Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Op-Ed / Asia

Rocky Mountains

Outsiders have always compared Nepal to Shangri-la. The latest Lonely Planet guidebook breathlessly calls the country "a land of sublime scenery, time-worn temples and some of the best walking trails on earth." Yet, in recent years, Nepal has more closely resembled Dante's inferno than paradise. A war between the government and Maoist rebels has escalated since the mid-1990s. Over 8,300 have already died in the conflict and more than 1,300 people have been killed in the mountainous kingdom since the collapse of peace talks between the government and the Maoists four months ago. In August, with peace talks foundering, government troops detained at least 19 suspected people Maoists in the eastern village of Doramba. All 19 were then led out of the village and killed in what one diplomat described as "cold-blooded executions." The executed were unceremoniously dumped in a grisly pile along an overgrown trail.

As the situation deteriorates, ordinary Nepalese have searched frantically for solutions to the conflict. Unfortunately, neither the Maoists nor the government seem willing to make peace. Worse, the United States has become intensely involved in Nepal, backing the government with arms, money, and diplomatic cover. But by simply pouring funds into the corrupt state, and lumping the government's campaign in with the global war on terror, the United States may be accelerating Nepal's descent towards chaos.

Since 1990, when massive street protests convinced the late King Birendra to establish a democracy, Nepal has stumbled through a revolving door of prime ministers, deeply corrupt political parties, and searing poverty, which helped spark the Maoist revolt in the western part of the country in 1996. The story of how the Maoists, one of Nepal's many splinter communist groups, grew from a ramshackle operation with only two antiquated army surplus rifles to controlling up to two-thirds of the countryside in less than eight years is a textbook case in how not to run a counterinsurgency effort. Nepalese journalist Deepak Thapa explains how indiscriminate government crackdowns directed by the ruling Congress party against anyone suspected of being affiliated with the Maoists "boomeranged on the political establishment and the police, as new recruits flocked to the Maoist side." Early Maoist attacks targeted obvious signs of inequality in the form of upper caste local politicians, police posts, the judiciary, and rural banks known for extortionate lending practices. Maoist forces now consist of 3,000-7,000 hardened cadres.

When King Gyanendra suspended Nepal's democratic system in October 2002, both domestic and international criticism was muted. And, to be fair, many Nepalese were fed up with the country's dysfunctional political parties and felt the king was sincere in saying he only wanted to make peace and "ensure that the state of the nation does not deteriorate." Hopes ran high when a surprise cease-fire was announced in late January 2003 and a senior team of Maoist politburo members came above ground to negotiate with the government. Government negotiator Lieutenant Colonel Narayan Singh Pun declared that he was "very optimistic that we will see lasting peace," and for several months the countryside was remarkably quiet.

But in recent months these talks have failed, and both sides have gone back to the battlefield. The palace, in an approach that appeared to have Washington's blessing, made two key strategic decisions along the way. First, political parties were frozen out of talks, as it became increasingly clear that the king was reluctant to hand power back to elected officials until he had dealt with the Maoists. Second, the royalist government took a go-slow approach to talks to allow the Royal Nepalese Army time to better arm and equip itself--largely through American, Indian, and British military assistance. When the king dismissed his handpicked prime minister and the entire negotiating team in the middle of negotiations, both the Maoists and the political parties grew increasingly suspicious and began to intensify their respective mobilizations. As one Nepalese political scientist groused, "It was obvious the talks would break down."

Not surprisingly, the war has since entered its most lethal stage to date, as both the royalist government and the Maoists engage in violent muscle flexing. "This is a dirty war now," laments a prominent local leader in Kathmandu. Government forces have almost no check on their actions, and a leading human rights organization notes that government security forces have been linked to more than 250 disappearances and "hundreds of alleged extrajudicial executions, thousands of arbitrary arrests and numerous reports of torture."

The Maoists have been slightly less indiscriminate, but equally savage, regularly targeting teachers, local politicians, and military figures for high profile and often gruesome demonstration killings, which leave corpses in village centers. They recently launched a spate of bank robberies and ambushes and slit the throat of a Nepalese journalist whose coverage they didn't like. And, after pulling out of peace talks, the insurgents set off six homemade bombs in Kathmandu, killing a twelve-year-old bystander and triggering a near-panic that the war had finally come to the country's capital. As a result, almost all of Nepal is now under nightly curfew, and the shaggy-haired adventure travelers that have long made Nepal a key stop on their Asia tours are seeking out new destinations. "Business is very bad," shrugs a shopkeeper at a time when per capita income is already a paltry $220.

Washington's policies have only complicated matters. Though Muslims are a small minority among Nepal's largely Hindu and Buddhist population, and there has never been any suggestion that Al Qaeda has infiltrated Nepal, the United States has designated Nepal as part of its global anti-terrorism battle. As Colin Powell put it in Kathmandu in January, the United States considers Maoist insurgency "the kind of thing we are fighting against throughout the world." The Bush administration also continues to recognize Gyanendra's royalist government as legitimate, and State Department officials have gone so far as to call Nepal a "budding democracy"--both despite the fact that the Nepalese Bar Association has openly decried the king's assumption of power as unconstitutional. A senior European diplomat notes that the Americans are in a "very bullish mood" and want to "forget this confidence building crap."

Washington has also taken several tangible steps to bolster the royalist government, which only embolden it in its fight against the rebels. Last year, in addition to generous amounts of development assistance, Washington provided Nepal with more than 5,000 M-16 rifles as part a broader military package worth more than $14 million. Washington also pushed for a new $70 million World Bank loan to Nepal that was approved in November. And the U.S. government appears to be flirting with backing a plan announced by Prime Minister Thapa on November 4 to create "Rural Volunteer Security Groups and Peace Committees" to fight the rebels. Despite the name, these groups would be little more than civilian militias with no training and no oversight--a very dangerous prospect indeed.

All of which is a shame. Because, despite the breakdown of the peace talks, there is an increasing desire among many ordinary Nepalese for a new round of negotiations assisted by international mediators. Most observers feel that despite the rising tide of militarization, the war is far from intractable--at least if the peace process is broadened to include more than just the Maoists and the increasingly embattled royalist government. As the editors of the Nepali Times recently argued, "A few hundred people are taking us unwillingly down the path of violence and conflict. All other Nepalese disagree with their extreme methods, but cannot seem to collectively express opposition to a war fought in their name." While the United States is far too much of a lightning rod to become involved directly in mediation, it can exert significant pressure on the palace, the political parties, and the Maoists to end this senseless spiral.

The alternative could be disastrous. A local security expert I met in a recent trip to Kathmandu could barely locate all of the previous day's clashes and attacks on a large map that stretched across one wall of his office. Looking at a small sea of push pins, he observed that the Royal Nepalese Army still "believes that a military solution is possible" despite the fact that the Maoists are "able to attack where and when they want." Until both King Gyanendra and Washington accept that democracy may be a better tool than autocracy in fighting this war, Nepal's steep mountainsides will continue to be shrouded in sadness.

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

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