The Asian Wall Street Journal (June 7).
 
Nepal Doesn't Need Maoism

By Salil Tripathi. Mr. Tripathi, a former correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, is a London-based writer specializing in Asian affairs.
The curfew imposed to prevent fresh riots has been lifted and the streets have returned to relative calm, but the massacre of Nepal's royal family last week will likely bring new dangers to the troubled Himalayan-Hindu nation. The biggest risk is that a homegrown Maoist movement waging a "people's war" against the state will take advantage of growing public dissatisfaction with a government already crippled by ineffective leadership.

Nepal has tried to establish a multiparty, parliamentary system of government since 1990, when a pro-democracy movement forced King Birendra -- reportedly shot dead along with his family by his son, Crown Prince Dipendra, who in turn killed himself -- was forced to end his autocratic rule and form a constitutional monarchy. But factional infighting and ineptitude and has since then resulted in 10 governments, each of them weak and corrupt. The parliament has often been rendered useless because of opposition boycotts.

Communist parties have been part of Nepal's political landscape since the late 1940s; at one time there were more than a dozen of various red shades. The main opposition Unified Marxist Leninist Party took a brief stab at leadership in 1994. In 1996, the more radical Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) abandoned the parliament to launch its war against the government with what it claimed was a 2,000-strong force of guerrilla fighters.

The insurgents now control five of Nepal's 75 districts, but are active in 50 more -- all together nearly two-
thirds of the country. Sporadic and yet sometimes gruesome armed attacks targeting police and local officials have killed an estimated 1,600 people. An attack on a police station in April that left more than 70 dead shocked the nation and the international community.

One of the prime objectives of the Maoists has been the overthrow of the monarchy and its replacement with a republic more responsive to the country largely impoverished population of 24 million. Public anger in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu over the slain royal family has brought the Maoists a step closer to their goal.

A republic with a full and functioning democracy in Nepal may indeed be what Nepalese want, but the Maoists are hardly the best harbingers. Some of their public pronouncements represent a fossilized view of the world. Its leaders have, for example, defended China's violent crackdown on the 1989 pro-democracy movement, while some consider the fall of the Soviet Union a temporary setback in a long war against the capitalist West.

The insurgents have been shrewd in selecting their targets, which include money lenders, corrupt police officers and other government officials perceived as failing to deliver on the government's economic promises. This has increased their popularity in the areas they control and earned them sympathy in others where they have had only marginal influence. And not surprising. With a per capita income of $213 Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, burdened with a huge income gap between urbanites and the predominately illiterate rural poor. A poll earlier this year showed that while two-thirds of those surveyed believed Nepal's democracy was in danger due to the insurgency, 81% said the country's disreputable politicians were responsible for the nation's woes, and only 8% blamed the Maoists.

The Maoists have carefully avoided hurting the interests of the villagers in remote, mountainous areas where there are no roads or schools and little in the way of drinking water. In districts where they are strongest, their parallel administrative structures collect local taxes, provide security and administer justice by settling local disputes. One popular target is drunkenness; the abusers of alcohol are paraded and humiliated before villagers, a moral crusade of which many rural Nepalese seem to approve. Another is money lenders who keep many poor families in life-long penury.

But the Maoists are not Robin Hoods from the Terai. They are ruthless extortionists in demanding money from rural businesses and they treat informers harshly. Beheadings and other cruel punishments are common. Doubts about the Maoists come from their willingness to assassinate some district politicians, thus blurring the distinction between political rivals and those the poor may consider exploiters.

The Maoists have also been able to exploit the age-old caste system. Three castes, the Brahmins, Chetris and Newars, dominate Nepal's political structure, leaving little room for the lower castes like the Kami, Sarki, Damai, and other Janajatis, who feel crushed under the yoke of the feudal order. Add to this combustible mix retired Gurkha soldiers from the British and Indian armies, some apparently tempted to help train the guerrillas.

While the beleaguered septuagenarian Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has made much of a $2.6 million aid package for economic development, that sum dwarfs compared with spending to acquire weapons, which is nearly twice as much.

Little of the millions of dollars that trekkers and tourists spend in Kathmandu before going to the breathtaking Himalayan countryside of snow-capped peaks, waterfalls and terraced fields makes its way back to remote, inaccessible villages. Few among Nepal's growing ranks of unemployed youth feel they have a future at home, so they flood the Indian plains, swelling the corps of Nepalese immigrant labor. Meanwhile, a growing number of Nepalese women are trafficked to brothels in India's largest cities.

While Nepal's armed forces outnumber the insurgents, they have so far stayed out of the conflict. That may change with Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, who was proclaimed king Monday. A flurry of diplomatic activity since April has led Nepalese officials to conclude that as a land-locked buffer state between nuclear-armed China and India, Nepal is once again a strategic listening post covering the Great Game territory of Central Asia and beyond to the West and Southeast Asia to the east.

Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Alan Eastham visited Kathmandu for two days in April. Indian officials worried the guerrillas are using India as a safe haven have expressed concerns about the Maoist insurgency. In April, the European Union expressed "profound concern" at the "serious escalation of violence."

The temptation for King Gyanendra to opt for a military solution might be strong. The government already appears to be headed in that direction. Earlier this year it formed a National Security Council and created a paramilitary that could rise to 20,000 men armed with the latest weaponry.

But force is likely to prove more detrimental in the long run. Nepal simply cannot afford a civil war.
Instead, Nepal needs stable, accountable democratic institutions and an ambitious land-reform program administered efficiently and without corruption so that money allocated for development of the impoverished interior regions reaches the intended beneficiaries. Many villages are not on the radar screen of the government's economic planners. These are villages without schools, roads, electricity, water or medical facilities. That's the real Himalayan problem and it requires an urgent solution.

-- From The Asian Wall Street Journal