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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The political crisis in Nepal and the Maoist insurgency

Gérard Toffin

Texte intégral

1June 2005

2On 1st of February 2005, the King of Nepal, Gyanendra Bikram Shah, who came to the throne in June 2001 as a result of the massacre of the royal family by his nephew, Dipendra, declared a state of emergency in the small Himalayan kingdom. For a few days, the country was cut off from the world and telephone and air connections were interrupted. The government under the Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, was dismissed, leaders of the main political parties were put under arrest and hundreds of militants were imprisoned. Democratic liberties were suspended and the free press was silenced. According to the royal declaration, the objective of these measures was to “save democracy”, that would abolish a notoriously corrupted ministerial team and restore civil peace in the country after nine years of Maoist insurrection.

3The King’s takeover was relatively well received by the working and middle classes, who were outraged by the corruption among politicians and the endless strikes of Maoists and their supporters. On the other hand, the takeover was badly received by the international community, especially India and the United States. These two countries interrupted their arms supply to the Himalayan Kingdom, at least officially until the restoration of democracy. The countries of the European community also protested against this act of royal absolutism. Only China and Pakistan stayed away from this turmoil. The state of emergency was lifted almost three months later on 30th of April 2005. The freedom of press is, however, far from being totally restored and many political militants remain imprisoned. His Majesty’s Government (HMG) still exercises power in the Kathmandu Valley and the districts’administrative centres. The rest (the majority of rural areas) is still subjected to at least partial control by the Maoist insurgents.

4This episode is only one of the several recent signs of the royal family’s intention to regain control over the country in order curb a political crisis that has become considerably worse during the last few years. Since 1996, the beginning of the Maoist insurrection in the hills of western Nepal, three forces have held power, including the political parties originating from the 1990 democratic restoration and the elections that followed, led by the Congress and Communist parties; the royal power, which, previously (1960-1990, the Panchayat regime) took command of the country, and the Maoist guerrillas, in favour of armed violence to form a republic, with Baburam Bhattarai and Pushpa Dahal, known as “Prachanda”, who incidentally, are now against each other.

5Who are these guerrillas? Where do they come from? What supports them? The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN (M)) was a result from a divide of the Nepalese Communist party. It advocates the setting up a people’s democracy in Nepal, the abolition of royalty and retracting treaties with India. Ideologically, this ever-changing revolutionary scene is straight from Indian naxalism, which also originates from successive ruptures within the Communist parties. In terms of its military capacity it is estimated that its operational force consists of about 10,000 well-armed men. This People’s Liberation Army also has a militia and strong network of sympathisers scattered around most of the country, doubling, or even tripling its number. The movement seems to be particularly active among the young educated population. Word travelled in the villages that the Maoist troops were made up of failed SSLC candidates (Secondary School Leaving Certificate, after about ten years of study). It is influential within certain tribal groups (Magar in the west, Tamang and Thangmi in the east) as well as among the Dalits who form a particularly disadvantaged group of the population. Women are also significant in the movement. The managing group, largely composed of the Brahmin caste, is mainly made up of former schoolteachers and professors. The roots of the insurrection, however, can be traced to the large poverty-ridden state of Nepal, the large-scale corruption, incapacity of the political parties to respond to the needs of the people in the years that followed the establishment of democracy in 1990, and the failure of international aid transfer policies to target the most underprivileged regions of the country.

6This movement is not officially supported by China or India. The two superpower neighbours have condemned the methods and objectives of the insurrection on several occasions. China does not approve of a movement being set up on its borders, threatening the stability of the region and based on an ideology (that of Mao Zedong’s) from which it has turned away. India is concerned about the armed revolutionary arc that is already active in its country (Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam and Andhra Pradesh) and whose connections with the Nepalese guerrillas are well-established. The Nepalese army, however, criticises its southern neighbour for being used as a rear base for the rebels. The activists regularly move back and forward across the border. The Indian security forces have recently reacted to this by tightening their control of the 1,750 km border, sometimes in areas with poor security. To be armed and to survive, Maoists rely on three sources, the support coming from their South Asian “brother” revolutionary parties, which pass by India, “the revolutionary tax” set up in most of Nepal and bank attacks

7From 1996 to 2001, Maoist rebellion was a massive success. Without experiencing any resistance, it managed to lead large-scale military operations against police stations and made a name for itself in most parts of the country, to the point of completely controlling certain districts. King Birendra’s lack of reaction and procrastination during the rise in power of the insurrection continue to spark many remarks. Maoists took advantage of this to widen their area of activity by applying their programme wherever possible of debt cancellation, land distribution, setting up revolutionary courts and educational programmes to incorporate their propaganda into the school curriculum. According to some people, especially the progressive elite, Maoists have ended up representing a credible alternative for political parties and royalty. King Gyanendra’s rise to the throne in 2001 marked a radical political change. The new King, younger brother of the late King, mobilised the army against the insurgents and devoted himself to reducing the activities of the political parties, some of which were seen as objective allies of the insurrection.

8This civil war has already killed at least 11,000 people and left thousands wounded. It has paralysed the country, its economy, development programmes and projects. Approximately 100,000 people have had to relocate in addition to an unprecedented increase in emigration, especially men, from the hills hit by the conflict, to the southern plains and the Kathmandu Valley, which is likely to become a large refugee camp. Generally speaking, the Nepalese population, which today amounts to 25 million people, finds itself caught in a crossfire, hostage of the threatening Maoist terror on the one hand, but it is also subjected to acts of violence and brutality on the other hand by the Nepalese security forces, who do not distinguish Maoists from the villagers under their influence. Like in any military conflict, the press suffers and democratic institutions no longer freely operate. Since 1999, no elections have been held and it is not easy to see how elections could be held in the current situation.

9Any possibility of a military solution seems to have been ruled out, at least in the short run. The security forces, amounting to some 150,000 members including the police and army, have achieved some success here and there. They seem to be better organised, equipped and armed than four years ago. Their intervention capacities, however, still remain restricted to a small over-trained elite. A large part of the army is confined to the barracks. Maoists are showing signs of running out of steam and division within their group. They are no longer in the position to attack and thus restrict their actions to ambushes and targeted assassinations of representatives in power. Furthermore, they have lost a part of their support from farmers of the hillside areas, outraged by the executions and the massacre of civilians, whose victims are often women and children. The People’s Liberation Army is, nevertheless, still strong enough to block off the roads in Nepal and cut the main commercial axes with India, which are vital for the national economy. The very mountainous landscape of the country, the difficulties to intervene quickly from one place to another, except by helicopter (of which the army has only about twenty and all are not operational), is still the best assets in this conflict.

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