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News ::
The Crisis in Nepal
05 Jun 2002
Recent essay by a former director of a human rights group in Nepal.
The Crisis in Nepal
by Mukunda Kattel, May 11, 2002

For many outsiders, the image of Nepal is unimaginably beautiful with year-round snowy peaks, and plains, hills and mountains that stretch south to north with a variety of flora and fauna, an imaginary Shangri-la in the lap of the Himalayas. For others, it is the birth-place of Buddha, the messenger of peace. And Nepal's people are thought to be benevolent, caring and disciplined.

All this is now history. We are now creating new images of ourselves. We have become a mad butcher who kills his own friends and family, and finally himself. And the scenic landscape of Nepal has turned to a cemetery. Today, on top of every hill and peak, one can see and feel the clotting blood of fellow Nepalis killed by other Nepalis. Nepal has become a slaughterhouse.

With the advent of 1996, Nepal entered into the saga of this sad scene. When Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, an architectural engineer by training, announced a new model of the State achievable through armed struggle, every one mocked him. Just reeling from a court verdict which declared him a loser in his claim of the Office of the United People's Front (UPF) following a split, his thunder was compared with that of a wounded lioness. A careerist leader, Bhattarai was however sure of what he meant. He had already witnessed the narrowing of political space open to people like him thanks in large part to the highhanded politics of the then-ruling Nepali Congress (NC) Party.

The party had badly abused the authority of the police institution for the politics of the Party, as if the Nepali Congress Party and the police institution were one and the same. Non-Congress or Congress opponents had to pay the heavy price of this unruly alliance. Some of the worst sufferers from this unholy alliance were the supporters, voters and sympathizers of the United People's Front, which had its base in the western hills maintained largely by teachers, youths and students. The NC government created mayhem in the western hills in an attempt to finish UPF politically. Teachers were transferred to more remote places and/or suspended; youths were arrested and made to choose between jail and Nepali Congress Membership. As a leader of the United People's Front, Dr. Bhattarai had very painfully observed all this. A political maneuver was thus inevitable for him, however unpleasant it could be.

On the other front, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, who is coincidentally Prime Minister again now, dismissed Dr. Bhattarai's warning, and instead sighed with relief in Singh Durbar (the prime minister's office). Already tired of 'communists' frequently taking to the streets and causing a nuisance daily, he thought it would be less burdensome for him if they went underground. He had perhaps hoped others would also follow the same route so that communists could be trapped in the jungles and finished off one by one. He did not invest even a minute to listen to the grievances of the group Dr. Bhattarai was leading, let alone their warning of the coming armed struggle. For other Left parties, the sum of politics was just a matter of United People's Front versus Nepali Congress Party. Fighting hard to protect their own constituencies, they also disregarded Dr. Bhattarai as a fringe figure who seemingly had only a handful of supporters.
Dr. Bhattarai's group joined with a little-known underground group led by Prachanda, and formed in the western hills what they called the "Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)." On the 13th of February, 1996, individuals armed with stones, sticks and khukuris (Nepali combat knives) descended into police outposts calling it a harbinger of a new State. From that point on, the history of Nepal has taken a sharp reversal.

Unlike what many had expected, the Maoists strengthened their positions in the jungles well enough to inflict damage to the State in the name of Maoism. Their strategies progressed from individual killings (mainly Nepali Congress supporters) through security personnel to blowing up of infrastructures. In their list of targets have been the opponents of their activities mostly at the grassroots level. In response, the State replied with policemen armed with .303 rifles, and when they could not quell the rebellion in this way, with more sophisticated weapons, and starting last November, the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) has been fighting the Maoists. As a result, 3,500 Nepalis have lost their lives so far. And the death toll is rising with each new sun.

Pointing at the piles of corpses, both parties are claiming victory. And now, dark days loom ahead with the U.S. government's announcement that it is increasing its military 'support' for Nepal. This policy is 'support' for Nepal only in that it will further support its growth as a killing ground, and encourage Maoists to continue using innocent civilians as human shields. I will return to the phenomenon of the backlash of this support a little later.

What has been completely forgotten or willfully ignored by mainstream politicians is that Maoist 'People's War' is not a simple matter of military tactics and might. Its roots are deeper and more pervasive. It feeds on poverty and injustice. The increased unemployment of youth and bad governance permits the few to accumulate wealth and the many to suffer restlessly.

Many people had longstanding hopes that with the dawn of multi-party democracy after the 1990 Democracy Movement their suffering would end. But Nepalese parliamentary democracy proved that this was true only for the rich leaders, not for the 'have-nots' or those with few options and choices. After the first few years of watching the performance of parliamentary democracy, many felt alienated from the State. The way it was abused resulted in the build-up of resentment at the grassroots level. The Maoists did not create the resentment and alienation in the first place. What the Maoists did was to manipulate the resentment created by the custodians of the laws, and the failure to uphold the constitution that guarantees a decent life for all (with food, shelter and clothing) and provides for protection of dissent.

Maoists may be called 'criminals', 'terrorists', an 'anti-government outfit' and so on. But the innocent people have been forced to listen to them as the voice of an alternative. When persons believed to be saviors in fact turn out to be murderers, anyone with a conscience and a will to protect human life draws to attention.

What we have been hearing in the mainstream media is only one side of the problem, a selective side. The reality is far deeper. The mainstream politicians and policy makers created the ground for the Maoists' foul play. The world should know this. Those concerned about the current situation in Nepal should carefully note this. The only true and enduring solutions, therefore, rests addressing the causes of the problem. Even if all Maoists are finished with bullets (an impossible task), some other '-ists' will emerge as long as the problem remains.

The government of Nepal, my own government, is heading down a disastrous track. The criminal acts of Maoists does not justify the criminal acts of the State. This criminality has recently been expressed in clear terms with the government of Nepal announcing bounties for the heads of the Maoist leaders. This is nothing but copying the ethics and tactics of the Maoists. The Maoists had declared bounty for heads years back, although the price offered was not known. And they collected nearly a thousand heads. Their actions cannot be denounced by copying their methodology. It encourages the continuation of this ethic. This criminal methodology should thus be withheld by the government.

Not surprisingly, this kind of 'head politics' finds its root in the erstwhile Panchayat regime in Nepal, which ruled before the 1990 Democracy Movement. Many of those currently in parliament or cabinet have at some time carried some amount on their heads, perhaps the Prime Minister as well. Had the pre-democracy State's intention been fulfilled, nearly one third of the present Nepalese political leaders would not be alive now. The Prime Minister is well aware of this. (He may also be following the lead of U.S. President George W Bush, who is offering a dollar amount for the head of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, believed by the U.S. establishment to be a mastermind behind the September 11 Attack.) However, even if we pile up of thousands of heads, one will still always be missing. Can we afford the cost of this kind of hunt? How many thousand heads should we collect to match the 40?

The bounty has two immediate explanations: first, the government of Nepal has closed the door forever on dialogue with what it brands 'terrorists'. Second, it is on the losing end of the current methodology being pursued. For both reasons, the outcome will be horrible, and the sufferers will be the already hard-hit common Nepalis. Dear leaders, please be sensible, not sentimental. We are dealing with madness, but are we not also going mad?

Everyone's responsibility now is to stop the war, the civil war that is engulfing us. We all need to learn what happened and why, and work collectively and creatively for a better future. The parties responsible -- the Maoists and the State -- have to take immediate initiative to rectify the situation. In every case, however, the prime responsibility of the State, as it is morally as well as legally mandated, must be to protect the people. It has more power than any other entity, and therefore more responsibility to act. It is bound to use conscience before the use of force, and to exhaust political efforts before military hardware.
Closing the door on dialogue with the Maoists is not politically wise or acceptable; no government can deny a means of peace building. Branding the Maoists as 'terrorists' may allow the government to use force legally, but killing citizens is morally condemnable. The recent announcement of bounty preempts the possibility of dialogue. It is unethical, and hence must be withheld. While Maoist terrorism cannot be accepted, neither can State terrorism.

Representing the Maoists as non-political 'terrorism' is not accurate. It has a goal and target although we may not agree with it. There is a cause and justification behind it. It has the power to mobilize people, albeit with force. As a general principle, when peaceful means fail to address their cause, people resort to violence so that public attention is drawn in their favour. This may not be the case with the Maoists in Nepal, but those following, voluntarily or under pressure, may still believe in it. No military action can finish 'belief' or 'faith'. No order to 'shoot on sight' resolves the underlying pain. Neither does the demand for heads. Did the killing of Nepali Congress warriors and Marxist-Leninist leaders in Jhapa by the Panchayat government detract the others from the goal? This rather helped glorify the cause each had borne, and created martyrs. This applies to the Maoists well. Let us therefore not be complicit in the crime. Political problems call for political actions. Let us not allow a rush to firepower to precede thoughts and conscience.

The Maoists have gone berserk. They can go further. They are convinced that only destruction can be a prelude to creation. They can destroy everything. We cannot expect them to obey our orders or follow the nonviolent means for change that we think a norm of life. It is 'bourgeois' in their vocabulary, and they live by such vocabularies. We cannot wait for the Maoists to follow us. We need to act now, and we need to protect the people and the infrastructure that we have. We need to behave as human beings so that we can compel others to do the same. So we need to prepare to act every way it is possible to contain violence.

There are conflicting news items coming in regarding the offer of cease-fire by the Maoist side. This should be taken as an opportunity to contain violence. While there is doubt that Maoist may not be honest about cease-fire and dialogue given their history, we, as the State, cannot be ruled by these doubts. It is our responsibility to make them honest.

Perhaps we can learn from our past experience. We need to sort out what shortcomings of the State made the Maoists return to jungles last November. Even if Maoists have not offered, I do not understand why the State cannot offer a cease-fire on its part? What is wrong with this? When we assert that Maoists are deviant, we cannot expect normal behavior from them. We are claiming to be sane; therefore we need to act sanely.

Dear Maoist 'comrades'! What twisted version of Maoism allows you to smash infrastructure, kill innocent people, and torture and murder security personnel after their surrender and arrest? Mao always spoke, as far as I have read, although not much as you have done, I suppose, for the protection of life and property of the people. But you loot them, force them to be your human shields, and kill them. You set people ablaze alive. You compel them to join you and carry your guns, and if they refuse, you force them to leave their village. What a source of calamity you have been!

Maoist 'friends'! Crimes are crimes; they cannot be justified. The burning issues you had raised in the outset of your movement are now completely overshadowed by your hand in the increasing crimes! Even in your new state, if ever you can be able to form it as you have dreamed, you need infrastructure; you need a communication network, transportation links and power plants; and, above all you need the trust of the people! Will your Taliban path take you to the goal, 'Comrades'? Enough is enough! It is high time to mend your ways. Come out of jungles, take the blindfold away from your eyes and start something creative. The whole world is denouncing you and deploring your acts, the acts which are turning Nepal into Taliban's Afghanistan. If you still have a Nepali heart alive, you should be ashamed of these mistakes. Give the path up, please, for the sake of the country and the people.

It is urgent for everyone concerned with humanity's crisis in Nepal, to invest your utmost efforts to contain violence politically. There is a danger that the Maoist People's War is serving as a pretext to a military build-up at the cost of the development budget -- even if the current form of 'development' is seriously flawed. Already the poorest in the word, how will Nepal now face social and developmental challenges? This is an alarming question.

With the new veil of 'terrorism', the genuine cause that forced poor Nepalis to lean towards the call of Maoists is being buried. Unless immediate efforts are made towards addressing the issues of poverty, unemployment, patriarchy, caste discrimination and other deep-seated socio-cultural oppressions, the causes of the crisis remains alive.

Nepal is poor, as the world knows. It needs its scarce resources for these problems, not for military purposes, as the U.S. has decided to give it. The U.S. needs to rethink its offer and address social and developmental needs in a real way. No aid should be sanctioned to kill or promote killing. U.S. intellectuals and policymakers should consider these things. The other urgent task of the day is to impartially investigate the abuses and crimes that have been committed, and start the process of truth and reconciliation. Let us direct our movement towards these ends.

Mukunda Kattel is a former director of the human rights group INSEC-Nepal, which has been monitoring and documenting human rights abuses committed by both the Maoists and the government throughout the course of the conflict.
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