Nepal at a crossroads

Print edition : September 24, 2004

The Maoists lift their week-long blockade of Kathmandu, but the peace process makes little headway as the two main players in Nepal politics, the Palace and the rebels, have not agreed to talk.

in Kathmandu

THE ritual kite-flying season - a signal to God Indra to end the rains - in Nepal is still weeks away but the Kathmandu valley is already witnessing a series of kite-flying exercises by the various actors in the country's political stage. These include the Maoists' blockade of the valley, reports about an Indian offer of `bread bombing' of the Nepal capital, and the Royal Nepalese Army's (RNA) action of preventing former Prime Minister and Nepali Congress leader G.P. Koirala from boarding a flight to western Nepal where he was to address a meeting.

Traffic jam in the Kalanki section of the road that links Kathmandu to the highway outside the city on August 25, after the Maoists lifted the blockade.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

The most dramatic of them was the week-long blockade of Kathmandu imposed by the Maoist rebels. The blockade, which cut off the valley's major road links, especially those to the Terai plains and the Prithvi Highway, was lifted on August 25.

Recently, several Maoist leaders of the "people's government" at the district level and the president of the All Nepal National Independent Students Union - Revolutionary or ANNISU(R), a Maoist-affiliated students organisation, announced at press conferences the launch of a `strategic offensive' phase and an inclination to move to the urban areas especially the various district headquarters. It is clear that the Maoists have recovered from the losses inflicted by the RNA. The Army had succeeded in crippling their leadership in the `ring area' surrounding the valley and also their `Special Task Force' in Kathmandu. The arrest of 11 Maoist leaders in Patna, Bihar (which shares a border with Nepal), in June had delivered another setback.

Eight years of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)-led `People's War' has seen the takeover of nearly 80 per cent of the country, mostly the rural areas, by the rebels. The Maoists have extended their influence from three districts in 1996 to practically all of Nepal's 75 districts. The blockade almost signalled their promised push towards Kathmandu to effect a protracted siege, and takeover, of the capital.

Soldiers man a checkpost at Naubise, 26 km southwest of Kathmandu, on August 19, the second day of the blockade.-DEVENDRA M SINGH/AFP

Pushkar Gautam, a former Maoist district leader, writing in a Nepali weekly, described the blockade as "a rehearsal for a bigger future offensive". The Maoists were "trying to test the panic level of the valley residents, the reaction of the international community and especially India, the role of the global media and see what tactics should be employed in case of a future military attack in the valley", he said.

The blockade clamped on August 18 found Kathmandu virtually cut off. The Nagdunga access route, which has a daily traffic of 1,500 vehicles heading towards Pokhra and the East West Highway, was virtually empty, with buses and trucks keeping off the road. But the RNA's road-cum-aerial military convoy helped as many as 500 vehicles to make safe passage. There were no confrontations except one on the Arniko (China) highway a day before the blockade was called off. Five RNA soldiers were killed in the incident.

The residents of Kathmandu, inured to bandhs and blockades, did not go in for any panic buying despite shuttered petrol stations, a shortage of cooking gas and kerosene supplies and a rise in the prices of essential commodities, especially vegetables.

King Gyanendra.-BINOD JOSHI/AP

However, the bombing of the country's first five-star hotel, Soltee Hotel, precipitated the closure of 12 industries including Surya Tobacco and Bottler's Nepal, run by multinationals. The panic closure of business houses on the eve of the blockade, following a threat from the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal Trade Union Federation (ANTUC), seemed to portend an economic collapse.

The media mood was decisively against the blockade. On August 16, rebels in Dailekh district killed Radio Nepal reporter Dekendra Raj Thapa accusing him of spying. (The Maoist commander for the region, Divakar, later expressed regret for the killing.) Just a couple of days before Thapa's death, human rights and media organisations had managed to secure the release of journalist Durga Thapa in Surkhet district. In Dailekh, Maoists threatened to chop off the hands of two journalists who had dared to criticise the extortion by local Maoists. They even issued a hitlist of nine journalists.

In covering the blockade, the influential Kantipur group of publications chose to play down its impact. The Kathmandu Post carried a mere single-column story on the back page. In contrast, the foreign media, in particular the Indian media, gave much attention to it. Their alarmist reports of a city under siege seemed out of sync with what was happening in the valley.

Reports of the highest-level Indian `concern' and a flurry of emergency confabulations on security in New Delhi heightened the hysteria. An Indian contingency plan to air-drop supplies in the Nepali capital was reported in an Indian business daily and also in a Nepali daily, which was duly denied by the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.-ADREES LATIF/REUTERS

Nepal's Deputy Prime Minister Bharat Adhikari lashed out at the foreign media at a press meet. "What do you mean by Kathmandu under siege and bread-bombing? Does the situation warrant air-dropping of food?" he asked. Mohammad Mohsin, the soft-spoken Information and Broadcasting Minister, told this writer: "We are not in such a vulnerable position. Nepal is not about to collapse." He added: "Nepal will not be allowed to collapse. Even if the Maoists were to succeed in vanquishing us, do you think that the international community will let them take over? Not for a minute."

Assistant United Nations Secretary-General Kul Chandra Gautam, who hails from Nepal, made an urgent plea to his country to accept the "good offices" of the U.N. Secretary-General. "I hope we will have the wisdom to seek international support before the situation further deteriorates and becomes a real or perceived threat to international peace and security, at which time we may very well have some unsolicited international intervention as has happened in several countries in our own region and beyond in recent decades," he warned in his August 20 address to the Nepal World Affairs Council in his personal capacity as a Nepali citizen. In a candid reference to the Indian and Nepal governments' sensitivity to third-party involvement in resolving Nepal's internal conflict, Kul Gautam emphasised that it was precisely because of Nepal's two giant neighbours that there was the need for an impartial, neutral force. "Nepal must decide what is best for itself," he said, and added that it should "not be subservient to anyone's wishes".

Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda, CPN(M) `chairman', has repeatedly invited U.N. involvement in the peace process, especially its supervision of the Maoists' bottom line demand - the election of a constituent assembly that will determine the future shape of Nepal's polity, including, as it may be, the liquidation of the monarchy. The Maoists have dropped their outright Republican demand for a democratic process. Their human rights record and commitment to respecting democratic norms have been found wanting. The last few months have seen the killing of at least three Mayors - of Pokhra, Gularia and Biratnagar. There have been reports that the organisation recruits children. The appeal to the U.N. therefore seems to be just a strategy to win international legitimacy and to guarantee their safety if they come overground for talks.

Reacting to Kul Gautam's appeal, Mohammad Mohsin, the King's nominee in the new Sher Bahadur Deuba Cabinet, welcomed all good offices but said that they were "not necessary at the moment. We want to talk to the Maoists directly. We have enough acumen to do so." When reminded that two earlier efforts at peace talks had failed, he said: "This time we will adopt a different modality - there will be secret talks and the focus will first be on soft issues... ."

Sources in the RNA were, however, hostile to the U.N. official's appeal, which they feared was an attempt to equate a legitimate authority with an insurgent group. Some Army sources even pointed to press reports insinuating that Gautam was put up to do this because of his alleged familial links with Hisila Yami, wife of Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai.

The RNA has made it clear that it is opposed to any replay of the ceasefire and peace talks with the Maoists except on terms of its absolute military superiority. During the 2003 peace talks, the Maoists were allowed to roam at will; continue with their propaganda, recruitment and training; extort money; collect arms and explosives; and woo the international community. The interregnum of the two peace talks saw the Maoists gain in strength politically, economically and militarily, complain RNA sources.

The RNA now has a strength of 78,000 and is armed with M-16, INSAS and Minimax weapons systems and M17, Lancer and Advanced Light Helicopters. Trained by U.S., British and Indian forces, it claims to have destroyed the capacity of the Maoists to mount mass attacks. However, its much-touted operation to flush out the rebels from their stronghold in Rukum district in the mid-west was practically a ritual. The Maoists came back to hold the area after the army operation was over. British defence experts for one are sceptical about the capacity of Nepal's erstwhile ceremonial Army to transform itself into a modern fighting unit and militarily wipe out the rebels. The British development agency, Department for International Development (DFID), has advocated political negotiations to end the civil war.

Since the new Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, was the Ambassador to Nepal until recently, Kathmandu is for the first time likely to be high on the agenda of India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). In fact, External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh's first foreign trip after taking charge was to Kathmandu. Caretaker Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa's invitation to Natwar Singh to visit Nepal was so timed as to divert attention from the month-long deadlock in Nepal over the appointment of a new Prime Minister.

General Pyar Jung Thapa, Chief of the Army Staff .-DEVENDRA M SINGH/AFP

Also, over the last couple of years `left-wing extremism', or naxalism, is third on the list of India's internal security concerns, after Jammu and Kashmir and the northeastern region. Plans for tackling naxalite violence in 55 districts in India were discussed at the March 2004 meeting of the `Coordination Centre', comprising top police officials of nine States, set up by the Union Home Ministry to tackle left-wing extremism. This took into account the Nepal Maoists' links with Indian extremist groups such as the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the People's War (P.W.). The Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) has been deployed on the open border with Nepal, and all States sharing borders with Nepal have been requested to strengthen their policing and intelligence infrastructure.

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has noted that India is more responsive as it "understand(s) our predicament" and has "promised military help". However, there is a quid pro quo as Shyam Saran had said before he left Kathmandu: "How India deals with the Maoist rebels will depend upon the finalisation of the extradition treaty being discussed between India and Nepal."

Deuba is visiting India in September and India is expected to raise the issue of extradition of third-party nationals. The treaty assumes particular significance for India owing to its concern about Nepal as a fertile base for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agents. Also on the anvil is the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty in Criminal Matters and the Memo of Understanding on Combating Terrorism.

In his third round as Prime Minister, Deuba holds power at the pleasure of the King under Article 127 of the Constitution, which the latter had invoked 19 months ago, in October 2002, to sack Deuba and assume executive powers. Deuba's acceptability to the RNA was a factor in his nomination as the Prime Minister. The Army's distrust and contempt of the nation's political parties is a well-known fact.

A young member of the Maoist army's `second battalion' in Kholagaun village in the Maoist heartland.-ELIZABETH DALZIEL/AP

In Nepal, power is once again polarised, with the King and the RNA on one side and the Maoists on the other. The King has succeeded once again in dividing the political parties, which had through their five-party agitation, reasserted themselves to make Nepal's polity tri-cornered - that is, the King, the political parties and the Maoists. The political parties complain that the international community in pushing for peace is no longer concerned about democracy in Nepal.

Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai.-DEVENDRA M SINGH/AFP

The King has announced that he will be a pro-active monarch but increasingly it is the RNA that is taking the lead. The first sign of the shifting power balance was visible during the 2003 peace talks. The King had given the green signal for restricting the RNA's operation to a 5-km radius from the barracks but the latter vociferously disagreed, leading to the derailment of the talks. Eventually, the execution of 19 unarmed Maoists in Doramba in eastern Nepal by an Army officer led to the collapse of the talks and ceasefire in August 2003. Under pressure, the officer, now a hero within the RNA, is being court-martialled but the process is being kept secret.

Ever since the RNA was mobilised in 2001, the country's security budget has jumped fivefold. The RNA's expanding power profile was evident in the government's approval to allow it to invest Rs.7 billion from its Army Welfare Fund in commercial businesses.

Human Rights activists blame the RNA for Deuba's reluctance to act on complaints of `involuntary disappearances'. According to Amnesty International, Nepal tops the list of such disappearances with 622 cases registered since 1998, half of which have been recorded after the collapse of the ceasefire. The Deuba government has offered to take up only 24 of the 1,300 complaints received.

And while the Deuba government talks of setting up high-level committees including a "peace secretariat" to push for peace, there is little to indicate that either of the two main protagonists - the Palace-RNA combine, and the Maoists - is ready for negotiations.

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