Nepal runs out of military options to face the latest Maoist challenge, and prepares to extend the state of Emergency.
ON November 23, 2001, it was laxity engendered by ongoing ceasefire talks that supposedly enabled thousands of Maoist rebels to launch a surprise attack on the Lamahi Army barracks and military depot and overrun the Dang district headquarters, leaving 14 Army personnel, nine policemen and three civilians dead. Three months later, on February 16, despite Emergency regulations being in force and Army mobilisation, thousands of Maoists attacked the Mangalsen Army barracks and Sanfebagar airport in the far-western Achham district killing 55 members of the 58-man Army contingent, 77 policemen and five civilians, including the Chief District Officer. It was the single-worst reverse suffered by the security forces since the 'People's War' began in 1996. Politicians from both the ruling Nepali Congress and the Left Opposition are making the comparison between Dang and Achham as they vote to extend the Emergency provisions. It has exposed the hollowness of the Defence Ministry's claims that the Maoists are beleaguered and on the run. More worrying is the fear that Nepal may have played its card of last resort - the Army - and failed to quell the Maoists militarily.
However, that Singha Darbar (Parliament) will ratify and extend by another three months the state of Emergency imposed on November 26, is a foregone conclusion. In any case, Achham clinched the matter. This is despite the issue of the state of Emergency becoming hostage to factional squabbles within the ruling Nepali Congress and the now-united Left Opposition comprising the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) and the Marxist Leninist demanding a slice of power by questioning the need for it. The Left, with its 69 votes, will back the Nepali Congress' 113 votes to achieve the stipulated two-thirds majority required under the Constitution to extend the Emergency.
Within the Nepali Congress itself criticism of the Emergency is shrill. "Army mobilisation is possible without an Emergency," says Shailaja Acharya. Former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala too has stressed the need to keep alive the possibility of a dialogue channel with the Maoists. However, given his steadfast opposition to talks when in power, this view has got mired in the party's factional politics.
At a meeting of the central committee of the CPN-UML, its general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal called upon the Maoists to give up arms and reinitiate peace talks. K.P. Oli, a senior leader of the UML, said that "there are other (non-military) options", suggesting constitutional reforms and devolution of power at the local level. But it has got lost in the UML chorus against the Sher Bahadur Deuba government and support for a national consensus government with the Left as a partner. "If the present government is unable to lead the country, it should quit," is the theme song of Madhav Kumar Nepal, which is echoed by the Koirala faction of the Nepali Congress.
Indeed, it is only on the political fringe that there is a sincere articulation of the need to pursue the dialogue option. Former Speaker Daman Natha Dungana has urged the government to pursue a political strategy alongside a military strategy, and seek to engage the Maoists in talks. Coincidentally, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) 'Comrade Prachanda' in a press statement on February 13, the anniversary of the seven-year-old Maoist insurgency, left open the possibility of the party re-starting talks. "We are not like the Taliban," he said. The statement was disregarded in government circles. The Deuba government is adamant that no talks will be held without the Maoists first being disarmed. Deuba has taken as a personal betrayal the unilateral decision of the Maoists in November to break the four-month-old ceasefire.
Military option means dependence on the Army, and the hard reality in Nepal is that the state of Emergency remains the condition for Army deployment, as Koirala discovered when the Army, sans the Emergency regulations, failed to act in the Holeri incident in June. The ambiguity built into the Constitution places the Army under the King, the constitutional monarch, although technically it is under the civil authority of the elected government. As a senior Nepali Congress leader acknowledged, "the King's source of power is the Royal Nepal Army". The longer the state of Emergency lasts, the weaker democratic institutions will get. Already, sections of the Kathmandu elite want the King to step forward and take control from a supine democratically elected government (People's Review, January 31-February 7). After the June massacre of practically all the members of the royal family, the institution of monarchy was badly hit. However, King Birendra's brother and successor King Gyanendra has been consolidating his position ever since he ascended the throne in June last. A measure of his confidence is his recent act of formally investing his controversial son Paras as Crown Prince.
THE Maoists' attack on Achham came a couple of days before the annual commemoration of National Democracy Day. Nepal's turbulent tryst with democracy, in its latest phase, is barely 11 years old, and the shadow of the former authoritarian monarchy that presided over the Pancha regime, continues to haunt public memory. Containing the Maoist insurgency could take time. And senior political leaders like Chakra Prasad Bastola worry about the implications of a perpetual state of Emergency. Within the Nepali Congress, parliamentarian Surendra Chaudhari has openly protested that the "government was being run by the Army", taking particular exception to the Army's distribution of leaflets urging the people to be united against the terrorists.
In Kathmandu's civil liberties and human rights circles, it has been asserted that "Nepal is not under martial law". An elected Parliament and government are in place. Daman Natha Dungana, the architect of the Nepali Constitution, argues that there is no constitutional provision for the imposition of martial law. But it is not incidental that Deuba has been so recalcitrant with regard to issuing the promised "dos and don'ts" under the state of Emergency. "The Emergency was meant to be against the Maoists, but it is now against civil society activists," protests Dungana, echoing popular sentiment against human rights violations. He emphasised the urgency of twinning military action with political mobilisation at the grassroots level. "There is too much dependence on the Army and an absolute vacuum in terms of joint Nepali Congress-UML peace solidarity meetings in the districts. The UML and the Nepali Congress are status quo parties, incapable of meeting the challenge of the Maoists," he insists.
ON February 13, 1996, the CPN (M), or the Maoists, launched a 'People's War' in three districts in the remote and underdeveloped mid-western region. The Nepali Congress government, at that time under Deuba, had summarily rejected the CPN(M)'s 40 political demands for radical socio-economic change which included the abolition of the monarchy. Savage police action was initiated - Operation Romeo and subsequently Operation Kilo Sera II. The massacre of the royal family in June emboldened the Maoists to make a premature bid towards Republicanism. More successful, however, was the Prachanda path strategy of armed struggle coupled with the mass line of setting up people's governments in the villages and districts. Kathmandu seemed under siege from an encircling mass upsurge as the Maoist influence spread to more than two-thirds of Nepal's 75 districts. Three rounds of peace talks failed to take off, with both parties trading charges of bad faith. On November 23, the Maoists re-launched the People's War, targeting for the first time the Army (until then it was the police force that had got butchered and demoralised).
The death roll in the violence on the last seven years, according to Defence Ministry sources, is nearly 3,000. The human rights monitoring organisation INSEC, collating the Ministry's figures, estimates that between November 23 and February 13, some 1,045 people have been killed (769 Maoists and 129 security forces personnel, besides others) while 3,106 arrests were made and 7,803 people surrendered. After the Achham (and Salleri) killings, the toll for the security forces has jumped to 267, with the police accounting for more than 175.
Until the Achham incident, the media, muzzled under the Emergency regulations, had been putting out Defence Ministry releases with claims of the Army having broken the back of the Maoists in several districts. An Emergency monitoring team of parliamentarians, quoted in the media, claimed that the situation in the district centres had improved although the rural areas remained affected. The newspapers were full of mounting numbers of Maoists surrendering, being arrested and killed in cordon-and-search and search-and-destroy operations. The hardcore Maoists were said to be retreating into their strongholds (or fleeing across the border). The Army was encircling and squeezing them, without entering the area. The Maoists were hitting back with home-made pressure cooker, socket and banner bombs and staging surprise attacks.
Home Minister Khum Bahadur Khadka's public statement about the ineffectiveness of the security forces came as a shock. On January 27 in Pokhra, he admitted that the operations carried out by the security forces had not been effective in quelling the Maoists. Reports of the deteriorating law and order situation again hit the headlines when the Maoists struck on February 4 killing 16 policemen at the Bhakundebesi police post in Kavre district some distance away from the hill resort of Dhulikhel on the Banepa-Sindhuli road. It exposed the lack of coordination between the police and the Army, which took hours to reach the site. Earlier, tensions between the police and the Army had spilled out with the Nepali language paper Deshanter on February 3 quoting Army sources alleging that the police and the district authorities were accepting bribes and releasing Maoists captured by the Army. Also, that in areas cleared by the Army the police were reluctant to re-establish police posts and that the people were not encouraging the force given their experience with the high-handed behaviour of the police.
The Kavre attack also highlighted the weaknesses in the intelligence apparatus. Indeed, Nepali language newspapers accused Khadka of destroying the National Investigation (Intelligence) Department by stuffing it with Nepali Congress political activists and his relatives. Moreover, the Army's attempts to rebuild its intelligence network received a jolt owing to the wave of terror unleashed by the Maoists against suspected or would-be informers, especially teachers and lawyers. For example, the high-profile principal of a secondary school in Lamjung district, Mukti Nath Adhikari (an Amnesty International activist), was tortured and killed on charges of being an informer. On the other hand, in Ilam district, a lawyer (an activist with INSEC) who had mediated between the Maoist-affiliated revolutionary students' organisation and the representative organisation of private schools, was being hunted by the police. Caught between the Maoists and the security forces, ordinary people are fleeing to the relative security of district centres or moving across the border into India. Beyond the district centres, in the hills, it is the Maoists who rule. Barely 20 km from Nepalgunj along a motorable road, on the hilltop, you can see the red flags, noted INSEC director Subodh Pyakurel.
In the case of the latest Achham attack, it seemed to have been less an intelligence failure than a refusal to act on reports of an impending attack. As K.P. Oli pointed out, for a thousand people to mass in a sparsely populated hill area would have spelt unusual activity in the area for days. Also, the Chief District Officer of Achham, Mohan Singh Khatri, who died in the attack, had earlier briefed an all-party meeting about a possible attack. But adequate reinforcements were not sent. While political leaders lambast the government on its failure to act, the larger question is whether Nepal's 40,000-strong Army is already overstretched. The Army is to get an additional Nepali Rs.3 billion for equipment purchases to meet the Maoist challenge but no funds have been provided for the expansion of security forces. More critically, in terms of command structure and logistics is it capable of taking on a guerilla fighting force? Political leaders are openly sceptical. Other than its deployment in international peace-keeping operations, the Army has been a largely ceremonial one.
Deuba had once spoken of the possibility of calling in "foreign troops" but beat a hasty retreat in the face of protests. The fear of India swallowing up Nepal appears to be greater than that of the Maoist danger. So far, Indian cooperation, at least in the public domain, has been limited to the supply of two unarmed Chetak helicopters. The embassy in Kathmandu is tight-lipped on the extent of Indo-Nepal cooperation in counter-insurgency operations.
However, there is continuing suspicion about India providing asylum to Maoist leaders. Sections of the Kathmandu elite favourably point to the Chinese Ambassador's explicit statement that his country would not provide asylum to the Maoists.
Despite an evidently deteriorating law and order situation and a mounting attack from detractors within the Nepali Congress and the Opposition, Deuba is bolstered by strong support from the West, especially the United States, and from India. In January, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell took the unprecedented step of looping Nepal into his South Asian tour and expressed support for Nepal's fight against terrorism. Was his visit an expression of the U.S.' increasing interest in South Asia? What did it portend with India's pre-eminent role in the region? Was it concern to shore up Nepal in order to save it from becoming a failed state a la Afghanistan? Kathmandu's political analysts are busy unravelling the logic behind the visit. What is clear, as Bastola observed, was that the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. had important implications for Nepal and the willingness of the international community to bail out Nepal's economy and support the Deuba government in its fight against the Maoist terrorists. In February, the aid consortium for Nepal, at the meeting of the Nepal Development Forum, promised a five-year annual tranche of $500 million.
Ironically, while strong international support for the Deuba government enables the Prime Minister to keep his political rivals at bay, it has not strengthened it. On the contrary, there is a steady hollowing out of effective civil authority and the power of democratic institutions. At the district headquarters, the Chief District Officer's routine response to all queries is, "Ask the Army." With political and developmental programmes at a standstill and virtually all administrative activity remaining suspended, the security forces have come to represent the face of the state and government. An extension of the Emergency and an exclusively militarist option, without an accompanying political or developmental strategy, can only strengthen the Maoist challenge.