COMBATING THE MAOIST REBELS
Initially the Nepalese government tried to fight the Maoists by pretending they didn’t exist and then largely fumbled opportunities to negotiate a settlement to the dispute.King Birendra, who was assassinated in June 2001 by his son, never used the army to fight the Maoist rebels which led to speculation he might have made a secret deal with them.
In the early stages of the conflict with the Maoist rebels, ill-equipped and poorly trained police forces were on the front lines and engaged in the bulk of the fighting. The government didn’t want to use the army to fight the Maoist rebels because that raised the status of the rebels and brought the conflict to close the level of a civil war. Many of the dead were policemen who only earned $40 a month.
In November 2001, after the Maoist rebels walked out of peace talks, King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency and the Royal Nepal Army formally entered into the conflict for the first time. Some had hoped this would turn the tide against the rebels. That didn’t happen. The government had some success using helicopters to attack Maoist rebels strongholds. Helicopters were used in the May 2002 attack that reportedly left 500 Maoist rebels dead with the loss of only three government soldiers in the Rolpa district of western Nepal..
After King Gyanendra grabbed power in February 2005, the government stepped up its military campaign against the Maoist rebels. In March 2005. the government reported that it had killed several dozen Maoist rebels in several attacks in the Arghakhanchi district and elsewhere. In April 2005. the government launched a major offensive against Maoist rebels camps and training facilities in the Rolpa district, the heartland of the Maoist rebel movement. Helicopter gunships were employed. There were reports of fierce fighting.
Most of the information on the successes and failures on government efforts to fight the Maoist rebels come from government sources and it was difficult to the judge the veracity of the reports. The government was also accused of looking solely for a military solution to the conflict and not doing enough to combat rural poverty, which to some degree had allowed the Maoist rebellion to take root.
Cracking Down on the Maoist Rebels and Human Rights Violations
In 2001, the Nepalese government enacted the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Control and Punishment) Ordinance that gave authorities sweeping powers to arrest and detain suspected terrorists or insurgents, search homes without a warrant, restrict press freedoms, and suspend righst to information and property. Anyone engaged in extortion or the threatening of life could be arrested as terrorist. The ordinance was extended over the years by six months extensions. In October 2004, King Gyanendra issued a new anti-terrorism law that gave sweeping powers of detention to the army.
Human rights groups accused both the government and the Maoist rebels of mass abductions, kidnappings, murders and rape. They accused the government of using torture and summary execution to fight the rebels. Bodies of rebels were recovered with their heads missing. The number of reported abuses increased markedly after the government launched its campaign to “break the backbone” of the Maoist insurgency.
Paramilitary and vigilante groups have carried out reprisal attacks against the Maoist rebels, often with the government’s encouragement. The attacks were often in response to some action from the Maoist rebels. In a typical series of attack, villagers in the Kapilbastur district, 300 kilometers west of Kathmandu, killed about 31 Maoist rebels in April 2005. The rebels retaliated by killing 15 villagers. Finally the army had to be brought in to control the situation.
One woman told the New York Times that soldiers showed up at her house in February 2004, rousted her 17-year-old daughter from bed and accused her of being a Maoist rebel. The soldiers than smashed her head with rifles butts tied her to a tree outside, stripped off most of her cloths and shot her in the head. Family members said the girl had ties with the rebels but was not in the movement herself. A 15-year-old girl, Maina Sunuwar, was murdered by soldiers in the Kavre district after her mother told journalists and human rights workers she had witnessed an extrajudicial killing.
Abductions and Disappearances and the Crack Down on the Maoist Rebels
Jeetaman Basnet, a Nepalese journalist, told the Times of London he was drinking tea at a roadside stall when soldiers appeared and blindfolded him and threw him into a car. He was detained for eight months. Jeetaman said, “We were kept handcuffed and blindfolded all the time. The only words we were allowed to say were toilet, food and water.” He said the only time the blindfolds were removed were when they were forced to sign confessions that they were Maoists. “One woman was crying, saying she could not sign it because she wasn’t a Maoist. So they hit here until she broke down and did.” Security forces told the Times that constant blindfolding was necessary to prevent detainees from identifying their captors and attacking them later and said if they weren’t handcuffed “they try to run away and then we have to shoot them.”
The number of disappearances increased as the conflict wore on. There were 700 in 2003, more than in the previous five years combined. In 2004, there were 800, earning Nepal the distinction of being the disappearance capital of the world. According to the United Nations there were more disappearances in Nepal than anywhere else in the world, even places like Columbia. More than 75 percent of these disappearances were blamed on government security forces.
Most of the disappeared are believed to have been killed by government security forces after or during interrogations. One woman in Kathmandu told Reuters that her husband went off to buy vegetables and didn’t return home. Three hours after he left she received a message from an anonymous caller that her husband had been arrested and bundled into a car. A year later she still didn’t know his whereabouts. She believes her husband may have been singled out because of his involvement with an ethnic Newar organization that had links to the Maoists.
Torture During the Crack Down on the Maoist Rebels
Torture while custody is said to have been common during the Nepalese Civil War. One man who was detained for 13 months and finally released told Reuters, “Most of the time I was blindfolded and my hands were tied with a rope. They beat me with a big stick on my soles, legs and back. They submerged my head in white water. They asked for information about the Maoists.”
During his eight months in custody Jeetaman had his hands tied behind his back and was beaten with a hose and kicked many times, sometimes until he fell unconscious, as he was asked the whereabouts of certain Maoist rebels. He was never told why he was detained. He believes he was singled out because he wrote an article about summery execution of Maoist rebels by government soldiers.
A 40-year-old lawyer named Basu Sigdel told the Washington Post he was tortured on a number of occasions during his 50-day detainment. In a technique described as “swimming in cold weather,” he was stripped to his undershorts and his head was repeatedly dunked into water-filled steel drum as soldiers demanded to know the whereabouts of Maoists that he represented. Sidel told the Washington Post, his head was held under the water “so long that I almost choked, and I felt that I might die. I could feel foam coming out of my mouth. Most probably the water got into my lungs.”
Government spokesmen have said that torture and abuse are contrary to army policy but that rough methods were necessary to extract information and avoid compromising investigations.
Foreign Help Combating the Maoist Insurgency
Nepal asked India for help fighting the Maoist rebels. India contributed some military aid and cracked down on groups that supported the Maoist rebels in border areas. India had the most to lose if the Maoist rebels were ultimately successful as they could provide a safe haven for Maoist groups that have been active in the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal and elsewhere.
The United States provided training and money to the Nepalese army in their effort to fight the Maoist rebels. In November 2003, the Communist Party of Nepal was added to list of terrorist organizations by the United States whose assets were frozen. In 2004, the United States gave Nepal $22 million in military assistance. This was enough to nearly double the Nepalese military from 45,000 soldiers to 78,000.
The United States provided the Nepalese security forces with 20,000 M-16 automatic rifles, night vison gear and body armor. The M-16s in many cases replaced vintage World War II rifles. U.S. Special Forces were dispatched to train Nepalese troops in counterinsurgency tactics. Some Western diplomats said that foreign military aid prevented the Maoist rebels from seizing control of the country.
Vigilantes Fight Against the Maoist Rebels
Reporting from Kapilvastu district, regarded as an epicenter of violence between pro-government villagers and Maoist rebels,Somini Sengupta wrote in the New York Times: “Since mid-February, in village after village in this district, ax-wielding vigilantes have attacked those they suspect of being Maoists; the rebels have retaliated by hunting down those they consider responsible. Thousands of villagers have fled across the nearby border to India. Hundreds of homes remain singed from an orgy of mob arson. Fear and lawlessness now prevail over these fertile plains. And the specter of villagers taking the law into their own hands signals a potentially dangerous turn of events in this troubled Himalayan kingdom. [Source: Somini Sengupta, New York Times, April 11, 2005]
“In the wake of the emergency rule decree by King Gyanendra on Feb. 1, the citizens' crusade here raises a vexing question: Unable to stanch the Maoist rebellion for nine years, has the government turned to vigilantism as its latest counterinsurgency strategy? The government has scrupulously maintained that the security forces did not arm or otherwise aid the villagers. The villagers say their uprising is spontaneous, and their weapons are everyday farm tools: scythes, axes, matchsticks and canes.
However, neither civilian nor military officials have hidden their approval of the so-called anti-Maoist retaliation committees. "We have a feeling that the people want to fight against the terrorists," King Gyanendra's handpicked deputy, Tulsi Giri, said in an interview in Kathmandu, the capital. "Perhaps there will be mass uprisings organized against them, plus military action as well."
“Since Feb. 17, the village vigilantes, with the police and the military, say they have killed more than 50 people — all Maoists. A consortium of local human rights groups put the death toll at 31, with 11 more killed in revenge by Maoists. On a tour of Ganeshpur, the village where the hunts for Maoists began, Surya Pratap Singh, a farmer and landlord, held up an old man's walking stick — a danda, they call it here — and demonstrated its utility.
“He tapped twice on the back of his head. "One, two hits here, and it's done," he said, and laughed with delight. "The farmer's gun," added his friend Shiv Narayan Giri, also a farmer, a landlord and a proud royalist, calling the cane by another name. Pinned on his chest was a picture of Nepal's royal couple. "There is no Maoist problem here," Birendra Mishra, one of the chief ringleaders, declared in an interview arranged by a local police inspector at a police station. "We will finish them off."
“Years ago, the government tried arming such villagers in defense committees to fight the Maoists, but dropped the effort after public outcry. This time, Mr. Giri, deputy vice chairman of the king's Council of Ministers, promised rewards, in the form of development aid, for villagers who stood up to the Maoists. He predicted more Kapilvastus. Twenty villages are said to have formed committees of their own. "That was all a spontaneous sort of thing," Mr. Giri said. "It has to be organized."
Revenge Attacks by Vigilantes and Maoist Rebels
Somini Sengupta wrote in the New York Times: “The Kapilvastu initiative began on a Thursday in mid-February when Indra Prasad Bhujel, a retired police officer in Ganeshpur, was abducted by people suspected of being Maoists. Abductions are a common Maoist tactic, but on this day, the villagers were apparently ready for revenge. They rescued Mr. Bhujel, caught three rebel suspects and killed them even before they could deposit the prisoners at the closest Royal Nepalese Army barracks. The crowd moved on, first singling out villagers who were suspected of sheltering Maoists in Ganeshpur, then attacking neighboring hamlets over the next four days. Twelve people were killed on the first day alone, according to a local human rights group. [Source: Somini Sengupta, New York Times, April 11, 2005]
“The most visible evidence of the ferocity of the attacks is in Hallanagar. The mob burned 305 of the 312 houses in that village. One man, Prem Bahadur Rajkoti, was killed trying to escape. A witness, Chandra Bahadur Khadka, said an angry crowd descended on Mr. Rajkoti when he became stuck in a muddy ditch and struck him once on the head with an ax. Mr. Khadka said the roof of his own house had been burned.
“Why Hallanagar was attacked remains in dispute. Mr. Mishra's group contends that it was a Maoist haven. Many of its residents, poor, generally landless migrants from the hills who squatted here years ago with government permission, say the atrocities are meant to drive them off the land. Sita Debi Malla, 26, who came from the hills four years ago, says she remembers hearing her attackers bark as they pummeled her with sticks that she should get off the land in three days or they would kill her. Then they lighted a match under her thatched roof. Within minutes the roof was gone. So, too, was her small patch of beans.
“Revenge did not take long. About two weeks later, in Rehara, a nearby hamlet, Abdul Rehman Jolaha was awakened one night by two dozen men he said he believed were Maoists. They dragged him to the chicken shed, tied his hands behind his back, and shot two of his sons dead before his eyes. He said he pleaded with them to kill him, not them. "They said: 'It's no use killing you. You're an old man,"' he said. Family members said they had no idea why the two sons, one 40, the other 19, were killed. Later, other villagers said the older son had attended a meeting of an anti-Maoist group in a neighboring hamlet. Another man who said he had attended the meeting denied that any plans had been made there. The air was thick with fear. No one wanted to acknowledge knowing anything. Even the children looked terrified.
“Why the anti-Maoists chose to strike now is no mystery. Mr. Mishra, a large landlord whose crops were looted and whose house was destroyed in the last year by Maoist gangs, said his men gained moral strength from the king's decree. No longer, he said, would the authorities release people suspected of being Maoists under pressure from political parties. Since emergency rule, no politicians were left; the Parliament had been dissolved. "We stopped being afraid," Mr. Mishra boasted. "People have a lot of faith in the king now."
“His cellphone rang. The king has cut off all cellphones in Nepal, but here on the Indian border, the Indian network works well. Conveniently enough, it allows Mr. Mishra to keep in touch with the security forces. When they are needed, they are called, Mr. Mishra said. When the citizens can take care of the Maoists themselves, they do.
“One of the most recent incidents occurred on March 21, when villagers from across the district — Mr. Mishra was there himself — surrounded a house in which a man suspected of being a Maoist had holed up, trapping him long enough for the military to come and shoot him dead. Now, his men were preparing for an encounter in another nearby hamlet, where, he said, Maoists had sought shelter.
“Investigators with the National Human Rights Commission have investigated the Kapilvastu incident, but their findings may not be released under the king's emergency decree. In March, one of its most outspoken commissioners, Sushil Pyakurel, was barred from going to Kapilvastu. The army, meanwhile, is careful to distance itself from the most heinous acts of the village committees. "They're protecting their villages by themselves, that's all," Maj. Sunil Ghale, the company commander in Ganeshpur, said under a shade tree, surrounded by Mr. Mishra and his men. "It's a good thing."
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Nepal Tourism Board (ntb.gov.np), Nepal Government National Portal (nepal.gov.np), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated February 2022