Brad Adams. Foreign Affairs. Volume 84, Issue 5. September/October 2005.
Armies of the Night
In The Killing Terraces, a documentary by Nepali filmmaker Dhruba Basnet, there is an interview with a small boy who huddles over a fire in a dank mud hut, cooking a simple meal for his two younger siblings. At age 11, the boy finds himself as the family caretaker, the head of the household. His father and mother were killed by the police. He is not sure why. He glares at the camera, fighting back tears, and announces that he will join the Maoists when he is old enough. He says he wants to “drink the blood of the police” who killed his parents. It is a chilling moment, the innocence of childhood wiped clear from his face, replaced by an anger greater than his years should allow.
A 12-year-old boy in the southern plains of Nepal told Human Rights Watch a similar tale. On September 5, 2003, he woke up to the sound of the door of his two-room hut being forced down. His father, a local politician, was beaten by Maoists. His mother, who tried to intervene, was beaten and thrown to the floor. When they saw the boy, one of the Maoists held a gun to his chest and threatened to kill him if he tried to help his father. The men then dragged his father away. His father has not been heard from since.
These stories are at odds with most people’s impressions of Nepal. The country conjures up images of Mount Everest and Sir Edmund Hillary, of backpackers trekking along the Annapurna trail, or of plucky Gurkhas serving with the British army. Few are aware of the intensity of the civil war gripping this isolated Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and China. Since 1996, approximately 12,000 Nepalis have died in a brutal conflict between rebels of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and government security forces. The conflict pits a backward-looking monarchy and an abusive army against rebel Maoists who—as if locked in a time warp—have called on “the workers of the world” to unite behind their “People’s War.”
The crisis is acute, especially since last February’s palace coup by King Gyanendra. The increasing imperiousness of his rule and continued rights abuses by the army are alienating the public, most of which appears to have little interest in living under a Maoist government. Yet from an isolated rebellion in remote mountainous districts of western Nepal, the Maoist insurgency has spread far and wide, even reaching the capital, Kathmandu. Just the announcement of a strike by the Maoists is enough to bring the city to a standstill.
The Nepali security forces, meanwhile, have effectively retreated to bases in district headquarters, ceding control of much of the countryside to the Maoists. The government’s writ hardly extends beyond the capital and other district centers. The Maoists control broad swaths of the country, where they enforce their rule through harsh and public punishments. In some areas, government forces keep a precarious hold during the day, and the Maoists control the night. In others, there is no real governance.
Both sides have dismal records. Summary executions, torture, and arbitrary arrests and abductions are common. Human rights defenders, lawyers, and journalists are routinely attacked for their work. The armed forces now have the sad distinction of being responsible for the highest number of “disappearances” reported to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances for two years running. The Maoists rarely commit enforced “disappearances,” but only because those they abduct are usually publicly denounced and executed in the name of the People’s War.
The Maoists use children as messengers, cooks, and porters and to gather intelligence on troop movements. They abduct schoolchildren in the remote hill districts for forced indoctrination and have been accused of forcing unarmed civilians to act as cannon fodder in human-wave attacks on police and army posts. Although poorly armed, the rebels can still deliver lethal blows. “They use socket bombs, rice cookers loaded with shrapnel,” one U.S. military officer explained. “It sounds primitive, but when you have 30 of these coming at the police station at the same time they do great damage.”
Many villagers find themselves in an untenable position: if they refuse to provide food or shelter to the Maoists, they risk being executed as “class enemies” or “traitors”; if they do provide such support, even involuntarily, they are vulnerable to charges of complicity and to reprisal attacks from state security forces—who often cannot or do not care to distinguish Maoists from villagers just trying to survive. Those suffering most are civilians from the country’s most vulnerable communities: the rural poor, Dalits (low-caste Hindus), and indigenous communities.
Contempt of Court
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Per capita income is less than a dollar a day, and 82 percent of Nepalis survive on less than two dollars per day. Life expectancy at birth is just 60 years, and infant and maternal mortality rates are among the highest in the region. Almost 50 percent of children under five suffer from malnutrition. The literacy rate is only 44 percent. The economy is so underdeveloped and agrarian that there are no meaningful estimates of unemployment. (The Maoists, like the Khmer Rouge when it took power in Cambodia in 1975, seem oblivious to the fact that there are scarcely any workers to unite.)
More than 70 percent of Nepal’s population is Hindu, and the Hindu caste system has deep roots there. Even the Buddhist population and the small but growing Muslim and Christian communities have adopted pernicious caste-like systems to differentiate between parts of their own groups. Ninety percent of the population lives in rural areas, and the country’s mountainous terrain and poorly developed infrastructure frustrate development. It can take villagers days to walk to the district headquarters. News from remote areas—such as of army or Maoist attacks on civilians—takes a long time to get out and is extremely difficult to confirm.
Democracy came late to Nepal. Until 1990, all political parties except the royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party were banned, and the country was run by an autocratic king, under a system of governance known as the panchayat. The panchayat system was touted as a representative system, but in reality the country was run by a cluster of like-minded undemocratic politicians who obeyed the will of the king; attempts by political parties to demand democratic reform were efficiently suppressed.
Successive kings managed to convince the world that Nepal, despite its staggering poverty, was a happy place with spiritually enlightened citizens who would share the glory of their mountains with foreigners. In reality, there has long been intense dissatisfaction with the hegemonic rule of the caste and class elite. In April 1990, following months of nationwide strikes and agitation, King Birendra, on the throne since 1972, finally gave in to popular demands to lift the ban on political parties and create a democratic state. This ushered in a period of optimism. Birendra had studied at Eton, the University of Tokyo, and Harvard, and so was familiar with the brave new world he acquiesced in creating. A progressive new constitution was drafted, free elections were held, and a new government was formed. Nepalis believed, perhaps naively, that this shift would bring about a radical change in the quality of their lives.
Disappointment and disillusionment quickly set in. The first elected government of Nepal was led by the Congress Party, under Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. Koirala comes from a family strongly associated with the struggle for democracy. But he found himself unable to manage the complexities of democratic governance. He could not forge successful political alliances with other parties, and within a few years, his own party had turned against him, accusing him of hoarding power and of corruption.
The conflicts within the Congress Party were played out in public. The media, savoring the newly acquired right of free expression, reported all the twists and turns of the infighting, and the public watched as the Congress Party aired its dirty laundry. The party could not take the strain of all the infighting, and in 1994 a rebel Congress faction emerged and forced snap elections. The foibles of the new democracy began to show. The elections of November 1994 were rife with what has since become standard fare for Nepal: ballot stuffing, vote rigging, and vote buying.
Nepal subsequently had twelve more governments, each less stable than the last. The parties continued their dizzy feuding, with all the main parties splitting—some reuniting, only to split again. Although Nepalis continued to embrace the ideal of democracy, they were treated to the demoralizing spectacle of watching political leaders engage in personal feuds and rivalries instead of addressing the country’s myriad social problems. Corruption, no longer the preserve of the palace and the upper class, flourished and became more visible, discrediting the political class and casting a shadow over democracy.
Just as the shine was coming off democratic politics, the civil war started. On February 13, 1996, the Maoists launched attacks in six parts of the country. Although Maoist groups had threatened violence for several years, the attacks took the government, its security forces, and most of the country by complete surprise.
Still, nothing prepared the country for the shock of June 1, 2001. Crown Prince Dipendra, using three different automatic weapons, massacred almost the entire royal family—including his father (the king), his mother, his sister, and his brother—and then shot himself. The news stunned the nation. Although the country had abandoned absolute monarchy, King Birendra had continued to play a large historical and spiritual role for many Nepalis.
Gyanendra, Birendra’s brother and the nearest surviving male kin, was anointed as the next monarch. This happened after a farcical episode in which the comatose Dipendra was declared king, a day before dying. (It is hard to imagine how the country would have handled the situation had King Dipendra survived.) The fact that of all of Birendra’s siblings, only Gyanendra survived caused widespread suspicion that Gyanendra was somehow in on the massacre.
An Indian-educated businessman with no relevant experience for the job, Gyanendra soon ended Nepal’s brief experiment with democracy. On October 4, 2002, he sacked the prime minister, assumed executive authority himself, appointed his own prime minister and cabinet, and postponed elections indefinitely. The return to absolute monarchical rule was complete but for the fact that political parties could still exist and the press remained free. The political parties watched, stunned and feuding, unable to address the crisis.
Gyanendra maintained the pretense that he was committed to a return to democracy until last February, when, working hand in hand with the army, he staged a well-planned takeover of the entire government. He cut the country off from the rest of the world, shutting down all phone lines (land and mobile), all Internet connections, and the airport. The press was given very clear instructions about what it could and could not report, with military censors installed in newsrooms. All FM radio stations—often the only source of news in a country with a poorly educated population and mountainous terrain—were directed to broadcast only entertainment.
Desperate to end the civil war and frustrated with the bickering and corruption of the political parties, some Nepalis applauded the king’s actions, believing he would make good on his promise to end corruption, crush the Maoists, and return the country to democracy in one hundred days. Even the United States, which denounced the coup, played along with the fiction that something meaningful might occur in that time period. But none of the objectives even came close to being met. Nepal had fallen into the hands of a man bereft of ideas and out of his depth, with a government of unqualified cronies and an army unable or unwilling to understand that the best way to win a war is to regain the trust of the public, not to abuse it.
For several years, Kathmandu scarcely paid attention to the Maoists, brushing them off as an anachronism, even as the countryside was being besieged by an increasingly brutal civil war. This initial disregard was revealing. The political and intellectual elite of the country could not bring itself to take seriously the grievances of the Maoists and the people they claimed to represent. Not much stock was given to the fact that in the poorest and least developed parts of the country, the rebels were genuinely popular. A sizable population within Nepal endorsed the agenda of the Maoists—the nationalization of state assets, the end of the still-feudal monarchy, the redistribution of wealth and land—and believed this agenda to be the only way out of strangling poverty.
Even now, almost ten years into the conflict, surprisingly little is known about the Maoists. They are a breakaway faction of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), which split in 1994 over the legitimacy of armed uprising. The new faction, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as Comrade Prachanda, declared itself the CPN-Maoists, went completely underground, and began to prepare for war.
Prachanda comes from a poor but upper-caste family. He has not been seen in public since the beginning of the conflict and was the only member of the Politburo who did not surface during the cease-fire in 2003, generating idle speculation about his existence. Baburam Bhattarai is considered the movement’s ideological heavyweight, the man who adds intellectual spin to the jargon. Brilliant, with a Ph.D. in urban planning from Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi, he started in politics as a progressive critic of the monarchy, apparently turning to communism after more liberal attempts failed to end monarchical rule. Although demoted to the rank of an ordinary party member after losing an internal debate with Prachanda over resuming peace talks, after the coup he was dispatched to New Delhi to meet with the Indian government and to see if a common front against the king could be established with Nepal’s mainstream political parties, many of whose leaders are now operating from India.
Less is known about the military side of the Maoists, although Ram Bahadur Thapa, alias Comrade Badal, is thought to be the head of military operations. It is not entirely clear where they get their weapons or finances. Most weapons seem to have been captured from the army or to be antiques given to the rebels by Maoist comrades in India. Others have been bought on the black market with the funds looted from local banks. But unlike Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers, Nepal’s rebels get little or no funding from Nepali diaspora communities. Nor do they enjoy much external support. Although the insurgents call themselves “Maoists,” China has never helped them, preferring to stick to its generally conservative stance of supporting the government of the day for the sake of regional stability. Although the Chinese Communist Party famously reassessed Mao as 70 percent correct and 30 percent incorrect, it has from the beginning judged Nepal’s Maoists to be 100 percent incorrect.
In some of their public statements, the Maoists sound like Jeffersonian democrats. They call for an end to monarchy, the creation of a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, and free and fair elections. Their “40-point agenda” includes relatively uncontroversial demands, such as freedom of expression and an end to discrimination based on caste, gender, and nationality.
But most of the time their rhetoric is considerably more radical and rigidly dogmatic. Their official Web site (www.cpnm.org) screams “Long Live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism and Prachanda Path” across the top, indicating a familiar cult of personality. With unintended irony, the homepage includes a section on “human rights.” The Maoists believe that everything except state power is an illusion, and they advocate following the “lessons of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism regarding revolutionary violence.” They are quick to label those who disagree with them—including other communist parties—”reactionaries,” “revisionists,” “fascists,” “imperialists,” and “expansionists.”
Although some observers—particularly Americans—have compared the Maoists to the Khmer Rouge, this is probably a mistake. The Maoists have cut off heads and used civilians as human shields, particularly in the early years of their insurgency, but their record in areas under their control does not resemble Pol Pot’s. They do not appear to want to empty cities or target professionals for murder, nor do they seek a return to a Nepali version of “Year Zero.”
There is, however, an apt lesson for Nepal that can be learned from the Cambodian experience: the Lon Nol regime was not defeated by Pol Pot’s forces; it collapsed from popular disaffection fueled by human rights abuses and corruption. As in Cambodia around 1975, Nepal’s elite underestimates the anger and resentment caused by the hugely disproportionate amount of government expenditure and international aid that goes to the capital, while the rest of the country is largely ignored. There is also the class divide—perhaps best illustrated by the way that wealthy Nepalis regularly make fun of and talk down to poor Nepalis.
This is not to suggest that a Maoist rise to power would not be a human rights disaster. But unlike the Khmer Rouge, the Nepali Maoists have a list of demands that can be discussed, and they have shown a willingness to negotiate: they participated in protracted peace talks, even setting up an office in Kathmandu during the summer of 2003. Of course, whether this was done in good faith is an open question.
Us or Them
After rumors of an impending palace coup surfaced in late 2004, diplomat after diplomat urged King Gyanendra not to make the mistake of playing into the hands of the Maoists. A crackdown would confirm their point that the monarchy was only interested in power and out of touch with ordinary people. The king ignored this advice. His gambit was simple: he told his main external supporters—India, the United Kingdom, and the United States—that they would have to choose between him and the Maoists, confident that they would see him as at least the lesser evil.
Since then, the primary question for these outside states has been whether or not to suspend military aid. The Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) has long been under the tutelage of the Indian army, and India has been its primary supplier, shipping to Nepal thousands of rifles, Lancer helicopter gunships, jeeps, trucks, bulletproof vests, flares, and ammunition. In addition, since 2001, the United States has provided $29 million in military financing, including as many as 20,000 M-16 assault rifles. The United Kingdom has provided what it describes as “nonlethal” equipment, including helicopters and trucks.
Those in favor of continuing military aid argue that the Maoists are the greater evil and that soldiers fighting them, as one retired U.S. military officer put it, “should not have to fight with 50-year-old Lee-Enfield rifles that jam and have to be constantly reloaded.” An active duty U.S. officer made the case for continuing deliveries, saying, “The guns the RNA has don’t shoot straight, the bullets tumble, the weapons jam. The army needs a standard army rifle, like the M-16, which is much more reliable. The inaccuracy of the old weapons makes soldiers vulnerable.”
Opponents of military aid argue that a cutoff would signal opposition to Gyanendra’s coup and to continuing human rights abuses by the RNA. Suspension would make it difficult to prosecute an aggressive war, they reason, and would ultimately force Gyanendra to return the country to civilian rule, thereby increasing political stability. Many foreign observers also worry that the provision of more and better guns will lead to an escalation of the conflict, particularly when those guns are put into the hands of poorly trained soldiers who cannot shoot straight and fail to differentiate between Maoists and civilians. The latter point is conceded by the retired U.S. officer: “The RNA has the worst command and control anywhere I’ve ever been. … The army doesn’t understand what the problem is with killing Maoists, even if they are not combatants. They think that if someone is stupid enough to join the Maoists and get caught, why would anyone not expect them to be killed?”
King Gyanendra long assumed that his “us or them” message would particularly appeal to India, Nepal’s enormous neighbor and most important foreign partner. (India is increasingly concerned with its own small groups of Maoist rebels, which operate along the Nepali border in the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.) Gyanendra was also banking on the many cultural and historical links between the two countries. Both are majority Hindu, with enduring caste systems. Many Hindus see the Nepali king as a god and Nepal as the only Hindu kingdom in the world. Nepal’s upper class vacations in India and sends its children to school there. Nepalis can enter India without a visa. The countries are so close that many assume that if the Nepali government were to collapse, India would intervene before the Maoists could take power.
But India surprised the king by responding to the February 2005 palace coup by demanding a restoration of democracy and, even before the United States or the United Kingdom reacted, suspending military aid. This move could prove to be a watershed in Indian foreign policy. Although a thriving democracy, India has never made democracy or human rights promotion a significant part of its diplomacy, regularly using the slogan “noninterference in internal affairs” as a shield against criticism of its own rights record. And India still lives in fear that its northern frontier could one day become as insecure as the one in Kashmir—meaning a reversal of policy could come at any time. At the time of this writing, India had resumed some nonlethal military aid to Nepal but was still demanding a return to democracy before resuming full military assistance.
After the coup, China sent its foreign minister to Nepal to make a ritualistic statement of “noninterference,” pleasing Gyanendra. But China is well aware of how important Nepal is to India and appears sensitive to the risks that a more assertive role would have for its warming relationship with New Delhi. Pakistan made a heavy-handed public offer to replace any aid withdrawn by India, which Nepal will not accept so as not to offend India.
Gyanendra also hopes that by invoking the Maoist threat he can push Washington’s still-useful anticommunist button. This attempt has led the U.S. embassy in Kathmandu to urge Washington to give the king a chance to deliver on his promises. But moderates in the State Department and in Congress have taken an increasingly strong position, insisting that the first order of business is the restoration of democracy there. The United States has not formally announced a suspension of aid, claiming that no deliveries were scheduled, but a de facto halt was put into effect under watchful congressional eyes.
The Worst of Bad Options
Neutral military observers do not believe that either side can win a military victory. The RNA is pinned down in its bases, hardly able to control the countryside, and when it undertakes an expedition into the enemy’s heartland, the Maoists simply return after the army leaves. The rebels may actually control more territory than the government does and be able to besiege Kathmandu at will, but they do not have the military capability to take Kathmandu by force. Because of the primitive nature of the combat, the cost of victory in human lives, according to a British analyst, “would be too high for either side to sustain.” But the possibility that the Nepali state might collapse is becoming ever more real.
So what is the way out? One option is internationally supervised peace talks, either through the UN or on the Sri Lanka or Aceh models (which have been effectively contracted out to Norway and Finland, respectively). But India is an obstacle: it has long had a strategic and visceral distaste for international mediation of conflicts. It vociferously opposes UN or other outside mediation over Kashmir, fearing that internationalization of the dispute would favor Pakistan. It also worries about setting a precedent for its rebellious northeastern states, where it has long prosecuted a brutal counterinsurgency. India has already rebuffed quiet suggestions that as a neutral party, the UN may have a role in bringing the two sides in Nepal together.
The second stumbling block to negotiations is more obvious: they may not work. It is unclear if either Gyanendra or the Maoists are prepared to negotiate in good faith or if any settlement is possible that would satisfy both parties. The main point of contention is the monarchy itself. The Maoists have gone back and forth on the issue of whether they would insist on a republic, but they are unequivocal in their demands for an end to a political role for the monarchy. Although many Nepalis agree that the powers of the king must be severely curtailed, it is unclear whether they would welcome the demise of the monarchy.
The best remaining option may be to use human rights protections as the organizing principle for political progress. Although the UN has been frozen out of political negotiations, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was invited in to establish a large monitoring operation. The king and the Nepali government agreed to the opening of the operation’s office as part of a compromise with a Swiss-led coalition of concerned countries in order to head off official criticism at the 2005 meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights. (Gyanendra considered hosting a UN office with a strong monitoring and protection mandate less objectionable than being put on a list with the world’s worst human rights violators, such as Myanmar and North Korea.) Both the Nepali government and the Maoists have made public commitments to work with the human rights office—commitments that should quickly be tested. In the absence of peace talks, the UN human rights office may end up being the only confidence-building and conflict-resolution game in town.
A top priority is real reform of the RNA. For this to occur, there will have to be effective monitoring and training by foreign militaries. Military attachs and trainers from India, the United Kingdom, and the United States need to make it clear that failing to distinguish between civilians and combatants, executing or torturing prisoners, or “disappearing” people will jeopardize or end military-to-military relationships.
Washington, in particular, has an important role to play—and a lot to prove. The Leahy law requires that the United States suspend assistance to any military unit known to have committed serious human rights violations. Soldiers receiving U.S. training have to be vetted. Unfortunately, the Pentagon puts too few resources into monitoring or vetting of the RNA, relying largely on anecdotal information picked up in conversations with RNA officers or gleaned from other countries’ embassies in Kathmandu.
The U.S. military argues that engagement with a foreign military almost automatically improves that military’s human rights record. But this is an unproved assertion, and the U.S. approach to the issue remains inconsistent and underdeveloped. There is no attempt to follow the career paths of officers trained by the United States to determine whether such training has any effect on their human rights records. One serving U.S. colonel who supports continued engagement with the RNA has identified other major problems in the current approach: “The U.S. has not done a comprehensive assessment of what weaknesses within the RNA lead to or do not prevent abuses. We haven’t gone in and said, ‘How do you train to avoid civilian casualties, do you actually train your soldiers to discriminate between civilians and soldiers, do you train your soldiers to go into a village and distinguish between reluctant villagers who help Maoists and real Maoists?'” He continued, “Why not create a course dealing with populations in an insurgent environment? Instead we bring them to the U.S. to teach them how to be a U.S. lieutenant. Then they go back into a resource-poor environment and the training is irrelevant. We think they’ll come out as good Americans on the inside and foreigners on the outside. It doesn’t work.”
The world and most Nepalis know that brutal Maoists and a vicious army are not the only options. If King Gyanendra wants to end the war, and ensure the continuance of the monarchy, he must win back public confidence. This will require the restoration of a civilian government, working with—not against—the country’s political parties, the scheduling of elections, and evidence that the RNA is changing the way it operates. For their part, the Maoists need to end their targeting of civilians, agree to good-faith negotiations, and show the Nepali people and the world that an agreement with them would be worth the paper it is written on. Otherwise, the misery in Nepal will continue.