Nepal: a country on the brink
TILA, Nepal – The little girl in the green shawl leaned forward slightly, just enough so the large stone balanced on her head would not crush her feet when it fell onto the Martyrs Road. She tipped it onto the ground, coughed into the damp mountain air, turned in silence and began to walk in her flip-flops back down the 500-yard stretch of steep, curving track that is the largest infrastructure project ever initiated by Nepal’s Maoist rebels. At the end of her walk, a pile of rocks awaited her and the other recruits from her village who, like thousands before them, had been forced to work on this road for seven hours a day, for eight days, for no money, a two-day walk from their homes. The Martyrs Road, named in honor of Maoist fighters killed in battle, is not even routed through their village. “Ten,” the girl said, when asked how old she was. Gayatri Oli was her name, she said. Nearly everyone interviewed – old women, young men, mothers, grandfathers, boys and girls – knew they were being watched and listened to by other workers or members of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), who were making them work on the 5 1/2-mile stretch of a road that Maoist planners say will reach the full 56 1/2 miles to the so-called Maoist capital of Thawang within the next three years. They were only too happy to help the region’s development, they said, repeating a party mantra. Only one man broke the ideological harmony. He declined to give his name and made sure no one could overhear him. “It’s this way,” he said, gazing across the valley and past the low clouds toward his village that he had been forced to leave for over a week. “No one speaks the truth here. The truth lies inside and everyone says what they’re taught to say.” He walked off, heading for the pile of rocks, and refused to make eye contact again. Nestled between the emerging nuclear superpowers of China and India, Nepal is a country most people think of – if they think of it at all – as the home of the tallest mountain in the world, the mythical yeti monster, the birthplace of Buddha, copious marijuana and plenty of hippie travelers to smoke it. It is still that place for many visitors. But it also is teetering on the brink of a collapse that could result in huge bloodletting and international confrontation, according to diplomats, many Nepalis, human rights researchers and other experts. Among the diplomats, including Americans, there is a sense that the coming year or two will prove crucial in determining Nepal’s future. The country’s political cocktail is alarming. The Maoist rebels are convinced of ultimate victory. Nepal’s king, claiming he was responding to the growing insurgency and the corruption of the democratic parties, seized absolute power this year in a coup, stamping out dissent with an army that has one of the worst human rights records in the world. Those who would and do dissent – the parties – are considered crooked and almost worthless by most Nepalis. Under threat from three sides is a population just larger than Iraq’s. Nepal has 27 million people who are living in a volatile, fragile habitat. They live in a country where they can be lynched by vigilantes, abducted by the Maoists, disappeared by government security forces and tortured or killed by any of the three. Many – a million so far – have chosen to flee to India rather than live in a conflict zone. Rebels here control roads and thoughts and bodies in the countryside and the security services can take control of the courts, the media, the telecommunications systems and people’s lives in the cities. In May, the United Nations opened its largest human rights monitoring office in Kathmandu since it established one in Rwanda. Its mission: to monitor both sides – the king and the Maoists. It also has been investigating the vigilante actions of anti-Maoist militias. When the Maoist uprising began nine years ago, it was nurtured by Nepal’s people. An old woman says the government killed many in her family, including her daughter, whose eyes were gouged out and who was set afire. Others say they suffered at the hands of the Maoists: a man dragged from his home and his leg shattered because he had not paid what they considered ample taxes; another man’s four sons who fled rather than join the Maoist rebels, his daughter-in-law taken instead, leaving behind her small daughter. “Nepal today is at a crossroads,” U.S. ambassador to Nepal James Moriarty said Tuesday in a speech to the Nepal Council of World Affairs in Kathmandu. “Unless the principles of freedom, civil rights and democracy once again take root through a process of true reconciliation among the legitimate political forces, I fear that your country will inexorably slide toward confrontation, confusion and chaos. The continuing divisions between the Palace and the political parties aid only the Maoists and their plans to turn Nepal into a brutal and anachronistic state.”What makes the situation in Nepal so alarming is this: After almost a decade of increasingly intense warfare and the deaths of more than 12,000 Nepalis, no solution appears either clear or likely. Even those whom the Western powers, the United Nations and neighboring India are banking on – the democratic political parties – seem a risky bet at best.
The democratic parties are numerous, but most of the power resides with the Nepali Congress Party and the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist). While they may represent the country’s best chance of representative government, Nepalis tend to see them as nepotistic, corrupt and untrustworthy. The conundrum for the United States, Britain and India – Nepal’s main allies – is this: To support the increasingly autocratic King Gyanendra is hard to justify, especially in the era of President Bush’s stated aim of spreading democracy. To weaken the king would be to strengthen the Maoists, whose victory could usher in a rein of even worse terror. So, to Western and regional powers determined to help prevent Nepal’s slide into chaos, diplomats say, the democratic parties represent the best of three bad options. Solutions are hard to identify. But what history has shown clearly is that ignoring a country such as Nepal – or Rwanda, or Bosnia or Afghanistan – as it descends into chaos can have a costly impact later in global stability and in lives both foreign and American. The scene on the Martyrs Road is a snapshot of what Nepal might look like if the Maoist insurgents ever came to power. With a guerrilla army of anywhere between 5,500 and 15,000 – claims and estimates vary – they already control the majority of the Himalayan kingdom’s terrain. Nepalis and foreign diplomats say that while the Maoists are unlikely to gain full control militarily, the worsening political crisis could open the door for a communist party that could turn the nation into the world’s next killing fields. Nepal, much like other ignored and apparently insignificant countries like Cambodia, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Rwanda, threatens to sneak up on the consciousness and conscience of a world currently preoccupied by the conflicts in Islamic nations. A failed state of Nepal could also become a highly volatile bone of contention between two immediate neighbors: the emerging nuclear superpowers of India and China. India would be unlikely to stand by and watch its neighbor disintegrate and many of Nepal’s population flood its borders. China would be unlikely to tolerate an Indian military intervention on its doorstep. A Nepal under control of Maoist rebels might resemble those parts of the country already in their grasp, including these activities documented by international and Nepali human rights organizations: Abduction of children and adults for forced labor and military service. “People’s Courts” in which the accused nearly always are found guilty by an unqualified tribunal that metes out often violent justice. Ideological indoctrination of children in schools. Assassination and torture of teachers and political enemies, including democratic party members, and the seizing of their property. Financial extortion or “taxation” of the population, with violent retribution for those who refuse to pay. Attacks on large landowners and redistribution of their lands. Diplomats and Nepali politicians say this nightmare scenario could be held at bay by a united front of the king, the security forces, a democratically elected government and military aid from the United States, India and Britain. But on Feb. 1, the chances of such a strong defensive alliance evaporated. King Gyanendra seized absolute power, claiming he was the only one who could defeat the Maoists. With his coup almost universally condemned by the international community, Gyanendra has spent the past six months weakening the remaining vestiges of the civil society and democracy that had grown up since his country’s democratic revolution in 1990. In June, as a result of the king and his security forces persecuting the democratic parties of Nepal, an alliance of seven democratic parties did exactly what Western governments most feared: They began serious talks with the Maoists, raising the possibility the Maoists could gain control of Nepal through politics where they have failed with guns. The talks continue.
To many in Kathmandu, including diplomats and royalists, the Maoists remain a worryingly inconsistent, mysterious force. Nearly all conversations about them get around to one question: If they took Kathmandu, would they allow multiparty democracy or would they enforce mass re-education, conduct class-based purges and executions, redistribute land and property and silence any opposition with terror? Would they, in other words, emulate their Cambodian forebears, the genocidal Khmer Rouge? The answer can be found only with the Maoists themselves, so a Newsday reporter and a photographer spent two weeks in June traveling with the Maoists in their heartland of Rolpa, a district in the west of the country, talking with their soldiers, party members and leaders — and the civilians who live in the poor, mountainous district. The journey followed the mountain path between the village of Tila and the almost-town of Thawang, roughly parallel to the unfinished road. The path winds for about 53 miles across a dozen pine-covered mountains, along a river valley and through a score of hamlets of mud-walled, mud-floored houses. It is a brutal, three-day trek and can be made only on foot. The Maoists’ forced-labor project is intended to make this route all but obsolete for those wishing to travel north to Thawang and points in between. From the start of the trip, which began on the then-unfinished stretch of road leading to Tila, one thing became clear: Party members did not take part in the manual labor they supervised. Their shirts and pants remained clean while old people and children scrambled, some of them barefoot, in the dust and dirt. Working on the road is dangerous. At least two people have died, Maoist leaders said, one of them earlier in June when a huge slice of rock fell on him from the cliff he was ordered to bore into. But not working on the road is not an option. “We won’t kill them but we will make them work,” said the region’s most senior Maoist official, Santosh Budha Magar. The Maoists say they are fighting for the freedom of the people. Why should people be forced to work on the road, he was asked. Is that freedom? “That kind of freedom is not freedom,” Magar replied. Nepal’s Maoist movement claims to be fighting for equality and liberation from the centuries-old system of master-and-serfs feudalism, but often the Maoists appear to mimic the unjust order that sparked the revolution in the first place. Throughout the two-week visit in Rolpa, party members accompanying Newsday would arrive in a village and begin ordering around local residents: Get us food, get us tea, find us lodgings. Some were polite to the residents. Others were magisterial. When questioned by a reporter about their behavior, some reacted as if they had not had their beliefs or actions questioned before. Why have some teachers been executed, a party member was asked one day during a walk through a river valley on the way to Thawang. “They were not teachers,” said Bikash, the “comrade” who was acting as a guide. He justified the killings, something condemned by human rights organizations, by claiming the teachers were spying on the Maoists for the government. He described two cases, including one of a teacher who was “arrested and shot.”Had the teacher been given a lawyer? “No,” said Bikash, 39, himself a former teacher of geography and Nepali. Why not? “It was already proved, he replied. What justice there is in the Maoist territories is dispensed at what the Maoists call People’s Courts. Human rights organizations describe them as travesties of justice in which the accused nearly always are found guilty by a self-appointed, unqualified group and punished with a fine, forced labor, public whipping or execution. “When you see their courts and the way they function, it’s medieval,” said Mandira Sharma, a leading human rights lawyer in Kathmandu. She said she has witnessed a People’s Court. “They call in meetings. Everyone from the village is invited. They just sit under a banyan tree. The complainant always wins.”The topic of People’s Courts usually makes party officials extremely uneasy. “There are murder cases,” said the white-bearded senior Maoist in Tila, whose nom-de-guerre is Surya. Those convicted “would be given labor imprisonment. We don’t hang people.”
Surya was lying, in a mystifyingly naive way: On the wall of a house about 20 yards from the darkened room where he sat was a public notice announcing the recent execution by a People’s Court of a local man who had been convicted of rape, murder and spying. Such deceptions and summary forms of justice are well known to most Nepalis. And that makes many afraid of full control by Maoists. Magar promised that a victorious Maoist movement would respect the other parties in a future republic of Nepal, and that if the people of Nepal did not vote for the Maoists in free elections, the party would accept the result. Such promises are treated with enormous mistrust within the diplomatic community in Kathmandu. An American diplomat there said in June the Nepali foreign ministry had given a briefing recently to foreign diplomats. “One of the things they shared with us were intercepts of speeches that had recently been given by various senior Maoists,” the diplomat said. “And one of the things they were saying in these speeches was that the political parties are what they called a secondary enemy. This old regime, the palace and all that, that’s the primary enemy. And so the strategy is to make friends with the secondary enemy and work with them until the primary enemy is defeated and then you would go for the secondary enemy.”When pressed further, Magar’s commitment to democracy and freedom seemed a little less clear: “We will give rights to all people,” he said, “except for all those who are for expansionism, imperialism and feudalism.”Conversations with Maoists often culminate in the question fueling the American, British and Indian anxiety about Nepal and their ongoing non-lethal military aid to an unsavory ally: If the Maoists won, would they spill oceans of blood, as did their ideological forebears in places like China and Cambodia? At first, Maoist leaders are cautious, insisting they would give feudal landlords a parcel of land from which they could feed their families. (Such redistribution programs alone have caused mass starvation in the past.) But these same people — the landlords, the army officers, the politicians, the intellectuals, the business owners — are the ones the Maoists right now consider criminals. What kind of “justice” might they face? “We will make prisons and we will make them correctional prisons,” Magar said, insisting a Maoist regime would seek to re-educate, not purge, the ruling classes. Surya was less forgiving. “There will be punishment,” he said. “There are ones who are against us. They will be punished.”Just as Stalin and Mao punished their class enemies? “Of course,” Surya said, smiling. He seemed satisfied that he had been understood. On Friday, June 24, the Maoists held an inauguration ceremony for the opening of the first 5 1/2-mile stretch of the Martyrs Road. Officials gave long speeches. The village was festooned in red banners, multicolored bunting and red flags. Dozens of Maoist soldiers appeared with their jumbled collection of weapons. A collage of Maoist martyrs hung over speakers at the microphone. People looked at the hovering rain clouds and were thankful: The clouds would make it harder for the Nepalese army helicopters to attack an event that they would surely know about. The road actually had been finished the day before and, in the darkness of the evening, the first two vehicles ever to come to Tila — Indian-made SUVs — roared into the village like strange contraptions from the future. One carried a generator and a computer. In one moment, Tila had taken a huge leap into the modern age. The Kathmandu governments — neither those of Nepal’s kings nor democratic parties — had ever given the people of Tila so much.The villagers seemed genuinely overjoyed. Medicine, food, tools, schoolbooks — all these crucial and basic goods now could flow into Tila and beyond. The Maoists had built the road, not the government, people said; they were grateful. But the laborers who had really built the road, people from around the region, were not there. They had left for home, to their fields and their families. Vail – Colorado
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