Kingdom Under Siege
by Deepak Thapa
Amnesty International magazine,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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