- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

HAPURE, Nepal — When government negotiators touched down at Hapure village in Dang district, western Nepal, to hold a third round of peace talks with Maoist rebel leaders last week, it was only the second time a helicopter had landed at the village. The last occasion was 14 years ago.

Hapure has no road. Its only link with the outside world is Radio Nepal, and for the past four years the Dang district has been conspicuously devoid of any government officials.

Dang is part of “Maoland,” one of a dozen “liberated districts,” to use Maoist terms, stretching through the rugged mountains of midwestern Nepal. The Maoist “people’s war” against Nepal’s monarchy and its political parties based in Katmandu, the capital, began in early 1996 from five remote districts — Jajarkot, Rolpa, Rukum, Gorkha and Sindhuli.

In the seven years since then, the 20,000-strong Maoist guerrilla force has expanded from its mountain hide-outs to nearly all the country’s 75 districts. The rebels have been able to inflict significant defeats on state security forces and have amassed an impressive array of weaponry through links with leftist militant groups in India and Bangladesh.

Like the rest of midwestern Nepal, residents of Dang rely mainly on subsistence farming, and average per capita income is the equivalent of $220 per year. There are no adequate health services or educational facilities.

Dang’s impoverished rural, ethnic community has endured decades of developmental neglect and discrimination, and has a strong historic sense of marginalization from the national center of power in Katmandu.

The central government announced the legalization of political parties in 1990. Elections in 1994 led to the country’s first Communist government, which held power for 10 months until it lost a no-confidence vote in parliament. Since then, corrupt and incompetent political leaders have done little to address the economic and social inequalities facing the outlying districts of this Himalayan kingdom,

“The new system was even worse than the old partyless one,” said local journalist Bal Krishna. “Multiparty democracy has done nothing for us out here, we have seen no improvements in our lives.”

Feelings such as Mr. Krishna’s fueled the Maoist insurgency, which quickly spread throughout Nepal, claiming more than 8,000 lives and destroying almost 60 percent of the country’s infrastructure. For the past six months an uneasy cease-fire has halted the killings, but recent signs suggest the country could quickly plunge back into civil war.

Traveling through Dang and the neighboring district of Salyan, a reporter saw few signs of a national government. Outside of the district headquarters, there are no police stations, no post offices, no civil administration.

The Maoists have identified “model villages” with freshly painted revolutionary slogans, and have established their own system of governance, ranging from tax collection to issuing trade licenses and dispensing justice. Notices outlining Maoist rules are everywhere.

“We must comply with the Maoist taxes and fixed prices,” said tea shop owner Sharad Thapa. “If we don’t, they will seek retribution, and there is no army or police here to help us out.”

“[The Maoists] control the countryside,” acknowledged district police Officer Bikash Shah. “We are confined to the main towns and district headquarters; we don’t have enough manpower to take back the rest of the district.”

Further into the rugged interior, members of the Maoist “people’s army” openly patrol the mountain trails. Carrying a submachine gun stolen from a Royal Nepali Army barracks last year, a youthful Maoist fighter known as Comrade Joshi has no doubt about the outcome of current peace talks.

“Nepal will become a people’s republic. That is what we have fought and died for,” he said. “If the government betrays us, we will wipe them out.”

For the vast majority of Salyan’s residents, life is tough. After the Maoists broke off peace negotiations in late 2001 the Royal Nepali Army supplanted the police in the conflict, which rapidly escalated out of control.

Extortion, rape, torture and indiscriminate killings by both sides have brought great suffering to ordinary people here, and the Maoists’ destruction of vital services in recent times has obscured their original agenda and alienated them from those they purport to represent.

“We never really liked the Maoists, we just had to accept them,” said teacher Hari Gautam. “But the security forces are worse. They don’t protect us, they have killed indiscriminately. They torture ordinary civilians. We don’t want either side here.”

There are no health facilities in Salyan, and residents must walk for as long as three days to reach the hospital at the district headquarters. Despite the cease-fire, it is still full of displaced families fearful of returning to their villages to face Maoist extortions, brutality and forced recruitment.

“What kind of peace is this?” asked one woman, whose husband was shot by Maoists for refusing to join their army. “We are still caught between two brutal forces, and we just want to be left alone.”

Another’s husband has been held for three months on suspicion of being a Maoist. “His brother is a Maoist, but my husband does not support them. [Police] have tortured and beaten him,” she said.

Maoist guerrillas have destroyed most of the bridges in the district, and phone lines haven’t been restored since the rebels blew up the telecommunications tower last year. Development projects were halted several years ago, and there are no signs of reconstruction or rehabilitation programs.

“Despite the cease-fire the situation is still too dangerous to resume development work,” said local aid worker Ram Chaudhry. “The fighting has set the country back 20 years.”

The atmosphere in western Nepal is tense, after peace talks came to an abrupt halt on Tuesday. Rebel leaders rejected the radical political and social reform package the government offered.

“What the government proposed was very positive and progressive, but they have refused to address the Maoist’s key demands for a new constitution to be drafted and curtailing of the king’s powers,” said Yubrej Ghimre, editor of the Katmandu Post. “The Maoists will not accept this.”

Both sides claim they are still committed to the peace process and have denied preparing for war, but residents in Salyan are resigned to resumption of the fighting.

“We have seen this before, it can only mean a return to fighting, and many more ordinary people will be killed,” said Tilak Acharya, a former district political representative.

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