On the warpath again

Print edition : October 24, 2003

The collapse of the ceasefire between the government forces and the Maoists once again leaves Nepal in a state of turmoil.

in Kathmandu

IN Nepal, Dashein festival is a time for homecoming and the gathering of clans in their ancestral village homes. Not this year. On September 13, Basant Srestha, a retired head constable fled his village, Pipariya in Banke district, with his two wives, a son and three daughters to escape the wrath of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) as he was unable to pay it a fine of Nepali Rs.150,000.

A soldier guarding a government office in Kathmandu after it was bombed by Maoists on September 8.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

Ever since the seven-month-long ceasefire collapsed on August 27, violence has not only engulfed the rural hinterland but filtered into the citadel of the elite - Kathmandu, the capital. The ancestral home of Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa in the eastern district of Dhankuta was set on fire; a policeman or a soldier returning home to visit an ailing parent has been shot dead; former party workers have been abducted, their limbs amputated, and then killed; a journalist was tied to a volleyball pole in a schoolyard and his throat was slit - all by Maoist rebels. Another journalist has been abducted by the security forces. Many families have fled following the issuance of notices to quit by the Maoists to `informers' who allegedly facilitated the execution-style killing of 19 unarmed Maoists in Doramba in Ramechap district. Others are fleeing owing to the pressure from Maoists to join their ranks and also because of the harassment, torture and killings by the security forces in the third round of the civil war.

According to the Nepali human rights organisation Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), in three weeks since the peace process fell apart 338 people have been killed - 213 by the security forces and 125 by the Maoists. The Maoists have announced a nine-day truce for Dashein, but for many like the relatives of 12-year-old Deepak Gajurel in Kathmandu, it will be a time of deep mourning for the senseless killings of their kith and kin.

This time, as warned by Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, the terror and destruction has been brought to Kathmandu. On September 8, socket bombs exploded in several government offices. Indeed within hours of the peace talks falling apart on August 27, the Maoist rebels struck in broad daylight, killing Col. Kiran Basnet and injuring Col. Rabindra Chettri (both brains behind the Royal Nepal Army's (RNA) counter-insurgency operations) and former Minister of State for Home Affairs Devendra Kandel, all in separate operations. It prompted the government to clamp the `terrorist' label on the Maoists again, which had been dropped to facilitate the ceasefire and the peace process. Also, the daily killings have made the authorities ban pillion-riding and the use of helmets by riders. A substantial proportion of the 60,000-strong RNA is now tied down in the capital to protect those who figure in the Maoist hit list.

The RNA, emboldened by its recent acquisition of state-of-the-art small arms - such as the American M-16s which can shoot up to 30 rounds and the Belgian Minimi machine guns with its link ammunition of 300 rounds - has been raring to take on the Maoists militarily and shake off the sobriquet of a ceremonial army. Earlier, Army sources had vociferously rejected the Maoists' claim that the `strategic equilibrium' between the two forces had paved the way for the ceasefire. The Army is now determined to prove that it can militarily tackle the Maoists.

Speaking to the media at the RNA's western division headquarters in Pokhra on September 23, Lt. Col. Kaji Bahadur Khatri claimed that the Maoists' tactics of individual killings, attacks on under-armed police posts and ambushes of RNA patrols, exposed that they were too weak to launch a full-scale offensive. Contrary to the reports of Maoists amassing arms during the ceasefire, Col. Khatri claimed that 20 Maoists shared a self-loading rifle (SLR). Their arsenal comprised largely improvised pressure cookers and socket bombs, he said. The Maoists' claim of having two divisions, seven brigades and 19 battalions is regarded as bravado by the RNA. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) of the Maoists has only about 3,000 hard-core fighters, say Army sources.

By extending the group's operations to new areas such as Terai, CPN(M) chairperson Prachanda has apparently resorted to the tactics of decentralised resistance to feel the pulse of the enemy, tire it and prepare the ground for a centralised offensive. Army sources acknowledge that only after the wet season is over will it become evident whether the Maoists can mass the weapons, ammunition and personnel needed to launch a strategic offensive on Army barracks as they did after the collapse of the first ceasefire in November 2001.

However, 19 hours of Maoist-RNA clashes since September 17 in Korchawang in the Maoist stronghold of Rolpa have indicated that the Maoists have the capacity to switch from mobile war to `positional warfare'. The RNA claimed that it killed more than 35 Maoists and injured hundreds of them in the clashes. Prachanda denounced the Defence Ministry's `disinformation campaign' and claimed that the PLA had encircled 150 RNA personnel, of whom six were killed and 15 or 16 injured. According to him, only four Maoist fighters were killed. Lancer helicopters from India, fitted with guns, were used by the RNA to rain down M-16 ammunition, which were captured by the Maoists. How precious guns are for the Maoists was emphasised by the string that ties one weapon to several cadres. When one fighter falls, the other steps forward, taking his dead colleague's weapon along. A woman fighter was seen harvesting six weapons at Korchawang.

Shyam Srestha, Editor, Mulyankan, a Nepali monthly, observes that the Maoists, in calling off the ceasefire, surrendered to a "one-dimensional military strategy, ignoring the shift in public opinion favouring a constituent assembly and the opportunity for alliances with the agitating political parties". What is evident is the emergence of the RNA as a key player among the interest groups ranged around the Palace. The issue of civilian control over the RNA, the traditional support pillar of the King, dogged the drafters of the 1990 Constitution who eventually brought it under the King's purview. A key demand of the agitating political parties and the Maoists is that the RNA be converted into a National Army. Indeed chief rebel negotiator Baburam Bhattarai had in The Kathmandu Post (September 9) attributed the collapse of the negotiations to the refusal of the government negotiating team to put the RNA on the talks agenda while making an `outlandish' request that the PLA surrender its arms.

A soldier displays to the media in Kathmandu on September 11 pressure cookers used by Maoist rebels to make bombs.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

Prachanda, in an interview quoted in the Maoist Information Bulletin 4, cites the RNA as a `saboteur' of the ceasefire-peace process, specifically mentioning the Doramba killings, which coincided with the first day of the third round of talks in Nepalgunj. Nepal's Human Rights Commission has in an independent investigation confirmed these charges, but the Army has sought refuge in a military court of inquiry.

It was at the RNA's insistence that a state of emergency was promulgated in November 2001 before the Army could be deployed; it was the RNA that rejected a negotiated agreement on restricting the Army's operations to a five-kilometre radius; it was the RNA that opposed the signing of a human rights code of conduct accord; and it was the RNA that precipitated the declaration regarding the use of the terrorist label again against Maoist organisations, after the attack on the two colonels in Kathmandu. (Nepal's Armed Police Force Inspector-General Krishna Srestha's killing in Kathmandu in January 2003 had paved the way for the last round of ceasefire on January 29.)

Political leaders like Sarita Giri of the Nepal Sadbhavna Party have noted the growing importance of the RNA in the government.

Communications Minister Kamal Thapa, the government spokesperson, recently denounced the political meddling by the Ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom and India in the process of working out a rapprochement between the political parties and the King in order to face the Maoist challenge together.

"We take the suggestions, goodwill and efforts of friendly countries in a positive way but it would be much easier for us to resolve the present crisis if they would confine their activities to diplomacy," he said.

With Army sources saying that the Army wants to be left alone to get on with the business of militarily countering the Maoists without being trammelled by the constraints of democratic institutional politics, the Minister's statement seemed to have been influenced by the RNA.

Fears about the consequences for democracy in Nepal if there is no pull-back from the authoritarian-style politics ushered in by King Gyanendra on October 4 last year when he sacked the Prime Minister and took over the reins of government, was publicly articulated by the U.K.'s special envoy to Nepal, Sir Jeffrey James, during his visit to the Himalayan kingdom in late September. "The continued lack of representative institutions at the national and local levels will seriously erode the principles and practices of parliamentary democracy," he said. To the ritualistic reiteration of support for an outcome based on constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy, he emphasised the involvement of `all interested parties'. A message that the King did not want to hear, going by his refusal to find time to receive Sir Jeffrey during his week-long visit.

The Ambassadors of the U.S., the U.K., India and even Pakistan have met Nepali Congress (N.C.) president G.P. Koirala and Communist Party of Nepal (UML) leader Madhav Kumar Nepal to push the `constitutional forces' to drop their agitation and cooperate with the Palace in isolating the Maoists. Since May, five political parties - N.C., CPN(UML), Jana Morcha Nepal, Nepal Sadbhavna Party, and Nepal Workers and Peasants Party - have forged an alliance for an agitation against the King's `regressive' move to dissolve Parliament, wrest executive powers and rule through puppet governments. The triangular nature of Nepal's polity - the monarchists, the political parties and the Maoists - has enabled the Maoists to exploit the agitation tactically to win concessions from the King, argue Indian Embassy sources in Kathmandu.

The five-month-old agitation was to culminate on September 4 in a rally attended by thousands of party supporters in front of the Narayanhiti Palace. It was feared that the Maoists would infiltrate the peaceful agitation and that the government's response could be repressive. However, the agitation has failed to evoke the kind of popular response that in 1990 brought pro-democracy forces to power. The public finds political parties in Nepal as self-seeking and corrupt and that they have almost turned Nepal into a `failed' state ripe for foreign intervention. Moreover, the tension that is visible with the N.C. and the CPN(UML) pulling in different directions and the leaders' propensity to power-grabbing have undermined the agitation. In particular, the eagerness of the top leaders of the N.C. and the UML to pander to the `positive signals' allegedly communicated by the Ambassadors and tone down the agitation sowed further mistrust, especially among the smaller parties.

Sarita Giri pointed to Madhav Nepal's readiness to compromise on the common 18-point programme. "Moreover, his efforts to claim support as the consensus candidate makes us uneasy," she said. Now it is clear that it was at his request that the Ambassadors met him. Indian Ambassador, Shyam Saran, for one disassociated himself from playing the role of a go-between. "Our role is not to try to do this or that, and certainly not to pass on messages," he said.

The projected expectation ensuing from the `positive signals' was that the King, upon his return from London, would dismiss the Thapa government, accede to an all-party government under Madhav Nepal and reinstate Parliament. But Kamal Thapa was scathingly dismissive of such a possibility: "There is no ground to believe that the agitating parties can ensure a government that is acceptable to all." However, Sarita Giri remains optimistic. "We are still united and the foreign community is more responsive to the political parties this time," she said.

Subhash Nemwang of the CPN(UML) argues that once the constitutional crisis is overcome and the representatives of the people are back in power, the Maoists challenge can be addressed. "That is why the Maoists repeatedly called for direct talks with the King, because this government has no representative authority, it is unconstitutional," he said. (Surya Bahadur Thapa, a royalist, was handpicked by the King to head the government.) However, Baburam Bhattarai has said that it would make no difference which puppet regime is in power, as real power is wielded by the King and the Army.

Police arrest demonstrators belonging to an alliance of five Opposition parties in Kathmandu on September 24.-DEVENDRA M. SINGH/AFP

While Opposition political leaders welcome the greater involvement of the international community, intellectuals associated with Nepal's foreign policy establishment decry foreign involvement. However, with international donors accounting for 70 per cent of the development budget, even the government has to give public acquiescence to the donor community's mounting pressure to tackle the structural causes of insurgency by enabling development activities in Maoist-controlled areas.

"In a conflict situation, development activity cannot be oblivious to the ground reality and if it means involving Maoists in development, well that is what may be necessary," argues Sultan Hafeez Rahman, Country Director, Asian Development Bank. Rahman comes fresh from his experience in Sri Lanka where the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers cooperated to enable the ADB to reach `peace dividends' to the poorest, who were the worst affected by the ethnic conflict. "We are there for these (poorest) beneficiaries. What their politics is, it is for them to decide," he said. The ADB is Nepal's largest donor. The government's decision to set up all-party committees at the municipal and district levels comes in response to donor pressure.

The international community, including the United Nations, has been pushing for involvement in the conflict, arguing that it is the lack of procedural skills in conflict resolution that contributed to the derailing of talks. Sir Jeffrey told Frontline that the expertise on how to conduct peace processes could be made available to Nepal. "Of course it is up to Nepal to decide," he said. The Indian Ambassador to Nepal has expressed India's opposition to third-party involvement in the conflict resolution because it equates the two warring parties, the Maoists and the state.

The Maoists too are opposed to foreign intervention; Prachanda has written to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to stop all "foreign armed and otherwise interventions in Nepal". Indeed Prachanda has reinterpreted the revolutionary struggle as a national war of liberation because of the involvement of foreign powers, especially the U.S., which he says has turned the RNA into a "Royal American Army". Political observers in Nepal have been quick to point out that the Maoists have been remarkably soft in their rhetoric about India. In particular, there is Prachanda's appeal for the release of the Maoist Polit Bureau member C.P. Gajurel, arrested in Chennai while trying to fly to the U.K on a false passport. Indian Embassy sources confirmed that the Nepal government had made no request for his extradition.

Prachanda maintains that the peace process fell apart because Kathmandu's elite could not understand the actual strength of the People's War. That is why the government's concept paper (endorsed by the U.K., the U.S. and India), tabled at the August talks, made no effort to engage with the Maoist proposals, tabled in the first round of talks in April, for a constituent assembly and a minimum content of unrestricted sovereignty of the people and no `unchangeable features', he said. But the government's proposals eulogised the traditional role of the monarchy and wanted it to be preserved for ever as an `indispensable basis' for the Constitution.

With both the RNA and the Maoists determined to prove their strength in the battlefield, the brief respite from violence during Dashein will only lengthen the queues of the masses in flight.

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