and a nervous international community.

However, a few months ago, things began to change rather rapidly. The king reinstated parliament in April, following days of street protests. After 13 000 dead, an alliance of former parliamentarians and Maoist rebels have successfully sidelined the monarchy, relegating it to apparent figurehead status (and perhaps to even less in an eventual permanent settlement), laying the groundwork for a stable political arrangement. The reinstated parliament has reached managed to sustain a ceasefire with the Maoists for months, and arrangements are in place for a ceasefire. The civil war, once thought intractable, appears to be hurtling toward a remarkably happy ending.

What is most remarkable about the time since the interim settlement is what has not happened. The king has not tried to seize power again. The Maoists have not resumed fighting. The alliance of mainstream political parties—the returned parliamentarians—has not dissolved into petty bickering. What has happened is a fairly stable status quo, intended to give way to an elected constituent assembly and, eventually, a fairly stable democracy.

None of this is to say the king might not renege, or the Maoists take up arms again (they have been less than eager to disarm), but it’s hard to find a dark cloud of any size beyond this silver lining. Things look pretty good.

This is why the unremarkable tragedy of a bus crash has become the news of the day. As a laundry list of civil conflicts limp in and out of peace settlements globally, it’s nice to know that these things do occasionally come to a reasonably tidy close. Admittedly, the confluence of interests that allowed this to happen, combined with the small miracle of the king’s capitulation, might not easily be duplicated elsewhere. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, there will likely be a long, tough slog ahead, with or without the elections scheduled to occur at the end of the month. Still, it’s worth recognizing that the conditions for peace do occasionally exist.

With a few less gunmen in the hills, they might even get to fix those roads.

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