Nepal's troubled Tarai region

from International Crisis Group
Published on 09 Jul 2007
Kathmandu/Brussels, 9 July 2007: Violent unrest in Nepal's Tarai plains could generate a new conflict if weaknesses in the country's peace process are not addressed.

Nepal's Troubled Tarai Region, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, examines the political exclusion of Madhesis, plainspeople who are some one third of the country's population. Faced with long-standing discrimination, Madhesis have now turned politically assertive and are demanding equal rights. Recent protests and fatal confrontations shocked the political elite, which had largely ignored disquiet brewing in the region. The national political process must be made more inclusive and responsive, and constituent assembly elections later this year must be free and fair if a new conflict is to be avoided.

"The Tarai, a long-neglected borderland, now occupies the centre of Nepal's political stage," says Prashant Jha, Crisis Group's Nepal Analyst. "The demands for political representation raised by the region's Madhesi people cut to the heart of the peace deal and constitutional process."

An increasingly confrontational environment has developed in the Tarai region, which is of prime political and economic importance. There is collapse of trust between Madhesis and the state, frequent clashes between political rivals and an increase in communal tension between hill-origin people and Madhesis. The risks of worsening violence are real, but identity-based demands can be dealt with peacefully through a flexible constitutional framework and a robust electoral competition.

The governing Seven-Party Alliance-Maoist coalition has offered to address issues of electoral representation and affirmative action for marginalised groups but has been reluctant to execute measures that would make for a more inclusive system. Ineffective communication of positive steps that have been taken, such as reform of citizenship laws, has detrimentally added to the volatile mix of unresolved grievances from the Maoist insurgency.

Government leaders in Kathmandu must address the reasonable demands for political participation of all excluded groups. The electoral system must accordingly be revised, affirmative action must be used to boost Madhesi presence in the civil service and security forces and discussions on options for federalism should be initiated while leaving final decisions to the constituent assembly. Madhesi political leaders must avoid replication of exclusive models at the regional level and develop a clear political agenda. The international community must maintain momentum for the constituent assembly elections to be held in November with both positive political pressure and practical assistance.

"Reshaping state identity and institutions to make all Nepali citizens feel part of the nation is a long-term task that will present challenges", says Rhoderick Chalmers, Crisis Group's South Asia Deputy Project Director. "But a balanced and determined approach from a united Kathmandu can still deliver a reasonable outcome.

Contacts: Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 2 541 1635
Kimberly Abbott (Washington) +1 202 785 1601