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Escalating civil war

Print edition : May 01, 2002 T+T-

The Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal continues to grapple with the challenges posed by the 'people's war' of the Maoists.

MAOIST rebels have turned the whole of Nepal into a war field, with devastating attacks on Army and police posts, telecommunication networks, radio transmission towers, bridges, hydro-power units, drinking water pipelines and the vestiges of the government's service delivery system - rural banks, offices of the Village Development Committees and so on. Since November, after the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) broke a brief ceasefire and relaunched its 'people's war' in a series of attacks in 42 of Nepal's 75 districts, it has dominated the 'civil war'. The government was forced to declare a state of emergency as the security forces went on the defensive and the political class was mired in power struggles in Kathmandu.

India is under pressure to turn more pro-active against the 'red terror' in its backyard, especially after the United States put Nepal on its world terror map. According to Hari Bahadur Ghale, Vice-Chairman of the District Development Committee of Gorkha district, a six-member team of U.S. military advisers recently visited the Maoist strongholds in Rolpa and Gorkha districts to make an assessment of Nepal's military and developmental needs. The team included the U.S. Defence Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu Colonel Cheryl A. Mach; United States Marine Corps (USMC) Chief of Logistic Plan Division, U.S. Pacific Command camp, Colonel James Harbison; and the deputy chief of the Engineering Division of the U.S. Pacific Command, Major Mike Wehr. On April 24, U.S. State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher told presspersons in Washington that President George W. Bush had asked Congress to sanction $20 million as military and economic assistance to Nepal to fight the Maoist insurgency.

However, the consequence of these is likely to be a further escalation in violence as the Maoists push their two-pronged strategy of armed attacks and democratic-style protests in the form of successive bandhs. According to Maoist Information Bulletin III, the objective is "the creation of mass pressure for a progressive change in the country". The bandh called for April 2 to 5 was postponed in the eleventh hour because of public protest against the likely disruption of school examinations, which would affect 250,000 final-year schoolchildren. The Left parties too had appealed to the Maoists to call off the bandh and resume talks.

In the run-up to the rescheduled bandh from April 23 to 28, as in the case of earlier bandhs there was an escalation of violence, including sporadic attacks on police personnel and bomb explosions in Kathmandu. Shoot-at-sight orders were issued. On the first day of the bandh (April 23), the Maoists burnt down the two ancestral homes of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in Asigram village in Dadedhura district in western Nepal. On the same day the government released the photographs of 33 Maoists wanted for various criminal and anti-state activities. It also announced cash awards of five million Nepali rupees each on the heads of the three top Maoist leaders - CPN (Maoist) president Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda, party ideologue Baburam Bhattarai and Central committee member Mohan Vaidya aka Kiran. The government also announced cash awards of 3.5 and 2.5 million Nepali rupees each on the heads of other Maoist leaders according to their rank in the party.

The five-day bandh was a partial success. Despite threats of violence, many offices and shops and other commercial establishments in both urban and rural areas remained open. Vehicles plied in several towns, such as Nepalgunj, Pokhara, Tansen, Bhairawa and Kathmandu. There was intense patrolling of the streets by the security forces. There were reports of sporadic incidents of clashes between the Maoists and the security forces from all over the country. According to the Defence Ministry, about 67 Maoists were killed during the bandh.

THE Maoist strategy still seems to be to concentrate on dramatic attacks outside the valley. In mid-April, massed Maoist rebels attacked a paramilitary post located in the rural home of Minister for Home Khum Bahadur Khadka, in Satbaria in Dang district, and killed 46 of the 112 personnel and four civilian bus travellers caught in the cross-fire. Maoists carried out similar attacks on November 23 on the army barracks in Gorahi and killed 14 army men and nine police personnel. In February, 81 policemen and 55 armymen were killed in an attack in Accham.

In Satbaria, 'thousands' of Maoist rebels blew up in a coordinated offensive the communications network, a link bridge and a road and felled trees 60 km away in order to block access to the East-West Highway. Groups of rebels engaged with dispersed posts of paramilitary, Army and police forces to prevent the arrival of reinforcements. Eyewitness accounts say that the attack on Satbaria began around 11 p.m. with firing from the forest and slogans such as 'Victory is Ours' rending the air. The extremists used self-loading rifles (SLRs), light machine guns (LMGs) and rocket-propelled grenades, looted in other raids, and the battle raged for over three and a half hours until the post was overrun. The Maoists withdrew early in the morning, after ransacking government offices, and taking with them captured arms and ammunition. Reinforcements arrived only the next day, at noon. The Nepali media were flooded with Defence Ministry statements alleging that Maoists used human shields and executed paramilitary personnel who had surrendered. Media reports also claimed that 100 Maoists were killed. Nepal TV showed footage of bodies dumped in ditches.

Members of the Nepal National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), who visited the area five days later, found that the security forces had withdrawn, "leaving the place to the Maoists", as one team member remarked wryly. "There was hardly any young or able-bodied man to be seen. The people refused to speak, saying that they had hidden inside and seen nothing," said Sushil Pyakurel, an NHRC member. The fact-finding team found the bodies of 39 Maoists, mostly in combat fatigues, with their faces decomposed. Two headless bodies were also found by the team. NHRC members accused the Maoists of "involving civilians in the attack in contravention of humanitarian law". However, Pyakurel told this correspondent that "whether they were used as human shields was impossible to verify as none of the residents were willing to speak up".

The Maoist attack strategy depends on mass mobilisation. But the question is, can the battle be sustained by terror alone? At core of the Maoists' support base is ethno-nationalism, and the Maoist strongholds in the mid-western hills are dominated by ethnic Tibeto Burmans. Moreover, Nepal's 36 ethnic communities have been marginalised in an upper-caste Bahun Chettri power structure, which has been reinforced by the multi-party democracy. It is not incidental that the Maoist Revolutionary Council's draft constitution proposes to divide the country into nine autonomous regions under a system devised on the basis of self-determination. However, the overnight shift from mass political action to armed struggle exposed thousands of 'sympathisers', now left at the mercy of the security forces. Moreover, with the Maoists now targeting infrastructure and development agencies withdrawing field staff, development activity has come to a grinding halt. Even food supplies have become an instrument of war.

In Biratnagar town in eastern Nepal, notices were put up warning residents not to rent out their premises to development agencies. More than 70 per cent of development activities in Nepal are donor-aided. Bilateral country donors such as Department for International Development (DFID, British) and international non-governmental organisations like Plan International are committed to remain engaged. "To withdraw would be to reinforce polarisation, to compromise the neutrality of development," said a foreign development official. Until recently, development agencies with a good track record continued working in several areas and depended upon local support to mediate with the Maoists. But panic set in after 25 development workers had to be evacuated after the Accham attack.

However, all development projects have not been targeted. Basant Raj Gautam, an official monitoring the construction of rural roads under a 'food-for-work' programme, said there were no impediments to his work. As for the systematic attacks on infrastructure, the Asian Development Bank's Country Director Paul Vokes said that the poor constituted only 5 per cent of the beneficiaries of the targeted projects. But attacks on drinking water pipelines means women will have to walk miles for access to water resources.

The middle class and the Kathmandu intelligentsia believe that the Maoists have lost popular support. It is clear that the Maoists have alienated the middle class. In 1996, when the Maoists first put forward their 40-point agenda on 'nationalism, democracy and livelihood', there was considerable sympathy for their cause. The sympathy was generated mainly by the frustration with the restoration of multi-party democracy, which had produced 11 governments in 12 years and had done little to change the structures of poverty and discrimination. Moreover, gross human rights violations committed by the police had produced not only Maoists but also sympathy among Nepal's intellectuals and the Left opposition parties for the victims. On May 20, 2001, the Nepali daily, The Kathmandu Post, quoted the Inspector General of Police Pradeep S. Rana acknowledging that "the police killed innocent people and discriminated against ordinary people based on their social status and maltreated the locals during the patrols".

However, as the Maoist movement spread, setting up 'people's governments' in 22 of Nepal's 75 districts, and reports mounted of execution-style killings of police personnel and civilians deemed 'enemies of revolution', extortion, hostage-taking, torture and attacks on the school system, the middle class became loud in its condemnation. After the re-launch of the 'people's war', the mass slaughter of security forces and the brutal targeting of teachers and local professionals - anyone who had leadership capacity and could be used by the state - middle class opinion denounced the Maoists as terrorists. Maoist targeting of the school system through threats, bandhs and executions of school principals provoked vociferous protests in the media. On April 4, The Kathmandu Post, carried a story on its front page about 'privileged students' - the children of top Maoist leaders who study in London and Dehra Dun.

Popular outrage was also fuelled by incidents like the burning alive of eight-year-old Kajol Khatoun and her mother, who were going to Birgunj to celebrate Id. In the popular weekly Chalpahal, Prakash Jwala of the main Left opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), catalogued Maoist atrocities and asked: "What can you call people who plant explosives in public taps, roads and in drums other than terrorists no different from Al-Qaeda?"

Head of the newly constituted Maoist 'people's government', Baburam Bhattarai, hit back by protesting that the media ignored human rights violations committed by the security forces. (Media reports undermining the morale of the security forces are proscribed under Emergency rules.) Amnesty International, in its April 2002 report on Nepal - "A spiraling human rights crisis" - documents instances of unlawful killings, disappearances, torture and arbitrary arrests and detentions under various security laws by the police and the Army since 1996. It also details deliberate and unlawful killings of civilians, execution-style killings of police officers, hostage taking, torture and imposition of 25 'death sentences', and the recruitment of children as combatants by the Maoists. Although there is no martial law in force, the Army has been arresting civilians including journalists, lawyers and human rights activists. In March, the Army picked up from the airport Shyam Srestha, the editor of Mulyankan, and two others as they were about to board a flight to Delhi to attend a seminar organised by radical Left sympathisers in India. They were handcuffed, blind-folded and interrogated on allegations of meeting with Maoist leaders said to be hiding in India. After nine days they were released following national and international protests. So far 70 journalists have been arrested, of whom 29 are still in custody. Another targeted group has been teachers. The National Teachers Association estimates that 59 teachers have been killed, 26 are in police custody and 33 in the custody of the Maoists.

A senior police official told this writer on condition of anonymity: "Before the Emergency, human rights violations were 30 for us and 70 for them. But now they are levelled at 50:50." According to the Nepali human rights organisation, INSEC, since the 'people's war' began there have been 10,132 cases of human rights violations. Out of these, 4,256 are attributable to the state and 5,876 to non-state action in 2001. Since the imposition of the state of emergency on November 26, 2001, to March 31, the state was responsible for the killing of 1,077 people and the Maoists 405. The total number of people killed in the 'people's war' from February 1996 to March 2002 was 3,711. Diplomatic sources indicate that the European Union and the U.S. have taken up the issue of human rights violations with the Nepal government.

THE Maoists' war has put Nepal on the world terror map of the U.S. A report in The Los Angeles Times (March 6) listed Nepal as one of the eight countries where the U.S. was planning to send money, materials and military trainers. Director of the American Centre in Kathmandu, Robert Kerr said that six to 12 U.S. military officials were visiting Nepal. In Nepal, the U.S. has had a large USAID programme and an active Peace Corps programme. Nepal's strategic relevance was downgraded after the quashing of the Khampa rebellion in the 1970s. However, as new U.S. Ambassador Michael E. Mailinowski said, Nepal is once again in the global terrorism map of the U.S. The growing U.S. strategic interest in the region was indicated by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's unprecedented visit to Nepal in January. Subsequently, Amabassador Mailinowski's visit to Accham following the Maoist attacks created much controversy. After his return from Accham, at a public function in Kathmandu, he said that the terrorists "under the guise of Maoists or the so-called people's war are fundamentally the same as terrorists elsewhere, be they members of the Shining Path, Pol Pot's people or Al Qaeda". Indian Ambassador I.P. Singh brushed aside the controversy, saying Mailinowski was just doing his 'duty' as an Ambassador. "I too would have done the same if I were able to do so," he added. Moreover, Prime Minister Deuba enjoys the support of the U.S. The anti-Deuba camp in the ruling Nepali Congress led by party President Girija Koirala, emphasise this point.

MEANWHILE, the Indian stand in the civil war is becoming a focus of attention in Nepal. Even Maoist Information Bulletin refers to pro-U.S. and pro-Indian factions in the government, the implication being that the latter is better than the former. In Kathmandu, political circles are rife with speculations about a Maoist volte-face on India. Much is being made in the media of an interview that 'Comrade' Prachanda gave to Western news agency, in which he reportedly said: 'If India would not support Nepal's fascist government, we would be ready to talk with the Indian establishment." This is in sharp contrast to what he said in an interview he gave to the Revolutionary Worker four years ago. He had said that ultimately Nepal would have to take on the Indian Army. Reflecting the dominant mood in Kathmandu, Left intellectual Hari Roka writes: "There is an emerging consensus among Nepal's political parties, academics and even sections of the public that if India is not part of the solution to the Maoist problem then it is part of the problem." An editorial comment in the influential weekly, Nepali Times, said: "Indians have a fairly good idea of the whereabouts of our Comrades in Noida and Gonda." The open border with Nepal provides a natural sanctuary for Maoists escaping the security forces in the hills.

It was from India that the Nepali Congress launched its armed insurrection against King Mahendra when he banned political parties in 1960. More recently, in October, when the peace talks with the Nepal government were on, Prachanda played host to a number of visiting Nepali Left leaders in Siliguri, West Bengal. Media reports alleging that Indian intelligence agencies had brought three top Maoist leaders to a safe house for a prospective meeting with the visiting Prime Minister, fuelled more speculation.

A senior police official told this writer: "India knows where the top leaders are, probably in Delhi itself, but has made no move to flush them out. We have been cooperating and handing over Kashmiris [militants] to them." However, he welcomed the positive change after Prime Minister Deuba's visit to Delhi. India has handed over to Nepal, without following any extradition procedures, eight rebels who were undergoing treatment in Lucknow. Nepal NHRC Member Pyakurel pointed out that the rule of law was given the go-by as the 'abducted' were handed over. Nepal media reported that the Uttar Pradesh Police have directed health institutions to treat Nepalis only upon the production of valid identity cards. Nepalese police sources, while welcoming the move, remain cynical. "There is no move to hand over top leaders. These are largely low-level Maoist sympathisers or militia members," a senior police official said.

There is a widespread belief in Kathmandu that the U.S. has played an important role in persuading India to be more pro-active in fighting the red terror in its backyard. Although Mailinowski dismissed the view, he acknowledged that during the visit of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca, the terrorist situation in Nepal was discussed. "With India, we want to be a part of the solution," he said.

I.P. Singh, on the other hand, dismissed fears about an expanding U.S. presence. "What have the Americans offered - communications equipment?" He dismissed reports of 'foreign' counter-insurgency advisers helping the Nepal government. Acknowledging the links between the Maoists in Nepal and the People's War Group (PWG) and other ultra-Left groups in India, he clarified that there were no direct links between the Nepal Maoists and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) as reported. He said that India was aware of the cross-border implications of the Maoist leadership hiding in India and the ultra-Left groups in India providing them weapons and training them to handle explosives and landmines.

Police sources regard, what they term a new cooperative Indian attitude, as a possible turning point in the fight against the rebels. Another recent breakthrough is the arrest in Kathmandu of Maoist leaders Rekha Sharma and Krishna Dhoj Khadka. Rekha Sharma had led the anti-alcohol campaign and was a part of the 37-member Central Committee of the CPN(M). Her husband, Khadka, was the controller of Maoist operations in Kathmandu. It took the security forces four months to find them.

Inadequate intelligence continues to cripple counter-insurgency operations. Moreover, divisions have started to surface in the ruling establishment. In an unprecedented move, backed by the King, Army Chief Prajwall S.J.B. Rana went public against politicians. He said that only the Prime Minister and some Ministers were cooperating in the anti-Maoist operations. Later, the Inspector of Police complained to the press about 'lack of autonomy' and political manipulation of the police.

The political parties seem unable to meet the challenge posed by the insurgency. Although Kathmandu speaks about political leaders keeping the lines open with the Maoist leaders, the ruling Nepali Congress is a divided house. While the government is stuck on the 'no-talks-unless-the-Maoists-disarm' policy, party president and former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on April 28 questioned the wisdom of Deuba's policy. "How can the Maoists hand over their weapons if they do not sit across the table with the government to discuss the issue?" he asked. Meanwhile, civil society groups in Kathmandu are organising peace marches and hunger strikes for peace.