n February 13, 1996 a small
band of communist rebels, modeling themselves after the Chinese
revolutionary leader Mao, attacked police posts in two remote districts
in the western part of Nepal, inaugurating a People’s War in
the only Hindu kingdom in the world. At the time, they were dismissed
by the government as an irrelevant, minor disturbance, the home
minister remarking, “I am confident that we will be able to
bring the present activities under control within four to five days.”
A slight miscalculation, it now appears.
February marked the tenth anniversary of the Maoists’ war in
Nepal, a conflict that has claimed more than 13,000 lives, shattered
a fragile rural infrastructure, halted development, and grown to
dominate the consciousness of the country’s 26 million inhabitants
who live precariously lodged between an armed and undisciplined
militia and a repressive army that rarely pauses to distinguish
between rebels and civilians.
On this tenth birthday, the rebels made a remarkable overture for
peace, including a request for UN mediation and an offer to participate
in multiparty democracy, which was immediately and decisively rejected
by the U.S. whose influence in Nepal runs deep. While the Nepali
political parties and press decried “American paranoia”
(one editorial’s title) as sabotaging hopes for a nonviolent
resolution to the political situation, this significant event passed
largely unnoticed in the U.S.
The relatively sparse media coverage that the conflict has received
in the West isn’t terribly hard to understand—Nepal doesn’t
have many of the attributes that render a country relevant to U.S.
and European political, economic, and military interests. Mount
Everest was conquered over 50 years ago and Buddhism is no longer
trendy. It could be easy to forget about Nepal and its problems,
and to a large extent, the world has.
To make sense of the U.S. “paranoia,” let’s head
back just four years to when the State Department’s relationship
with the monarchy became volatile. Nepal had captured our attention,
briefly, when the crown prince (maybe) killed ten members of the
royal family in what the foreign press reported as a tragedy borne
of ill-fated love, a crime of passion. (The fact that few in Nepal
believe this story is incidental and, as all the evidence was burned
before an investigation or autopsy could be carried out, this is
the history they’ll live with.) Upon carrying out this brutal
massacre (which he apparently did 15 minutes after passing out drunk
on the floor), Dipendra shot himself. Behind his left ear. He was
right-handed. Let’s not dwell.
The crown prince’s uncle, who needed three people to die in
order to become king, ascended the throne. A year later, in 2002,
newly crowned King Gyanendra ended Nepal’s 12-year experiment
with democracy by declaring a state of emergency, dismissing the
cabinet and parliament, and declaring “temporary executive
authority,” which continues today. The State Department, having
just sharply increased its military assistance to Nepal that year,
offered only token concern over the move and continued to step up
military support over the next two years.
According to the State Department’s “Supplemental Funding
Justifications,” the financing had two premises. The first
is that the “Maoist insurgency seeks the overthrow of Nepal’s
constitutional monarchy and the establishment of a republic.”
Responding to this, two Congresspeople remarked, “What would
Thomas Jefferson say…226 years after ousting King George III,
the American republic is in the business of propping up monarchies.”
The second reason for the military aid was that “Nepal has
a substantial Muslim minority,” which combined with a “distracted
government, could well afford conditions that al-Qaida would find
favorable in its search for safe havens.”
Communists and muslims, the “vilified marauders” of the
Cold War and the war on terror, are here brought together for a
special, one-time-only performance. Of course, given that only 4
percent of Nepal’s population is Muslim and that there is no
significant history of religious fundamentalism there (unlike its
southern neighbors, India and Pakistan), this line of reasoning
seems at best fanciful and at worst highly bigoted. The performative
imposition of false histories of religious strife on countries that
have managed to live free of this problem is a shameful old colonial
trick. Again, let’s not dwell.
The king naturally seized this opportunity to pitch the conflict
as part of the war on terror and succeeded in attracting funding
and military support from Pakistan’s Musharraf, whom he is
held to revere. The State Department, for its part, declared the
Maoists a terrorist organization, barred transactions with it, and
froze its assets.
In February 2005, when the king declared another state of emergency
imprisoned political leaders, suspended all parts of the constitution
related to civil rights, and began total autocratic rule, the U.S.
joined the UK, EU, and India in denouncing the move. Unlike the
UK and India, however, the State Department did not suspend military
aid, but instead decided to keep it under constant review. With
the lead of Senator Patrick Leahy, who consistently expressed concern
about the conflict and kept it on the agenda through impassioned
speeches before Congress, the U.S. recently passed a law imposing
new restrictions on military aid that would tie its resumption to
restoration of civil liberties, an improved human rights situation,
and a roadmap for reinstating democracy. These conditions were warmly
welcomed by the human rights community, which had documented, along
with the State Department, Nepal’s dubious distinction of having
one of the poorest records of human rights of any country in the
King Gyanendra, however, didn’t seem concerned and instead
pressed forward with municipal elections, which were boycotted by
all political parties and discouraged by the international community.
The polls took place earlier this month, amid violence by both the
state and Maoists, with low voter turnout and only 15 percent of
seats being contested. India, Japan, the UK, and the EU all denounced
the results, but the U.S. response was surprisingly the harshest,
terming it “a hollow attempt to legitimize [the king’s]
From extensive financial and political support to express condemnation—wherefore
the change? This apparently shifting stance is not difficult to
explain if one considers U.S. foreign policy objectives vis-vis
Nepal through a form of game theory whereby the outcome of the Communists
coming into power is considered so objectionable that the State
Department would prefer to see continued fighting or monarchical
rule rather than strive for their professed preferred position,
democracy, which might involve the risks of a communist electoral
victory. Repression by the king, then, was acceptable, so long as
it didn’t tip the political parties and the people into the
hands of the Maoists. But it did.
Late last year, the Maoists and political parties came to a “12-point
understanding” to join together in the struggle against the
king’s autocratic rule. The U.S. Embassy noted this development
“with alarm” and warned the parties against an alliance
with the Maoists. The State Department moved quickly to urge the
king to reconcile with the parties, to no avail.
the Maoist leaders conceded publicly that a communist people’s
republic could not be attained, that the Maoists were prepared to
accept multiparty democracy by election to a constituent assembly,
and that they would welcome external mediation, including UN oversight
of their army during negotiations, the U.S. ambassador to Nepal,
James Moriarty, responded with vociferous denunciations of the Maoists’
gesture as a subversive ploy. With aggressive press releases and
numerous op-eds and letters in domestic and international newspapers,
Moriarty made it clear that the U.S., reluctant to see the Communist
Party of Nepal as anything more than a “terrorist organization,”
would not support talks involving the Maoists, even despite a unilateral
four month cease-fire aimed at showing their good faith towards
this end. Instead, Moriarty and the State Department are focused
solely on breaking the Maoist/parties partnership and reconciling
the parties with the palace, dangling military aid as a reward.
This, even if possible, would do little to resolve the conflict
and only encourages a military solution.
o the deaths will continue.
Poor, uneducated soldiers for whom $20 a week is an attractive lure
being killed by or killing poor, uneducated villagers for whom the
Maoist militias represent a brief reprieve from deep spirals of
poverty. While rural peasants look on and often catch a frustrated
beating or a bullet.
One theme of course is constant. Those who haven’t joined one
of these sides or died in the middle will continue to live
in a state of chronic, profound deprivation, wrought by the wholehearted
neglect of rural development and service provision by the government,
whose budget is engorged with military expenditures. Doctors and
nurses have packed up for the cities, leaving behind vacant clinics
and empty hospitals. In many conflict-affected areas, a woman is
more likely to be struck by lightning than to have a health professional
at the delivery of her child. Nepal’s rate of child malnutrition
is as high or higher than any country in the world, including Sub-Saharan
Africa; the rates are over 60 percent in 23 of Nepal’s 75 districts,
most of those conflict-affected. The rural poor can’t survive
another decade of war. And the U.S. message remains: no commies
in power, fight till you finish them.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the conflict is its resolvability.
The Maoists’ demands for a people’s republic have been
whittled away from a complete collectivist restructuring of society
under a people’s government to something far more modest. Their
sole demand now is for an election to an unconditional constituent
assembly that could, if the people will it, draft a new constitution
that may not include provisions for a monarch. That’s it. That
is now the impasse. That is why a 4-year-old child was gunned down
from an army helicopter in January, why a villager’s 80 years
of life were concluded with a bullet, why a 15year-old girl was
blown to bits by a roadside bomb while riding her bicycle, why the
economy continues to crumble, why development is stagnating, why
millions of rural villagers have to suffer perpetual fear of soldiers
and militia on top of their chronically deprived lot.
An insistence on a multiparty democratic political structure that
reflects the will of the people and a willingness to compete in
elections. This is what the ambassador is labeling “terrorist
demands.” An end to war, the restoration of democracy, and
the only potential loser in the deal is the king that may be voted
out of power. Nepal was swollen with hope at this prospect. But
the State Department moved quickly and aggressively, not giving
the people too much time to contemplate peace.
The Nepalis now are asking: “Why is America so paranoid about
Communists coming into power in a small country with a meager economy
half-way around the world?” Not that question again.
Andrews is a fourth year medical student at Yale and has worked in
Nepal since 2000.