- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 4, 2002

Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is to meet with President Bush at the White House on Tuesday to discuss possible military assistance to save his beleaguered government, which is beset by a Maoist insurgency. Mr. Bush last week asked Congress to release $20 million to help the Himalayan nation fight its battles.

While the movement, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ("Prachanda") and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, was quietly capturing the hearts and minds of villagers and urban intellectuals in Nepal, international political developments, particularly the U.S. war on terrorism, have turned a manageable and negotiable rebellion into total war.

Nepal's government imposed a state of emergency in November after the Maoists broke a cease-fire and renewed guerrilla hostilities. Emergency rule, however, has failed to contain the insurgency and the government is seeking to fight its internal war with foreign military assistance, mainly from the United States, Britain and India.

Nepal's wish list includes assault rifles, 12 armored Mi-17 helicopters, two fixed-wing short-takeoff-and-landing (STOL) transport planes, communications equipment and night-vision gear.

The Maoist insurgency grew more rapidly than anyone thought possible after the June 1, 2001, massacre of King Birendra and his family at their palace reportedly by a drunken Crown Prince Dipendra, Birendra's eldest son, who later shot himself.

Maoists immediately interpreted the massacre as a conspiracy by Indian and American intelligence agencies in collaboration with "domestic reactionaries." They called on the people not to recognize the new ruler, King Gyanendra, the younger brother of the slain Birendra.

In July, the government and rebels agreed to talk and announced a mutual cease-fire. At their first meeting with the government, representatives the Maoists presented three demands:

•Abolition of the monarchy.

•Formation of an interim government to supervise an election.

•A constitutional assembly to draft and approve a "people's constitution."

At a second meeting, the government unequivocally rejected abolition of the monarchy, but showed some flexibility about forming an interim government to "amend" the constitution rather than electing a constitutional assembly to create a new one.

At the third session, the Maoists agreed to withdraw their demand for abolition of the monarchy but insisted on convening a constitutional assembly. They apparently hoped to win a majority in the elections and be able to write a republican constitution, but the government refused to allow such an election on the grounds that the present constitution does not have such a provision.

The government had appeared willing to resolve the insurgency through dialogue with the Maoists until the change in the international environment following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Hard-liners and conservative elements began to press the government to seek U.S. help in suppressing the rebellion rather than negotiate, seeking to link the Maoist insurgency with al Qaeda and the Taliban.

As a result, the Nepalese Maoists' demands were rejected. They, in turn, declared further talks futile, broke the cease-fire and renewed guerrilla violence by attacking military bases for the first time in six years.

The government imposed a state of emergency on Nov. 26 and renewed it on Feb. 22. In doing so, government leaders apparently thought that the Nepalese army would scare off the Maoist militia within a month or so.

Prime Minister Deuba has now conceded that it may take another five to 10 years to contain the insurgency. With massive foreign military aid, however, he believes it might take as little as two years to suppress the "Maoist terrorists."

The insurgency has defied all military operations and turned deadlier by the day. Its progress gives the impression that the guerrillas have graduated to "the strategic stalemate" from "the strategic defensive" phase of Mao Tse-tung's classic description of "people's war" putting them only one phase away from "the strategic offensive" that leads to victory.

The guerrilla war has truly exhausted the state.

More than 35 percent of local government buildings all over the country have been burned, 19 of the 75 districts have lost telephone service, hundreds of post office buildings have been burned, millions of dollars worth of power plants have been attacked, leaving hundreds of villages without electricity. In some district headquarters, drinking water has been cut off and highway bridges are damaged.

Scrutiny of the government-controlled Nepali press suggests there is a breakdown of civil administration in more than half of the country. The army and police control cities, district headquarters and highways, while the guerrillas roam the countryside with impunity.

The death toll from insurgency-related violence is alarming. A tally of the daily toll from accounts in the government-controlled press shows that the conflict has cost the lives of 4,600 Nepalis more than 2,600 in the past five months. In addition, there are tens of thousands of wounded and displaced persons.

The security forces have killed almost 70 percent of the dead, calling them "Maoist terrorists," while the guerrillas have killed police, soldiers and civilians reputed to be government informers.

Human-rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have accused the government of gross human-rights violations. The army is accused of indiscriminately killing civilians at religious sites and picnic spots during shootings from helicopters. The government is further accused of extrajudicial killings in custody, and criticized for not upholding the norms of Nepal's constitution and laws.

The Maoists are criticized for execution-style killings of soldiers after they surrender.

While the violence has already exhausted the country and shaken the political system in Nepal, it is also jostling the regional balance of power. Nepal occupies a strategic position between India and China, two giants that have unresolved border disputes and fought over them in 1962.

China still occupies a section of the Himalayas claimed by India. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, China has focused more on reinforcing its southwestern border by moving troops and constructing military infrastructure.

Both India and China have historically treated Nepal as a buffer state. Although Nepal is economically dependent on India, it is relatively free of military ties to either India or China.

Heretofore, U.S. interest in Nepal has been more symbolic than real. The Himalayan country of 24 million lost strategic significance for the United States after Washington established relations with Beijing in 1972. But it has regained significance since September 11. In the past four months, high-level diplomatic and military delegations, including Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have visited Nepal with offers of military and economic assistance to contain the Maoist insurgency.

Developing U.S.-Nepal military relations have the potential of raising regional tension to a new level as India and China watch the developments. Neither is likely to welcome an external power taking over this traditional buffer.

In the past, both India and China competed for influence in Nepal, which tried to maintain a relationship of equidistance (or "equiproximity") between the two regional heavyweights. Nepal's relations with India are governed by a treaty signed in 1950 providing New Delhi's security umbrella to Katmandu. India's defense policy regards Nepal as well within New Delhi's regional security matrix. Any U.S. military involvement in Nepal without the concurrence of India is likely to complicate the matter.

What are the choices for India? While instability in Nepal is not in India's interest, the intrusive presence of the United States is a threat to New Delhi's regional ambitions.

India has declared Nepal's Maoists to be terrorists and has offered its help to contain the insurgency by providing intelligence, arms, helicopters, extradition of rebels from their hideouts in India, and training police and military personnel in jungle warfare.

Chitra Tiwari is a Washington-based free-lance analyst of international affairs. He formerly was a lecturer in political science at Nepal's Tribhuvan University. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]erols.com.

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