asian times 19.4 Nepal hidden war


Artikel in Asia times online vom 19.4.02

Nepal's hidden war By Suman Pradhan

KATHMANDU - To judge by the daily newspaper headlines, the small Himalayan kingdom of Nepal appears to be mired in a vicious war between government forces and rebel Maoist guerrillas who have been fighting for a republican state for the past seven years. But on the streets of most towns across Nepal, including the capital Kathmandu, signs of the conflict are few and far between.
Shops, restaurants, offices and schools are all open. So are public transportation systems and cinema halls. Tourists still fly from all over the world to visit this beautiful country, though not in numbers they used to. There is, of course, the occasional police or army patrol that whizzes by in machine-gun-mounted jeeps. But the atmosphere is still of openness and gaiety - in part, a result of the Nepali New Year festivities that are continuing this week. There may be a war going on, but it is far away for most city dwellers.
"This battle hasn't affected the city dwellers as much as has been reported," asserts Deepak Singh, a businessman who owns a posh shop at the downtown Kathmandu supermarket called Bishal Bazaar. "But all this publicity about Maoist violence is having negative effects, since tourists are not coming and our businesses are suffering."
His point was driven home last week when the Asian Development Bank announced that Nepal's economic growth for 2002 was likely to slide precipitously to just 3.5 percent, largely due to the deteriorating security environment. It was 5 percent in 2001.
Urban areas may not have the outwardly identifiable signs of an ongoing war, but the rural countryside is a different story.
In this respect, the newspaper headlines are right, since Nepal, a country of 23 million people with a per capita annual income of just US$220, is undeniably in the midst of a vicious guerrilla war between rebels and government forces. The struggle, which began in early 1996, has so far taken more than 3,000 lives. But the government likes to point out that violence, for the most part, is confined to only a handful of faraway western districts such as Rolpa, Rukum, Dang, Salyan, Pyuthan and Gorkha. The rest of the country is peaceful, it claims.
"You will notice that most of the fighting has occurred in some western districts," says Devendra Raj Kandel, the minister of state for home affairs. His ministry controls the police forces fighting the rebels. "It's not as if the entire country is in flames."
That may be true, but the government has defeated its own arguments by imposing a state of emergency last November over the entire country rather than in just some pocket areas as was demanded by opposition political parties. Now in its fifth month, the draconian emergency rule has driven home exactly the point the government does not want to make. In any case, violence has escalated during these past five months, and more carnage seems certain to follow in the days ahead.
Just last week, rebels killed 56 policemen, including six civilians, but also lost more than 150 of their own comrades in attacks on three police stations in Dang district. That came nearly two months after another raid in Achham district in which more than 150 people, mostly soldiers of the Royal Nepal Army and policemen, were killed by Maoist guerrillas. And the entire country is bracing for a potentially violent five-day general strike called by the Maoists from April 23-27. Already, schools have told parents not to send their children during those five days since the facilities will be closed, and transporters are also wary of operating buses for fear of arson attacks.
These have many people worried. Human-rights activists, unhappy over the deterioration in the rights situation since the emergency was imposed, are fervently trying to bring the government and the Maoists together to the negotiating table. The Human Rights Organization of Nepal (HURON), an umbrella group of rights organizations, this week said that both sides had given it the go-ahead to explore renewed peace bid. But so far, the efforts have not yielded any results. So next week's five-day strike is still on.
After nearly seven years of violence, Nepal's hapless citizenry is fed up. Newspapers, never too critical of the Maoists before, are turning their ire against the rebel leadership for taking the country to ruins. The English-language daily Kathmandu Post, in Wednesday's issue, published an editorial about the looming strike, and the unity forged by the government with opposition parties to defeat the strike. The paper wrote: "The five-day strike is aimed at paralyzing the normal life of the general populace. But it could lead to a formidable protest against the Maoists ... After all, any movement cannot survive without popular support. This could be a lesson for the Maoists."
Analysts point out that Maoists will continue to gain popular support in the rural countryside as long as the people there feel marginalized by the political and economic mainstream. In Nepal's 12 years of multiparty democracy, the grievances of the outlying regions and of rural peasantry have not been addressed to their satisfaction - this is the general theory that does the rounds here whenever the genesis of the insurgency is discussed.
"Add to that widespread official corruption and nearly non-existent opportunities for the educated youth, then what you have is a tinderbox ready to be exploited by extreme ideologies," says political commentator Narayan Wagle.