Thursday, October 07, 2004

Nepal: The King and the Maoist

[There are still nagging doubts in the minds of many Nepalis that King Birendra was assassinated on that day through a plot that might have been hatched outside Nepal. Girija Prasad Koirala, who was prime minister then, has often talked about a "grand design", although he has refrained from explaining what he means. Books and contemporary media reports on the incident continue to allude to conspiracy theories. An article in Monthly Review, a US publication, printed in September 2002 quoted "unblemished sources" to allege that the US Central Intelligence Agency - under George Tenet - and its Indian counterpart, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had a hand in the killing of Birendra - and other family members - as Birendra was "known to be a staunch anti-Indian Nepali nationalist". The Maoists initially described the abolition of the feudal institution of the monarchy as their primary objective; but with the passage of time they have transformed that to be their ultimate goal.]

In Nepal, it's the king to move
By Dhruba Adhikary

KATHMANDU - While King Gyanendra takes time off to review his own performance since he stalled the democratic process two years ago, his hand-picked prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, remains busy finding the right bait to persuade Maoists to agree to a new round of peace talks. But the Maoists say - from their hideouts within and outside the country - that they will not negotiate with royal servant(s); they prefer to directly deal with the king, who is both the de facto as well as de jure ruler of Nepal.

The king is the supreme commander of the Royal Nepali Army (RNA), a force currently with a combined strength of 138,000 armed personnel, including those from civil and armed police agencies. Recent US and Indian support to these security organizations in the form of training and equipment has emboldened the royal regime to take on the rebels, who launched a "people's war" in 1996.

The Maoists initially described the abolition of the feudal institution of the monarchy as their primary objective; but with the passage of time they have transformed that to be their ultimate goal.

Intrigues and paradoxes abound, leaving room for conjecture and speculation. The abduction and subsequent "elimination" of radio journalist Dekendra Thapa by the Maoists - in August - is one such example the media often cite. Thapa, a correspondent of the state-owned Radio Nepal in the mid-western district of Dailekh, was executed because he worked as a compere in an official program organized to felicitate King Gyanendra when he was on a tour of Maoist-affected districts in the region.

People on the street question what prompted the Maoist underground leadership to leave the royal tour undisturbed, but kill a radio reporter whose "crime" was to help conduct an officially approved program. The usual Maoist charge against journalists is that they spy for the security agencies.

Another piece of the jigsaw puzzle has come in the form of a pre-condition the Maoists have fixed to revive the peace talks. And it has to do with their insistence that they be allowed to negotiate directly with King Gyanendra, not with Deuba, whom they consider to be merely a servant of the palace.

Political analysts are intrigued by this argument because Deuba's status is no better or no worse than that of the two persons whom the king appointed premier after he suspended democracy on October 4, 2002. First it was Lokendra Bahadur Chand, a known palace protege, and then Surya Bahadur Thapa, another discredited royalist, who headed the second royal government.

Yet the Maoists did not have any hesitation or reservations in accepting their offers for peace talks. So why are the Maoists now declining Deuba's peace overtures? Those who give credence to the conspiracy theories that followed the palace massacre of June 1, 2001, tend to suspect that several of the present moves are aimed at consolidating the king's political power base.

There are still nagging doubts in the minds of many Nepalis that King Birendra was assassinated on that day through a plot that might have been hatched outside Nepal. Girija Prasad Koirala, who was prime minister then, has often talked about a "grand design", although he has refrained from explaining what he means. Books and contemporary media reports on the incident continue to allude to conspiracy theories. An article in Monthly Review, a US publication, printed in September 2002 quoted "unblemished sources" to allege that the US Central Intelligence Agency - under George Tenet - and its Indian counterpart, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), had a hand in the killing of Birendra - and other family members - as Birendra was "known to be a staunch anti-Indian Nepali nationalist".

The article, written by Wayne Madsen, also referred to a US plan to throw a "cordon sanitaire of pro-US states around China".

The authorities may conveniently dismiss such reports as mere speculation, and want to remind people - both at home and abroad - about the madness of Crown Prince Dipendra, who by some accounts killed his parents because his mother had refused to allow him to marry a commoner. This has been an ongoing public relations exercise.

But those who are worried about the derailment of the democratic process are reluctant to minimize the significance of some of the events and trends witnessed in the intervening years since the royal carnage. The premature dissolution of parliament, the dismissal of an elected government, an enhanced role for the rapidly expanding armed forces (at the expense of civilian administration) and the monarch's search for a "constructive role" for himself are some of the developments which are at variance with the king's public commitment to democratic governance.

"The fate of the 1990 constitution is indeed at a crossroads," said Ganesh Raj Sharma, the country's leading constitutional lawyer. Political parties, considered one of the main pillars of democracy, are rapidly losing relevance. Although it is a widely held view that party leaders themselves have to take the bulk of the blame for bringing this situation to the fore, analysts also point to a public perception that the present king, too, has not done much to help institutionalize the multi-party political system.

The spreading insurgency

However, the main challenge Nepal faces today is the Maoist insurgency. What initially appeared as local-level activities of some mischief-makers confined to a few villages in hill districts in the mid-western region has now become a nationwide phenomenon, which is already being described as a low-intensity civil war. Last October, an American conflict specialist, C Gersony, concluded after a field study that the Maoist insurgency had spread to other parts of the country because Nepal's law-and-order machinery, which was under the elected government, did not take any serious measures for six long years after the insurgency began. He wondered why, and this question remains a part of the unresolved mystery.

The number of insurgency-related deaths, mainly in the countryside, since October last year alone has exceeded 2,000, pushing the total figure to 10,000 plus. The agony of those who have survived violent attacks - from both insurgents and security forces - is horrifying. Thousands have lost their limbs and are unable to work to earn a living. Women have lost their husbands, and children have become orphans. Those who are alive cannot go to schools as these facilities have been converted into training grounds and shelters by the Maoists. They claim that two-thirds of the country's territory is already under their control. The authorities in the capital strongly deny such claims, but they do concede that police posts from most of the rural areas have been withdrawn to district headquarters.

With the exception of the Kathmandu Valley, security in most of country's 75 districts is now confined to district headquarters. Maoist calls for any nationwide or areawide general strike are rarely defied. In August, the rebels called for a blockade of the valley that houses Kathmandu and two other districts. This made the population jittery, but the Maoists took that to mean that the valley's residents were responding favorably.

The actions and operations of the RNA and police/intelligence units under a "unified command" have thus far been largely defensive. Offensive actions from government forces have been few and far between. Similarly, efforts to recover weapons snatched by rebels have been less than encouraging. Less than one-fourth of the arms stolen from army barracks and police posts since 2001 have been recovered, though the army's belief is that the rebels now often run out of ammunition.

From the official standpoint, the rebels' ability to procure guns and bullets from the Indian market across the porous Nepal-India border has lately been drastically reduced because of New Delhi's renewed pledge to curb Maoist activities in and from Indian territory. Reports of the arrest of a few guerrilla leaders in the Indian states bordering Nepal have raised the confidence level of the security forces.

Time to talk?

It is against this background that a new (third) round of peace talks is being mooted by the government. The European Union, which holds a softer stand on the Maoists, has issued a statement welcoming the government's invitation to the rebels for dialogue. As indicated above, the Maoist leaders have responded to this latest official initiative through a list of six questions, asking the "old regime" to agree to involve the United Nations or any other credible international organization in the proposed negotiation process. But the royal regime has not been enthusiastic about the idea of involving the UN, because Deuba thinks that India and the US are opposed to this proposition.

Interestingly, the publicly announced policy of these two countries, together with the United Kingdom, is that it is for Nepal to take a firm decision. The real reason, analysts think, that Kathmandu is evasive about the prospect of taking UN assistance is a fear that, once allowed, UN officials will begin putting question marks on Nepal's existing work procedures, including those related to human-rights issues. Hence the insistence to find a solution from within. But how long can the Deuba government sit idly, watching deadly attacks on security personnel and civilians alike?

Not very long, it appears. The latest indication to this came from Deuba when he spoke to the media on Sunday. He said even if the Maoists do not come forward for negotiation, his government will soon start making arrangements for parliamentary elections. Deuba said he would wait for the Maoist response as Nepalis begin to celebrate the Dashain festival in two weeks. Whether elections are feasible in the existing circumstances is a different matter. And commissioners at the Election Commission are already under Maoist threat to resign from their posts.

Workers in Deuba's Nepali Congress (Democratic) Party do not appear serious about elections. They want the media to take a more serious message from the statement Deuba issued after returning from a visit to India last month. Deuba warned the rebels that if the appeal for talks is ignored, his government will be forced to use force. Accordingly, the country's security apparatus is preparing to launch offensive attacks on rebel-infected areas to drastically reduce the Maoists' strength, thereby forcing them to sit for a "meaningful negotiation". The next couple of months are going to be crucial, high-placed government officials predict.

But the Maoists say that they have not found the required sincerity in the government's proposal. To them, growing foreign interference has become a matter of serious concern. From their point of view, it would be useless to enter into dialogue with Deuba's team. Besides, their demand for a constituent assembly, an elected body to write a new constitution, remains unfulfilled. "We are definitely heading for a decisive battle," said Lekhnath Neupane, a central committee member of the outlawed Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), by telephone from an undisclosed location in the western hills.

Echoing his party supremo, Prachanda, Neupane said, "We are mobilizing our workers to take our strategic offensive to a new height." Neupane said the Maoists plan to achieve this objective before the "people's war" enters its 10th year - on February 13. Prachanda had earlier warned Deuba not to invite any foreign army, but anticipated that his party would have to ultimately fight the Indian army.

The Maoist leadership refuses, however, to accept that it is their violent agitation which is responsible for the present state of affairs.

Although senior army officers bill most of the Maoist claims on their military strength as no more than propaganda, rebel leaders maintain that they now have a fighting force of 25,000 young men and women, grouped into three divisions, nine brigades and 29 battalions. This force, called the People's Liberation Army (PLA - as the Chinese army is also called), is backed by a 100,000-strong people's militia. Prachanda himself is the supreme commander of the PLA. This Maoist force has considerably expanded in the past three years. And they have successfully stormed army barracks and police posts, killing scores of soldiers at a time. Armed guerrillas attacked Beni, a township on the western hills, a few months ago, inflicting heavy casualties. They now have acquired capabilities to assault more than one district center at the same time. In between, the Maoists have divided the country in nine provinces and set up provisional governments. It is on this basis that they claim Nepal now has two parallel governments, one headed by King Gyanendra, and the other headed by Prachanda.

The belligerent postures on both sides is indicative of a head-on conflict. "It is disturbing that the government is not serious at all to stop what is likely to be a prolonged cycle of violence," said Shyam Shrestha, editor of Mulyankan, a left-leaning Nepali journal. It is preposterous, he said, to ask Maoists to lay down their weapons before they can be invited for talks. In his opinion, people in authority tend to underestimate the destabilizing power that the Maoists possess. After the formation, in July 2001, of a regional body called the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations in South Asia (CCOMPOSA), consisting of radical communists from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India, the Maoists have become stronger.

James F Moriarty, US ambassador to Nepal, who was in New Delhi last month, found a change in the Indian perception of the Maoist insurgency. "I think the government, the civil society and the media in India have all begun to realize that the Maoists not only pose a threat to the government of Nepal but also pose a threat to stability in larger parts of India," he told the Kathmandu Post newspaper on Monday.

Can the Maoists defeat the army and capture overall power? Not likely in the foreseeable future. But the unpredictable and violent methods they use to intimidate people can have devastating consequences. And the worst does not seem to be over yet.

How then can the two sides move ahead? Should the Maoists meet the king directly it is unlikely that they would ask him to abdicate. All they will say is that their minimum demand is for an elected constituent assembly - to write a new constitution, replacing the one enacted in 1990. Politicians close to the palace see a danger in this scheme because they think the constituent assembly might vote to end the monarchy itself. Nevertheless, if the king agrees to meet this Maoist demand it will not have broad-based legitimacy, which is essential for an important exercise like electing an assembly solely for drawing up the country's main statute. This is the reason other mainstream parties have been advocating for the restoration of the parliament the king prematurely dissolved in May 2002.

Leaders of these parties argue that a decision on a constituent assembly by the parliament will be acceptable to all concerned. But can the parliament, dissolved almost two years before its five-year term ended, be revived at this stage? Former chief justice BishwaNath Upadhyaya, who headed the panel that drafted the 1990 constitution, says it can be revived. He says the king can issue a decree by invoking Article 127 of the incumbent constitution. Constitutional experts support this view. It is expedient for the Maoists, therefore, to give up violence and join hands with other political parties to force the re-establishment of parliament.

Otherwise, the deadlock will remain unbroken, with King Gyanendra clinging to his powers and the Maoists fighting to remove him. Nepal's future lies largely in the hands of the monarch.

Dhruba Adhikary is the vice president of the Nepal Press Institute. He has been a Dag Hammarskjold Fellow at the United Nations.

Asia Times Online 07/10/2004