Trouble in Nepal
December 16, 2002
by Sol W. Sanders
In Nepal, the little Himalayan kingdom wedged in between India and Tibet, the political, security, and economic situation is deteriorating at an ever faster clip. The result could be another contested area between neighboring giants, like nearby Kashmir, that will become a primary concern for American policymakers. The State Department on November 26 warned Americans not travel to Nepal after guerrillas took credit for kidnapping and murdering two U.S. Embassy security guards and threatened diplomats.
The so-called Nepalese Maoists (their own nomenclature) who reject China’s present version of Mao’s legacy as unacceptable revisionism, are growing increasingly bold and bloody in their attempt to take over the country. Attacks on Nepal’s fragile infrastructure are increasing with classic targeting of police and teachers. Tourism, Nepal’s main foreign currency earner, which brought in about a half million visitors and $200 million a year, has been devastated.
In a prototypical third-world country with ethnic as well as urban-rural conflicts, the Maoists are exploiting all opportunities—including students, unemployed youth, and conflicts among corrupt politicians. The cycle of village terrorism and counter-terrorism is building. On November 28, for example, in the far west of the country, thirty-three policemen and four army personnel were killed when hundreds of Maoists attacked. The government claimed more than a hundred Maoists killed. Whether exaggerated or not, there is growing evidence the guerrillas’ heavy losses are not a deterrent.
Little is known about the Maoists even after almost a decade into what they call their “peoples’ war.” But their growing power is felt even in the capital where they occasionally set off bombs and call strikes through classic infiltration of older parties and among the impoverished and frustrated young. (Nepal has an estimated 26 million with a quarter of the population under 24 growing at 3 percent annually.)
Military sources estimate there are between 2,000 and 4,000 hard-core Maoists. Another 12,000-14,000 “militia” even includes young women in their teens. Their arms are antiquated rifles looted from police stations but some of the elite use submachine guns and modern arms stolen from the army. There are also rumors of North Korean arms.
The decade-long insurgency aims at the destruction of the monarchy and the establishment of a Communist republic—often with rhetoric not heard since long before the fall of the Soviet Union. That takes on added significance since June of last year when in a bizarre, seemingly unconnected episode, the crown prince mowed down the immediate royal family. The former king, Mahendra, had been reluctant to take on the Maoists and had encouraged the on–again, off-again negotiations. But his brother, the present king, Gyanendrain, suspended elected government in October, ostensibly for failing to hold elections and assumed full executive powers. His appointed government is supposed to tackle the insurgency by committing Nepal’s 50,000 poorly trained and equipped army with several helicopters and a single fixed-wing aircraft. The Bush administration asked Congress in June to provide $20 million in aid to the Nepalese and Congress has approved $12 million in military aid.
Nepal’s problems might have been seen as just one more Africa-style imbroglio were it not for geography. Nepal abuts Tibet and since the Chinese Communists came to power, there has been a sometimes not so subtle struggle for influence between New Delhi and Beijing. There are strong ties of religion and ethnicity to India. The move for elected government in Nepal against a feudal oligarchy inherited from British protectorate times was modeled on India’s Congress Party. Large numbers of Nepali traditionally immigrate across an almost non-existent border to employment in India or to largely vacant lands in the Himalayan states of Sikkim and Bhutan to the east. But an often fractious relationship has existed between New Delhi and Katmandu since independence.
And despite their denunciations of the Chinese leadership, the Maoists are known to have ties with the so-called Naxallites, an underground, brutal peasant revolutionary movement in nearby Indian states that also claims Chinese Communist parentage. Nepal’s guerrilla leadership—Prachanda (Pushpa Kamal Dahal), a 48-year-old somewhat mysterious leader (only two known photographs)—has taunted the Indians to intervene directly.
There is no evidence of links to worldwide terrorism. But Katmandhu is a focal point of Indian and Pakistani intrigue. (One hijacking of an Indian airliner out of Katmandu by Pakistani terrorists ended in a hostage release with one of the hijackers later turning up in a terrorist episode in India.) There are no reports of Chinese liaison with the guerrillas but in any political or military conflict with India, Beijing would undoubtedly have another card to play. That’s why Nepal increasingly becomes one more tinderbox on the world map that requires Washington’s attention.
Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Hudson Institute.
Sol W. Sanders is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report, and United Press International. He writes weekly for World Tribune.com. This column is reprinted with permission.
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