No Dancing with the "Red Devils" in Nepal
On 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 world.
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] power.”
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.
When 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.
So 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 15-year-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 who 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?”.
It's a question that's been heard many times before.