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NEPAL

Heading for A Showdown

No holding of elections; no laying down of arms; no dialogue with the government: Maoist rebels get tough as they prepare to go on the offensive

By Bertil Lintner/RAMPUR and SIMALTARA, WESTERN NEPAL

PERCHED ACROSS the world's highest peaks and between two of its most populous nations, Nepal's strategic significance is obvious from a glance at the map. But endless political crises in this kingdom of 24 million, and a Maoist insurgency that's killed 5,000 people, make it an ever more worrying trouble spot. The latest crisis--the king's sacking of the elected government and appointment of an interim cabinet--increases political infighting, policy confusion and general uncertainty, making conditions in the country even more conducive to the rebels, who may be preparing to launch an all-out offensive. A civil war in Nepal, or more serious, a Maoist takeover, would have a profound impact on the stability of an already volatile region.

In six years, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has gained control of large areas of the western highlands. Driving on dirt roads in the southwest, it's clear we're in rebel-held territory. In Rampur, Maoist slogans are scrawled across village houses and a red banner flutters outside a bombed-out government office. Anxious not to be mistaken for the enemy in our white jeep (white being the colour of most government vehicles), we paste a piece of paper with "Press" written in Nepalese on the windscreen. Still, a "political commissar" of the CPN(M) stops us; we explain that we're journalists and he waves us through.

Rampur and many other villages in these hills and valleys are proof that the Maoists are manifestly not "on the run," as the government maintains. Nor do they appear to have been weakened by nine months of army operations against them during a state of emergency that ended in August. In many districts in this part of the country, the government still controls no more than major towns and the checkpoints on the roads between them.

Far from crippling the rebels, the emergency seems to have made them bolder. On September 7, they overran a police station in Sindhuli district, 85 kilometres east of the capital, Kathmandu, killing at least 49 policemen, wounding 22 and escaping with a haul of guns. The next day, several thousand Maoists attacked the town of Sandhikharka, 300 kilometres west of Kathmandu, resulting in up to 200 police, military and civilian casualties.

Then on September 16, the Maoists called a general strike. Shops remained closed in Kathmandu and few vehicles roamed the streets. "Their power is exerted only through terror," says a local police chief who did not want to be named. "There's no real popular support for them." But their terrorizing effect shows the power they can exert even over the urban population.

Their effect on the holding of general elections was even more far-reaching. The Maoists called another nationwide strike to coincide with the elections, originally scheduled for mid-November. Fearing disruption of the poll, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba proposed a year-long delay, prompting King Gyanendra to sack him and the cabinet for "incompetence" on October 4 and to suspend the elections. A week later the king appointed Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who leads a royalist party, as head of an interim government. Prime Minister Chand says he wants to open a dialogue with the rebels, and to hold elections at a later date. Neither seems likely: In an exclusive interview, Maoist leader Prachanda tells the REVIEW: "Our party has already decided that without any political resolution of the civil war, no election will be held".

Instead, there are signs that the rebels are preparing for a major offensive. Since April, they have started to target infrastructure, blowing up power plants, bridges, telecommunications centres and government buildings. And since the emergency was lifted in August, Kathmandu has been hit by almost daily bomb blasts in shopping centres and other public places. The government may reimpose a state of emergency, which wouldn't necessarily help its cause, and might even benefit the rebels.

SEVERE FOOD SHORTAGES

Already, counterinsurgency measures have alienated many people in Nepal's impoverished countryside. In Rampur and the nearby hamlet of Simaltara, for example, residents complain about year-long restrictions on the transporting of grain and medicines--a measure meant to prevent the goods from falling into Maoist hands but that has resulted in severe shortages. Lal Bahadur Kunwar of the Nepal Food Corp., a government agency, was quoted by local papers last month as saying that many districts in the mountains of the far west had run out of food stocks and face famine.

The government also seems indiscriminate in identifying people as Maoist. By official count, 2,850 Maoists were killed during the emergency. But "who really are the 'Maoist' dead?" asks Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal, a respected monthly in Kathmandu. According to local human-rights organizations and journalists, most of the dead may have been ordinary civilians who were either caught in the crossfire or mistaken for Maoists. "The army shoots first and asks questions later," says Mohan Mainali, director of Nepal's Centre for Investigative Journalism.

In the hospital in Nepalgunj, the main town in the southwest, 24-year-old Dhana Basnet and her two-year-old daughter are being treated for gunshot wounds. They were shot when the army fired on "suspected Maoists" a few weeks ago. Sita Karki, a 39-year-old mother of seven, lies in bed minus a leg--she was shot by the army while she was cutting grass. On February 24 this year, soldiers gunned down 34 labourers at an airport site in Kalikot, believing them to be Maoists.

Nara Bahadur Malla, an 80-year-old man in Simaltara, says he was recently beaten by police who wanted to know the whereabouts of his granddaughter, who had joined the Maoist army. Padma Ratna Tuladhar, who chairs the Forum for Protection of Human Rights in Kathmandu, believes that rural support for the Maoists actually grew during the emergency: "Many have turned to the Maoists for protection against excessive violence by the security forces."

But the Maoists are also guilty of brutality, executing or beating suspected informers. In the western district of Surkhet, for example, more than 40 teachers accused of being government informers have left their schools to take refuge in the main town, Birendranagar. Rebels crushed the legs of teacher Motilal Kar with rifle butts because they said he was an informer. They smashed the legs of Chandra Prasad Sapkota with an axe for being "a spy." Rebel seizures of grain from food depots have exacerbated the shortages in remote mountain areas.

The Maoists, however, have something going for them that often has been overlooked: Nepal's caste system and ethnic diversity. Although most of the CPN(M)'s leaders--including Chairman Prachanda--come from Indo-Aryan higher castes such as the bahuns (the local term for brahmins) and the chhetris (kshatriyas), most of their followers, especially the foot soldiers in the "people's army," come from lower castes and small tribes.

Minorities such as the hill-dwelling Magars, who are of Mongol origin, and the Tharus who live in Rampur and Simaltara, were hostile to the government long before the advent of the Maoists. The higher castes have traditionally treated both lower-caste and tribal peoples as second-class citizens. But in the Maoist movement, this underclass has been given authority over the higher castes--witness the Tharu political commissar in Rampur. So Nepal's insurgency is a caste war as well as a political struggle, which may explain why a seemingly anachronistic ideology has made such headway.

The Maoists have also capitalized on the dismal performance of Nepal's 12-year-old democracy. Since a popular uprising in 1990 ended the absolute monarchy, the old order has been succeeded by elected but unstable governments, bickering politicians, abuse of power, economic stagnation and rampant corruption. There lies the Maoist appeal: Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Maoists ban usury, gambling, alcohol and sometimes even smoking in areas they control, where "people's courts" mete out severe penalties. Their cultural policing includes telling women what to wear. This sort of puritanical radicalism persuades some people that they can provide the drastic solution the country needs.

The question is: When will guerrilla warfare become a full-blown military offensive? Mao Zedong's theory of protracted war describes three phases: the strategic defensive, the strategic stalemate and the strategic offensive. According to people close to the CPN(M), the party believes it is now poised for the strategic offensive. "The Maoists appear to have decided that the time may be ripe for their war ki par (do or die) moment," says Puskar Gautam, a newspaper columnist and former Maoist field commander.

He says Maoist leaders have studied what went wrong in Peru after the 1992 arrest of their role model, Abimael Guzman, or Chairman Gonzalo, who led the Maoist Shining Path movement. "In their analysis, the Shining Path and the Colombian revolutions failed because they let the strategic stalemate drag on for too long. In Nepal, the Maoists think a quick push for power when the state is vulnerable will take them to victory," Gautam says.

But to make their final push, the Maoists need to further strengthen their forces and acquire more sophisticated automatic weapons. Military analysts in Kathmandu estimate rebel numbers at 3,000-4,000 "hard-core militants," or regular troops, and 10,000-15,000 men and women in local militias. In addition, thousands of activists work in rebel-held areas as village headmen, tax collectors or propagandists, or through front organizations in the towns.

Raids on police stations and army camps have yielded an arsenal of small arms, supplemented by bombs made from explosives smuggled into the country, mostly by sympathetic Nepalese labourers working on road construction sites in India, where dynamite is easily available. The Maoists have the money to buy more weapons but getting them into land-locked Nepal, which borders India and China, is a major problem .

Whether or not they can recruit the manpower and acquire the firepower, the Maoists appear to be heading for their "do or die" showdown with the government. Who the winner will be is not clear, but the losers are bound to be ordinary Nepalese caught in the crossfire.

*

The Furious One Speaks

The chairman of the outlawed Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Pushpa Kamal Dahal--better known as Prachanda ("the furious one")--is wanted by the Nepalese government and Interpol. Few outsiders have met him. Nepal's press uses a drawing of him as no known photograph exists. But the REVIEW managed to penetrate layers of secrecy to reach the guerrilla leader through hand-delivered letters and a web of Internet addresses, obtaining via e-mail the first interview he has ever given to a major international publication.

In his late 40s, Prachanda comes from Chitwan district in southern Nepal, where he graduated from an agricultural college. He was a schoolteacher before he became involved in extreme-leftist politics and went underground in the mid-1980s. As head of a Maoist group, he took part in the popular revolt in 1990 that put an end to the absolute monarchy and restored multiparty democracy. In 1995 he founded the CPN(M); a year later the party launched its "people's war" in Nepal's poverty-stricken northwest. The government says that it's willing to negotiate with the Maoists if they lay down their arms. But Prachanda tells the REVIEW'S Bertil Lintner that disarming is out of the question:

ARE YOU WILLING TO HOLD PEACE TALKS WITH THE GOVERNMENT?

I want to make it clear that right from the initiation of the people's war in Nepal, our party has been upholding the strategy of political and military offensive against the old feudal state. To enter or not to enter into peace talks with the government is a part of our political strategy . . . It's not a question of willingness rather than a form of struggle that we don't want to be disarmed.

WHAT WOULD YOUR DEMANDS BE AT SUCH TALKS?

Our minimum demands are widely known: the formation of an interim government, election of a constituent assembly and organizing the country as a democratic republic . . . It's quite clear that how far these demands will be fulfilled through peace talks will ultimately depend on the level of victory achieved in the actual battlefield.

WHAT IS YOUR FINAL GOAL?

As a revolutionary communist party our final goal is socialism and communism. Right now our peoples are fighting against feudalism and imperialism. Therefore the immediate goal of our revolution is to fulfil the task of complete democratic revolution. We want to organize and develop the country with the full initiative of the masses through the abolition of the feudal and autocratic monarchy.

HOW DO YOU EXPECT TO ACHIEVE THAT GOAL?

No doubt we will achieve this goal through the politics of people's war.

WHAT ARE YOUR COMMENTS ON THE RECENT MOVES BY THE KING?

The latest step taken by this regicidal and fratricidal "King" Gyanendra is nothing less than a feudal, autocratic, military coup. This desperate attempt of the feudal "lord" will ultimately be smashed by our great people.

DO YOU THINK IT IS POSSIBLE TO HOLD ELECTIONS IN THE PRESENT SITUATION?

Our party has already decided that without any political resolution of the civil war, no election will be held.

*

Maoist Moneybags

By Bertil Lintner

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) is one of the wealthiest rebel movements in Asia. A string of bank robberies and the collection of a "revolutionary tax" have netted the party between 5 billion and 10 billion Nepalese rupees ($64 million-128 million), according to Deepak Thapa, an expert on the insurgency, and REVIEW estimates of sums seized from banks.

The tax is collected in rebel-controlled rural areas as well as in major towns. Considerable amounts also come from the Nepalese diaspora, particularly the several million Nepalese in neighbouring India. The rebels' reach extends as far as Hong Kong where there is reported to be a tiny but active Maoist cell among the 20,000-or-so Nepalese there. "Donations" are demanded from better-off Nepalese businessmen, who are either too embarrassed or afraid their relatives in Nepal may suffer to go to the police or complain to the consulate.

The Maoists receive no overt aid from abroad. Indeed, India has been cracking down on their activities in the country. The Indian government banned the Akhil Bharatiya Nepali Ekta Samaj, or All-India Nepalese Unity Society, in July for suspected links to the CPN(M). In September the society's secretary, Bamdev Chhetri, allegedly the party's point man in India, was arrested and extradited to Nepal. "Any instability on the Indian periphery is undesirable, whether it is Sri Lanka or Nepal, particularly when it has an insurgency and terrorism aspect embedded in it," says Commodore Uday Bhaskar of India's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi.

China also backs the Nepalese government, denouncing the CPN(M) as not being "true Maoists." Former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala said after a visit to Beijing in June that the Chinese had even offered support in the war against the rebels.

These articles first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, October 24, 2002

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