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Wednesday, October 4, 2023
TANSEN, Palpa, Sep 24 2005 (IPS) - No more deadly gunfights between Maoist rebels and soldiers, no late-night knocks on the door with orders to feed insurgents and fewer demands for travellers to pay ‘tax’-the villagers of western Palpa say life has improved since the Maoists called a unilateral ceasefire on Sep. 3.
But it would be even better if the government reciprocated, they add quickly. This mid-hill district of west Nepal is breathtaking in late summer, even with the Annapurna mountains to the north obscured by late monsoon clouds. Fields of emerald green paddy shine luminously in the small valleys and when it breaks through the clouds, the sun burns fiercely.
On the path to Buddhikot village, many locals shield themselves with umbrellas as they hurry goats or cows along rocky, rutted roads and trails. At the local school, headmaster Jagarnath Sharma sits on a straw mat in the shade of a sprawling pipul (Indian fig) tree.
He explains that the area has been little disturbed by the decade-long conflict because it is not on a main rebel route. But some months ago, five or six soldiers, disguised as Maoists, entered one end of the village, while two rebels on a motorcycle rode in at the other. After the shooting stopped, one Maoist was dead while the other was wounded and escaped.
“After the ceasefire, things like that haven’t happened. Otherwise, there could be a big battle,” says the headmaster. “People are hoping that both sides drop their weapons and there will be peace.”
The ceasefire was not unexpected since others have been called in previous years just before Nepal’s annual holiday season. What makes this one stand out though, say observers, is the rebels announced it just days prior to King Gyanendra’s planned trip to the United Nations.
Since then a coalition of political parties has led street protests daily in the capital Kathmandu, provoking a heavy-handed response from riot police. Tear gas has drifted into primary schools, women activists say they have been abused during arrests and student leaders claim they have been tortured.
Last Friday, 80 journalists who demonstrated in a prohibited area were arrested. On Tuesday, 87 academics and 290 activists were jailed, then released hours later.
Torture is systematic in Nepal’s prisons, concluded a U.N. expert after a visit last week. According to police and military officials, “torture was acceptable in some instances and was indeed systematically practised”, said U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, Matthew Novak.
Detainees have been beaten with bamboo sticks, while tied to poles upside down and were blindfolded and handcuffed for prolonged periods. Maoists have also tortured victims to extort money and to punish those who do not cooperate, added Novak at a news conference.
The young T-shirted driver of a jeep plying the narrow highway that snakes through the thickly-forested hills between Palpa and the tourist town of Pokhara says Maoists and police and army personnel often stop passenger vehicles.
Generally, Maoists “act respectfully when they are on duty – they pay the fare and do not ask for special treatment,” he says. As for soldiers: “I have never been harassed by them but I know they have beaten drivers who were forced to give rides to Maoists.”
Since the ceasefire, rebels continue to pressure jeep and bus drivers to “donate”, he added. “I don’t pay.”
Civil society representatives have set up a monitoring committee to track violations of the unilateral ceasefire. Already local media have reported many incidents since Sep. 3 and say that in more remote districts the ceasefire has had little impact on Maoist activities.
NGOs working in Palpa’s villages are closely monitored by the rebels, who say they are fighting to establish a society that will treat women, Dalits (so-called untouchables) and indigenous people fairly.
Roughly 13,000 people, most of them civilians, have died in their increasingly violent battle with the state, which now disrupts life in up to three-quarters of this small nation between India and China.
Twenty minutes from Buddhikot, down a narrow trail that snakes through forests and past tiny plots of yellowing corn, a group of locals has gathered at a house in Chandraban Ratmata village. “I’m feeling quite comfortable-I can go anywhere now,” says a local NGO worker. “Before that I had many problems.”
Earlier in the year she travelled to eastern Palpa for one training session. About 5,000 Maoists had gathered for a meeting at the same school. “They interrogated me about our training – why we were doing it, what its benefits would be, who was being paid what. Finally they said ‘OK, you can go ahead’.”
In Palpa’s headquarters town of Tansen, a local Red Cross official tells IPS, “people are very happy, they are feeling confident and can move from place to place in safety”.
Prior to the ceasefire, life “was getting worse and worse. It was affecting the lives of all people”, adds Baburam Karki.
But even with the Maoists’ guns temporarily silent, Yog Prasad Bhattarai does not foresee a bright future. Perched atop a stool in his dry-goods shop metres from the highway, he says business has not picked up since the announcement. Nor has his phone been restored. (The army cut service nation-wide on Feb. 1 to facilitate the king’s takeover).
He and his neighbours “went as a delegation to many places, including the Chief District Office and the army in charge. They say ‘within four or five days the lines will be fixed’ but so far nothing.”
The local bank has also left Bhattarai’s village and the police post has relocated. The shopkeeper says he will be next to leave if peace does not return soon. Where will he go after 28 years in his shop? Home to the plains to farm, he says with a shrug that indicates, “where else?”
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