They came out of the hills and struck, as usual, in the stillness of the Himalayan night. Their target was the police station in Ghartigaon village in strife-torn Rolpa district, western Nepal. By the time the explosions and gunfire had ceased and the attackers melted back into the frozen darkness, 15 policemen lay dead. Another 20 were injured.
The assault by Maoist guerrillas in the early hours of Feb. 19 was the bloodiest strike yet in an escalating campaign of violence that has killed over 1,100. It threatens to plunge Nepal into a wider conflict. That could prove disastrous for the economically vital tourist industry and the stability of a nation strategically wedged between Asia's two wary giants, India and China. Involving more than 100 guerrillas - some using automatic rifles for the first time - the latest attack also served as a wake-up call to the kingdom's perennially bickering political establishment. "The Maoists are upgrading their weapons as well as their battle strategy,"
says Rajendra Dahal, editor of the Nepali-language fortnightly magazine Himal. "It is the start of a new phase."
There is little disagreement on what lies behind the four-year-old "people's war" launched by the shadowy leadership of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M). Centered in remote western Nepal, the uprising is rooted in rural poverty and unemployment, political neglect, and spreading disillusionment with the country's decade-old experiment with multi-party democracy. "Poverty is the breeding ground," says Sher Bahadur Deuba, former premier and now a faction leader in the ruling Nepali Congress party. "Unfortunately, people's expectations were so high. Politicians promised everything to win votes, but once in power they couldn't deliver." Corruption, today endemic in Nepal, has also fanned popular discontent. "The shape and size of corruption enlarged after the inception of multi-party democracy in 1990," says left-leaning lawyer Sindhu Nath Pyakurel. "It's permeated right through society. People are losing faith in the electoral process."
Alarming both the authorities and Nepal's neighbors is the speed with which the Maoist revolt has spread. It first sank roots in the hilly mid-western part of the country, then spread east of Kathmandu. Today, according to the police, 35 of the country's 75 districts are moderately to severely affected. Four of the districts in the Maoist mid-west heartland - Rolpa, Rukum, Jajarkot and Kalikot - have all but slipped off the government's map. "There's no civil government or development activity," says Dahal. "The police and administration are basically confined to the district headquarters."
Over four years, the CPN-M - which models itself on Peru's Shining Path movement - has honed both political mobilization techniques and military tactics. "They're motivating people with anti-government activities and drama, and pressuring unsophisticated people to think in a negative way," says Police Senior Superintendent Amer Singh Shah. Having begun the violence with crude home-made guns and traditional kukri knives, the party now fields some 1,000-1,500 armed fighters. Intimidation and assassination of political rivals are paralleled by attacks on police posts and ambushes of police patrols. "Every day they are growing stronger in numbers and weapons," says Shah. "Before they used to operate with 10 or 12 men, but now we see them coming in groups of 60, 100 or even 200."
The Maoists champion a radical brand of Nepali nationalism. But police say they have established firm links with their Indian ideological cousins - the People's War Group in Andhra Pradesh and the Maoist Coordination Center in Bihar. Captured documents and interrogations have revealed that since 1997, Nepali teams have gone to India for training and returned to set up training camps.
But the authorities themselves have also helped fan the insurgency. Overstretched, ill-equipped and untrained for counter-insurgency, the police are caught in a classic trap. "We're sitting targets and they're not," explains Shah. "For us everybody appears to be a villager." The reaction has often been predictable: summary round-ups and executions of suspects and a curious absence of wounded Maoists after clashes. "I can't describe to you the degree of ignorance among some mid-level police," laments one diplomat. "These are the men beating the living daylights out of 12-year-olds in detention."
Growing evidence of human-rights abuses has attracted attention well beyond Nepal. Last week an Amnesty International delegation led by secretary-general Pierre Sané was in Kathmandu for talks with local authorities and rights groups. "Nepal should learn from the mistakes of this region and not repeat them," Sané told Asiaweek. "But it seems that repeating them is exactly what they're doing now. More and more civilians are being caught in the crossfire." After the meetings, the government released two prisoners who disappeared eight weeks ago.
So far, little of the crisis in the western hills has been reflected in Kathmandu. Certainly, last week it was business as usual in the capital: the ruling Congress party - which has had a parliamentary majority since elections last May - was locked in infighting. Following a revolt by 58 Congress parliamentarians, septuagenarian Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai eventually agreed to step down in favor of his bitter rival Girija Prasad Koirala, another politician in his seventies. "For five years, various governments have not taken the situation that seriously," says an exasperated police officer. "Now the Congress has a clear mandate, and they're still fighting among themselves over who's going to sit in the chair." Suggestions have surfaced for two years now that Nepal's 47,000-strong army may intervene. But that could damage the country's young democracy as well as its tourist trade. As human-rights lawyer Gopal Siwakoti Chintan puts it: "Once you involve the military in the conflict, it will be a declaration of civil war."
An alternative, approved in principle recently by the Bhattarai government, is to establish an armed police force of up to 25,000 trained and equipped for counter-insurgency. The requirements to set up the new force are being examined by a committee headed by former home secretary Khemraj Regmi. If plans proceed, the initial phase would aim to train and deploy some 10,000 men with modern weapons within one year. The police are also pressing for the new force to have four helicopters for transport and logistics support in Nepal's rugged mountain terrain. At present, the police are obliged to hire choppers from private companies. They recently lost one, which was destroyed on the ground by the Maoists.
It may still not be too late to pull back a potentially disastrous escalation - a military effort that virtually all analysts agree cannot eradicate a social and economic disease. Former PM Deuba, who has headed a peace commission since late last year, has put out feelers to the Maoist leadership. Those overtures were reciprocated last week when CPN-M boss Pushpa Kamal Dahal - "Comrade Prachanda" - declared himself ready to undertake talks if the government ceased security operations and released some detainees. Deuba told Asiaweek he was optimistic that negotiations could begin soon. But elements in the security forces believe Prachanda may be aiming to consolidate his already strong position rather than renounce his "people's war."
For the moment, tourism, Nepal's crucial money-spinner, has been almost miraculously insulated from the brewing storm. The Maoist guerrillas have specifically avoided targeting foreigners. And most backpackers and trekkers thronging the country's tourist centers remain blissfully unaware of the troubles. But unless the government in Kathmandu moves quickly and effectively, that reprieve is unlikely to last. The dawn of a new century sees Nepal teetering on the brink of a dark Himalayan crevasse.
Rebel violence on upswing in Nepal
June 17, 2000
Web posted at: 12:07 a.m. HKT (1607 GMT)
KATMANDU, Nepal -- Rebel violence in Nepal killed five police officers and wounded eight this week, police said on Friday.
Authorities said Maoist rebels fighting to overthrow Nepal's constitutional monarchy hurled a bomb at a police patrol late Thursday night in the town of Gorhka, 150 kilometers (93 miles) west of Katmandu. Two policemen were killed and five injured in the explosion.
On Wednesday, three police officers were killed and three more wounded in a gunfight with rebels at Junbesi, in east Nepal's Solukhumbhu district.
Last week, 21 people -- including five children -- were killed when rebels attacked a police post and bombed a house in west Nepal.
Rebel-related violence has killed more than 1,300 people -- 194 of them police officers -- since the Maoists began their drive to set up a communist government four years ago.
Reuters contributed to this report.