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Contemporary conflict dynamics in Nepal

Dhruba H. Adhikary

"Eight independent experts of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights reiterate today their serious concern regarding the extremely grave human rights situation in Nepal." This statement, issued on 14 July 2004, reflects Nepal's contemporary status from human rights standpoint. Conditions have worsened in the month since the statement was made. Media reports on deaths, agonies and destruction continue to pour into the capital from across the country.

Over three thousand deaths have been reported after the breakdown of peace talks between Maoists and the government on 27 August 2003, pushing up the total casualty figures beyond ten thousand lives since the insurgency started in early 1996. Unarmed civilians are often fatally trapped between government troops and Maoist guerrillas. Number of orphaned children, disabled adults and widows run into tens of thousands. Cases of sexual assaults on women by both rebels and members of the security forces are being reported with horrifying details. Young men and women in most of the mountain districts are leaving their villages in large numbers, looking for jobs in the farmlands in neighboring states of India or in the unskilled labor markets in the Gulf region. Parents and housewives left behind in villages are compelled to lead a life of insecurity, both physically and economically. Social costs are equally high because of situation where husbands and wives cannot live together for years. Children have to grow up in a one-parent family.

Who are the actors and what are the main factors responsible for the present state of affairs? "There are three actors in every Third World conflict," Britain's The Independent newspaper wrote on 17 June. The reference was to the soldier, the politician and the civilian. The soldier has the gun, the politician who stands behind him has a voice but who endures the brunt of misery, illness and death has only a pair of legs. They are only good for running. In most cases they are no fast enough. The newspaper article then goes ahead with a list of countries which deserve priority attention. Sudan, Afghanistan and Nepal are among them. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's report to the Security Council a week earlier had also placed Nepal together with Sudan, Iraq and the Ivory Coast which provided "some of the worst examples of where civilians have been suffering." The Independent said some five million people of Nepal are at risk; and it held a critical view of a reported proposition to create rural volunteer security groups. This method, in that newspaper's view, can only escalate the level of conflict.

Ironically, it is the unarmed civilians who do not specifically figure in the strategies and roadmaps the Nepali authorities and political leaders publicly churn out from time to time. They usually talk only about the king, political parties and the Maoists. Public discussions and discourses are occasionally allowed to extend to include the army, Western donors, UN and Nepal's immediate neighbors. But mention of civil society and its important component like educationists, planners, bureaucrats, academics, lawyers, business community and journalists is rare and casual. The tendency is to ignore these segments of country's 24.8 million-strong population emanates from a perception that the civil society is palpably fragmented and thereby weak. In fact, it should have been the opposite in view of the fact that the country is currently without a parliament and also without an elected government. To what extent, external and extraneous factors are at work to create this untenable scenario is a relevant point of intensive discussion.


The institution of monarchy in general and King Gyanendra in particular are at the center stage of the existing political spectrum. The main source of his strength is 78,000-strong Royal Nepali Army (RNA). By placing other wings of state security, namely Nepal Police (50,000) and Armed Police Force (15,000) and the country's main intelligence agency under a ' unified command ' the monarch has visibly enhanced his military might. Constitutionally, his position has already become stronger as there are no parliament and elected government to offer any credible resistance against the steps the King takes in an emergency-like condition under Article 127 of the 1990 constitution. Article 27 makes him the custodian of the country's main statute. If the political parties with pledges to abide by the constitution decline to cooperate him, the King can afford to ignore them. And he can authorize use of RNA-led force to contain the Maoists. But only for the time being, as he has to address popular demand for democracy and also the Maoist's agenda for an economic reform and social justice. It is a stark reality that almost of Nepal's population lives under the poverty line (earning less than a dollar per day).Prospects of prolonging the palace-dominated rule such as the one under Panchayat (1960 - 90) are not bright. Traditional Western donors, such as the US, UK, India, Japan and Germany, are unlikely to run the risk being seen as supporters of an undemocratic regime.


Nepal's international reputation as the homeland of the Gurkhas has not been much of a help when it comes to work within the country. Internally, it continues to appear as the king's private army which lives on the salary drawn from the state exchequer. Most of the army's barracks are located in places which are miles away from the borders they are expected to safeguard. Cases of encroachment of Nepal's territory along the porous border with India are increasing, but the army has done precious little to stop this dangerous trend. Incidents relating to unauthorized entry of armed Indian groups into Nepal through the country's main highways go unchallenged. In other words, transformation of a ceremonial army, traditionally loyal to the king, to a national army capable of taking on the intruders remains a formidable challenge. (It is another matter that the loyalty issue came to the fore in June 2001 when the RNA unit posted at the palace failed to prevent the carnage which took the lives of the then king, queen and crown prince. RNA chief at that time declined to take responsibility regarding the personal security of the king.) The constitution has put the RNA under National Defense Council headed by an elected prime minister, but it has not always abided by this requirement.

Necessity to be mobilized in Maoist-affected districts gave RNA a chance to modernize its weaponry and increase its numerical strength. Government allocations have increased markedly, and so have moral as well as material support mainly from India, US and UK. RNA leadership has to convince the public through concrete deeds that the newly-acquired equipment and skills would not be indiscriminately used against unarmed civilians. Human rights bodies, both within and outside Nepal, have already expressed concerns about the happenings of the past three years of RNA's active role in containing Maoist insurgency.


The Election Commission has registered more than one hundred political parties, but only about a dozen have some public support and following. And, as recognized by the constitution, these are the foundation of multiparty democracy to which both the king and Nepali people are committed to. The parties indeed became active, and played a positive role since the ban on them was lifted in the aftermath of pro-democracy movement of 1990. These remained potent platforms for organized politics, based on progressive some ideologies with democratic values, till the parliament was dissolved in May 2002, and elected government was dismissed on 4 October 2002. They are considerably losing public support since that time, and it is not just because of the king's actions and inactions.

Lack of inner-party democracy, leaders' lust for power, corruption internal rivalries, fragile ideological bases, excessive external influence, and irregularities in elections, frequent fissures and splits are some of the issues negatively affecting the relevance of political parties. Unwillingness on the part of prominent leaders to apologize for wrongdoing during their stay in power alienated the people. Unhealthy trends in the party politics was bound to make people indifferent to the parties. Dwindling public support at the time of anti-king demonstrations earlier this year in Kathmandu sent a strong message to the leaders of agitating parties. Lately, some of the parties in opposition including centrist Nepali Congress, have changed their position on the monarchy, deciding to campaign for making Nepal a republic. By doing this, Congress-led front of four left-leaning parties have brought themselves a little closer to the agenda pursued by Maoists.


Leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), who is outlawed and are considered terrorists by the state, argue that since their ultimate goal is to transform the country into a republic they are prepared to forge an alliance with any party that has similar objective. As a political party, Maosts say that all progressive and democratic forces should form a common platform from where a decisive struggle against the conservative elements led by feudal institution of monarchy. Maoist leaders say they are prepared to settle for a constituent assembly, a body to be elected to write a new constitution replacing the present one. They appear to think that this method would eventually lead to the abolition of monarchy. Once there is an agreement on this issue, Maoists say they would not mind handing over their guns to a neutral group authorized by the UN up until the time the whole issue of insurgency is resolved.

Meanwhile, Maoists have intensified their attacks on government and civilian targets. Abduction of school children in their hundreds for expanding their militia, killing of journalists for not giving them favorable coverage, death sentence to those who do not give them donations, corporal punishment to those who oppose their violent methods and ideology, shutting down industrial units are some of the activities they are involved in. These methods are obviously unlikely to garner support for the Maoist movement. This is sure to make them unacceptable as a civilized political force in Nepal's political landscape. Maoists need to immediately stop violence, particularly against unarmed civilians. Or can poverty be reduced by killing all the poor people living inside Nepal?


Secretary General Kofi Annan's special envoy has been visiting Nepal frequently in the past year. Kul Chandra Gautam, a Nepali national, is another ranking UN official who has taken initiatives to provide Nepal with the world body's assistance for ending the current state of belligerency. "The UN is at the service of the member states," Matthew Kahane, the UN representative in Kathmandu, told a newspaper on June 30. However, Nepal's official response to these offers has not been enthusiastic. The royal government headed by Sher Bahadur Deuba seems unwilling to change the positions taken by his predecessors. In other words, he too is not in favour of the idea of bringing in UN in the picture. Human rights activist Padma Ratna Tuladhar, who worked as a facilitator in past negotiation efforts, suspects that the hesitation at the official level is due to pressures from India and the United States. (Raajdhaani daily, 31 March). The familiar argument, however, has been that Nepal is capable of sorting things the problem on its own. (But nobody is saying how long would it take to do that and how many thousand people needed to be sacrificed before such an objective can be fulfilled!) British ambassador Keith Bloomfield, however, told an audience on June 24 that it would not be prudent to involve both India and China in government-Maoist talks. There have been suggestions that Nepal should think of accepting the offer of assistance from one of the neutral European countries such as Switzerland. Sri Lanka's case is often cited as a country which has been helped by Norway. Usually, the UN secretary general does not take any step on his own, except in case of natural disasters. But, as has been seen in the case of Sudan, he can persuade the Security Council to give him necessary mandate to take appropriate action. Article 41 of the UN Charter does have a provision for "interruption", amounting to sanctions. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who faced severe criticism for his inaction in Rwanda a decade ago, seems careful to avoid repetition of the past mistakes. There is no harm, some analyst's say, in getting the UN involved as a guarantor for Government-Maoist talks. If Nepal does not have faith in the UN, the contention goes, its government should renounce Nepal's membership in that world organization and end all of its commitments, including the peacekeeping assignments.


Nepal's two immediate neighbors, India and China, are watching events carefully and with an amount of concerns. China's concern is limited and is focused on Tibetan exiles in Nepal who might try to create problems through "Free Tibet" slogans and some activities associated with that agenda. India has more concerns. An increase in strength and activities of Maoists could be a threat to the security of states bordering Nepal. There are also apprehensions that Maoists could harm India's growing business and industrial interests in Nepal. New Delhi is also jittery about the extended presence of Western powers, like the US and UN, in what Indians consider their backyard in South Asia. India's interest in playing the role of a mediator is flawed, because cross-border activities of Maoists have made India a litigant in the dispute. How can a litigant be entrusted with the responsibility of a judge as well?


All are interested to see a stable Nepal with democratic system of governance. Most of them are likely to stop economic assistance if the democratic process disturbed. The European segment of donors' community is appearing more concerned than others on matters relating to violation of human rights by both insurgents and security. Their position, as enumerated by the Kathmandu-based diplomats representing European Union through statements they issue from time to time. Countries like Norway, Switzerland and Finland have made offers to be facilitators for peace talks between the two warring factions. Britain, which considers itself as a traditional ally, is keen to help Nepal whatever way possible. The US, often seen as a country sharing Indian perception on Maoist insurgency, is not keen in engaging the UN at a political level. It is not, however, opposed to Nepal receiving UN support in the form of logistics.


Nepal's regional and ethnic diversities together with economic disparity are making it difficult to create a vibrant civil society which could effectively stop domestic bids to scuttle the democratic process, and at the same time prevent external interference that can complicate the insurgency. Excessive external interests in Nepal's affairs (in the forms of NGOs and other class interest groups) have tended to create more divisions within the society on the basis religion and divergent social values. The social harmony is being disturbed. And what used to be Nepal's strength in the past is becoming its greatest weakness. The educated section of the society is gradually recognizing the fault lines. This is an encouraging trend. As a saying goes, while weak people wait for opportunities the strong people create such opportunities.

(Wednesday 18 August 2004)

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