The Forgotten Civil War

New Hope for an End to the Nepalese Maoist Rebellion?

A Nepalese woman walks by a bombed-out children's hospice
Jorpati, Nepal, Dec. 28, 2002: A woman walks past a children's hospice damaged in a bomb attack on the Nepalese education minister's house nearby (Photo: Devendra M. Singh/AFP).

Nearly seven years of civil war have left roughly 7,500 Nepalese dead since Nepalese Maoist rebels launched a “people’s war” to oust the country’s royal dynasty. So news of a cease-fire between the rebels and the Nepalese government has come as a welcome respite for a population especially panicked by the recent murder of the chief of Nepal’s police force, along with his wife and bodyguard.

On the evening of Wednesday, Jan. 29, Maoist Supreme Commander Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Comrade Prachanda, issued a press release from his hideout. “We declare a cease-fire, to take effect immediately,” it said, “and express our commitment to peace talks.” Minutes later, the Nepalese government issued a communiqué saying it had requested that INTERPOL withdraw “red notices” urgently calling for the arrest and extradition of Nepalese Maoists’ leaders wherever they might be found.

The Maoists’ unilateral cease-fire declaration followed a decision by the Council of Ministers to lift the ban on the Maoists and to revoke the bounties the previous government had put on top Maoist leaders’ heads.

According to informed sources, the deal was the fruit of six weeks of negotiations between Minister for Physical Planning and Construction Narayan Singh Pun and Maoist leaders, including Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai. Pun reportedly was acting as King Gyanendra’s emissary.

On Jan. 30, Nepal Samacharpatra, a Nepali-language daily published from Kathmandu, reported that Prachanda and Bhattarai had also met directly with the king the previous Monday, though this report could not be independently verified.

Shortly after the announcement of cease-fire, Pun commented, “This is the beginning of confidence-building,” but refused to say more.

Serious problems remain. The day after the warring parties declared a truce, at least 13 Maoist guerillas and five government soldiers were killed in separate clashes in the countryside.

Prachanda has said the Maoists are still adamant on certain “minimum” demands, including the formation of an interim government, and the possibility for the Maoists to run for election in a constituent assembly that would draft a new constitution. This last issue proved the crucial sticking-point in 2001 negotiations between the rebels and former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government. When Deuba refused to discuss the possibility of a constituent assembly, the rebels broke the cease-fire then in effect and launched a flurry of successful attacks on government military installations. Nepal has been in a state of emergency since.

This time around, Nepal’s largest political parties at least seem more inclined to consider the possibility. Though the issue has since split Nepal’s two primary parties, on Jan. 29, Narahari Acharya, a leader of Nepal’s largest political party, the Nepali Congress (NC), told reporters, “Going for a constituent assembly is the only possible solution to the situation of violence and unrest.” Madhav Kumar Nepal, general secretary of the Communist Party of Nepal–Unified Marxist and Leninist (CPN-UML) told reporters, “We don’t rule out the possibility of constituent assembly if it will afford a better way out of the current crisis.”

As quickly became apparent the next day, however, not everyone is sold on the idea. NC President Girija Prasad Koirala feared the country’s “two armed forces [the army and the Maoist rebels] would come together against the democratic forces.” The present Nepalese government was nominated directly by the king after he dismissed the elected government on Oct. 4. Since then, the palace and its ministers have sidelined the political parties, including CPN-UML and NC.

Deuba greeted the announcement of the cease-fire, but noted that “the Maoists’ motives are still under suspicion.”

Long Overdue

After years of near-daily skirmishes, 40-percent poverty, and an ongoing leadership crisis, any sign of hope is certainly welcome in Nepal. Things had gone from bad to worse in recent months.

Pro-Maoist students have gone on strike indefinitely, forcing the closure of more than 5,000 schools and colleges in Kathmandu Valley. The Maoists have also called for a two-day nationwide strike on Feb. 13-14 to mark the seventh anniversary of the “people’s war.”

Life in the snow-capped Himalayan kingdom has come to a virtual halt. On Dec. 11, the Central Bureau of Statistics said Nepal’s gross domestic product declined for the first time in 20 years during the 2001-2002 fiscal year.

Things started to get particularly bad in October 2002, when Prime Minister Deuba asked King Gyanendra to postpone elections, which he feared would be disrupted by Maoist rebels. In response, the king sacked Deuba, suspended  Parliament, and appointed a new government.

“The situation after the royal proclamation has only worsened,” says Narahari Acharya, a senior Nepali Congress (NC) leader. “The security situation has not improved; instead it is becoming more critical.” 

In November 2002, Nepal's six main political parties submitted their recommendations for restoring order in the country. Reviving the suspended Parliament was high among them. King Gyanendra categorically rejected them. On Dec. 10, party leaders vowed to launch nationwide protest programs against the king’s “unconstitutional moves.”

“The unconstitutional royal proclamation has displaced the people’s sovereignty and breached the constitutional provisions,” party leaders said in a statement issued after the meeting.

In explaining his decision to suspend the elected government, Gyanendra said Deuba and Parliament had proved incapable of restoring order. But some Nepalese analysts now warn that the move could backfire. “Politics is becoming increasingly polarized,” says a professor of political science at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University who spoke on condition of anonymity. “On one side, you have the king, on the other, the Maoists. The middle ground is shrinking. If the king goes on sidelining the parties, which have greater influence among the people, the parties might side with the Maoists to uproot the monarchy.”

But there is also widespread dissatisfaction with the Parliament’s track record. It could not come up with effective relief for a largely impoverished population that often subsists without basic infrastructure. The political parties also became unpopular among the people for the “nasty games” they played. Allegations of corruption were rife during Deuba’s 1995-96 coalition government. The population lost faith in its elected officials. The same year, perhaps sensing the popular dissatisfaction, the Maoists launched their rebellion.

Nepal fell into a prolonged crisis. Unstable governments turned over three times a year. “The political parties of the time were only concerned with power struggles,” says Krishna Hachhethu, a senior political analyst and professor of political science in Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu. “But now they have realized the bitter consequences.”

Immediately after the king sacked the Deuba government and assumed executive powers, the constitutional anti-corruption watchdog—Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA)—made a series of high-level arrests. It has already collected roughly US$2 million in bail.

As the fighting in the countryside worsened, international aid agencies began withdrawing. Meanwhile, the government appeared paralyzed by infighting. “Political bickering has largely distracted the government from dealing with the Maoists,” says Surendra KC, a professor at Tribhuvan University and a columnist for the Kathmandu weekly Nepal.

The Roots of the Conflict

In retrospect, it is easy to see the Maoist rebellion as a natural outgrowth of 150 years of ineffective, isolationist, and autocratic government. From 1846-1951, Nepal was ruled by hereditary chief ministers known as Ranas, who enjoyed the support of the colonial British administration based in India. The Ranas—whose often brutal methods insured their continued domination, but left Nepal lagging behind in commercial development and world affairs—treated Nepal as their private fiefdom. And in many respects, it was. When the British left India in 1947, they opened a window of opportunity for opponents of the Ranas’ rule.

Three years later, on Nov. 6, 1950, King Tribhuvan, who had long been making anti-Rana statements, escaped from the palace and sought asylum in the Indian embassy in Kathmandu. Five days later, armed insurgents from the Nepali Congress Liberation Army (Mukti Sena), backed by the Indian government, attacked the southern region of Tarai. Over the next two months, more attacks followed.

The Ranas buckled surprisingly quickly under the pressure. By February 1951, they formed an interim government with representatives from the Nepali Congress, and by March they had agreed to a new constitution. Eight years later, in February 1959, Nepalis participated the country’s first direct democratic elections. The Nepali Congress won two-thirds of the votes.

The experiment with democracy didn’t last long. In December 1960, with the army’s support, King Mahendra dismissed the government and arrested its leaders on the charge that they had failed to provide national leadership or maintain law and order. For the next 20 years, Nepal was governed by a non-party system of councils known as panchayat under which the king exercised sole power.

Over the next two decades, dissatisfaction with the panchayat system grew in Nepal. By 1980, only a narrow majority of Nepalis turned out to vote in favor of it in a national referendum. In the mid-1980s, the Nepali Congress Party began a civil-disobedience campaign for the restoration of multi-party politics. The movement gained steam by the end of the decade, as a trade and transit dispute with India resulted in the March 1989 blockade of the country’s southern border. The economy went into a tailspin.

By September 1990, Nepal’s economy was in dire trouble. Student demonstrations against India began to take anti-government overtones. The government responded by closing all campuses in Kathmandu for two months. By February, Nepali Congress and communist elements joined the protests. Professors, doctors, engineers, pilots, and some government workers joined a national strike to protest the panchayat system, in what came to be known as the “Movement of 1990.” Street protests were put down by security forces, resulting in deaths and mass arrests.

King Birenda took note. On April 9, 1990, he announced that he would re-instate multiparty politics. The Nepali Congress won the elections the following year in a landslide, and Girija Prasad Koirala became prime minister.

Things did not go as the pro-democracy protesters had hoped. “The people away from the towns couldn’t feel the presence of government,” Hachhethu says. “Their plight did not improve at all. But the parties played nasty games in Kathmandu. They went on fulfilling their personal and respective party’s needs.”

Hachhethu says the 1990s movement was a precursor to the Maoist rebellion. “The movement changed history, but the leaders it produced confused the will of their political cadres with the will of the entire people,” he argues. “The forgotten sections of Nepalese society—the ethnic minorities, the Dalits, [“untouchables”] and janajatis [or native Nepalese, who make up the majority of the population, but claim they are discriminated against as a caste] nursed deep resentment in their hearts, until finally the rising flames of rebellion saw them joining the rebel forces of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).”

Arjun Bhandari, a senior Nepalese journalist, agrees that it was during this period that the Maoists, who were then arming and training in the dense forests of western Nepal, found the greatest numbers of recruits. “Meanwhile,” he says, “The successive nincompoop governments were all unaware that any of this was happening.”

Pushkar Gautam was among those who joined the Maoist insurgency at this time, eventually becoming a field commander. He explains the rebellion in classic Marxist terms, as “the struggle initiated by the distressed class against the bourgeois.” Since the 1990s, though, Gautam has had a falling-out with the movement and now works as a columnist at a respected Nepali-language biweekly newsmagazine. “I was not satisfied with the Maoists because they started attacking the ones who they repeatedly said they were fighting for.”

Gautam acknowledges that “every people’s war is a terror. But, in case of Nepal, the people have been most terrorized by the Maoists. If this weren’t bad enough, they are forced to bear the terror perpetrated by the security forces and the armed supporters of the political parties.”

Who are the Maoists? What Do They Want?

The Maoist rebels are the political “kin” of a key actor in mainstream Nepalese politics, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), which was founded in 1949.

By 1986, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), was finding its stride. There was growing agitation for the return of multi-party politics. As the country’s political debate became more heated, the CPN splintered into two groups: The CPN-Fourth Congress and the CPN-Masal (See diagram). The CPN-Masal, the forbearers of the Maoists, favored using violence to restore democracy, while the Fourth Congress favored peaceful acts of civil disobedience. A series of splits and rapprochements followed over the next few years as party members debated the use of force to accomplish political ends.

history of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)

In 1993, the CPN-Unity Center, which included members of a breakaway faction of the CPN-Masal and the majority CPN-4th Congress, again split over the question whether violence was an acceptable means. The group that eventually became known as the CPN-Maoist said it was. The group that rejected violence re-adopted the old name, CPN-4th Congress, and eventually withered. As the peaceful CPN-4th Congress became irrelevant, the Maoists took to the forests and began training.

As the Maoists were plotting a revolution in the countryside, Baburam Bhattarai was leading a political party into decline. The United People’s Front (UPF), which had been the third-largest Nepalese political party in 1991, suffered from a series of splits during the 1990s rivaled only by CPN. Bhattari wound up leading the minority faction of the UPF to inglorious defeat in the 1995 elections, failing to win a single seat.

Undaunted, he submitted a series of 40 demands to the prime minister, imperiously giving the prime minister two weeks to respond. The prime minister’s office initially agreed to 39 of the demands, but rejected a demand to abolish the monarchy to create a republic. Bhattarai didn’t wait out the rest of the two weeks, and instead joined Prachanda’s already-underground Maoist party. Not long after, Prachanda and Bhattarai jointly declared the “People’s War” on Feb. 16, 1996.

The Maoists’ promises to rectify poverty and injustice initially found a sympathetic ear among the uneducated rural population. It had no alternative—the government in Kathmandu had virtually no presence in the countryside beyond tax-collection.

Today, the Maoists say they follow the communist doctrines propounded by late Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. Asked to explain the political philosophy of the Maoist rebels, Gautam dutifully repeats: “Maoism is the third phase of the Marxism and it has extensively described communism.”

Sadly for the Maoists, the current Chinese leadership has stood fast alongside the monarchy, saying “the Nepalese Maoists are misusing Maoism.”

Deuba’s government, seeking desperately needed military and financial aid from the West, had cast the civil war in the rhetoric of the war against terrorism, a rhetoric other Nepalese politicians adopted with alacrity. But Padma Ratna Tuladhar, a noted human-rights activist and mediator of last year’s government-Maoist peace talks, scoffs at such characterizations. “They are not terrorists. They have been fighting for a cause. But the government has virtually failed to address their problems in a right way.” Gautam agrees: “Given Nepal’s history, if the Maoists hadn’t emerged, somebody else would have.”

From Popular Uprisings to Forced Marches

Appropriately, the Maoists’ power-base has been in the countryside, and particularly in areas the government has neglected but taxed. Most urban Nepalese also profess sympathy for the Maoist diktat, as is witnessed by their participation in the nationwide bandhs, or strikes, but many will also tell you they are afraid the Maoists will attack.

Even as disenchantment with the government grows in the cities, support for the Maoist rebels is ebbing in their traditional rural power-base, says Top Bahadur Khadka, who runs a human-rights organization in Rukum, a western district that has borne the brunt of some of the worst fighting. “The rebels are now losing popular support because of their own activities. They forcefully extort money and seize food from the locals’ houses,” he says. “Worse, they have recently begun forcing local youths to join as the number of willing recruits has dwindled.”

Gautam says that in his days with the Maoists, there was no need to resort to crude force to find new members. In his day, “Recruiting villagers was an art,” he reminisces. “The youths were manipulated by promises of liberation or martyrdom.”

Nepalese are unsure what the future holds. Many believe the Maoists are still not serious about peace talks. Others, seeing the forced recruitments as a sign the rebels may be becoming increasingly desperate, think the rebels are seeking a soft landing. “This is the right time for the initiation of peace talks,” Surendra KC says. “Both the government and the Maoists are serious about it. The government is seriously considering the idea of a constituent assembly and the Maoists, too, are expressing interest in a political soft landing.”

Mukunda Dhakal, a human-rights activist, disagrees. “Maoists still don’t look serious, primarily because the cadres in the grassroots level don’t follow what their bosses say.” Two month’s ago, Prachanda ordered the rebels to stop attacking civilian targets. Only a day after Prachanda’s order, Maoist rebels attacked a civilian bus, killing at least three, and blew up a bridge in western Nepal. Even if he is serious about peace, Prachanda may already be finding that it is much easier to let the genie out of the bottle than to coax it back in.