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

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.

AFP/Manish Paudel
Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.

Kathmandu/Brussels

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

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