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.