Don't back a dirty war in Nepal
Don't back a dirty war in Nepal
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Don't back a dirty war in Nepal

Plans to create armed vigilantes under the guise of village 'peace committees' will escalate an already bloody conflict, and the US is turning a blind eye, says John Norris of the International Crisis Group.

In recent years, Asia's deadliest conflict has not been in Afghanistan, North Korea, Kashmir or Indonesia. Instead, Asia's most lethal war has been waged largely unnoticed in the mountainous Hindu Kingdom of Nepal.

More than 8,700 people have died in fighting in Nepal since 1996, with more than 1,700 killed since the collapse of peace talks between the royalist government and Maoist insurgents in August 2003.

Nepal is locked in a triangular tug of war between Maoist rebels, a royalist government hand-picked by King Gyanendra and mainstream political parties that have been shut out of power since the king suspended the democratic system in October 2002.

Now the civil war is at a turning point, and US policy can have a great influence in determining how much more blood will be shed.

Amid an already badly deteriorating human rights situation, Nepalese Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa unveiled an initiative on 4 November 2003 to establish "Rural Volunteer Security Groups and Peace Committees" to fight the Maoist rebels. The name "Peace Committees" is a cruel irony: the government's plan would provide weapons to untrained and unaccountable village defence forces, creating new militias to combat the Maoists.

Nepalese government ministers have argued that such armed committees could better protect communities from rebel violence. But the notion of forming village defence forces with no oversight and little incentive to respect human rights is cringe-making cringe.

Experience from around the globe has shown that armed vigilante groups generally prove a disaster. Militias usually only intensify a conflict, and their heavy-handed disregard for the rule of law often serves as a de facto recruiting drive for the very same guerrillas they are trying to defeat. There is clear potential for such a short-sighted policy to broaden the already deadly conflict in Nepal.

Yet, remarkably, the US has kept quiet on the Nepalese government-sponsored militias, and this silence comes as Washington continues to pump substantial development and military aid into the country. Nepalese army officials insist the US embassy in Kathmandu has been quietly supportive of the concept, although State Department officials maintain that the government has yet to take an official position on the matter.

Recent events only underscore why the US should disavow any plan to arm civilians in Nepal, where both the Maoists and the Royal Nepalese Army appear to be in a race to the bottom in committing widespread human rights abuses on a daily basis.

In August, just as a third round of peace talks was scheduled to begin in western Nepal, government troops detained at least twenty people they suspected to be Maoists in the village of Doramba. These people were then led out of the village and killed, execution-style, their hands still bound behind their backs. The Royal Nepalese Army continues to inflict heavy civilian casualties in its operations, and hundreds of individuals appear to have been killed in army detention.

Maoist forces have engaged in equally serious abuses, assassinating political and military figures, robbing banks and killing local journalists. The Maoists practice extortion on a massive scale; their "donations" are most often gathered at the point of a gun. Across rural Nepal, villagers find themselves caught in a deadly crossfire between brutal Maoist cadres and a royalist military often willing to use indiscriminate force. The Bush administration continues to portray the Nepalese situation as part of the broader anti-terrorism battle and has strongly backed a royalist government that has indefinitely suspended democracy. Unfortunately, the broad public perception in Nepal is that the US is backing an unelected and undemocratic government at all costs and is willing to turn a blind eye to even the most egregious Royal Nepalese Army transgressions on the battlefield. While US condemnation of Maoist atrocities has rightly been rapid and forceful, human rights abuses by the government have seldom been met with more than a "tut-tut" in Washington.

While the overall US approach to Nepal is certainly ripe for review, the immediate priority should be getting the Nepalese government to reverse its decision on village defense committees. Congress and the State Department should send an unambiguous signal to Kathmandu that such a proposal is unacceptable. American taxpayers should not be expected to underwrite a dirty war with their hard-earned dollars.

Military pressure on the Maoists may be useful in helping build momentum for a lasting peace agreement, but the arc of the war thus far has demonstrated that unchecked government abuses have only poured gasoline on an already explosive situation. A rising tide of student protests against the government is making the situation even more volatile. It remains clear that restoring democracy to Nepal would be the best path for moving the country back toward peace. It is a sad day when the US government finds itself more eager to side with an increasingly authoritarian monarch than with Nepal's duly elected representatives.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.