Hard Times in the Himalayas
Hard Times in the Himalayas
Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Hard Times in the Himalayas

Rolling up the legs of his trousers, the old man shows me the ugly purple scars where the bones have never properly set after Maoist rebels repeatedly broke his legs. His voice thick with agitation, the old man complains, "This is what 12 years of democracy has brought."

Many would dispute whether the terrible violence that has beset Nepal in recent years can be blamed on democracy. But years of corruption and misgovernance by a non-responsive older elite, combined with security sector abuses and poverty have fuelled a Maoist insurgency that has claimed more than 7,000 lives in this Himalayan Kingdom in the past seven years. For the last three months, an uneasy ceasefire has stilled the killing. Yet there are plenty of signs that the country could once again plunge back into war.

The ceasefire, declared in January, surprised observers. It came amidst a deep political crisis following King Gyanendra's declaration, last autumn, that he was fed-up with the "incompetence" of the nation's democratically elected leaders, and was installing a caretaker Prime Minister of his own choosing. The largest parties refused to recognise the legitimacy of the new government and no date for elections has yet been set. Yet, at the same time, the King dispatched an emissary to meet secretly with the Maoist insurgents, who have long made the abolition of the monarchy one of their central demands. Just three days after the Maoists had assassinated Kathmandu's police chief, the surprise ceasefire was announced.

To outsiders, the notion of Maoist rebels in contest with an increasingly powerful King seems incredibly anachronistic, something that belongs to another era altogether. But Nepal's political crisis is also the result of a failure to cement broader reforms or build sounder institutional arrangements after a democratic uprising in 1990. As now, corrupt elected politicians were doing little to serve the people at large. Constant political infighting led to 12 governments in just 12 years. And a poorly drafted constitution allowed the palace plenty of room to interfere and undercut the country's democratic development.

Amid this political turmoil, a small Maoist faction took up arms in 1996, believing that violence was the only way forward. The Maoists quite successfully appealed to what are widely viewed as deep injustices within Nepal, a country where the annual per capita income is a paltry U.S.$220, and their attacks on the monarchy, corruption and "foreign imperialism" were effective in capturing the public's imagination. The Maoists targeted some of the most obvious signs of Nepalese inequality in the form of local upper caste politicians, police posts, the judiciary, rural banks and land revenue offices - combining a sophisticated sense of populism and a clear willingness to use targeted brutality to achieve their goals. Heavy-handed abuses by the police in western Nepal only swelled the rebels' ranks.

When earlier peace talks in 2001 collapsed, some estimated the Maoists were in control of 70 per cent of the countryside. These battlefield gains pushed both the UK and U.S. to step up military assistance to Kathmandu out of fear that the state could actually fall. After 9/11, Washington was also eager to paint the war as yet one more front in the global war on terrorism. Despite, or perhaps even fanned by the extra firepower, terrible violence flared across rural Nepal in 2002, with both government forces and the Maoists trampling the human rights of unfortunate civilians caught in the crossfire.

Growing pressure on the battlefield, increasing international isolation and a sense that the time was ripe for political gains finally drove the Maoists into the January ceasefire. But they were able to secure three important government concessions in doing so: bounties on the heads of senior Maoists were dropped; Interpol arrest warrants were rescinded; and the government agreed to stop calling the Maoists terrorists. Both sides agreed on a 22-point "code of conduct" that will serve as the ground rules for both forces while they enter longer phase of peace negotiations.

There is a feeling on all sides that the potential for a successful negotiation is higher now than it was during the ceasefire that collapsed in 2001. But any peace process faces considerable hurdles. Negotiations thus far have taken place directly between the Maoists and representatives hand-picked by King Gyanendra. Mainstream political parties have not been given a seat at the table. Both the Maoists and the government are already complaining that the other is routinely violating the code of conduct, and there has been no robust effort to independently verify compliance with the code. The palace appears to be blocking efforts to bring in professional facilitators who could help untangle the thorny knot of political, constitutional and military issues facing negotiators, despite widespread recognition that the last round of talks foundered due to poor coordination and planning as much as substantive differences. All three sides - the palace, the Maoists and the political parties are locked in a struggle for public support and strategic position, with the possibility that hardline elements in each camp might be willing to risk confrontation - even new violence - if they feel their needs are not being met.

It is tempting for the international community to overlook the increasingly undemocratic nature of the government in the hope that a strong king is best placed to secure a lasting peace. But the Maoists are not the only problem and arming the government against them, as Washington has done, is only a temporary solution. Failure to deal with resistance to more open economic and political systems will probably only defer future instability. What almost all observers in Kathmandu agree on is that if there is a return to violence, it will be worse than before.

Watching nervously are Nepal's giant neighbours, India and China. India in particular is deeply concerned about the possibility of either a failed or Maoist state on its northern border, although Nepal has long complained about Indian involvement in its domestic affairs. A destabilised state directly between China and India would have serious international ramifications.

Nepal has always enjoyed an unrealistically idyllic image, but the seeds of many of its troubles were planted by its long reluctance to embrace a more open economy, fight corruption or establish a more inclusive political system. The confrontation with the Maoists has painfully exposed Nepal's slowness to modernise a society that is heavily dominated by issues of class, caste, ethnicity and geography. What this crisis underscores is the need for a legal and constitutional framework that will serve all citizens.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

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