Paramilitary terror, ethnic warfare in Nepal

In the last intallment of a series on the looming disaster in Nepal, Newsday‘s courageous reporter Matthew McAllester Aug. 17 highlights a little-noted ethnic dimesion to the conflict, which is usually portrayed soley in terms of fanatical Maoist guerillas versus an autocratic monarchy. The story, entitled “Local militias add to Nepal’s deadly mix,” notes the emergence of paramilitary vigilante groups to fight the guerillas, backed by the army and big land-owners. The Royal Nepalese Army has denied creating the “village counterforces,” as the militias call themselves. But militia leaders boasted to McAllester of receiving training and official ID badges from the army, prompting Brig. Gen. Dipak Gurung to admit the army’s involvement–and the risk it entails. “Once you train them, you have to take responsibility for them… I hope it doesn’t come to a situation where we have to disarm them. You never know.”

Subodh Raj Pyakurel, chair of Nepal’s leading human rights group, the Informal Sector Service Center (INSEC), warned: “Warlordism will definitely emerge out of all these activities.” But Thomas Marks of the National Defense University in Washington DC, who works in Nepal as a US AID contractor and is identified as “an American political risk consultant and perhaps the world’s leading expert on Maoist insurgencies,” said such measures were necessary, citing the example of how village self-defense patrols helped beat back Maoist guerillas in Peru in the 1990s.

“Just as we have a neighborhood watch in my neighborhood here in Washington, you’re talking about a neighborhood watch,” said Marks. “What they’re armed with depends completely on the situation.” In Nepal, they are armed with rifles, and militiamen in the village of Ratanganj boasted to McAllester of shooting a Maoist who showed up at the village “asking for donations”–meaning the taxes imposed by the guerillas. Vigilantes are accused of torching 300 homes in the village of Halanagar in February. A mob–possibly linked to the miltias, possibly just criminals exploiting the situation–also raped a young girl and hacked suspected Maoist sympathizers to death with axes.

Halangar residents accuse landowners from the nearby village of Ganeshpur of orchestrating the attacks. In a pattern which seems typical, Halangar is mostly populated by peasants from the northern mountains who have been displaced by the fighting to the plains along the Indian border, the traditional domain of the landed elite. McAllester writes that the mountain peasants are mostly Hindu and of “Mongoloid” stock, while the plains landlords are mostly Muslim and of Indo-Ayran background. Halangar village committee chair Rudra Prasad Bhattarai told McAllester the landlords hold the local peasants as indentured servants, and see the new community of displaced free peasants from the mountains as a threat to this system of virtual slavery. He said they “were just waiting for the opportunity” to strike. In turn, Rahman Khan, a Muslim landlord from Ganeshpur, called Halangar “an unauthorized, illegal community” and “a Maoist hideout.” He admitted he supported the militias “morally.”

In an Aug. 14 installment McAllester notes that even among Hindus, “[t]he country’s landlords, leading politicians, military officers and businessmen are nearly all from the top two castes, the Brahmins and the Chettris.”

(A more precise ethnic breakdown of Nepal’s peoples is provided by the Nepal Democracy website. Also note that Kathmandu saw anti-Muslim riots last year after 12 Nepalese civilian contractors in Iraq were taken hostage and killed by insurgents. See CNN, Sept. 2, 2004)

Horrific abuses are being committed by both sides. In an Aug. 14 installment, he notes the Maoists’ summary verdicts in their kangaroo court system, the mutilation of those found guilty, and the recruitment of children as guerilla fighters. (In another installment that day, he notes that the rebels are undertaking development projects in their zone of control in the western mountains, such as the stone-paved “Martyrs Road” linking previously isolated villages in the Tila region—although the labor is likely coerced.) In a further installment Aug. 14, he notes the widespread torture and “disappearance” attributed to the government.

In the Aug. 15 installment, “Which side can the US support in Nepal?”, McAllester provided a look at how traditional providers of military aid to the Himalayan kingdom are reacting to the crisis:

The actual figures involved seem tiny — last year’s military aid budget was about $5.5 million, this year’s is $3.1 million — compared to the billions of dollars in military assistance given to countries such as Israel and Egypt. But a little goes a long way in a conflict like Nepal’s, where both sides lack sophisticated weaponry in spite of the brutality of the fighting.

For example, an American shipment of 3,500 M-16 rifles is on hold from last year’s budget. Such a shipment to a militarily sophisticated country such as Israel would not alter the dynamics of the conflict in the Middle East. But in Nepal, politicians and intellectuals spend a lot of time debating whether Washington will send those rifles or not.

The United States is not Nepal’s largest donor. Neighboring India is by some stretch the largest contributor of military aid, an Indian diplomat said. Britain also gives assistance. Both countries suspended their aid after Feb. 1, with India resuming non-lethal aid — vehicles, body armor, night goggles, uniforms — in late May. Britain now provides only bomb-disposal equipment and training to the army.

The American diplomat said that besides giving the Royal Nepalese Army human rights training, American officials press the Nepalese military to investigate human rights abuses within their ranks. “We work on it every single day,” the diplomat said.

An amendment sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) stipulated certain human rights standards that the Nepalese army would have to meet to receive this year’s $3.1 million in aid. The American official in Kathmandu said Leahy’s amendment has been useful in pressuring the army to improve its standards. “We’re trying to leverage the pressure or the threat of withholding our assistance to get real progress,” the diplomat said.

In a twist that perhaps illustrates how difficult the situation is for the donor countries, the king and his allies are just as angry at the Americans, Indians and British as their critics within the political parties and human rights community.

Cutting off Nepal’s supply of guns, several of the king’s advisers and friends said in interviews, could force Nepal to look elsewhere — to China or Pakistan, for example — for military assistance.

See our last post on Nepal.

  1. Matthew’s article
    DEar Editor,

    Thank you for publishing articles about Nepal terror. Article is full of prapoganda. We love our King, Our democracy our freedom. The fact remains that the King has not condemned or abolished democracy. As
    a matter of fact, he has welcomed and is willing to work for freedom and
    democracy. The King has repeatedly expressed his firm belief in multiparty
    democracy and constitutional monarchy. Even in the latest proclamation, the
    King publicly stated that he would ensure that the local government
    elections are held within a year in all the municipalities. All know that
    this will not be plain sailing. But the King means what he has said, and we
    remain confident he will restore democracy within the next three years as
    promised if not before.

    It is very hard for some to accept the core reality of the country because
    the past 15 years have financially benefitted relatives and close friends of
    the corrupt leaders and Maoist extremists. We need to think with an open
    mind and embrace the core reality of the sufferings of the Nepalese people.
    In the past 15 years, there have been 12,000 deaths, while many more have
    been injured, thousands of villagers displaced and hundreds of children
    orphaned by the Maoist extremists.

    Media must be objectives. We condem terrorism.

    Long live US Nepal relationship.

    Dr. Ravi Shrestha

  2. Nepal: Protecting Minority from Majority!
    Nepal: Protecting Minority from Majority!

    Dr. Raj Giri,

    It is emotionally challenging not to talk about the current Nepalese
    politics while coming from a remote village, leaving behind family,
    friends, and the community as a whole in the hands of Maoist
    insurgents (who abduct young children, extort money and goods,
    mercilessly beat up people under any pretexts, carry out death threats
    against those who are fed up with their carnages, and sometimes even
    kill the innocents). Equally, reflecting upon King Gyanendra’s
    assumption of executive political power, and the state of emergency
    that continues has been immensely attention-grabbing. All articles
    (including 1, 2, 3) that are being circulated online addressed only
    one simple message: If the majority of rural Nepalese are fearful of
    their daily survival, there can be no value of democracy and freedom;
    the current violence and corruption needs to end, and then ‘democratic
    practices’ can take their shape. But many surprising responses have
    poured in.

    It is needless to mention that colonial masters are well-known for
    their authoritative advice, but it was evenly shocking to know how
    Nepal’s Westernised elites too could exhort their surreal decrees from
    various metropolitans worldwide. In fact, after returning from
    Kathmandu one individual recently wrote a kind of manifesto about and
    for Nepal, indicating to find solutions to some of the problems
    encountered by urban affluents. Anyway, a number of
    too-good-to-be-true pieces of directives proposed against the above
    mentioned articles, and their approximate meanings must be noted here:

    a) He is a monarchist; King Gyanendra’s aaphno manchhe (let me
    retain my arrogance!)

    b) Prove your facts (my version is better though I too have no references)

    c) Be scientific and non-discriminatory (allow me to be slightly

    d) Come and join Nepal seminar (you’ll be coached with liberal democracy?)

    There are others seeking for more personal level confrontations. Many
    have send annoyed emails, some left phone messages ordering to ‘stop
    supporting King Gyanendra’s dictatorship’ or asking to join their
    ‘liberal democracy’. A few have surprisingly gone through the website
    of the children’s organisation founded by this writer – probably
    searching for personal details. The site was accessed from strange
    places, including research centres, and government offices, which was
    never done before. No one is hiding though!

    Cleary, if Nepal was a massive country like China, an oil rich Saudi
    Arabia, a prosperous Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, or at least like the
    ethnic cleansing Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, no one would challenge
    (or bother at all) what happens domestically. Being none of these
    countries, and having only parasitic national guardians has meant that
    everyone is able to squeeze Nepal like a garbage container. And those
    who bring in a nationalistic approach to domestic problems face all
    sorts of commencement of hostilities from various gurus, including the
    ones stated above.

    In fact, the current debate on Nepal reminds the days when this writer
    was not even born. This was, when the nationalist Ho Chi Minh was
    fighting against imperialist France forcing them to leave his Vietnam,
    the US warlords termed him a communist, and fought atrocious war for
    25 years under the misguided ‘communism containment’ foreign policy.
    The nationalist spirit of Minh continued even after his (natural)
    death in 1969, and by 1973 the US forces had to evacuate themselves
    from Vietnam with embarrassing scenes. Unfortunately, some thirty
    years later one can still become an anti-democrat, a monarchist or the
    like if s/he attempts to expose the exploitation of poor people and
    national assets by violent Maoist insurgents and by Nepal’s wealthy
    few. Even then, there is not a single reason to remain like a silent

    Whether there is a state of emergency or state of chaos, Nepal’s
    political parties and their militant affiliates know that the real
    ‘honey-pot’ is located in Kathmandu, and they are prepared to receive
    their share by any means. It is quite disappointing that Maoist
    insurgents mistakenly believe that their chunk of honey is dripping in
    caves, jungles, and in poverty-stricken villages. If this violent
    faction would also realise that whatever they want can only be gained
    from Kathmandu, and leave the nature, animals, and most of all the
    innocent villagers in peace, it would certainly become less appealing
    to write such emotionally charged articles. As things stand, staying
    mute is to give undue voices to those who have either created or
    sympathised with the socio-political turmoils in Nepal to enhance
    their own vested interests. After eight years of civil war, unlike the
    false image presented in Western world, Nepalese villagers would
    rather die of hunger in peace than bear the senseless atrocities in
    the name of ‘People’s War’.

    Any ordinary Nepalese knows that corruption, mismanagement, and
    violent insurgency particularly since 1990s has ‘criminalised’
    Nepalese society. (The promulgation of multiparty democrazy in 1990
    was meant to correct the past systems that had failed, and there is no
    need to excavate the 250 years of history.) Today, anyone disliking a
    negligible issue is able to weld weapons. In the villages, Maoist
    insurgents are certainly the Kings of atrocities, but in the
    cities/towns too both insurgents and local gangs/thugs roam freely
    with satellite phones and pistols to harass and loot people. One need
    not have an enemy these days, but can become one at anytime like the
    current case of Hareram Koirala, a high profile official accused of
    playing a major role in the murder of Jaya B. Rawal – a former rebel
    associated with Maoist Victims’ Association. Several examples prove
    that rural immigrants suffer the worst because they are extremely
    vulnerable to all circumstances.

    A journalist is arrested, under whatever cause or clause, and there is
    an immediate outrage both internally and externally. But who is
    listening to the plight of hard-working village students like Maili
    Tamang constantly followed/harassed by gun-welding men in the streets
    of Kathmandu? Maili was one of the few lucky girls whose farmer father
    is doing everything to let her have education. Every two months he
    walks 3 hours carrying 20 kilogram sack of rice, ghee and some dry
    vegetables on his back, and takes another 4 hours bus journey to see
    his daughter. Maili living in an 8m2 room (kitchen included) in an
    ally of Kathmandu cheerfully greats her father, and says ‘everything
    is fine; my study is also going well.’ She is unable to tell him why
    she has changed her room thrice in a year. She writes: my family is
    doing all they can to help me, and I don’t want to make them worry by
    telling new problems, and if I do tell them, I don’t know what will
    happen to my study here [Kathmandu]. Sankanchho is another such
    student facing similar or worse problem than Maili. Through hard work
    he has been able to earn study money as well as respect in the area
    where he lives. But he was twice taken to the jungles for
    ‘interrogation with a guerrilla commander’ at a gunpoint by a group of
    men claming to be Maoist rebels. They have let him free after several
    days of questioning, often without food and water, but are still
    asking him to donate money or join their group. He is on the run for
    his daily safety as he risks his life to ask for anyone’s help.

    These horrifying examples probably mean nothing to those living
    comfortably, and to those interested in power only. Obviously, King
    Gyanendra’s move has created urban-domestic and international outcry
    for ‘liberal democracy’ because it has curtailed the freedom of less
    than five percent exploiting the other ninety-five percent rural
    population. Nepal’s elite minority (whatever caste or creed they come
    from) control eighty percent of national resources so they have
    everything to lose. They are self-righteously begging worldwide for
    help to retain the ‘cream-of-power and pride’ that is rapidly falling
    out of their control. They cannot accuse the reign of terror of Maoist
    guerrillas that has spread like wildfire. No one talks about peace,
    but it is all about power or Western lifestyle for cities/towns. So,
    the following recommendations are humbly presented to the current
    government so that at least five percent of urban Nepalese (plus
    foreigners) can enjoy their lives:

    a) Introduce secure electronic Identification Card so that
    security can be provided at least to those who have money and power.

    b) Institute finger-print system so that suspects do not need to
    be arrested more than once. There is a problem that instead of the
    real Maoist extortionists and gang culture of cities/towns, poor
    individuals may be termed as a rebel/thief, and might face unnecessary

    c) Require everyone to provide full personal details in order to
    qualify for sensitive services like telephones, mobiles etc. This
    would reduce the chances of communication falling into wrong hands.

    d) Ask all landlords/ladies to submit personal details of tenants
    (Can there be any action taken if rural people making their living are
    misused by the renters?).

    e) Offer market price to buy weapons from urban insurgents (but
    the danger of security personnel selling ammunitions may not be

    f) Enhance intelligence service, both in terms of numbers and
    skills – this is how the Indian government dominates South Asia, and
    the US government rules the world. Curfew alone cannot contain
    insurgents/robbers roaming around the cities/towns with satellite
    mobiles, hand bombs and revolvers.

    g) Install CCTV (or closed circuit television) in all major
    corners of the cities/towns so that trouble makers can be tracked down
    easily as in the self-created immigration/terror-phobic states of
    Europe and America.

    An immediate and successful implementation of these seven points will
    certainly make Nepalese cities and towns secure, and may even attract
    Maoist leadership (if still in existence) to occasionally come for a
    guided city/town tour. As long as affluent city dwellers, political
    activists of all kinds, and international well-wishers can enjoy
    unlimited pleasure, it does not really matter what happens in 3,913
    villages of Nepal. In the past 250 years it has not mattered anyway so
    who cares. Kudos to all the defenders of urban elites, and of cruel
    Maoist insurgents! – End