Uneasy peace in Kathmandu

Print edition : January 05, 2002

As the Royal Nepal Army battles the Maoist rebels in the hill districts, Kathmandu is being spruced up for the SAARC Summit in a country which is in a state of emergency.

WHATEVER happened to the menacing armoured personnel carrier that intimidated us at the Bagmati bridge on the night of December 10, Human Rights Day, a night of intensive patrolling as might be expected in a state of emergency. It all turned out to be extraordinary! Daylight brought back the hectic activity to spruce up the city for the ceremonials of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit. Dusk now sees the return of sporadic checking. A dusk-to-dawn curfew is on in the districts, which are a world away from the consciousness of the Kathmandu elite. It is in this other Nepal that the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) fights it out with the 'Maoist terrorists'. Explosions blow up telecommunication towers, helicopter gunships kill 'terrorists', thousands of suspected 'terrorists' have been picked up in cordon-and-search operations, and thousands have surrendered.

In Kathmandu, there is no evidence of any mass arrests or intimidation. The explosion in the Coca-Cola bottling plant in the capital city has been officially explained away as the result of an internal quarrel and not as the handiwork of the Maoists. Even the oddity of a bandh called by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), or CPN(M), before the re-eruption of the "people's war" and observed thereafter in the state of emergency had the appearance of being self-imposed. At public functions, political leaders from the Left to the Right openly question the rationale for the state of emergency and point to human rights violations. The Nepali press in Kathmandu liberally reports the criticism.

Is it then an ideal kind of emergency as Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba claims, one in which a SAARC summit can be held? Indeed, in ruling party (Nepali Congress) circles, the talk is all about a fresh round of infighting between the familiar cliques that are jockeying for power. The strongman of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), or CPN(UML), the dominant Left party, hope to get back into power - as a counterweight to the competing Nepali Congress cliques. The Left vote is necessary to bolster the ruling party's strength in the Assembly, to extend the emergency. It smacks more of Kathmandu politics as usual rather than any anxiety about a weakening democracy and the re-entry of the Palace/Army as the prime mover. How 'ideal' is this emergency even in the valley in Kathmandu, let alone in the hill districts?

On November 26, a state of emergency was declared in Nepal and the RNA deployed for the first time in a 'disarm-and-destroy' role against the six-year-old Maoist insurgency in which more than 2,000 people have been killed. King Gyanendra promulgated an ordinance on 'Terrorists and Violating Work, 2001', one that had been resisted by human rights activists and the liberal Left intelligentsia for long. The Maoists, who had five days earlier been party to a peace dialogue with the government, were branded terrorists. Prachanda, the Chairman of the CPN(M), had announced in a press statement on November 21 that his party was pulling out of the peace talks as no political solution was in sight and therefore the four-month-old ceasefire was not relevant. Between November 23 and 25 the Maoists launched the second phase of the "people's war" in the form of attacks by thousands of guerillas and the Maoist militia in 25 districts. They attacked the state bank, jails, district offices, airport towers, police posts and army barracks in Dang district in the mid west and in Solukhumbu district in the east. The Army had watched from the sidelines in the past six years as the police were defeated and demoralised by the Maoists, unwilling to engage the rebels without emergency powers and a political consenus. King Birendra had been reluctant to deploy the Army, Nepal's last resort, and risk the implications of Nepalis fighting Nepalis. The Army is empowered with emergency powers. But the political consensus behind the emergency is wearing thin. The Opposition has questioned the need for an emergency, raising misgivings about who the Army is killing and voicing the importance of getting to the root of what is a political problem.

Eighteen days after the state of emergency was declared, if one chanced to walk through Patan, a sub-metropolitan town adjoining Kathmandu, one would have come across several posters - red ink on white paper, signed by the All Nepal Revolutionary Students Union, a mass organisation of the CPN(M) and thus banned. Under the slogan 'Brave Maoists Martyrs: People's War is on', it appealed to the Army to return to the barracks. The Patan Maoists, like those in Kathmandu, have gone underground. In the initial swoop, only one central leader of the CPN(M), Rabindra Srestha, was arrested on November 25. Subsequently, several journalists associated with newspapers close to the Maoists in Kathmandu were arrested. More recently Badu Thapa, editor of Deshanter, was picked up in Kathmandu. Gopal Budhathoki, owner-publisher of Sanghu, was arrested for carrying Prachanda's statement. Also arrested were activists of the Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC) and the Human rights Organisation of Nepal (HURON).

Troops of the Royal Nepal Army on a Kathmandu street after a state of emergency was declared in the country following attacks by Maoist rebels who broke a four-month-old ceasefire.-BINOD JOSHI/AP

With restrictions in place on reporting news related to the Maoists, and the media dependent on Defence Ministry sources as travelling to affected areas is actively discouraged, it is local and international human rights groups that are providing information of the arrests and killings of civilians in Army operations. The Maoists too have joined the propaganda war and have started issuing an occasional Maoist Information Bulletin. Meanwhile, journalists from Kantipur and the crew of television companies (including an Indian company) who were reporting on the devastation caused by Maoist attacks in Gorhai, the headquarters of Dang district, and in Salyan district where the RNA had clashed with Maoists, were warned by the Army authorities to quit and 'not to venture out to the Maobadi areas'. Army chief General Prajawalla Shamsher Rana said in an interview to Nepal Television that information was shared on a "need to know basis".

The suspicion is that Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba may not be in that charmed circle as was embarrassingly evident when he told the media that he was not in the know about the Army's propagandist claim that a helicopter gunship had fired on Maoists in Rolpa, killing top leaders including the military strategist "Comrade" Badal. If information is scarce within the ruling party circles, Opposition parties are out in the cold. Leader of the Opposition Madhav Kumar Nepal of the CPN(UML) told Nepali Times: "Logically they should be sharing all the information with me. Are we expected to make guesses or make phone calls to districts to get the information? Or are we expected to catch up with all the people coming in on buses and ask them what is going on?"

Left parties have complained to the Prime Minister that in the name of quelling Maoist terrorism, their cadre are being deained. The strongman of the Left splinter group CPN(M-L), Bam Dev Gautam, has protested in public meetings that the Army-police have picked up 50 CPN(M-L) workers. Members of the CPN(UML), the Rashtriya Jan Morcha and the Samyukta Jana Morcha have been arrested in large numbers. Former Army chief General Sachit Samsher Rana told Frontline that at the ground level the Army was unable to differentiate between the many Communist parties. It is also likely that many of the cadre of these Left parties did join the Maoists.

According to INSEC, three weeks into the state of emergency, some 1,300 people are in custody, including 50 journalists. (In Butwal district, 38 journalists were picked up and 37 of them were released later. Among the ever-increasing allegations of innocent civilians being killed by the Army, two particular incidents have caught public attention. One involved the gunning down by the Army-police of 11 Tharu peasants in Dang district who were engaged in a quarrel with their landlord over sharing the harvest. The All Nepal Peasants Association (Rev), a mass organisation of the CPN(M) had introduced in the Maoist-controlled areas a system of two-thirds of the grain going to the tiller. Deuba denied that the peasants were innocent. "They were Maoists and were armed," he said. (The Kathmandu Post of December 18 carried reports of voluntary restitution of the 'extra' share of grain to the landlord by the peasants.)

The other incident involved a helicopter firing on a crowd that had gathered for the religious festival of Barah pooja in Meldhara in Rolpa district. Five civilians were killed and seven injured in that incident.

According to media reports, Maoists, despite the state of emergency, have continued to attack civilians - including Nepali Congress workers, teachers and village development committee members. However, reports of Maoists extorting money (which had prompted Prachanda to issue a statement about curbs on and punishment to wrongdoers) have vanished and instead the loot money is detailed. Human rights activists, however, have expressed concern about the security of Maoists who have surrendered and the treatment of the injured. The Health Ministry had issued guidelines to medical facilities asking them to inform and take permission from it to treat strangers who came to clinics and hospitals. The United States government had protested against such measures. INSEC president Subodh Pyakurel, who estimates that some 2,500 people have surrendered, said that they were at risk from being attacked both by the Maoists and by the security forces. Also worrying are reports of suspected Maoists being shot dead after being arrested, as in Dhanusha district when three Maoists were shot dead when they tried to escape from a police van. They were the father and brother of a top leader of the CPN(M).

Arguably, a pattern can seen in the 'surrenders', largely of people who were members of the 'people's government' at the district, village and ward levels. In pursuit of the mass line, the Maoists had spread from their strongholds in the mid-western hills to set up people's governments in 13 'liberated' districts such as in Sindhupalchowk (Frontline, October 12, 2001). Mass meetings were held in 73 of Nepal's 75 districts, including Patan and adjoining Kirtipur. The rationale for the peremptory abandonment of the mass line and the resumption of armed struggle remains a matter of speculation among radical Left groups sympathetic to the Maoists, such as Unity and Mashal, as also the South Asian Coordination Council of Maoist groups, set up last summer. There was talk of an imminent split in the Maoist ranks as the peace dialogue was going nowhere and influential 'Comrade' Badal pushed the military line, while Prachanda operated from India. Indeed, after Prachanda dropped the demand for a republic, it was insinuated that both he and Baburam Bhattaria, the convener of their new governing body, the United Revolutionary People's Council, were in league with the Palace.

Maoists, in their Information Bulletin, have rejected this report and asserted that King Gyanendra, who controls the Army, was, under the cover of the peace talks, building up the barracks and military depot in Dang district as the centre of a planned military offensive against revolutionary bases. Left sources suggest that the CPN(M), which is a member of the Revolutionary International Movement (RIM), has increasingly come under the influence of hardliners - an American woman from the Communist Party of the United States of America and an Iranian communist. The CPN(M) has risen to become the most 'successful' political constituent of the RIM after the Shining Path movement of Peru was crippled.

Political analysts saw a coordinated pattern in the outburst of violent activism by the affiliated Maoist groups in Nepal and India. The Indian government has proscribed the People's War Group of Andhra Pradesh and the Maoist Communist Centre, operating mainly in Bihar. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee, in a telephone conversation with King Gyanendra, communicated India's willingness to assist Nepal "in any kind of need". The Indo-Nepal Trade Treaty, as a special political gesture, has been extended for three months. Vigilance was stepped up along the 1,800-km-long border, as it was felt that the Maoists would seek refuge across the border.

In Kathmandu, questions are frequently raised about India sheltering Maoist activists. Indian border officials have been quoted in the Nepali media as saying that Nepal has yet to make a request to pursue them and assist with photographs in the search for them. However, Amnesty International cited a recent incident in which four Nepali men were picked up from their home in New Delhi on December 14, allegedly by members of the Indian police in connection with their links with Maoists. A 13-year-old boy visiting his brother was also arrested on the suspicion of being a child soldier. The Indian police have denied knowledge of the arrest.

India has sent two unarmed Cheetah helicopters to Nepal, but reports in the Indian press of the despatch of trucks loaded with ammunition and light weapons have been denied. Anxiety about Indian involvement led the Prime Minister to assert categorically that no 'foreign troops will be required'. Deuba has talked of the need to import helicopters and seek other logistic support from the U.S., the United Kingdom and India. A 1965 treaty calls for India to be consulted for military equipment coming through the Kolkata port. In 1989, negotiations for arms supplies from China led to the Rajiv Gandhi government imposing a trade embargo. Today Chinese involvement is minimal. But the signals, says former Nepalese Foreign Minister C.P. Bastola, are clear - China is watching. It is not incidental that at this juncture India and Nepal signed a tourism treaty that also accommodates Nepal's long-standing demand for convertible currency, or that China should have extended support on the Kalapani border dispute. China has also tightened border security at Tatopani, near Sindhupalchowk.

CAN the RNA tackle the Maoists? Given the manipulation of the media during the Holeri incident, Defence Ministry claims such as '200 Maoists killed in Salleri' have to be weighed cautiously. The RNA's strength is 50,000. The Maoists are said to have a guerilla force of 5,000 and thousands in the people's militia. General Sachit Samsher emphasises the Army's experience in the role of a United Nations peacekeeper and in quelling the Khampa rebellion in the 1970s. However, he acknowledges that a weak link is the intelligence structure. In 1990, when he was the Army chief, the police and the intelligence apparatus were under the Army and all these were under the King. Today there is the King's military secretary, a Major General, and outside the Palace the Army Chief, General Prajawall Rana. Does this create tensions in the line of direction of the RNA? "No," says Shamsher.

At the start of the insurgency in 1996, the Army had asked for Rs.60 crores. It was denied, and instead the money was wasted on the police, says Samsher. "The Police wanted to isolate the Army," he said. Evidently, there will be no constraints in budget allocations for the Army, which is expected to go beyond the 10 per cent mark. The Finance Minister has said that Rs.5 billion will be required. Prime Minister Deuba has requested donor countries to free Nepal from the burden of providing for its co-share of development expenditure and diverting money for security needs.

On the dangers of the RNA faced with challenge of 'Nepalis fighting Nepalis', especially as the majority of the Maoist fighters come from the same tribes (janjatis) as the majority of the Army personnel, the General says he has little anxiety. Thirty per cent of the Army personnel come from the thakur chettri caste. People do not like the irreligious Maoists who mock at their traditional beliefs, according to Shamsher. However, he explains that the appeal by the Defence Ministry to ex-servicemen of the Nepal, Indian and British armies to 'cooperate' was meant to wean away ex-servicemen who had joined the Maoists and to remind them of their primary obligation. The Maoists are paying them Rs.7,000, he says. How long do you expect the operations against the Maoists to go on? Says Shamsher: "Look at your own country. In Nagaland you have been fighting for 20 to 30 years." Is the strategy then to contain and confine the Maoists in their three or four strongholds? "The Army chief has said that the Army's role is to create an atmosphere conducive to a political resolution of the problem."

What is clear is that the power and consolidation of the Army will be augmented soon. The Army Chief had stressed that the Army was not political. However the constitutional fuzziness is less an accident than a deliberately made situation with regard to who the Army listens to - the King or the elected government. King Gyanendra has said in an interview to Naya Sadak: "I do not like this at all (the state of emergency). I never wanted it... the situation called for it." However, the longer the state of emergency remains and civil rights are curtailed, the more the danger to democratic institutions. And the Opposition parties have voiced this fear.

Meanwhile, preparations are on at a fast pace for the SAARC Summit. And the government is adamant that everything remains normal - in an ideal state of emergency.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor