Maoists who moved on

Observations on Nepal

The suits looked the same and the handshakes felt no different, but the two Nepalese Maoist politicians opposite me had helped mastermind a deadly insurgency. The ensuing civil conflict and civil-rights abuses by both army and insurgents claimed more than 13,000 lives.

Until last year, the two were in hiding. Nepal was ruled by an autocratic king who had dissolved parliament, had arrested opposition leaders and seemed determined to keep the people tied to their feudal past. Protests and negotiations between mainstream parties and the Maoists led, earlier this month, to the formation of an interim government committed to peace, with five Maoist ministers. Elections for a new constituent assembly are planned for June.

This was the first meeting between any foreign minister and the Maoists since the peace agreement was signed. But while the Maoists deserve credit and recognition for their journey from conflict to government, Nepal's veteran prime minister and the skilful home minister deserve particular recognition for their pursuit of difficult peace negotiations in the face of Nepalese and international scepticism.

In meetings with the Maoists, I emphasised that they had to refrain from any intimidation during the upcoming elections and fully respect the peace agreement.

An immediate task for the interim government is to give a voice to huge numbers of Nepalese under-represented in the corridors of power. Women hold only 18 per cent of seats in the parliament and two out of three Dalits (once called "untouchables") cannot read or write. But two months before the assembly elections, the electoral system has yet to be decided, key legislation is not in place and voter education has to begin.

The UK is one of Nepal's biggest donors. Because of its dialogue with the Maoists during the conflict, UK aid for Nepal continued to help marginalised groups. Our ongoing support for healthcare, education and road building is now backed by support for the peace process. Long-term development in Nepal proceeds slowly: a fifth of the nation's provinces have no road connections; Aids is a growing problem and 12 women die every day from complications during pregnancy or childbirth.

The Nepali government knows it must tackle these issues, but as with other countries recovering from conflict, the key to long-term development is lasting peace. It has to monitor the peace agreement and resettle some of the 40,000 people forced to flee their homes.

The people and politicians of Nepal are marching into a future with many unknowns. There is optimism but also uncertainty, and Nepal's friends, particularly the UK, must continue to help.

Gareth Thomas is minister for international development