Since 1995, Nepal has suffered from a civil conflict between Maoists and the government. One of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual GDP per capita of $220, the conflict led to the destruction of crucial infrastructure, further economic stagnation and extreme political instability.
The official death toll is 7000, but civil society groups estimate over 10,000 lives have been lost. Included in this figure are over 5000 people executed by the Maoists and the government, and 3000 suspected disappearances. Illegal arrests and mass torture by both parties were rampant, and human rights violations perpetrated by both parties continue to this day.
Poverty and social injustice were the root causes of the conflict. Governance, public programs, and security forces were weak in non-urban areas. When they did exist, they were often venal and inept. Deeply dissatisfied with government corruption, poverty, unemployment, caste discrimination, and “foreign imperialism”, the Maoists started mobilizing their forces in 1995.
Beginning in the poorest western districts, the Maoists recruited the poor and the Untouchable castes, making rapid gains in the countryside. In the rural areas of over 25 districts, the Maoists instituted a “People’s Government” with their own governing bodies and army. In 2001, the conflict started to affect Kathmandu. In September 2001, the Maoists and the government conducted the first ceasefire talks, but these broke down, leading to a much more intense round of violence.
From November 2001 to May 2002, a national State of Emergency was declared, and deaths and human rights abuses increased immensely. The United States and Nepalese governments declared the Maoists to be a terrorist group. Under the Terrorism and Destructive Activities Control Ordinance (TADA), a new law, the army made mass extra-judicial arrests, and perpetrated more human rights violations.
In January 2003, with neither side able to achieve a decisive victory, the fighting ceased again. The international community – notably the UN, India, the UK and the US – put both parties under intense pressure to conduct constructive negotiations. The Maoists and the King began communicating with each other, with the political parties bypassed. Even though the political parties are supposed to represent the people under a democratic system, in practice, no real democracy has been achieved by Nepal since the ratification of the People’s Constitution in 1990. The political parties are just as inept, corrupt, and weakened by political infighting as the monarchy.
A further problem is that the political parties have no army, so they have no clout. In essence, communication is taking place between the two armies. The Maoists were hesitant to conduct talks with the government, questioning its legitimacy, as it was neither elected nor supported by the people. The current Prime Minister, Surya Bahadur Thapa, was hand picked by the King. He formed his own six-person cabinet, and was given executive powers to deal with the Maoists. Yet, neither the Maoists nor monarchy want the political parties to join the talks, as that would weaken their respective positions.
Kathmandu has been rocked by protests this summer. The political parties are extremely agitated. I ran into a mass rally of political parties demanding the overthrow of the monarchy in June. A number of student organizations mounted their own demonstrations, demanding free education through secondary school, and closing and vandalizing a number of schools. My co-worker, Dinesh Prasain, and host-brother, Rabindra Maharjan, are graduates of the Buddhanilkantha School, the best public secondary school in Southeast Asia. Their school was also forcibly shut down by student groups, and they were both involved in negotiating with the students, offering positive publicity and tips on how to negotiate with the government. The government, fearful of losing public support, refrained from making any arrests over these incidents. Even the staff of the Yak and Yeti Hotel, a prestigious local hotel, went on strike this week, forcing a Malaysian group promoting Marlboro to move to the Hyatt. King Gyanendra still lives under an intense cloud of suspicion because of the murder of the last king’s entire family in June 2001. These demonstrations have placed significant strain on the government, which was already struggling to deal with the Maoists, the stagnant talks, and deteriorating public opinion.
The Maoists and government agreed on a 22-point Code of Conduct in March 2001, but then spent several months accusing each other of violating the code and not being sincere about maintaining constructive dialogues. No formal talks have taken place since June of this year: only letters had been exchanged, detailing demands – especially from the Maoist side. Most people believe that the Maoists are doing this to strengthen their bargaining position when they finally reach the negotiation table.
In the second-round talks, the Maoists demanded that the army limit its presence within a 5 km radius of army bases in order to begin official talks, clearly attempting to clear rural areas, their stronghold, to transport weapons if violence breaks out again. They also demanded that the Nepalese government rescind their classification of the Maoists as terrorists and remove all American Army personnel from the country. This list of demands was seen as hostile and unfeasible.
In the last few weeks, security has increased significantly in the Kathmandu area. Police and army patrol the streets every night, stopping every vehicle that drives by. The Maoists continue to threaten individuals and organizations in several districts. Most people I speak to are very worried, and believe that these talks will result in nothing, and that violence will break out again. Public opinion is overwhelmingly against the resumption of hostilities. However, some believe that both the Maoists and the monarchy are under heavy international and domestic pressure, which will prevent the conflict from erupting again. The Maoists will lose public support if they begin fighting, and the monarchy must ensure that the talks are successful to maintain what little legitimacy it still has. Many youths from conflict-affected areas have migrated to India, fearful that violence will break out again and that they will be forcibly conscripted by the Maoists, or arrested and tortured by the army for being suspected Maoists.
The level of criticism currently directed towards the monarchy is unprecedented in Nepali history. The parties want the reinstatement of Parliament or an all-party government. The Prime Minister has the burden of resolving the Maoist issue, and responding to the political parties’ request for the formation of a new government. The Maoists oppose elections, perhaps because they know that the people would not elect them. People believe that any future government will have to include the Maoists as a legitimate party, and that the government must find viable occupations to reintegrate demobilized Maoist soldiers into society.
In the last few weeks, the government has released several Maoist leaders, and the Maoists have agreed to resume talks, expressing their desire for the parties to join. Thapa has repeatedly stated that the talks will not break down, and that the government will not use force against constitutional forms of protest. He also claims that the government has been conducting private talks with the political parties. In the past two weeks, however, Maoists have killed several army personnel. Neither the army nor the Maoists are completely in control of their own forces, and both sides openly flout the code of conduct. The third round of talks is scheduled to take place next week, although the location is still being debated between the two sides. The government is yet to establish its exact political agenda.
Posted By Kate Kuo (Nepal)
Posted Oct 27th, 2006