Militias fan flames of chaos
RATANGANJ, Nepal – Already caught in the war between Nepal’s Maoist rebels and the king’s often brutal army, many Nepalis now fear that a new, third armed force could be the most lethal: local militias that have behaved like vigilantes and could tip Nepal into chaos. “We killed one Maoist,” said Rama Sharya Kumhal, 44, a teacher, as he sat under the spreading branches of a peepal tree in the center of this small village in the borderlands with India. “He was asking for donations.” “Donations” is the Maoist term for taxation or extortion, a common practice by the communist rebels in rural Nepal, and one much hated by villagers. “In daylight,” said Munna Khan, 35, the richest man in the village and a leader of the Ratanganj anti-Maoist militia. His house, the largest in the village, sat in ruins a few meters away, the recent work of Maoist bombers. “He (the Maoist) was armed. He had a pistol and two bombs.” “We all shot him,” Kumhal continued, smiling. “First we struck him with a knife,” Khan corrected. “Then we shot him. I hit him with a kukhri (machete).” Since King Gyanendra seized absolute power in a coup on Feb. 1, anti-Maoist militia or vigilante groups like Ratanganj’s have sprung up in various parts of the southern strip of Nepal. In spite of earlier denials by the king’s puppet government, Newsday has learned from the militias themselves that they are being trained and advised by the Royal Nepalese Army. Nepali security officials acknowledged that the phenomenon is spreading to other parts of the country and may get out of hand. And militia leaders said they have been encouraged to fight by the army and by Gyanendra’s seizing power. Some American counterinsurgency experts and diplomats say well-organized village defense groups could be a crucial tool in defeating the rebels, as they have proved in countries like Peru. But most diplomats, international observers and Nepali politicians and human rights workers say the emergence and government sponsorship of the vigilante groups is deeply worrying in a country that many fear is already on the verge of becoming a failed state. If Nepal were to descend into an ungoverned chaos, or were to be ruled by the Maoists, many diplomats and Nepalis fear that millions of refugees would flee and conflict could draw in Nepal’s neighboring superpowers, India and China. Already stricken by a 9-year-long civil war between the king’s army and the Maoist rebels, the last thing Nepal needs, critics of the vigilante tactic say, is a third force of armed and unmonitored gangs who already have shown signs of warlordism, extreme violence, criminal infiltration and elements of religious and ethnic resentment. “There is a danger” of the groups getting out of control, acknowledged Brig. Gen. Dipak Gurung, chief spokesman for the Royal Nepalese Army, once he had been told of evidence that the army was training militias and issuing them ID badges in the border district of Nawalparasi, which includes Ratanganj. “Once you train them, you have to take responsibility for them. You have to monitor them. … Let’s see how it develops – if they’re able to contain them. If we’re able to contain them. I hope it doesn’t come to a situation where we have to disarm them. You never know.” Observers cite countries such as Afghanistan and Kosovo as places where private armies, militias or paramilitary groups grew to cause widespread chaos and war. Each country and conflict is different, experts caution, but few conflicts have been calmed by the introduction of paramilitary or civil defense groups, many observers say. “Warlordism will definitely emerge out of all these activities,” said Subodh Raj Pyakurel, chairman of one of Nepal’s leading human rights groups, the Informal Sector Service Center, known as INSEC. “If these things are not checked right now, I am sure that in a few years we will find warlords in very many places. … This is the most disastrous phenomenon. You can settle the (Maoist) insurgency, but you cannot settle these groups.” That may not be apparent to the army and supporters of the concept, some diplomats and Nepali observers say, because at face value arming and training otherwise defenseless citizens to defend themselves against the Maoists might seem like common sense. “It’s an idea that in theory has its attractions and in practice can have an awful lot of downsides,” said a Western diplomat in Kathmandu who has a background in counter-terrorism and who asked for anonymity. “It can encourage score-settling. … As this conflict gets deeper and deeper, it (the militia phenomenon) could easily slide into something much worse.” While most diplomats and people in Nepal’s civil society are firmly against the groups, some believe the size of the Maoist threat to normal villagers and the limited resources of the Nepalese army mean the village militia concept should not be dismissed. “OK, give me an option. The answer is always Pollyanna – `We’re all going to talk. We’re all going to be buddies,”‘ said Thomas Marks, an American political risk consultant and perhaps the world’s leading expert on Maoist insurgencies. Marks first went to Nepal under contract with the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2001, hiked among the Maoists in the district of Rolpa and came back to Kathmandu publicly encouraging the government to adopt a policy of establishing well-run village defense forces. He still believes it is the best way to defeat the Maoists and establish peace in Nepal, a country he otherwise sees tumbling into disaster. “What you have to do is take a battalion,” said Marks, who has been to Nepal a dozen times in the past four years, has an intelligence background and now teaches counterinsurgency at the National Defense University in Washington. “It plumps itself down. It keeps a reaction force. … Everybody else in effect clones the military. Mao had everyone armed with agricultural implements mainly. In Nepal, that’s sufficient for the first line of defense. The key thing is you mobilize watcher groups, you mobilize that which responds to local officialdom but which is integrated into the local police.” When Marks gave lectures in Kathmandu about three years ago promoting the idea, human rights organizations and aid agencies united in opposition and the Nepalese government quickly dropped the detailed plans that they had already been working on, according to Marks. He now believes that was a fatal mistake and the criminality that has entered the current militia groups is an inevitable result of the delay and the half-hearted, secretive way the Nepali security forces are going about organizing the militias. An American diplomat in Kathmandu attended a meeting in Washington in June during which another expert in counterinsurgency promoted the village defense force concept. The diplomat felt it was an idea not to be dismissed easily. “You can’t have the army every place and so do you leave killing grounds for the Maoists?” said the diplomat. “Human rights activists say that paramilitary inherently leads to a greater amount of human rights abuses. I don’t know, basically that’s a matter of training. … What I am saying is that you should have, hopefully, a reasonably trained, supported, reasonably represented people from the village who are able to convince the Maoists: Don’t come in here.” It is hard to find support for the idea, however, within Nepal’s own civil society. To some, the king’s government has adopted the policy of training the counter forces precisely because it wants to fragment any potential united opposition to the regime. Nepal is a delicately structured society, with many ethnic groups and social stratifications. Mostly Hindu, the country has a small but wealthy Muslim population and a slightly higher number of Buddhists. The vigilante groups – they call themselves village counter forces – have tended to be led by wealthy landlords or businessmen, some with reputed criminal backgrounds, some from affluent royalist Muslim families, some with clear resentment against groups of Nepalis who have been displaced by the conflict from the hill country and now live in this flat, southern part of Nepal known as the Terai. So far this year, the militias have torched an entire village of displaced hill people who they claimed were Maoist supporters and, human rights organizations say, have killed dozens of people, sometimes with extraordinary brutality. In one case documented by a local human rights worker in the district of Kapilbastu, two men suspected of being Maoists were burned to death in a haystack. Others were lynched. The Maoists have retaliated, killing dozens in similarly brutal ways or in full-scale armed assaults on villages that have militias. The violence flared dramatically Feb. 16, when residents in the village of Ganeshpur rescued a man who had been abducted by Maoists, witnesses, police and human rights workers said. That sparked a retaliatory wave across the district, including the torching of almost the entire village of Halanagar. There were also reports of criminal-led mobs raping a young girl and using axes to kill suspected Maoists. “There are no Maoists here – it’s because of the enmity,” said Rudra Prasad Bhattarai, chairman of the village committee in Halanagar. He was sitting in his rebuilt home – one of more than 300 houses that were burned to the ground Feb. 17 by a vigilante mob of hundreds. Most have been rebuilt by residents and foreign aid agencies. One resident of the village was killed by the mob, Bhattarai said. The enmity he spoke of is ethnic, geographic and economic. The people of Halanagar come from Nepal’s hilly regions to the north of these swampy plains on the border with India. Over the past seven years, they have fled the fighting there and hoped to find peace farther south. Instead, they found themselves unwelcome. Halanagar’s hill people tend to have Mongoloid facial features; the Terai people tend to have Indo-Aryan faces. Halanagar’s people are Hindu; the neighboring, wealthy landlords are Muslim. The people of the village are, in some cases, former indentured servants; the landlords live in fortified mansions, surrounded by their neighbors’ mud and straw huts. Bhattarai and others in Halanagar said the landlords were specifically angry at the villagers because the villagers had been encouraging the landlords’ indentured servants to break out of virtual slavery. “They were angry, the landlords,” he said. “They couldn’t release that before and were just waiting for the opportunity.” That opportunity came after the king’s proclamation emboldened royalists all over Nepal, the villagers said – a sentiment echoed by militia members and security officials. The men Bhattarai and the people of Halanagar blame for orchestrating the torching of their village live in Ganeshpur, across the fields, in huge brick homes within walled compounds of well-tended flower beds and green lawns. The disparity of wealth between the landlords and the peasants is breathtaking. “That’s an unauthorized, illegal community,” said a Muslim landlord, Rahman Khan, 40, referring to Halanagar. “It’s a Maoist hideout.” Khan and his two brothers said they supported the local militia “morally” because the Maoists have attacked them repeatedly over the years. On March 7, they said, a large group of Maoists launched a major night-time assault on the compound. The brothers and their employees fought them off with privately owned weapons. The stables are still black from the fire of explosions. Bullet holes pepper the walls of the house. The brothers recently built red-brick fortifications on the roof in preparation for another Maoist attack. “We have to fight to remain alive, for our own existence,” said Khan’s older brother, Abdul Moid Khan. “Two of my brothers have been killed. If we don’t fight, they will kill us.” Since Feb. 1, INSEC has counted a total of 62 people killed in violence between the vigilante groups and the Maoists, or suspected Maoists, in Kapilbastu district alone. Most of the vigilante-related violence happened in February and March, but the growth of the militias in the Terai has continued. In June, some of the 40 to 45 armed villagers of the Ratanganj Village Counter Force proudly showed off their photo ID cards, which they said the army had issued. They had been to the nearby Gribeni army barracks for training, said Kumhal, the village teacher. “They were training forces from 10 other villages,” said Kumhal, who added that he had not personally gone for training. Perhaps the best educated man in the village, he seemed to act as a spokesman. Less eloquent villagers who were in the militia and had gone for training sat and stood around him, nodding their agreement. “There were three batches being trained in groups of 45.” Training lasted for 15 days and included sessions on weapons training, Maoist tactics, how to patrol effectively, how to establish hidden positions and how to shoot while crawling, villagers said. The training ended in mid-May, they said. In a sign of how sensitive is the issue of the connection between the army and the vigilante groups, the group’s leader – Munna Khan – arrived later on in the conversation and when the issue of training came up, he said in Nepali: “Don’t say anything about the training.” Khan also said his men did not have guns. Sitting about 30 yards away were three of the militia men with shotguns and ammunition belts. (One human rights official in Kathmandu identified Khan from photographs as a well-known criminal. Before he arrived at the meeting with Kumhal, villagers said he was a contractor upon whom most of the villagers depend for employment.) In another village in the region, a photographer and translator for Newsday came across a village counter force meeting later in June with the local police chief. The group became instantly hostile and demanded to know what pictures the photographer had taken. “It’s not like it’s only happening in the region,” said Arjun Jung Shahi, senior superintendent of police for six districts in the Terai, sitting in his well-fortified headquarters in Kapilbastu. “It’s true that in the north part of Nepal they have formed village counter forces. They are united.” Will they spread further, he was asked. “Of course,” the senior policeman said. Subel Bhandari contributed to this story.
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