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
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
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