JPRI Working Paper 100 (May 2004)
Nepal and the “War on Terror”
by Ron Bevacqua


Ask Americans what comes to mind when they think of Nepal and most will probably answer that it is the home to what Nepalis call Sagarmatha, but we call Mount Everest. History buffs may mention that it is where the British Army, even today, recruits the fierce Ghurka soldiers. The spiritually-minded will know that Nepal is the world’s only Hindu kingdom, but is also the birthplace of the Buddha and home to a vibrant Tibetan monastic culture. Trekkers, adventurists, nature lovers and spiritual seekers alike will agree, however, that there is something magical about the mountain kingdom. For all these reasons it was once one of the prime destinations in Asia for American tourists.

These days, however, the country the size of Tennessee has become what Nepali journalist Deepak Thapa calls a “kingdom under siege,” the title of his new book. For eight years guerrillas who claim to follow the ideas of Mao Zedong have waged a bloody rebellion against the government. More than 8,000 people have died over that time. The rebels insist that foreigners are not targets. Indeed, trekkers regularly encounter rebels in the countryside without incident, and such meetings are becoming part of the allure for some visitors to Nepal. Still, the sight of armed soldiers patrolling the streets of Kathmandu, stopping and boarding buses at the numerous checkpoints around the capital, and crouching behind sandbags at strategic locations has been enough to put off many potential travelers. Tourism, one of Nepal’s most important industries, is down by more than half in the past three years.

The result is not just a loss of income for average Nepalis, many of whom rely the tourist trade, but also a missed opportunity for Americans to see this beautiful country and incidentally learn what impact American policy has had on it. Nepal is a little known casualty in the war on terror, an out-of-the-way place lacking both geostrategic importance and valuable resources, yet caught up in the Bush administration’s simplistic good-versus-evil approach to foreign affairs. The administration has chosen sides in a conflict in which neither side is particularly embraceable. And in conducting what Indian journalist Rita Manchanda has described as a “war for peace,” U.S. policy has led to an escalation in violence and, worse, pushed both sides in Nepal toward extreme positions rather than toward the center, making a negotiated settlement less and less likely. That means more Nepalis will likely die unnecessarily, and that fewer Americans will venture to see the beauty of this mountain kingdom.

Nepal Yesterday and Today

Last year, Nepal celebrated the half-century since Edmund Hillary earned his knighthood by becoming the first, along with Tenzig Norgay Sherpa, to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, over 29,000 feet above sea level. Back then, the nation, which had long shut out the external world, remained in medieval stasis, a mountainous Shangri-la. In fact, James Hilton is said to have derived the name he used in his novel Lost Horizon from the Changri-la pass near Everest.

For the first visitors 50 years ago, Nepal might have seemed like Hilton’s fabled place of spirituality, peace and tranquility. Even today, Nepalis are peaceful and friendly, in contrast to their more colorful and hectic neighbors on the Indian subcontinent. Rituals dominate Nepali lives, and the divisions between the religious and the secular, between man and God, and indeed between life and death, seem much fuzzier there than they do in the west.

However, for the average Nepali in 1950, life could best be described as medieval. Six in ten children died in infancy, and the average life expectancy was only 35 years. There were barely any schools, and 98% of the population was illiterate. Needless to say, such “modern” conveniences as postal services, telephones, and electricity barely existed. There were only a few miles of roads. It is said that the first ox cart reached Nepal’s second largest city, Pokhara, only in 1953 -- and that one had to be flown in. The first car reached Kathmandu only after being carried from the Indian border by Nepal’s heroic -- and, thanks to Hillary, now famous -- sherpa porters.

These days, while there are more roads, and even electricity in villages in the Kathmandu Valley and along the country’s few vehicular arteries, life elsewhere seems pretty much unchanged. The town of Bhaktapur, for example, which guards the eastern approaches to the Kathmandu Valley, was once the grandest of the three major kingdoms in the valley and is still home to 150,000 people. It retains much of its medieval charm as the clanging sounds of bells on the nearby shrine break the misty pre-dawn stillness. Along its winding brick lanes, village women crouch on the ground, selling vegetables from a cloth spread out in front of them while clenching a piece of their scarf between their teeth to ward off the morning chill. Geometric tattoos decorate older women’s lower calves, a talisman against polio. Men sell bananas, mandarin oranges and pomegranates from baskets on the back of their bicycles.

City women hurry past, red tikas (dots) on their foreheads, crimson clothes the same hue as the cloth trim wrapped around eves of each level of the pagoda-like temples. Vermillion: it is the color of Nepal, the stain on the statues. The women in red carry brass trays with uncooked rice, marigolds, red powder and other offerings, covered in neon-green or orange lace, on their way to do their morning puja (offerings to the gods) at their local shrine. The ritual is elaborate: red powder on the forehead of this god here, rice and holy water there, a marigold petal over there, then touch the feet of this god, ring this bell, then that one. Finally, spin clockwise: since Nepalis believe God should always be kept on the right, they pass shrines clockwise, and since they believe God is in everyone, worshippers turn a clockwise circle around themselves. Hindu gods seem to be not only demanding, but also exacting in the rituals they require.

As the morning wears on, pigeons peck at the rice grains left at the shrines. At a well, women and girls wash clothes or, wrapped in long towels, bathe themselves, bending forward to brush their long black hair. Faint light and the sounds of home come from a courtyard through a low doorway that leads onto the street. A baby looks down from a window, framed, as are all windows, in intricately carved dark wood. Men sit on a columned dais, blanketed, peering through thick horn-rimmed glasses (how they love them in south Asia!) to play a board game or smoke. At Barahi Temple, down by the river, they sing devotional songs and smoke hashish through a waterpipe until the mood takes them and they parade through the town with clanging cymbals and pulsing drums.

Back in town, the Newars, the ethnic group that dominates the Kathmandu Valley, sacrifice a water buffalo calf or a goat at a nearby shrine. The men dance in large stained masks, then kneel before the dead beast to bite off a chunk of bloody meat, the steam rising from the freshly-killed body. They chew forcefully, wiping the blood from their lips. The carcass is then decapitated, covered in straw and set alight. It will likely find its way into the markets later in the day, as the Newars are meat-eating Hindus.

It is as if it has always been this way, and always will be. But of course daily life has changed substantially in Nepal over the past 50 years. The two aspects that have probably changed the most during that time have been, first, a population explosion to the point that the land is nearly incapable of supporting the people who live on it and, second, a dramatic increase in education and literacy. Unfortunately, these two factors have made for a volatile combination. Nepalis simply no longer accept their endemic poverty as the natural order of things.

Population pressure and the poverty it has caused are at the heart of the revolt, as it has been for many rebellions in history. When Hillary first walked this land, the population of Nepal numbered only 8.5 million. Back then, with food scarce and health care virtually non-existent, even prime farmland lay fallow for lack of farmers to work it. These days, after five decades of development efforts, the average life expectancy is nearly 60 and the population has tripled to around 24 million. However, the system of agriculture and, especially, land ownership, have barely changed. As the population has increased, farms have been subdivided into ever-smaller plots, and the incidence of landlessness or tenant farming has increased. Desperate to feed themselves, peasant farmers have cleared less productive areas for planting. One of the many unexpected scenes a trekker encounters in Nepal is just how much of this mountainous land is under cultivation. Virtually every precarious hill and mountain up to 10,000 feet is terraced -- and still plowed, almost unbelievably, by a pair of yoked oxen.

But while the population has been increasing, the declining state of agriculture has meant that crop yields have declined. Many small landholders -- and most Nepali farmers own just small plots of
land -- no longer have food security. As a result, Nepal is the 12th poorest country on earth and the poorest in South Asia, a region known as much for its endemic poverty as the colorfulness of its cultures. More than 40% of Nepalis live in poverty.

The increase in poverty contrasts sharply with the improvement in education over the past fifty years. At the time of Hillary’s triumph, 98% of the population was illiterate. There was no national education system, and only one child in 100 attended school. There were only 310 primary and middle schools, eleven high schools, and two colleges. Struck by these statistics, and enamored with the sherpas (the “eastern people” of Tibetan origin with the knowledge and hardiness to thrive in Nepal’s harshest environments) whose bravery and good humor helped make his climb a success, Hillary returned to Nepal a few years later and started the Himalayan Trust to provide education and other assistance to them. Other foreign aid agencies and the government soon followed his lead. By 2001, literacy stood at 42%, though it is still heavily biased toward men (60%) over women (25%).

The Long History of Armed Struggle in Nepal

A poster for the Himalayan Trust quotes a sherpa saying that “if it wasn’t for Sir Edmund, we would still be following behind our yaks.” Many still do, of course. The pack-laden yak train and its attendants are as symbolic of Nepal as the rhododendron forests and mountains they cross. Nonetheless, the level of education is high enough so that most men and many women speak fluent English, even in the rural areas. This makes travel in Nepal even more enjoyable, because Nepalis relish talking to outsiders and are very willing to speak their minds. As a result of decades of such contact, the average Nepali’s knowledge of the situation in his or her own country and the outside world has increased dramatically. And in the face of increasing population pressure, growing food insecurity, and unmitigated poverty, they have looked to cast blame. Many have found their own government and its international supporters wanting.

The roots of the social and economic problems that have surfaced in the current crisis run deep into Nepal’s past. Not the least to blame is the Hindu caste system itself which, though often acting as a collection of trade unions that guarantee a place in the social and economic framework for almost all (male) members of the society, laid the foundation for a feudal economic structure. Over time, high-caste Hindus appropriated the more productive lands, forcing many into sharecropping arrangements or, for the more independent, onto marginal land.

This system was codified in law and practice almost as soon as Nepal became a modern state after the Ghurka campaigns of unification in the late 1700s. The new leaders used the power of the state to reward loyalists with vast estates, further marginalizing Nepal’s peasant farmers. Most of the landlords who were granted state lands did not get directly involved in farming but contracted the work to tenant farmers, with relations between landlords and tenants passing from generation to generation.

The new centralized autocracy isolated the country and won the support of the British colonialists in India who had little interest in the area except as a stable buffer between the subcontinent and the troublesome Tibetans further north. The extent of the cooperation between the Raj and Nepal’s rulers was demonstrated during World War I when Nepal loaned 16,000 troops to the U.K., thus beginning the first Ghurka divisions in the British Army. In return the British signed a treaty and offered an annual payment of 1 million Indian Rupees in perpetuity.

As long as British rule remained stable in India, therefore, Nepal’s leaders could maintain total control over the internal affairs of their country. Thus it is no surprise that Nepal’s real modernization and opening to the outside world only began in 1950, two years after the last British soldier left India and Lord Mountbatten handed over the keys of the Raj to Jawaharlal Nehru. Internal opposition to Nepal’s autocrats had been growing, but the leaders of the revolt, influenced by their Indian counterparts, adhered to a non-violent approach to the creation of a democratic state. A brutal program of suppression begun in 1948, however, radicalized the government’s opponents, and in 1950 the newly formed Nepali Congress Party officially decided to take up arms against the regime. It would be the first, but not the last, time Nepalis would have to resort to taking up arms against a recalcitrant government.

Like the current rebels, the Liberation Army of the Nepali Congress Party adhered to the political and military strategy Mao Zedong had made famous with his extraordinary victory the year before: they seized control the countryside first, starting with the capture of the country’s breadbasket. From there, insurgents infiltrated hill areas in the east and west, where the army found it nearly impossible to defeat them. The rebels did capture several towns but never were able to hold them, and there was no fighting in the Kathmandu Valley. Today’s battle between rebels and a much more powerful and intractable state has much in common with this earlier revolt.

The difference then was that the rebels fighting the Nepali oligarchy had support. India, newly democratic and fighting the autocratic rule of native princes in its own country, was not interested in backing dictators in neighboring countries either. India’s new leaders were also indebted to the Nepali Congressmen for their support in the struggle against the Raj, and wary as well of a resurgent China under Mao. They stepped in to broker a deal that allowed for the restoration of the king under a quasi-constitutional monarchy.

It soon became clear, however, that Nepal had rid itself of one autocracy only to be saddled with another. For all of the 1950s the king and his son, who ascended the throne in 1955, simply experimented with types of councils or ministries that would do the monarch’s will behind a democratic façade.

Large-scale civil disobedience campaigns ensued, forcing the king to issue the nation’s first constitution, under which elections to a national assembly were finally held in 1959. However, under the new constitution the king could act without consulting the prime minister and could even dismiss him. The king also had control over the army and foreign affairs and could invoke emergency powers suspending all or part of the constitution. Even this experiment in limited democracy lasted only a year and a half before the king simply dismissed the government. The army, conservative landlords, and the king and aristocracy all were disturbed by the reforms undertaken by the elected politicians, including changes in land tenure. With the army’s support, the king used his emergency powers to dismiss the cabinet and arrest its leaders on the charge that they had failed to provide national leadership or maintain law and order.

Two years later the king promulgated a second constitution that created a “partyless” state. Political parties were declared illegal, and the monarch increased his grip on the army and the entire legislative process. Once again, Nepali Congress members began organizing violent actions from their exile along the Indian border. The revolt was soon called off, however, as the outbreak of border wars between India and China forced the Indian government, now in need of stability in its northern neighbor, to shift its support from the rebels to the king. It was not the first time that Nepal’s domestic politics would be held hostage to foreign events. Foreign powers such as India and, now, the United States, have supported the monarchy in the name of stability ever since, holding the political aspirations of average Nepalis hostage to geopolitics and lending credence to the rebels’ claim that the Nepali government is dominated by foreign interests.

During the 1960s, political opposition to the government grew, occasionally deteriorating into violence. Bishweshwar Prasad (B.P.) Koirala (1914-1982) was the first democratically elected prime minister in Nepal’s history. He held the office just 18 months (May 1959-December 1960) before being imprisoned by order of King Mahendra (1920-1972). He remained imprisoned without trial until 1968, when he was finally permitted to go and live in exile in Banaras. He made various attempts at restoring the democratic process in Nepal both through negotiation and armed revolt, and was arrested immediately upon his return from exile in 1976 and charged with the capital offense of attempting armed revolution. Various other isolated violent incidents in the early 1970s -- attacks, assassination attempts and even a hijacking -- failed to make an impact on Nepali politics. When Indira Ghandi declared martial law in India in 1975, Nepal’s king used it as cover to quash support for all but the most cosmetic political reforms.

Political unrest escalated further, culminating in the killing of more than 50 demonstrators by the police at a pro-democracy rally in April 1990. The king finally relented and accepted multiparty governance. A third constitution, promulgated in 1990, ended nearly 30 years of absolute rule, although it preserved the king’s status as head of state.

Why Follow Mao?

This second experiment with democracy was no more effective than the first, leading to unstable governments and little reform. In national elections held in 1991 the Nepali Congress Party won a narrow majority. However, the 1994 elections resulted in a hung Parliament, with a minority government led by the leading opposition party -- the communists -- thus making Nepal the world’s first communist monarchy. This, too, proved unstable. The third, and so far last, election was held in May 1999 and produced another Nepali Congress Party government, but factional battles within the party led to a replacement of the prime minister in less than a year. The pattern of short-lived governments continues: Nepal has had 12 governments since democracy was restored in 1990.

It was out of this political instability and ineffectiveness that a splinter from one of the communist parties decided to go underground and begin an armed revolt against the king and his supporters. The Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) has gone through numerous factional splits and reformations, but in one form or another it has retained considerable support among the Nepalese people throughout its decades-long history. Even today the main opposition party in the national assembly is a splinter from the original CPN. The biggest ideological split among the various communist factions -- and the split that currently divides the communists in the assembly from those bearing arms in the countryside -- occurred as early as 1960, when it became clear that the king was attempting to maintain absolute control of the country. Like the Nepali Congress Party, the CPN was divided over how to respond, with some willing to cooperate and others wanting to fight.

From the beginning, the Nepalese communists’ primary demand has been for the election of a national assembly to write a constitution, something that the king himself had promised upon the opening of the country in 1951. Instead, all constitutions in modern Nepal have been “handed down” by the establishment and, naturally, protect its interests. This was true even of the 1990 constitution. The king remained supreme commander of the army, albeit ruling through a three-member National Defense Council headed by the prime minister. But by being able to declare a state of emergency, the king could take direct control of the army and, indeed, total executive power. This is, in fact, exactly what happened in 2001, as the Maoist rebellion heated up. Moreover, the constitution granted the king immunity from the courts and curtailed discussion of his decisions in the parliament.

In 1993, a small faction of one of the communist parties approved the idea of armed rebellion, although in practice it continued to participate in electoral politics. However, when it applied for recognition by the Election Commission ahead of the 1994 national elections, it was denied. Election officials said it had failed to garner the 3% support rate needed to stand for the election. The nascent rebels boycotted the 1994 elections and later announced they had abandoned electoral politics altogether. Still, it was another two years before this group renamed itself the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) and took up arms against the government.

Before they did so, the leaders of the CPN-M presented the government with a list of 40 demands, including the drafting of a new constitution by a constituent assembly, curtailing royal privileges, nationalizing private industry, declaring Nepal a secular nation, loosening ties with India, and guaranteeing freedom of speech and publication. These demands were basically the same they had submitted at the outset of the democracy movement in the early 1990s and submitted again to the short-lived communist-led government in 1994. When the government refused to accede to these demands, the Maoists initiated their rebellion in February 1996.

The term “Maoist” carries strongly negative connotations these days, and brings to mind the horrible crises engendered by forced collectivization of Chinese farmers in the 1950s and 1960s. Even the mainland Chinese communists seem to have quietly swept Mao’s ideas into the dustbin of history. How could anyone seriously think of replicating policies that were such an obvious failure?

Mao’s 1949 victory still stands as a monument to peasant leaders facing intractable feudal overlords. “Maoist thought” may be, in fact, the primary source of political, military and economic strategy of agrarian-based revolutions. Politically, Maoism focuses on the peasantry as a revolutionary force rather than on urban workers, who were identified by Marx as the backbone of the revolutions he supported. Militarily, Maoism uses the support of the peasants to control the countryside and surround the urban areas, eventually bringing the war to the cities, where there is less likely to be support for a peasant-led revolution. Economically, Maoism favors the redistribution of rural resources rather than urban industrialization. This may include nationalization of the private sector and the forced collectivization of agriculture, although the Nepalese Maoists have been typically cagey when discussing these issues. “Maoism” has been the ideology behind more than a few modern rebellions, and to dismiss such rebels as mere extremists is to fail to understand their thinking and to underestimate their strategy.

Soon after launching their rebellion, the Maoists’ “influence spread rapidly, largely because the government failed to provide adequate services or to punish corrupt and abusive local [government] officials.” That was the assessment of the U.S. Congress when it stepped up military aid to the government of Nepal in 2002. Indeed at the present time, after eight years of combat, the Maoists fully control at least five of Nepal’s 75 districts, and control most of the countryside in all the rest. Only the Kathmandu Valley and provincial capitals remain in the government’s hands, along with the national park that includes Mt. Everest. On a trek out to Everest in October 2003, I saw almost every village outside the national park flying communist flags, and there was no government presence whatsoever. Such a show of support may be coerced, but more than once average Nepalis voluntarily confided their support for the rebels. In the village of Kese, about 2 days’ walk from the road head and still a week on foot to Everest, a small band of rebels was spotted and given aid by a tea-house owner who had expressed his sympathy for them the night before. Nearby, two adolescent boys tried to extort 1,000 Nepali Rupees (about $13) from each passing trekker. That amount was, however, negotiable, and in the end the boys provided a printed, signed and stamped receipt for the amount they collected!

In Annapurna National Park, the most popular trekking area in the country and closer to the rebels’ stronghold than Everest, government posts have been completely abandoned. Trekkers who had been there in late 2003 reported seeing large movements of Maoist troops, sometimes numbering in the hundreds. There as well, however, no one reported Maoist harassment of foreigners, and only occasional attempts at extortion. In fact, tea-house owners lock trekkers in their lodges at night primarily out of fear of violence by police and army patrols, not by the rebels.

Where the presence of the government is negligible the Maoists run a parallel administration which has taken over such governmental functions as taxation and the distribution of food and seized property to the poor. And although their presence and support in the cities is much weaker, the Maoists’ calls for national strikes have regularly shut down the entire country, including the capital. Again, cooperation may be as much coerced as it is genuine, but the impact of the Maoists cannot be denied. Nor can their high-profile successes showing the weakness of the government be easily ignored. In April 2002, for example, the rebels successfully bombed the ancestral home of the then-prime minister. On January 26, 2003, Maoists succeeded in assassinating the chief of Nepal’s police force, his wife and his bodyguard. They also assassinated two Nepali guards at the U.S. embassy.

For five years the government and the king treated the insurgency as a law-and-order problem, using the police rather than the army to fight the counter-insurgency. However, neither is trained in guerrilla warfare and they have often resorted to the brutal use of force in which innocent villagers have been killed. This has, naturally, pushed more peasants into the arms of the Maoists, a complaint I heard numerous times from villagers in various parts of the country during the autumn of 2003.

Meanwhile, events took a turn for the worse in 2001. On June 1, in a dispute over whom he was to marry, the crown prince allegedly shot and killed his entire family: his father the king, the queen, his younger brother and sister, his father’s younger brother, and several aunts, before turning the gun on himself. After his death two days later, the late king’s surviving brother Gyanendra was proclaimed king. It was the second time Gyanendra had ascended the throne, the first time being as child regent in 1950. But since the monarchy is handed down from father to son, there was never any doubt then that he was not in line for the throne.

There is still considerable suspicion in Nepal today about the current king’s role in the palace massacre. Moreover, his son, the new crown prince, is even more unpopular than the king himself. This sentiment was palpable in the autumn of 2003. Nepalis, like Thais, display a photo of the king or royal family in their homes and businesses, but nowhere in the country was a photo of the new king, already on the throne for two years, displayed. Moreover, unlike the Thais, the Nepalis have no compunction about talking about their monarch, and almost anyone who offered an opinion believed that the current king had perpetrated the massacre in order to gain the throne and pass it on to his son.

In the aftermath of the massacre, there was widespread rioting and hundreds were arrested. A month later, however, the Maoists and the government declared their first cease-fire and sat down to negotiations. The Maoists resubmitted their 40-point demands, but once again the Nepalis found themselves held hostage to international events. The attacks of 9/11, coupled with the Indian government’s designation of the Maoists as “terrorists,” signaled that the talks would likely end in failure, as indeed they did after the Maoists released 26 police officers and the government did not reciprocate. A month later violence returned and the newly installed king declared the Maoists “terrorists” and announced a state of emergency.

The state of emergency was lifted temporarily in August 2002, but escalating violence and Maoist successes soon gave the new king an opportunity to consolidate his control even more. In October, he dismissed the prime minister and his cabinet, and appointed his own prime minister, a political veteran and known palace loyalist. The king also assumed full control of the army. Today the country is still governed by a king suspected of regicide and his chosen cabinet, and will remain so until elections are held. The date for such elections remains unspecified.

The king’s move plunged the country into a constitutional crisis that many believe is a further hindrance to dealing with the insurgency. Even the Nepali Congress Party, along with all the other politicians still committed to the political process, declared the king’s actions to be unconstitutional. Because the Maoists are far from being defeated, politicians of all stripes fear that the king will retain his emergency powers indefinitely, and that the 1990 democratization movement will be reversed. This uncertainty plays into the Maoists’ hands, giving strength to their argument that the monarchy is autocratic as well as illegitimate, and therefore cannot be reformed and must be overthrown.

Nonetheless, in early 2003 the Maoists agreed to another cease-fire. At first it looked as if negotiations would lead to some success. The Maoists announced they would abandon their goal of abolishing the monarchy, leaving the decision instead to a national referendum. In return, the government lifted a ban on the main Maoist newspaper. The Maoists held their first-ever rally in Kathmandu and 30,000 people turned out.

Once again, however, politics in Nepal were influenced by international events. On the eve of the first round of talks, the U.S. signed Nepal onto its Anti-Terrorism Assistance program, thus formally stepping up U.S. military training, consultation and shipments of military equipment to the Nepalese army. It had been a long time in coming. As early as the beginning of 2002, only a few months after 9/11, the U.S. began to consider increased military support for Nepal, starting with a visit by members of the U.S. Pacific Command to assess the needs of the Royal Nepal Army. In June of that year the U.S. set up an office of defense cooperation, and a month later a lieutenant colonel was posted as military attache to the U.S. mission.

Perhaps bolstered by this support, the king replaced his chosen prime minister, who had favored negotiating with the Maoists, with another more pro-royal veteran politician. In doing so, the the new king, Gyanendra, simply didn’t consider choosing the parliament’s candidate for prime minister because he knew that politician, the head of the main communist party in the legislature (the 2nd largest party in parliament), would not do his bidding. The king chose a
pro-royal veteran political instead, replacing another pro-royal politician from the same (minor) party because the previous prime minister had shown signs of willing to negotiate with the rebels.

In the next two rounds of talks, the rebels’ primary demand was for a national election to a constituent assembly that would then draft a new constitution and decide the fate of the monarchy. The government ruled out any such move, saying there would be no compromise on the role of the king, and that it would only support amendments to the existing constitution. The third round of talks collapsed after just three days.

The Nepalese government and its allies claimed that the Maoists had not negotiated in good faith, and had used the ceasefire only to rest and regroup. This was very likely true, but the U.S.’s heavy-handed approach allowed the rebels to place the blame for the failed negotiations squarely on the Bush administration, which it said had sabotaged the talks by announcing stepped-up military aid to the government only days before the talks were scheduled to begin. Increased military cooperation between the U.S. and Nepal has legitimized the Maoists’ claim that the king is not serious about negotiations and in the hands of “foreign imperialists.”

Responding such criticism, U.S. Ambassador Malinkowski said a few weeks later that “This agreement . . . has been accused of being specifically engineered to interfere unduly in the internal affairs of Nepal. Let me disabuse you of that notion. The only people who should be worried about this type of agreement are the terrorists.” And, indeed, within two months the U.S. formally declared the Maoists a terrorist organization. Although the State Department found no links between the Nepali Maoists and other international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, they were lumped into that group. In light of those findings, Ambassador Malinkowski’s comment that U.S. support for the king and his government is not an interference in the country’s internal affairs -- implying that the Maoists are either a tool of foreign interests or do not have legitimate domestic complaints -- seems completely duplicitous.

The Roots of Poverty

Deep and unmitigated poverty is the underlying source of strength for the Maoists. Even in areas in which poverty has been alleviated somewhat, such as in the Kathmandu Valley, the memories of it remain vivid. An hour’s walk from Bhaktapur there is a village that is home to a group of boys who hang around the town. One is named Purshottam, although his friends calls him “Service” -- like Indians, long-named Nepalis love nicknames. The village is called Jhaukhel, which Service says means the “playground of the ghosts.” “Well, that was a long time ago,” he says reassuringly, “so no need to worry!”

The village sits in a bowl inside the Kathmandu Valley. The path rises and then falls steeply into freshly plowed terraces where winter wheat was just beginning to turn the fields green in late 2003. Service’s house is made of baked-mud bricks, two-stories high. On the ground floor there is a place to cook over an open fire and, nearby, a small area to squat and eat. A few small crevices in the wall hold utensils; one is a small shrine. A goat is tied up in the corner, bleating on its bed of straw. The upstairs is just one room with 3 large beds.

Service’s mother stood in the doorway. Her face, outlined with a grey blanket wrapped around her shoulders and covering her halo of mostly-white hair, was hidden by the shadows of the awning above the door. Stepping out to greet me, she revealed that her face was as dark as her hair was white, unmistakably weathered by a lifetime in the fields. Service, a university student with the appearance of a city boy, is in fact from a peasant family. His is a success story in modern Nepal.

But that success is a rarity, even in Service’s family. He told me his mother, now 65, gave birth to 14 children, of whom three died in childbirth. Many of the rest seem to have died as well, and at least one has mental problems. The father of these children died more than ten years ago, but was sickly all his life and rarely worked the fields. This woman had struggled her entire life, and now there are only three or four members of her family left. She still showed incredible strength. She cooked dinner: lentils, rice, and potatoes washed down with fresh home-made yogurt -- the same meal Service and his family have eaten twice a day ever since he can remember. Service’s mother offered second and third helpings, delighted by the large appetites of her guests. Despite her withered frame, she sat watching, waiting, and serving. Only when everyone else in the household had finished did she eat.

Electricity came to Jhaukhel only in the 1980s, even though the village is just a few miles from the capital. Today only 15% of Nepalis have access to electricity. It is a symptom of a much larger problem. For the most part, the government seems unable or unwilling to tackle the daunting level of poverty in the country despite massive foreign aid that makes up nearly 30% of the national budget. The few reforms that have been undertaken have, in fact, had the opposite effect. For example, in the 1990s Nepal adopted market-oriented reforms in part because of the more “modern” outlook of the new king. International pressure and the lead set by India in the early 1990s in opening its economy also played significant roles in pushing Nepal down the path of market liberalization.

Unfortunately, these reforms have exacerbated poverty rather than alleviating it, especially for farmers. In an extremely underdeveloped economy such as Nepal’s, liberalization has led to a breakdown in the traditional relationship between landlords and peasants that was based on mutual obligation rather than employment contracts. In the past, this relationship provided some security -- particularly food security -- for the peasants, although it placed them in a subservient position. Under the reforms of the 1990s, such patron-client obligations were slowly replaced by wage relations. Landlords used the opportunity to streamline their workforces to save money, but economic growth has not been able to create enough employment to absorb those left outside the system. Ultimately, the goal of taking a population -- 40% of whom cannot read and 80% of whom are still engaged in subsistence farming -- and putting them into the global marketplace to find their comparative advantage is far-fetched and doomed to failure.

Agricultural reform is a far more pressing imperative. But so far the government and international aid donors have focused inappropriately on trying to industrialize the farm economy. The government currently emphasizes improved farming practices such as high-yielding varieties of crops, cross-bred livestock, chemical fertilizer and irrigation. However, no amount of investment is likely to increase yields so long as land ownership patterns remain unchanged. The small size of landholdings sabotages the investment-focused approach favored by the government and foreign aid donors because the scattered nature of farm parcels and their small size make the adoption of productivity-enhancing technologies uneconomical.

They key problem -- and the one the Maoists exploit the most in gaining support in the countryside -- is the unequal distribution of land ownership in the country. The bottom 40% of farming households operate only 9% of farm land, while the top 6% own more than 33%. Furthermore, the large landlords do not get involved in cultivation, preferring to rent their land to sharecroppers. As a result, the bottom 20% of the households receive only 3.7% of the national income while the top 10% claim a share of 50%.

Land reform, the key economic policy of the Maoists, has been tried since the 1950s but has failed miserably. There were seven attempts at land reform in the 1950s but, as Nepali professor Devendra P. Chapagain wrote in 2001, “all these measures were largely ineffective since the government was not serious about genuine reform. The overwhelming concern was to perpetuate the status quo, which was to safeguard the interests of the high-caste privileged classes.”

The most sweeping -- and last -- reform was attempted back in 1964, when a ceiling was put on the amount of land a single owner could have and rents were fixed at an astonishing 50% of the output of the main crop. Even this was subverted by landowners, who simply redistributed land among their relatives and otherwise concealed their actual possessions. Even the U.S. State Department concluded that “there were several loopholes in the acts . . . which continued to allow large landholders to control most of the lands.” In the end, only 1.5% of the total agricultural land was redistributed.

The basic purpose of land reform should be to protect the tenant farmers, take away excess holdings from landlords, and distribute that property to farmers with small landholdings and landless farmers. According to Tribhuvan University’s Dr Hari Dhoj Pant, this is “possible in two ways: by lowering the ceiling on land ownership or by imposing a progressive tax on land.” However, such policies remain deeply unpopular with the king, aristocracy and governing elite. In the face of growing poverty and a government unwilling to make reforms, the rebels feel justified in taking up arms.

U.S.-Nepali Relations

Bush administration officials insist they favor a negotiated settlement to the crisis in Nepal. However, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks they have increasingly supported the government in words and deeds, even as it has become more autocratic -- and intransigent -- under the king’s absolute rule. This is the case even though all the politicians -- and indeed most Nepalis -- view the king’s takeover as illegitimate. Far from pushing both sides towards the bargaining table, the U.S. supports the government’s ever-hardening position, to the detriment of many peasants caught in the cross-fire between the two warring sides.

It wasn’t always this way. Speaking in Nepal on January 30, 2001 at the 50th anniversary celebration of USAID’s work there, then-ambassador Ralph Frank deplored the rebels’ use of violence but focused primarily on the failings of the Nepali government:

“It’s been found elsewhere in the developing world that countries succeed best in the development process when they have chosen elected, representational democracy as the form of government; when they have developed strong democratic institutions, including an independent judiciary and a free press; and when they have a vibrant opposition that is free to engage in peaceful, constructive, non-violent protest.”

U.S. military assistance to Nepal prior to September 11, 2001 reflected this point of view. Between 1996-2001, during which time Nepal experienced six years of insurgency, it received a total of just $2.3 million worth of arms deliveries, $1.3 million in military financing and $1.7 million in funds for military training.

However, in the wake of 9/11, the Nepalese government began an international campaign to raise foreign assistance for their “war on terror.” For 2002, U.S. aid to Nepal, administered through USAID, was initially set at $27.5 million. But after then-Prime Minister Deuba met with President Bush in May 2002, the Bush administration asked Congress for an additional $20 million in military financing -- $15 million for helicopters and $5 million for night-vision goggles, armor and communications equipment. Only $14 million was actually spent that year, but the administration nonetheless requested $37 million in aid funds for 2003.

That amount is a drop in the bucket for the U.S., but it represents a substantial supplement to Nepal’s annual military spending of roughly $58 million. U.S. government officials justify the increase with a kind of domino theory reminiscent of the Cold War against communism. In March 2003, for example, just a month after the government and Maoists had agreed to a cease-fire, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Camp told the Heritage Foundation that a Maoist victory “could destabilize the wider region, and Nepal could quite easily turn into a failed state, a potential haven for terrorists like that which we have transformed in Afghanistan.” This was pure boilerplate rhetoric, and shows just how much paranoia and scare tactics are used to justify U.S. intervention in other countries. Camp’s own department concluded a month later that the Maoists have no known state patrons or links with international terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda.

But perhaps even more egregious was Congress’s own justification for increasing military spending in Nepal. The bill noted that “Nepal has a substantial Muslim minority . . . [and] the combination of proximity, rugged terrain and a distracted government could well afford conditions that al-Qaeda would find favorable in its search for safe havens.” In fact, Muslims account for less than 3% of the population. Few live in the rebels’ strongholds in the hills and mountains, and they are not the prime movers behind the insurgency.

The U.S. is not acting alone of course. Last year the U.K. provided 6.5 million pounds (approximately $10 million) to finance hardware purchases. India has provided training, helicopters and transport vehicles. It has the most to lose from the Maoist threat, being concerned about anything that brings Nepal closer to China (although the Chinese have publicly disavowed the Maoists). India is also concerned about possible assistance the Maoists could provide to Indian rebels such as those in the state of Assam, or about otherwise exporting instability and refugees across the border. The Chinese presumably are concerned that a revolutionary Nepal could be used as a base for Tibetan refugees seeking to challenge Beijing’s control over Lhasa.

A Human Rights Disaster in the Making

The Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington concluded in December 2002 that it is unlikely the Nepalese government can definitively defeat the Maoists and therefore the only sustainable solution lies in a negotiated settlement. The U.S. Congress agrees that “there can be no purely military solution to this conflict.”

Indeed, the numbers do not favor a decisive victory by the government. Experts estimate the Maoists have an elite core of 2,000-4,000 well-trained guerrillas, supplemented by 10,000-20,000 irregulars. The Royal Nepal Army numbers 53,000, but only half this number has been assigned to fight the rebels, and the largely ceremonial army is simply not trained in counter-insurgency warfare. Many of the best Nepali soldiers instead fight in the Indian army or staff the Brigade of Ghurkas, where they account for 4% of British army personnel.

Given the realities on the ground, Bush administration officials continue to reiterate that they favor a negotiated settlement to the dispute. At the same time, however, they call for unilateral disarmament of the rebels and have significantly stepped up financial and material support for the army. The U.S. Congress itself declared that “the goal of our military assistance is to help the Government of Nepal create a situation in which the Maoists decide that a military victory is not possible and that negotiations provide the best hope for realizing their goals.”

Such a policy gives the Nepali government little incentive to negotiate in good faith. As has happened so many times in the past, U.S. policy in Nepal has come to emphasize military concerns over the political, completely ignoring local conditions, particularly the factors that drove the Maoists underground in the first place. The U.S. most likely underestimates the willingness of the Maoists to fight on, just as it did in Vietnam and, potentially, Iraq.

The result is a human rights disaster that is already in the making. The death toll is in excess of 8,000; more than 1,000 of them since the last round of peace talks collapsed in August 2003. The Maoists have acknowledged and have taken responsibility for human rights violations, including murder, bombings, kidnappings, torture, intimidation and extortion. Soldiers as young as 14, such as those extorting money from foreigners on the trail to Everest, have also been recruited. While they primarily attack the police and the army, they see any government officials or government-related program as legitimate targets. Thus they have assassinated political leaders, local elites, suspected informers, even teachers. They intimidate journalists. They have also disrupted aid projects: in December 2002, for example, the World Bank decided to scrap nine irrigation projects due to security concerns.

Unfortunately, the record of the police and army is no better. The U.S. State Department characterizes Nepal’s record on human rights as “poor.” Torture, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, policy impunity and corruption are frequent. Freedom of speech, assembly and press have been curtailed. Human rights violations by government forces increased when they were given the freedom to arrest and detain Maoist insurgents and sympathizers alike.

The U.S.’s Unused Leverage

There is no easy solution to Nepal’s crisis, and it is equally difficult to choose sides in the conflict. It has been more than half a century since Sir Edmund Hillary brought Nepal to the attention of the world and the nation began to modernize. But 50 years of democracy movements, constitutions and elections have brought little more than cosmetic changes to Nepal’s economy and politics. The government has proven time and again that it is more interested in protecting the interests of the nation’s elite than in lifting the country and its people out of poverty. Worse, the king’s take-over and the virtually blank-check support he receives from the Bush administration has led him to become more reactionary even as he has lost legitimacy in the eyes of most Nepalis, including those who are otherwise neutral or apolitical. The unwillingness of the Nepali government, especially the monarchy, to compromise goes a long way toward justifying the rebels’ decision to take up arms against it. And the violent tactics used by government forces have pushed more Nepalis into the arms of the opportunistic rebels.

The growing support the Maoists receive from average Nepalis shows that many now believe there is no alternative route to real change in the country. The rebels are, unfortunately, often as unsavory as the government. They use violence and the threat of violence not only to weaken the government and prove it is incapable of governing, but also to coerce support from villagers and intimidate potential opponents. If they were to succeed they might bring about much-needed reforms and create a more just economic and political structure. But it is just as likely that the “communist republic” they say they favor could turn into a dictatorship which, inevitably, would necessitate even more killing in order to maintain control.

All observers, even the U.S. government, agree that neither side will ever succeed militarily. But a negotiated settlement will require the government, especially the monarchy, to give up some of its privileges and afford the population genuine access to the political process and the nation’s most important resource, land. Unfortunately, U.S. military support for the government allows the king to stiffen his opposition to compromise. Like the pre-modern government a half-century ago, the autocratic government in Nepal today can only maintain its hard-line position in the face of overwhelming domestic opposition if it has international support. These days the U.S. government has chosen to be on the side of “stability,” just as the British colonialists were a century ago. However, this stability is illusory. It is U.S. policy, not the rebels, that is pushing the country close to becoming a “failed state.”

Like Israel, the Nepali government would almost certainly be brought to its knees if the U.S. stopped supporting it. Total foreign aid, for example, finances 25-30% of total government expenditures, or 5-6% of GDP. The U.S. alone accounts for 6% of total international assistance. This, and the government’s growing reliance on U.S. military support, provide the U.S. with enormous leverage over its ally’s negotiating position.

By failing to use that leverage -- indeed, by failing to acknowledge the legitimate claims of the rebels and the desperate situation that has led them to resort to violence -- U.S. policy risks pushing both sides to the extremes rather than toward the middle where a negotiated settlement could be achieved. Nepal is a case study of the kinds of mistakes the U.S. made during the Cold War in which blind backing for “the enemy of our enemy” led us to support such unsavory characters as Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. In the end average Nepalis will be the losers. And so will foreign travelers, who may never get to see the magnificent mountains, the beautiful culture, and the warm smiles of the gentle people who live in the kingdom in the sky.


RON BEVACQUA was chief economist for Merrill Lynch and Commerz Securities in Tokyo from 1993-2002. He traveled extensively through central and south Asia in 2003 in order to observe first-hand how U.S. foreign policy in the post-9/11 environment was affecting the lives of ordinary people in that part of the world. This report is based on observations made during his journey through Nepal in October-December 2003. He is currently working on a proposal to create a not-for-profit program to monitor the U.S.’s renegade national security apparatus, provide younger Americans with this information, and assist them to go out into the world to see what is happening for themselves. His hope is to create a pool new “ambassadors” who could restore the world’s faith in Americans and at the same time be knowledgeable enough to fight for a change in policy at home.

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