How could remote Nepal – and the shocking murder of its king and members of the royal family last June – be connected with the global response to Sept. 11? One obvious link is the recent declaration by Nepal’s King Gyanendra, successor to his murdered elder brother Birendra, that the country’s six-year-old rebel movement is “a terrorist organization.” With this announcement, Nepal, like India, Israel, Pakistan, Colombia, and other regimes that may find the label useful in squashing public opposition to their policies, fell into line with the US-led strategy of routing out all resistance to its dictates.
At the same time he declared that Maoist insurgents were “terrorists,” the king announced a state of emergency across the country, along with plans to buy updated weapons from India and the US for his army. The “emergency” also expands King Gyanendra’s powers as monarch, cancels press freedom, and forbids any meetings and discussions critical of government actions.
Since late last summer, the Nepalese army has been mobilized and ready to move against the growing insurgency. This followed the monarch’s appointment of a new prime minister. Gyanendra – a man with no prior political experience or ambitions – also announced that he intended to take a more active, political role in government. That was a shift. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, his brother was removed from involvement in the nation’s governance, with the significant exception of remaining commander-in-chief of the army.
Official explanations that the June 1, 2001, palace massacre resulted from a family dispute were never accepted by the Nepalese public, who suspected a power struggle lay behind the murders (TF, Aug./Sept. 2001, “Nepal’s Untold Story”). They knew about the controversies inside the court and military leadership concerning how to handle the growing insurgency.
At first, after the trauma precipitated by the massacre, things looked hopeful. The new prime minister entered negotiations with the rebels in what appeared to be a recognition of the Maoist’s power and influence. But the talks led nowhere, and immediately after they broke down, the Maoists launched a series of attacks to expand their control over more of the countryside and challenge the new king. The rebels went after police posts and government offices, “liberating” villages by installing a new administration, redistributing land confiscated from landlords who fled, assigning teachers to schools, distributing welfare, and so forth.
In November, after a bombing in Kathmandu attributed to the rebels, the army began to move against them with increased urgency. This came at a time when a new status quo was in place across the world – the “war on terrorism” led by the US.
In the Dec. 23 issue of Revolutionary Worker, Li Onesto, who closely follows Nepal’s Maoist movement, described recent events. “After the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York,” she wrote, “the Foreign Minister of India made a point of calling the Maoists in Nepal terrorists – a label that, up to then, had not been used.” The same day that the king announced the state of emergency, the US Embassy issued a statement approving “the use of force by the government to counter growing Maoist violence.” The endorsement came with a US offer to supply Nepal with modern, fully armed helicopters.
Despite the army’s preparations, the Maoist campaign expanded. Beginning in late November, “the people’s army carried out actions in more than 20 of the country’s 75 district headquarters,” Onesto reported. In a western district, guerrillas attacked the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) for the first time, killing 14 soldiers and nine police officers. Government offices were ransacked, cash was taken from banks, and 37 prisoners were freed from jail. In Syangja, another western location, about 1000 rebels raided a police post and destroyed an airport and a helicopter.
Then, on Nov. 25, near Mt. Everest, hundreds of guerrillas engaged in a six-hour battle with government police and soldiers. The state of emergency was declared and the Maoists were branded terrorists. Onesto quotes a former army officer as saying that, with the emergency powers, “the army can do anything it wants -shoot at people, use bombs, arrest people.”
Little news of these developments was reported, even though the international press was present for a recent meeting of South Asian heads of state in Kathmandu. According to Onesto, “The government and military are keeping strict control over information given to the press … but it is clear that fierce two-sided battles have continued.” Government press releases say that hundreds of Maoists have been killed and hundreds more arrested, but journalists have been barred from areas where fighting is taking place.
On Dec. 9, rebels attacked a communications tower in Rolpa, igniting a seven-hour fight with the RNA. A helicopter carrying reinforcements was damaged by rebel fire. Two days later, guerrillas attacked the Tumlingtar airport in the eastern hills. There were also reports of RNA soldiers being ambushed. According to Onesto, one official said that the only way security forces could avoid ambushes was to move into many areas through the air.
It must be troubling for the generals to witness the ease with which rebel actions are carried out. This couldn’t happen without considerable local support. Certainly, locals seem to offer little resistance to Maoist incursions, which may explain the heavy government clampdown.
“The right to assembly has been suspended, and -terrorists’ and suspected Maoist
supporters can be given life imprisonment,” reports Onesto. “Police can conduct searches without warrants, and the right to information, free speech, and privacy has been suspended.” Medical personnel have been warned not to treat wounded Maoists, and a “shoot on sight” order has been issued for anyone seen putting up posters or other material sympathetic to the Maoists.
The new, expanded role of the Nepalese army in the war against dissent could be linked to last June’s palace massacres. The Maoist movement had been steadily growing, and posed a serious problem for the government, one the late king refused to settle militarily.
Focusing on the escalation of conflict after Sept. 11, and seeing how Washington endorsed similar actions by Israel against Palestinian dissent and supported India’s demands against Pakistani-based dissidents, you might conclude that Nepal’s serious problems are only recent developments. In fact, they began soon after the restoration of democracy in late 1990. A series of elected, but incompetent and corrupt, governments refused to initiate real economic and social reform. Poverty increased, agricultural production fell, and despair spread.
The Maoists, who emerged only after 1994, found fertile soil among the poor for their campaign of land reform and anti-corruption. As they gained recruits from the impoverished and disillusioned, steadily expanding their territory, the elected government became weaker.
Doubtless, part of the reason no strong action was taken against the insurgents was the widespread sympathy and admiration they enjoyed, even among the urban middle class. In keeping the military out of the conflict, the late king may have believed the solution lay in the new democratic process.
With the installation of the new leader, the RNA got a freer hand to move against the insurgents. And, it appears that, in King Gyanendra, they’ve found a commander whose sentiments fit their own. With the US assault on its foes, Nepal’s leader now has international backing. In command not far from the borders of Central Asia, and sharing a border with China, his loyalty to Washington may come in handy in the not too distant future.
Barbara Nimri Aziz is a regular contributor to TF. Her new book, Heir to A Silent Song, Two Rebel Women of Nepal, can be ordered through Barnes and Noble or directly from the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.