May 23, 2008
After the Maoists’ sensational victory, the dust has settled revealing an unenviable set of hurdles for the party to jump before a viable government in Nepal is possible. Although they won the largest number of seats in the April 10 elections, they have neither a majority nor the luxury of forming a government by themselves. Sleeves are rolled up but uncertainty continues while leaders within the party seem to disagree with each other on policies. And just when Prachanda seemed to be leading his party in a more statesmanlike direction, the Maoists’ Youth Communist League regressed to its old specialty, thuggism. The murder of one man in particular outraged much of the nation; Prachanda made a hatchet job of the affair by initially denying Maoist involvement, then admitting involvement but only after it became a public relations nightmare.
In the meantime, nearly six weeks after the elections, the losing political parties have remained recalcitrant to help the Maoists form a coalition government – heel-dragging predicated on a rainbow of motives including altruism, selfishness, ideology and plain old bad blood. Madeshi unrest is unabated. Possible shifts in international relations with India, China and the United States are fueled by contradictory messages swirling about the respective embassies. Until the disastrous Chinese earthquake rocked Sichuan Province last week, Tibetan demonstrations in Kathmandu ran off with the daily headlines in the international press. Where is the king in all this? He’s schedule to be evicted from Narayanhiti Palace –if he doesn’t leave of his own accord -- no later than April 28, the date of the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly. And to cap it all off, today, the Nepal Oil Corporation warned that, within the next few days, the supply of fuel in Nepal would come to a complete halt.
THE MURDER OF RAM HARI SHRESTHA
Ram Hari Shrestha, a businessman and a well-known Maoist supporter, conspired with two other men to steal 1.8 million rupees (US$28,500) from his own party. He was kidnapped by the Youth Communist League (YCL) and taken to a Maoist cantonment in Chitwan, a southern district bordering India. After a forced confession he revealed the names of the other two conspirators, guerilla fighters with the PLA. The two men later came to the camp and joined with Shrestha’s captors, who beat him throughout the night. According to Shrestha’s brother, in an interview with AFP, "The Maoist camp commander told my relations that my brother died after beatings. The commander said my brother's body was thrown in the Narayani River."
Shrestha’s body remains missing.
On May 18, Prachanda, the leader of the CPN-Maoists, denied any Maoist involvement in the murder, a denial published in all the newspapers on May 19.
However, on May 20, senior Maoist leader Mohan Baidya admitted that not only had Shrestha been abducted, tortured and murdered, but that the murder had taken place in an Maoist army cantonment, which, in theory, was being monitored by the U.N. Mission. The U.N. Mission responded with a fiery condemnation. Prachanda had no choice but to cop to the truth: He pledged to bring those responsible – “some selfish elements” – as he described them, to justice.
But in the eyes of the public, justice was almost beside the point. On May 21, Shrestha’s family organized a protest strike in Kathmandu. Ramila, Shrestha’s widow, said that not a single Maoist leader had approached her family in the days following the news of her husband’s death. The bandh effectively shut down all schools and businesses, as well as all transportation in the nation’s capital.
On May 22, Prachanda met with Shrestha’s family. But by then the damage had been done. Maoists’ involvement with the killing was now a major embarrassment for a party poised to assume leadership of the upcoming constitutional assembly. It also fed into the opposition parties’ argument, which had set preconditions before agreeing to be part of a coalition government, not the least of which was that the Maoists disband both the YCL and the PLA – a concession the Maoists are extremely unlikely to allow.
Only a few days before, Maoist senior leader Ram Bahadur Thapa (nom de guerre “Badal”) said that the YCL would not be dissolved at any cost. “I suggest the Nepali Congress and the UML leadership to dissolve their parties first prior to demanding the YCL dissolution. …The government will be formed under the Maoists leadership. If hurdles are created to block such a formation under our leadership, we will retaliate with equal force”.
This kind of iron fist diplomacy does not bode well for a smooth running Constitutional Assembly, to begin next week.
India, United States, China
On the international front, the messages published by both Maoists and foreign embassies in Kathmandu, seem inconsistent and, at times, blurred.
India’s newly appointed ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood, is something of an unknown quantity, but it is believed that he represents a stance fairly consistent with the previous Indian ambassador, Nepal Dev Mukherjee.
In fact, it would appear that Mukherjee hasn’t ceased being a spokesman for Indian policy on Nepal. On May 16, Mukherjee cautioned the Indian government against the games being played by the United States in Nepal as these may provoke strong Chinese reactions.
''If Americans are playing a certain kind of game to deny the Maoists legitimate governance and India is backing them, this could lead to instability due to possible reactions by China, given the conditions in Tibet,'' he said. "Then all bets would be off. I am worried. India should be aware of all possibilities."
He was referring to reports suggesting that US officials in Kathmandu are counseling Prime Minister G. P. Koirala to lead the next government, bypassing the Maoists.
He also said he did not think China would play a too proactive a role in Nepal other than being a neighbor and a big country. ''But, given the increasing US involvement with the Nepalese army, and the games being played by the US, which the Chinese may suspect would affect the conditions in Tibet, then it would lead to Chinese reactions,'' he opined.
One way or another, as long as the United States keeps the Maoist on their list of international terrorist organizations, in spite of the fact that the Maoists can claim a legitimate victory during the recent elections, there is little chance that the American policy, whatever it is, will be regarded as anything other than covert – apparently by both Indians and Maoists. On May 17, Maoist International Bureau Chief, Chandra Prakash Gajurel alias Gaurav indicated that the Maoists don’t really care if America helps them or not. “European Union, India, Japan and some other countries have made their commitment to support the Maoists’ led government. …The Maoists led government does not need the US support at all.”
In the meantime, Nepal’s open border with India and old treaties remains two major sticking points; it’s not entirely certain where the Maoists stand on these issues. Prachanda has repeatedly assured the public that he is dedicated to working with the Indian government. And New Delhi has expressed its readiness to have a re-look at the 1950 Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty, after the Maoists voiced that demand.
But India had its qualms and Prachanda tried to reassure the Delhi government: "There should be some sort of special relation between Kathmandu and Delhi.... We want a new relationship with India, which means better relation, better understanding and better cooperation."
Yet Prachanda has also said that he favors "equidistance" from both New Delhi and Beijing: “At the political level we will never side one country against another. …We will try to maintain equidistance between Delhi and Beijing in the political sense, but not in practical sense and in matters of cooperation."
Prachanda denied that he was indulging in doublespeak.
Another senior Maoist leader, second-in-command Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, came down heavily against the Indian establishment. In a speech on May 10, he suggested that the open border between Nepal and India has been a root cause of Nepalese economic hardship: “It was only due to the open border between the two countries that Nepal could not achieve the economic prosperity as it should have been. If we want to live as a sovereign citizen of an independent county the open/porous border must be controlled with immediate effect.” He added that the border must be “either closed or at best regulated.”
Presumably, Dr. Bhattarai wasn’t talking about closing the borders to oil. Landlocked Nepal has no oil reserves and relies on its giant southern neighbor India to truck in petrol, gas and other fuel. Consumers in Nepal have had to scavenge for fuel supplies for several months now and with today’s announcement from the Nepal Oil Corporation that, within days, the supply of fuel in Nepal will be non-existent, it’s not the best time to be talking about sealing off borders.
China, Tibet, Nepal
China’s primary border concern is how to control Tibetans who flee Tibet and seek refuge in Nepal. Since the Lhasa riots began on March 10, there have been, almost daily, Tibetan demonstrations in Kathmandu, centered around the UN compound and the Chinese embassy. The international coverage has been huge and, until the tragic earthquake in Sichuan, there seemed no end in sight for Tibetan refugee demonstrations.
Beijing was furious that more wasn’t being done to stifle the demonstrations. The Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Zheng Xianglin, told reporters that the ''Nepal government should give severe punishment to those handfuls of Tibetan exiles who have been staging demonstrations in Kathmandu demanding a free Tibet.' It is not enough to close down the Dalai Lamas liaison office in Kathmandu but the government should adopt severe measure against those handful of Tibetans carrying out anti-China activities.''
(“Handful” is a very misleading; there have been thousands of Tibetans detained, out of a total population of 20,000 Tibetan refugees in Nepal.)
Zheng Xianglin was not just blaming the government in Nepal. He complained that non-governmental organizations and human rights groups had been encouraging the Tibetan protesters. And he also blamed the United States for stirring up trouble: He made it clear that he opposed the offer made by the American government to resettle some of the Tibetan exiles staying in Nepal to the US.
He said the Tibetans staying in Nepal should be grateful to the government of Nepal, adding that they should limit their activity to religion and not indulge in any political activity.
At other times, China has congratulated the success of the April elections and said it respects the people’s wishes in Nepal. But it’s clear that, if things don’t go as they wish in Nepal, China will lean very heavily on the government, without the slightest hint of embarrassment or apology for interfering with Nepal’s internal affairs.
The control of small arms, particularly in southern Nepal, still seems to be a low priority for political parties and the government.
According to the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, civilians are becoming more vulnerable to attack by militant groups and criminal gangs in the Terai region of southern Nepal as a result of the apparent proliferation of small arms and improvised explosive devices. Easy access to guns has led to an increasing number of killings, abductions, attacks and cases of looting and extortion, they said.
Some 20 violent incidents - including killings, child kidnappings, rape, shootings, abductions and bomb explosions - have taken place in the past two weeks, according to the Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), a local human rights group. It said about five people had been killed and 14 injured in the incidents - mainly in the Terai.
The Madeshis dominate the Terai but feel they have been sidelined and excluded from national politics and development. Over a dozen armed political groups and criminal gangs (mainly Madeshi) have emerged in recent times.
Armed groups in Madesh
A new report by Amnesty International said there were over a dozen armed groups in the Terai, including the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), led by the Jaya Krishna Goit (JTMM-G) and Jwala Singh (JTMM-J) factions.
''There is virtually no government presence as the ruling parties are too busy fighting for power and seats in the new government.''
According to the Nepal police, there are also other armed groups like the Madhesi Mukti Tigers (MMT), Samyukta Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (SJTMM), Liberation Tigers of Terai Elam, Terai Cobras, Madhesi Virus Killers, Terai Army and the National Defense Army.
Analysts are concerned that many criminal and armed militant groups have taken advantage of the recent power vacuum (a government has still not been formed over a month after the 10 April elections), and have been able to bring in arms and use them at will.
On May 16, for instance, at least six persons were injured when activists of a Terai-based armed group hurled a bomb at a pharmacy in southern Nepal, accusing its owner of spying on them.
Two motorbike-borne men threw the bomb. The “Terai Army”, a lesser-known outfit operating in the restive region, took responsibility. Apparently, the owner of the pharmacy failed to give donation to the them.
Experts and analysts lobbying for tighter controls on small arms in the Terai are frustrated that no party in the nation’s capital has yet spoken out on the issue.
According to AFP, Nepal's embattled king is expected to quit his Kathmandu palace soon, just days before the Himalayan nation's monarchy is due to be officially abolished on May 28. It is suspected that King Gyanendra will likely move to Nagarjun, a palace on the outskirts of the city, before he loses his status and becomes a common citizen.
"The suspended king will spend some time in Nagarjun before going to his own house -- Nirmal Niwas -- after abandoning Narayanhiti," one newspaper said, quoting unnamed palace sources.
"I've heard the king is planning to leave Narayanhiti for another palace for a few days... I don't think he'll be back until after the declaration of the republic," Kishore Shrestha, editor of the Nepalese weekly Jana Aastha, told AFP. "The king leaving the main palace would be a way for all sides to save face."
At this point, the monarchy is not the only political entity that needs to worry about saving face. This upcoming week should be a very dynamic one in the beleaguered Himalayan nation of Nepal – the most ravishingly beautiful country on Earth.