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.

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