Kingdom Under Siege

by Deepak Thapa

Amnesty International magazine, Spring 2005


The village of Jogimara, just west of Kathmandu, lost many of its husbands, fathers, sons and brothers to a single episode of violence three years ago. One winter morning 20 able-bodied men from the impoverished village set off on a two-week journey, first by bus through the hills and later by foot on steep Himalayan trails, to work at an airport construction site in the remote western district of Kalikot. Authorities had just declared a nationwide state of emergency due to a resumption of hostilities between Maoist rebels and government forces after a four-month ceasefire. But the poor of Jogimara had no choice but to brave the dangers in search of employment.

It was to be a fateful decision. A couple of months later, government soldiers, in hot pursuit of Maoist fighters who had ransacked the administrative headquarters of a neighboring district, killed 17 of the Jogimara men in a mass execution of 35 workers from the construction site. Their families only learned of the deaths a month later from news reports. Although the men's relatives initially hoped the reports were mistaken, they were too poor, and too scared, to make the journey to the site of the incident to verify it themselves. In the end they had no choice but to perform the funeral rites without the bodies-a devastating break from tradition for Hindus. Some resorted to using miniature straw figures to stand in for the bodies of their loved ones.

They were just working hard to make some money to send back to their families, lamented Dambar Bahadur Thapa, who lost his 17-year-old son.

The dead left behind 10 widows, 18 orphans and 14 elderly parents-all of whom depended heavily on the men for survival in the austere economy of the mountains. Authorities have not opened an investigation into the killings, a process that could pave the way for compensation claims by the bereaved.


February 13, 2005, marked the beginning of the tenth year of the People's War that has engulfed the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal. By the end of 2004 more than 10,000 people had lost their lives in a conflict that has spread to towns and remote villages all over the country, according to a January report by Amnesty International. Despite two ceasefires, in 2001 and 2003, the fighting continues to rage between the Nepali state and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)-the group's name distinguishes it from other communist party factions. The CPN (Maoist) is determined to establish a "people's republic" modelled along Mao Zedong's China.

The rapid growth and spread of the Maoist movement has had a direct effect on Nepal's politics. A nascent democracy still trying to find its bearings, Nepal could least afford politicians jousting for power in the instability created partly by the conflict. Nepal had seen a succession of 12 governments since 1990, when in October 2002, King Gyanendra removed the elected prime minister and began ruling through a series of hand-picked nominees.

On Feb. 1 the king declared a state of emergency and took direct control of the country. Authorities arrested hundreds of political leaders, activists, trade unionists, students and journalists. After visiting Nepal in February, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan warned, "The state of emergency has strengthened the hand of the security forces, reduced the prospect of a political process towards peace and increased the likelihood of escalation of the conflict that could lead to even greater human suffering and abuse."

Nepal's democratic development has in fact been rocky since it emerged from 30 years of autocratic monarchical rule in 1990, and its fledgling democracy was ill equipped to deal with the violence that followed the 1996 Maoist uprising. The CPN (Maoist) was initially a fringe group, but its message of revolutionary change resonated in this poor country, where the rural areas have historically been marginalized by the capital. The government's heavy-handed response to the rebellion victimized many innocents and fanned the flames of the Maoist movement.

Given its recent authoritarian past, the state did not have the safeguards or the will to temper the brutal police operations initiated to crush the rebellion. Early on in the conflict, an official in western Nepal told a human rights delegation that the Maoist supporters "do not abide by the present constitution, so the present government is not compelled to watch [sic] their human rights.

During the best of times, the Nepali state has not had much regard for the rule of law. Ironically, the new political system retained most of the laws from the previous regime, even though various provisions contradict the democratic constitution adopted in 1990 and Nepal's various international treaty obligations, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Rights groups have pointed out these anomalies since the early 1990s and called for a repeal of Nepal's more draconian laws, created to check "anti-state activities" before 1990. Apart from a few amendments, however, successive governments have done little to alter the spirit of these laws. Among them are laws granting chief district administrators quasi-judicial powers to both detain and pass sentence on a suspect. Since these actions cannot be challenged in a court of law, torture in custody has become routine. The chief administrator also has the authority to permit the police to use lethal force. Although officials are supposed to consider situations on a case-by-case basis, documentation by human rights groups shows that they often give police carte blanche.

Amnesty International and other non-governmental organizations have also condemned Maoist tactics. Rebels routinely kill or mutilate political opponents and suspected government informers. Abductions of civilians often lead to sentences in makeshift "labor camps" run by the Maoists. Lately, Maoists have been forcing schoolchildren and teachers in rural areas to undergo political indoctrination en masse. Despite denials by the Maoists, child soldiers form a considerable proportion of their fighting forces.

While government security forces are responsible for the vast majority of casualties, the Maoist rebels have often turned violence into grisly public theater for maximum impact. On a September day in 2003, Maoists carried out a "people's action" against 35-year-old Gyanendra Khadka, a village schoolteacher who also worked as a correspondent for a prominent national newspaper and the government news agency. Maoists dragged Khadka from his classroom, tied him to a post and hacked at his neck with khukuris (machetes) before the other villagers, even as his hysterical wife begged for his life. All the while, the Maoists denounced Khadka's "crime": writing "false" stories about the Maoists and "spying" for the government.


The scale of human rights violations skyrocketed after November 2001, when the government enlisted the army in its counter-insurgency efforts and passed a law granting immunity to security forces for "any act or work performed or attempted to be performed in good faith while undertaking their duties." In the five years leading up to the army's involvement, fewer than 2,000 people had been killed, with responsibility almost equally divided between both sides. Since then the number of deaths has risen dramatically, with 6,119 people killed by the end of 2004 by the state and 2,962 by the Maoists, according to December 2004 figures from the informal Sector Service Center, a Nepali human rights group.

The army's involvement has also compounded the problem of rape, which police have used as an instrument of subjugation since the beginning of the conflict. Documenting rape cases has proven difficult in Nepal, which has few roads and even fewer medical facilities, and survivors have few means to obtain justice.

In September 2004 some 50 soldiers came into a woman's home in the far western region of Nepal and accused her husband of being involved with the CPN (Maoist), according to Al's January report. Five of the soldiers then took the woman and her husband to the couple's cattle shed, where they allegedly took turns raping her in front of her husband. "When her husband tried to protest, the security forces beat him in his eyes until he was blinded," the report says. The soldiers then killed her husband and brother-in-law. AT reports that there has been no investigation.

Security forces have also targeted girls. In 2002 an army captain and his colleague raped two teenaged cousins in an army barrack in the western town of Nepalgunj-a vicious act of revenge after the father of one of them, charged with drug smuggling, fled to India after paying the captain only part of his bribe. After the story created a furor following its appearance in an AT report, the concerned officer threatened the girls and forced them to retract their statement. The army arranged a press briefing in Kathmandu and showed a video of the girls.

"Nothing happened, we were treated well," one of the girls said.

Not coincidentally, the number of "disappearances" also rose sharply after military involvement-possibly due to the seclusion provided by army barracks. At the end of 2003 Nepal's National Human Rights Commission published a list of more than 800 missing individuals and held the state responsible for more than 80 percent of the "disappearances." A U.N. report concluded that Nepal had the highest number of "disappearances" worldwide in 2003.

Those working to document human rights abuses, among them activists and journalists, have encountered harassment and physical attacks at the hands of both the government and Maoists. A 2004 Reporters Without Borders report documents more than 200 cases of journalists arrested or detained, mostly by the government. A few have even lost their lives, including the journalist and human rights activist, Dekendra Raj Thapa, who was killed by Maoists in August last year. The Maoist leadership later admitted that Thapa's killing was a mistake, but it was cold comfort for journalists who remember that the Maoists had issued a similar apology over Gyanendra Khadka' execution a year earlier.

The Asian Human Rights Commission blasted Nepal's government last year and concluded, "in short, there is zero rule of law in Nepal. The result is overwhelming fear, helplessness and silence."


At a river's edge in the mountains of eastern Nepal lie the corpses of four young men from Chisapani village. They were the unlucky ones, taken away by government soldiers who had arrived to search their mountaintop market village for rebels on a September morning in 2003. Relatives and friends set out to learn of the young men's fate the day after they had been marched off by the soldiers, worried by a national radio report that four Maoists had been killed in an encounter with the army in a nearby jungle. Following the trail the soldiers had taken, they came upon some travelers who told them of four freshly dug graves near the Tuwakhola River, a few hours' walk from Chisapani. The bodies they found were those they had dreaded seeing.

The search party learned that the army patrol and their prisoners had spent the night at a school above the river-which meant that the radio report had announced the news the day before the men were actually killed. It was an example of how the government has passed off executions as "encounters" with armed militants.

"The government is supposed to protect us. How is it different from the rebels if they go around killing anyone they want to?" asked a grieving relative. Hoping for an official inquiry, the families have left the bodies untouched for more than a year so as not to disturb evidence.

Some have found reason to hope that mounting criticism from the international community will influence the highly aid-dependent Nepali government, and in fact the government has responded to pressure by introducing various measures to check human rights violations by its forces. But much of that is only on paper, such as its March 2004 "human rights commitment," seen by activists as a cynical attempt to stave off censure at the 2004 session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

"I think the security forces have not yet demonstrated that they are prepared to be more accountable. There have been very few serious investigations and transparent prosecutions, let alone convictions in cases of very serious abuses," said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour when she visited Nepal in January.

Reports of human rights abuses have also forced the United States, which has given about $22 million in military aid to Nepal to crush the Maoist threat, to tighten its purse strings. In December 2004 it made further support of Nepal's military effort contingent on an improvement in the government's human rights record.

There is a general consensus that a military solution to the bloody conflict is not possible. Both sides have been talking about negotiations for months, but there has been no break in the fighting, and the death toll continues to rise with no tangible gains toward real dialogue. Yet each day lost is the unfolding of yet another tragedy in some corner of Nepal.


Deepak Thapa is the author of A Kingdom Under Siege-Nepal's Maoist Insurgency, 1996-2003 and the editor of Understanding the Maoist Movement of Nepal. He has worked as a journalist for Himal South Asia and The Nepali limes and is currently a book editor for the Kathmandu-based Himal Books.

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