- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

KATMANDU, Nepal — The grin Varsha Pun flashes between sips of sweet tea doesn’t match his reputation as a feared guerrilla leader. But when the topic turns to death, his eyes show a chilling resolve.

“I never killed anyone, but I was morally responsible for the killing in this country,” Mr. Pun said. “We think it was right, and historically, we will prove that it was right.”

As deputy commander of Nepal’s rebel army, Mr. Pun waged dozens of battles during the country’s 11-year Maoist insurgency. The fighting claimed an estimated 15,000 lives, many of them civilians, according to Human Rights Watch.

But now Mr. Pun — better known here by his nom de guerre “Ananta” meaning “never-ending” — is trading his combat fatigues for a politician’s pinstripes, after the Maoists signed a long-awaited peace accord with the government on Nov. 21. The Maoists pledged to put their arms under U.N. control and change into a mainstream political party.

Government and rebel leaders say the agreement means a new era for this tiny Himalayan nation, where a communist movement named for China’s Mao Zedong rose to challenge a centuries-old social order.

‘A crucial period’

“Nepal is passing through a very crucial period,” said Jhala Nath Khanal, a spokesman for the seven-party alliance that negotiated the treaty for the government. “This has created new ground to end the violence.” Divided between areas of government control and vast swaths of countryside where Maoists hold sway, Nepal has lived for years under two parallel governments.

Though politicians and the king are widely mistrusted, the Maoists promise to end the caste system, the monarchy and rural poverty — an agenda that has won them widespread support.

“I don’t know much about Maoists, but I like these ideas,” said Deepak Pandey, a Katmandu restaurant owner who donated $700 to the Maoists last year. “The Maoists say everyone should be equal, and I think this is good for the country.”

In remote regions, the rebels have established their own “people’s republics,” where they collect taxes, build roads, make arrests and even try reputed criminals in “people’s courts.” Residents have complained about extortion and torture under the Maoists. But popular support for the rebels remains strong in both the cities and the countryside. Almost weekly, the rebels bring Nepal to a standstill by calling strikes, blocking roads or sending protesters into the streets.

“For us this is daily life,” said Roshan Shrestha, a student working toward a master’s degree in business administration here in the capital. He lost his job as a hotel receptionist after a Maoist-controlled union forced his boss to raise wages. If the boss had refused, Mr. Shrestha said, he might have been kidnapped and tortured, so instead he fired two of his employees to save money.

‘Tax’ on tourist trails

Tourists are not immune. At highway checkpoints and along popular hiking trails, foreigners are made to pay a Maoist “tourist tax,” sometimes costing up to $30. Some who refuse have been beaten and robbed.

“I didn’t pay because my father was imprisoned by communists. I told them they are criminals,” said Martin Kohout, a Czech tourist who encountered a Maoist checkpoint while hiking. He walked away unscathed.

The peace accord followed months of negotiation between the Maoists and the country’s main political parties. The two sides first agreed in April to lead a mass uprising in Katmandu that reduced very unpopular King Gyanendra to a figurehead.

But a recent surge in rebel recruiting, and the Maoists’ failure to live up to past agreements, have left some observers doubting their promises to make peace.

“Locking up their arms alone will not be sufficient,” U.S. Ambassador James Moriarty told reporters before the agreement was signed. While neighboring India has held talks with Nepali rebel leaders, the U.S. Embassy here takes a hard line against the Maoists and casts a critical eye on the peace accord, which it says lacks penalties for violators.

Maoists ignore pledges

After the April uprising, the Maoists called a cease-fire and promised an end to tax collection and people’s courts. However, rebels expanded those activities, operating openly in Katmandu and other big cities for the first time. Clashes with angry residents are reported almost daily.

In the days leading up to the peace agreement, reports poured in from across the country of Maoists recruiting child soldiers. Lured by promises of money, youngsters were taken from their homes and schools by the hundreds, according to police and Nepali nongovernmental organizations.

Mr. Khanal said this could have been because the Maoist army — which claims to have 35,000 soldiers — was never that big. Under the peace accord, soldiers must report to monitored barracks and be counted. The child soldiers could be meant to fill the rosters, he said.

But local newspaper columnists have seen a darker purpose, claiming the children will fill the barracks while the real soldiers are free to fight. Some Maoist leaders like Mr. Pun have promised to lay down their arms, but others have said publicly they won’t do so until the monarchy is abolished.

Even Mr. Khanal concedes that the peace accord is weak. “How it will be monitored, how it will be effective — these things aren’t mentioned,” he said. “This will not be possible by using only civilian eyes.”

But residents weary of the fighting continue to hope for a permanent peace.

“We’ve had too many years of war, so we have to be positive about it,” said Abhishek Shrestha, a computer programer in Katmandu. “Everyone is trying to stay positive.”

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