Rebel chief isn't averse to serving as Nepal president

The Baltimore Sun

NEW DELHI -- He was introduced as Mr. Prachanda, a future aspirant to the presidency of Nepal.

Never mind that Nepal has no president, and remains, on paper at least, the last Hindu kingdom in the world. Nor that Prachanda, which means fierce in Nepali, is his nom de guerre and that he is the leader of Nepal's feared Communist rebels.

Yesterday, Prachanda, in a rare public appearance, received a rock star's reception at a newspaper-sponsored conference about India and the region that was headlined by an eclectic lineup of politicians and corporate titans, including former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

It was after Giuliani's address, in which he praised Ronald Reagan for his crusade to combat communism, that Prachanda took the podium. He said he would sign a peace accord in the coming week to end an 11-year-old civil war in Nepal, cordon his troops into cantonments, and accept the verdict of elections scheduled for next year that will effectively decide the future of the monarchy.

"When we sign the agreement, the main essence of the agreement will be ending the civil war," he said.

The Maoists came in from the cold in April after King Gyanendra was forced by street protests to return power to an elected parliament. That parliament had been dissolved four years earlier. Since April, the interim government and the Maoists have been engaged in peace talks, with the promise of elections to rewrite the constitution and decide once and for all whether Nepal would retain or dissolve its monarchy.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Prachanda, whose real name is Pushpa Kamal Dahal, said he would not join the current interim government, on the grounds that it would have little or no power to carry out meaningful change. He did not deny that he was aspiring to be president. In fact, he told reporters that he favored a parliamentary government with a strong president.

Throughout the day, on a whirlwind tour through India's capital, where he once lived incognito as the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal, Prachanda sought to cast himself as a political leader who could be trusted to play by the rules of democracy. At the same time, his comments made it clear that he did not quite trust it.

The big question is what Prachanda and his armed cadres, who have called for the abolition of the monarchy, will do if a majority of Nepalis choose otherwise. Prachanda sought to allay fears: "We will respect the verdict of the masses, the people," he said. "We will not go to violent revolution. We will try to convince people in a peaceful way."

"The monarchy is down but not out," is how his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, put it later in the day.

According to newspaper reports from Nepal, as well as a recent finding by the independent National Human Rights Commission, the Maoists continue to collect what they call "donations" from civilians and recruit children into their ranks. Prachanda said the collections would stop as soon as the United Nations gives money to feed and house his troops. He denied reports of child recruitment, saying the Maoists simply feed and house the children of fighters killed in conflict.

Once the peace accord is signed, Prachanda has agreed to contain his troops in barracks and to keep their arms locked up, but the keys would remain with his party and under closed-circuit cameras monitored by the United Nations. He has demanded that Maoists be integrated into a new Nepalese army, whose size would be shrunk to less than a third of its current strength of 95,000 troops.

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