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Nepal Assessment 2006

On January 2, 2006, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) 'Chairman', Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Prachanda announced the end of the four-month old unilateral cease-fire that the insurgents had announced on September 2, 2005. “The Royal Nepalese Army has compelled us to end the cease-fire. It was not only impossible, but also suicidal for us to extend it,” Prachanda said. Stating that all future actions would be targeted against the ‘dictatorial government,’ his statement pointed out incidents in Morang and Palpa, and the military operation in Rolpa as the reason for the cease-fire withdrawal.

Municipal elections held on February 8, 2006, in the shadow of Maoist attacks and a boycott by political parties, painted a dismal picture of the Royal regime, even as it further shrunk King Gyanendra’s options. The third such local election (the first and second local elections were conducted in 1992 and 1997) saw an average voter turn out of under 20 per cent. The run-up to the elections was far from smooth, with the Maoists calling for a bandh (general shutdown) from February 5 to 11, “to actively disrupt the municipal polls”. The seven main political parties had already announced a boycott of the polls on January 17. Violence across the country in the first month of 2006 had also claimed 172 fatalities (8 civilians, 56 security force personnel, 108 Maoists). Urban centres such as Nepalgunj, Biratnagar and Pokhara were subjected to unrelenting Maoist pressure in the form of bomb blasts and attacks.

On March 19, 2006, representatives of the seven agitating political parties (SPA) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) made public, through separate statements, the Memorandum of Understanding reached between them. The SPA also announced the launch of a fresh agitation on April 6 against King Gyanendra, which included a four-day general strike and civil disobedience movement, besides a large public rally in the capital Kathmandu on April 8. This was the second such understanding reached by the Maoists with the SPA, the first having been arrived at on November 22, 2005, in what was then referred to as the ‘Twelve-Point Agreement’. The four day general strike called by the SPA from April 6-9, 2006, brought normal activities across the length and breadth of the country to a standstill.

Following widespread agitation and violence, that claimed a number of civilian lives, King Gyanendra on April 21 announced he would hand over the political power he had assumed 14 months ago back to the people and asked the SPA to name a new Prime Minister. However, the SPA rejected the offer as inadequate. CPN-UML leader, K. P. Oli, labeled the announcement as "incomplete and insufficient." In a televised address to the nation on April 24, King Gyanendra restored the House of Representatives that was dissolved on May 22, 2002. Welcoming King Gyanendra's proclamation to reinstate the House of Representatives, Nepali Congress General Secretary Ram Chandra Poudel said the seven parties will now move ahead "upholding the spirit of the demonstrators and the SPA's roadmap based on the 12-point understanding with Maoists". SPA, following the royal proclamation, withdrew its nationwide indefinite general strike. Issuing a press statement, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) rejected the royal proclamation.

The SPA then chose Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala to head the all-party Government after the House of Representatives (HoR) convened on April 28. On May 17, the reinstated HoR unanimously passed a proposal, tabled by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, depriving the King of privileges enjoyed by him and declaring the reinstated House ‘supreme’. The HoR resolution scrapped the provision of Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Nepalese Army being held by the King, thereby depriving the King of his control over the Army. The proposal also dissolved the King’s advisory council, the Raj Parishad Standing Committee and deprived the monarch of any authority to enact the law concerning Royal succession, which will, in future, be the province of Parliament. The name of the Royal Nepalese Army was changed to Nepali Army, and “His Majesty’s Government” was replaced by the “Government of Nepal”.

On June 16, "Summit level talks" between the ruling SPA and Maoists concluded in Kathmandu. Both the sides agreed to an eight-point agenda which included framing an interim statute, an interim government, declaring the date for an election to a constituent assembly and dissolving the revived House of Representatives and the Maoists' People's Governments. Both the sides also agreed to request the United Nations for management and monitoring of the armed forces of both sides to ensure a free and fair election to a constituent assembly.

Earlier, year 2005 was a roller-coaster ride for Nepal, with unexpected and gut-wrenching twists and turns for each of the three major players in the conflict – the King, the CPN-Maoist and the political parties. After over nine years of the Maoist insurgency, the ride suddenly became much bumpier after February 1, 2005, when King Gyanendra declared an Emergency and dismissed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s Government on the tenuous grounds of the latter’s failure to secure a dialogue with the Maoists, as well as the Prime Minister’s apparent inability to organize elections. Although the King did not ban political parties, space for political activity was severely restricted. Tough emergency measures obstructed not just the political parties but also civil society, including the media and development agencies.

With the Maoists dismissing any idea about peace talks and rejecting the King’s regime as a “medieval feudal autocracy”, Kathmandu’s strategy relied increasingly on heavy-handed repression to ‘restore order’ in the country, barricading the capital and putting senior political party leaders under house arrest.

The King was on weak ground to secure his first objective of ‘restoring order’ in the country. With an estimated strength of just 80,000 soldiers in the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), 17,000 personnel in the Armed Police Force (APF) and a poorly equipped Police Force comprising 47,000 personnel, the King simply lacked the numbers to contain an insurgency of the magnitude of the Maoist movement, in a population of nearly 27 million people, with every one of the country’s 75 districts currently afflicted. The Maoists have an estimated strength of between 8,000 to 10,000 well-armed and trained ‘regulars’, an additional 25,000 (on conservative estimates) ‘militia’ armed with relatively primitive weapons such as pipe guns and crude bombs, backed by a substantial number of ‘sympathisers’, officially estimated at about 200,000 in 2003, who can, under certain circumstances, be mobilised – voluntarily or coercively – for violent action. The current strength of 144,000 men in all state Forces cannot even provide a fraction of a minimally acceptable counter-insurgency Force ratio, which would have to exceed at least 1:10, and would approach a desirable (though far from optimal) level at 1:20. The ratio was further skewed in favour of the Maoists with the withdrawal of significant numbers of troops from the countryside to Kathmandu, for the protection and management of the capital. Also, a significant proportion of troops and officers were tied down in a wide range of civilian and static duties, including ‘editing’ newspapers at Kathmandu, and administering vital installations and services in the District headquarters.

The 47,000-strong civil Police provided little comfort within this context. With just 110 of the country’s 1,135 police stations still operational, this ill-equipped and demoralized Force remains huddled in District headquarters, divesting Kathmandu of what could have been its most significant source of field intelligence. In such a situation, the King’s operational strategy to counter Maoists showed no signs of any divergence from those followed by the Government he dismissed. This operational strategy has primarily relied on defensive warfare, with troops overwhelmingly guarding their own bases, rather than engaging in aggressive counter-terrorism operations.

In the initial days following the emergency proclamation, though, a semblance of a military offensive was visible, when the RNA launched operations in selected areas in the Far West Districts of Baitadi, Achham and Dailekh, and in the Eastern Region Districts of Sankhuwasabha and Morang. However, these offensives were quickly dissipated, with the Maoists increasingly gaining the initiative. From April onwards, the insurgents launched major attacks in their stronghold areas:

  • On April 7, 2005 troops repulsed a major Maoist attack targeting an RNA base at Khara in the Rukum District, killing at least 166 insurgents. Three RNA personnel were also killed. Although the Maoists suffered heavy losses in the battle in Khara, this was unsurprising since the RNA had strengthened its defences, after the Maoists had overrun several of their bases in 2001 and 2002. The Khara operation provided crucial lessons for the Maoists as was highlighted by their chief Prachanda himself when he commented on April 12, 2005, “the two-day Khara campaign has provided valuable experiences and lessons and will help in taking the war to a new level.”

  • April 13, 2005: Sixty Maoists were killed during clashes following an attack on a security patrol at Dalphing in the Rukum district.

  • April 19, 2005: Twenty-two insurgents and three soldiers were killed during clashes at Rankot and Ramja in the Rolpa District.

  • May 15, 2005: At least 50 Maoists and two soldiers were killed during a clash at Jarayatar in the Sindhuli District. The clash occurred when security personnel were pursuing the insurgents who were returning to their hideouts after staging attack at three security bases in the eastern District of Siraha, where they killed four Armymen.

  • June 7, 2005: Fourteen security personnel, one civilian and six Maoists were killed in a clash when hundreds of heavily armed Maoists attacked a security patrol at Masuriya jungle in Kailali District.

  • June 25, 2005: Twelve soldiers and six insurgents were killed during a Maoist attack on an Army patrol team at Khandaha in the Arghakhanchi District.

  • July 3, 2005: Twelve insurgents were killed and two police personnel sustained injuries in a Maoist attack on Diktel, headquarters of the Khotang District.

  • August 7, 2005: The RNA recovered at least 40 bodies of its soldiers killed in a Maoist raid on the Pili Army base camp in Kalikot District. The Maoists also conceded the death of 26 cadres in the attack.

  • Complementing its defensive posture, the RNA has also encouraged the formation of village level militias to fight the Maoists. These ‘vigilante’ groups have targeted Maoists and their sympathisers, often leading to bloodshed, as was the case on August 14, when villagers at Matiniya in the Banke District killed five Maoist insurgents, including three women cadres. Such incidents of violence were also reported from the Districts of Rupandehi, Dhading, Makwanpur, Nuwakot and Kapilavastu. The then Minister for Information and Communication, Tanka Dhakal, had announced that the Government would implement development packages in those areas where the people take “courageous retaliatory action” against the Maoists. However, such encouragement projected a regime relying on unsound tactics, the results of which have often proven disastrous. For instance:

  • February 26, 2005: Maoists killed three brothers of a family at Masina in the Rupandehi district, charging them of being members of ‘resistance committee’ against the Maoists.

  • March 6, 2005: A group of Maoists killed five civilians, accusing them of being members of an ‘anti-Maoist retaliation group’, at Kudarmatewa village in the Kapilavastu district.

  • April 16, 2005: Maoists killed ten civilians, accusing them of association with a 'Maoist Resistant Committee' at Baragdawa in the Nawalparasi district.

  • April 23: Maoists killed five villagers accusing them of being members of an anti-Maoist "resistance group" in the Marchabar Semari and Thumahawa villages of the Rupandehi district.

  • As one commentator noted, "Though portrayed as a spontaneous uprising by common villagers against Maoists, village vigilante groups in Kapilavastu District have wrought carnage that can only invite Maoist retribution. A field study by a group of human rights organisations found that at least 42 villagers have died there, 31 of them killed by the vigilantes on suspicion of being Maoist sympathizers. What has gone underreported is that most of these killings, which occurred in the last half of February, have taken an ethnic/communal colour, as most of the victims are said to belong to hill tribes, who had settled in the fertile Terai plains over the last few years."

    Nevertheless, on July 28, 2005 the King asserted there had been “considerable improvement… in the internal law and order situation of Nepal.” However, even after the ‘Royal appointment’ of five regional, 14 zonal and 75 district chairmen to oversee local administration, the state mechanism remained largely defunct as most of these appointees failed to take charge or resigned from their offices under Maoist death threats. Over three fourth of the Village Development Committee (VDC) offices damaged in the conflict have not been renovated and developmental works remain suspended in rural areas.

    In terms of level of violence, year 2005 remained comparatively lower than previous years, primarily due to the unilateral cease-fire announced by the Maoists in the last four months of the year, and also because the Army had virtually suspended its ‘offensive’ counter-terrorism operations.

    Year* Civilians Security Forces Maoists Total
    2005 232 310 1301 1843
    2004 380 481 1590 2451
    2003 214 307 1584 2105
    2002 238 666 3992 4896
    2001 50 198 803 1051

    However, a comparison of the January to August data for the years 2001 to 2005 reveals that the violence in year 2005 was headed towards a larger figure, till the Maoist truce intervened in September. Further, a 2005-monthly breakdown of fatalities reveals that the violence reached its zenith in April and May.

    Also, the districts of Rukum and Kailali have recorded the highest fatalities figure for the year 2005, although each of the 75 districts witnessed Maoist violence at some level.

    District Civilians Security Forces Maoists Total
    Rukum 0 0 229 229
    Kailali 11 27 177 215
    Udayapur 1 9 69 79
    Bardiya 7 7 64 78
    Kalikot 0 50 27 77
    Sindhuli 1 4 64 69
    Siraha 13 5 51 69
    Kapilavastu 25 7 29 61
    Chitwan 39 5 14 58
    Ilam 1 24 26 51
                       Institute for Conflict Management data

    The Maoist response to the February 1 ‘takeover’ was typical and swift. ‘Chairman’ Prachanda announced a succession of general strikes, ‘wheel-jam’ agitations, shutdowns and blockades at the local and regional level. A ‘general strike’ was announced for three days between February 3 and 5, a 13-day blockade from February 13-26, countrywide ‘mass mobilization and military resistance’ between March 14 and April 1 followed by a countrywide general shutdown from April 2. The success of these shutdowns and blockades were guaranteed, as the insurgents overwhelmingly dominated the three major highways of the country – Mahendra, Prithvi and Tribhuvan – and had the capacity to lock down the economy virtually at will, though Kathmandu was able to keep at least a single principal supply line open along the Tribhuvan Highway, under heavy military escort, to support a trickle of essential supplies to the capital.

    Some differences within the senior Maoist ranks came to the fore during the first half of the year, when ‘disciplinary action’ was reportedly initiated against senior ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and his wife Hisila Yami. However, the differences were not sufficient to split or significantly weaken the outfit, and the leaders were later ‘reinstated’.

    All Maoist offensives came to a halt, on September 3, 2005 when Prachanda, issued a Press Statement declaring a three-month truce, under which the Maoists would not undertake any ‘offensive activities’, but would “remain in a position of active defense and resist if there is an offensive from the side of the enemy (the Government)”. The Maoist chief also warned that, if the Government intensified its military offensive or expanded Army bases by interpreting the Maoist move as ‘weakness’, the ceasefire could be ended ‘at any point’.

    The Maoist strategy that prompted the cease-fire announcement was multifaceted. The announcement was a first – and extremely successful – step towards the polarization of political forces in Nepal, with the King increasingly pitted against all others. This polarization has resulted in large-scale political demonstrations in Kathmandu and other places, with police resorting frequently to baton charges and tear-gassing to disperse crowds. The culmination of this strategy was the November 22, 2005 ‘Twelve-point Understanding’ reached between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and seven Parliamentary parties, of which one key point was the “end of autocratic monarchy”, followed by “election to the Constituent Assembly as a process of establishing total democracy” – positions long held by the Maoists, but that were, till fairly recently, anathema to the political parties. Further, for the purpose of achieving ‘total democracy’, the understanding envisaged keeping “the Maoist armed forces and the Royal Army under the supervision of the United Nations” or any other reliable international institution during the process of election to the Constituent Assembly. These positions demonstrated a significant consolidation of the Maoist position, as the political parties diluted their stance on the Monarchy as an ‘essential pillar’ of Nepali politics and the demand for a ‘ republic’ has now moved from the radical Maoist camp squarely into the democratic mainstream. With this understanding, consequently, the Maoist were able to dramatically alter the conflict dynamics in Nepal, which, prior to the ‘takeover’ was three-cornered, with the Maoists, the King and the political parties, each commanding a considerable pole of influence. After the ‘Twelve-point Understanding’, however, this was transformed into a two-dimensional tussle between the King at one end, and the Maoist-dominated coalition with political parties at the other.

    The unilateral truce, moreover, allowed the Maoists to concentrate on overground mobilization and political activity, while at the same time continuing with a process of quiet military refurbishment. A report released by the Kathmandu-based Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), titled "Three Months of Ceasefire – An Assessment of Human Rights Situation during the Unilateral Ceasefire by CPN (Maoist) in Nepal", noted that 75 persons were killed by both the state and Maoists during the three month period of the cease-fire, between September 3 and December 2 – 62 persons killed by security forces, and 13 by the Maoists. The report noted further that, though number of killings from the Maoists’ side had decreased, there had been a rise in incidents of abduction. The Maoists abducted 8,777 people, mostly students and teachers, during the period, the report stated, adding that the studies of at least 30,000 students had been affected, as the Maoists continued to target schools in remote areas.

    Following the ‘King’s coup’, foreign countries and international aid agencies expressed strong disappointment and suspended crucial financial and military aid to Nepal. On March 17, 2005 the British Government suspended part of the aid it had pledged to the Nepal Police, Prison Services and the Prime Minister's Office. A total of Pounds 2.4 million had been committed under these programmes, but Pounds 1.3 million remained unspent and was cancelled. On February 25, 2005 the World Bank informed the Nepal Government that it was suspending its US$ 70 million budgetary support for the current fiscal year, on the grounds that “extremely slow implementation of agreed reform measures” had ‘compelled” it to take such a decision. On July 20, 2005 condemning the ‘Royal takeover’, Norway cut the planned financial assistance to Nepal for 2006 by 10 per cent and terminated an agreement on support for the Melamchi Water Supply Project. The USA, India and the United Kingdom, Kathmandu’s principal military backers, suspended arms supplies to Nepal.

    With the suspension of arms supplies from traditional sources like India, and with depleting ammunition stocks, the King has assiduously tried to woo China, with some success. In a bid to win over Beijing, just prior to the Royal takeover, Nepal shut down the Kathmandu office of the Dalai Lama’s Representative in Nepal as well as the Tibetan Refugee Welfare office in the capital. The King’s courtship was eventually rewarded when China supplied 4.2 million rounds of 7.62 mm rifle ammunition, 80,000 high-explosive grenades and 12,000 AK-series rifles to Nepal, in November 2005. The flirtation with China and Pakistan had intensified in October, when RNA chief, General Pyar Jung Thapa, visited Beijing, where he is understood to have closed a deal for certain weapon systems; on another trip to Pakistan in December 2005, he was reportedly offered ‘comprehensive training capsules’ for RNA soldiers. On December 20, Thapa also hosted a four-member Chinese military delegation at Kathmandu.

    To appease the international community, the King, in a message to the nation on October 12, 2005, directed the Election Commission to hold parliamentary elections to the House of Representatives by mid-April 2007. He also urged the international community to cooperate actively in the conduct of the parliamentary polls, in a free and fair manner, adding that the ‘misguided lot’ (Maoists) were free to join the political mainstream by ending violence. The King’s announcement implied that he was no longer rigid about ruling the country for three years, as earlier announced in his ‘takeover’ speech. However, few would give much credence to the possibility of elections by the April 2007 deadline, in the absence of a radical and improbable settlement with the Maoists.

    As a prelude to the parliamentary elections, the Election Commission (EC) stated on October 9 2005, that elections in all 58 municipalities would take place on February 8, 2006 – the first municipal election since 1997. However, the Maoists warned of “people’s actions” against both candidates and officials. Worse, at a high-level meeting held in Nepalgunj on December 22, 2005 in which Home Minister Kamal Thapa and the RNA Chiefs of the Mid- and Far-Western Divisional Headquarters participated, Chief District Officers (CDOs) of 10 districts in these regions pointed out that it would not be possible to conduct municipal polls with the present level of security forces.

    The people of Nepal evidently remain suspended between the devil and the deep sea, and year 2005 further crystallized the notion that both war and peace are now conditions imposed by Maoists, demonstrating fairly clearly where the initiative and control is located in the present conflict.






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