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NEPAL: ON THE BRINK OF DISASTER

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KATMANDU, Sep 1 2004 (IPS) - Nepal\’s first explosion of religious violence last week has shocked the country, and prompted calls for reviving the kingdom\’s traditional values of tolerance and compassion, writes Kunda Dixit, editor of the weekly newspaper Nepali Times in Kathmandu. As Kathmandu returns to normal this week after the riots, the government will have to tackle the longer term problem of restoring peace. Everyone in Nepal agrees there is no military victory in this conflict. A negotiated solution needs to be found to address the main political demand of the Maoists: set up a constituent assembly to get rid of the monarchy. The Maoists have hinted in the past that they may be willing to live with a constitutional monarchy and their demand for republic is to leave some flexibility in negotiation. What complicates the government\’s dealings with the Maoists is that the parliamentary parties are at loggerheads with the king. The three-month old government of prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of a centre-right faction of the Nepali Congress has cobbled together a shaky coalition made up of the moderate left United Marxist-Leninist. But four other parties have refused to join, saying King Gyanendra wants to take the country back to the days of absolute monarchy. The king has repeatedly denied this, but says the parties need to mend their behaviour and be more accountable.

Nepal’s first explosion of religious violence last week has shocked the country, and prompted calls for reviving the kingdom’s traditional values of tolerance and compassion.

When 12 Nepali contract workers were kidnapped by the Ansar al-Sunna group in Iraq on 18 August everyone thought they would soon be released. The government in Kathmandu made appeals on Al Jazeera television through its diplomats in Riyadh and Doha, but since the hostages were security personnel and Nepal is not a member of the US-led coalition in Iraq officials seemed to feel its nationals would not be harmed.

It soon became clear that the kidnappers had no demands and intended to kill the hostages all along. Ten days later on 31 August came the first gruesome images on a website purporting to show the slow beheading of one of the hostages and the execution style shooting of the rest.

Back home in Nepal, the shock gave way to outrage and the anger spilled out into the streets. Overnight, Kathmandu saw its worst anti-Muslim riots in history. No Muslims were killed, but mosques were attacked, Muslim-owned shops destroyed, offices middle eastern airlines ransacked and burnt down and even media offices attacked. But worst of all, the anger of the mobs was directed at the offices of recruitment offices for Nepali migrant labour going to the Gulf and East Asia, most of them were destroyed in a span of six hours on 1 September.

Although some of this anger was spontaneous, it is now becoming clear that the attacks on Muslim targets and the recruitment agencies were planned to inflict maximum damage on Nepal’s economy. The riots snuffed out what was left of Nepal’s tourism and by destroying the recruitment firms Nepal’s biggest source of foreign currency has been put in jeopardy. Remittances from overseas workers brought an estimated $1 billion into the country last year.

The riots came on top of a raging Maoist insurgency in which 10,000 people have been killed in the past eight years. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) embarked on its armed struggle in 1996 with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy and replacing it with a peoples’ republic. The inspiration comes from China as well as Peru’s Shining Path. The Nepali comrades say they want to finish Mao Zedong’s incomplete revolution in his homeland, and have strong solidarity with revolutionary movements worldwide and with Maoist groups in north and central India.

Nepal’s poverty and social inequities, the neglect and apathy of its rulers and the failed promise of democracy are at the root of the insurgency. The Maoist built on this popular frustration and grew rapidly not because they were particularly strong but because they used the weakness of the state in a step-by-step strategy of escalating violence. The state made the classic mistake of reacting with harsh crackdowns on the poverty-stricken mid-western districts that pushed many villagers into the Maoist fold.

Then came the massacre of Nepal’s royal family by Crown Prince Dipendra on June 1, 2001. The whole country was plunged into shock, and the Maoists took this as an opportunity to accelerate their revolution, making a bid to capture state power quickly. They took on the army, which had till then remained outside the conflict, and the casualty rate spiraled. Nepali Gurkha soldiers may be famous the world over for bravery, but they have found it difficult to fight a guerrilla war against their own people in one of the world’s most difficult terrain.

The army has nearly doubled in size in three years and has received weapons and helicopters from India and the United States, Britain and even China.

The Maoists have used safe havens in India to hide, and pass easily back and forth across Nepal’s porous southern border. But New Delhi seems to have realised that there is a danger of a spillover of the revolution to its poorest states bordering Nepal where its own Maoist insurgents have been active. India has recently captured senior Maoist leaders and is waiting for an extradition treaty to be signed before handing them over.

Within Nepal itself, the Maoists have squandered much of their early support after its cadre engaged in brutal executions of teachers, village elders and others who don’t agree with them. They are also feeling the heat from the army’s improved intelligence and undercover work especially in the area around Kathmandu, and are under pressure to abandon training areas. The Maoists now seem to need breathing space which is why they have been trying to put pressure on the army and government to agree to a truce by blockading the capital for a week last month.

In eight years, the insurgency has brutalised Nepali society, ruined the country’s economy, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and ravaged tourism. This has increased pressure on Nepalis to migrate abroad for work. There are now an estimated 1.5 million Nepalis in India, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and the Gulf.

As Kathmandu returns to normal this week after the riots, the government will have to tackle the longer term problem of restoring peace. Everyone in Nepal agrees there is no military victory in this conflict. A negotiated solution needs to be found to address the main political demand of the Maoists: set up a constituent assembly to get rid of the monarchy. The Maoists have hinted in the past that they may be willing to live with a constitutional monarchy and their demand for republic is to leave some flexibility in negotiation.

What complicates the government’s dealings with the Maoists is that the parliamentary parties are at loggerheads with the king. The three-month old government of prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba of a centre-right faction of the Nepali Congress has cobbled together a shaky coalition made up of the moderate left United Marxist-Leninist. But four other parties have refused to join, saying King Gyanendra wants to take the country back to the days of absolute monarchy. The king has repeatedly denied this, but says the parties need to mend their behaviour and be more accountable. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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