Monday, 11 February 2008

Can Nepal's Rebels Help Rebuild?


Comrade Sandhya's voice trembles as she speaks of her father. "He was a major in the Royal Nepalese Army," she begins, cupping her chin with one hand while rearranging a neat schoolgirl plait with the other. "When he found out I had gone underground, he said I was no longer his daughter — only his enemy. The next time he wanted to meet me was on the battlefield."
That encounter, to Sandhya's relief, never came to pass. In 1996, as a 14-year-old student from a town north of the capital Kathmandu, she joined Nepal's Maoist cadres at the moment when their armed insurgency had just begun to take hold of this rugged Himalayan nation, long a magnet for foreign backpackers and adventurers. Her father's military income meant Sandhya did not grow up among the country's many poor, but she chafed under the rigid caste laws and gender norms that blunted her parents' ambitions and stripped her of the same opportunities as men. The Maoists, led by their talismanic leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a.k.a. Prachanda, promised her and thousands of others nothing less than a complete reordering of society, and Sandhya gave herself to the struggle, fighting as a soldier in a decade-long civil war that claimed over 13,000 lives and displaced countless more.
Today, Sandhya sits batting away mosquitoes in a sparse wood cabin, part of a sprawling Maoist cantonment in the southern district of Chitwan. She believes victory is at hand. A peace process triggered by mass protests in April 2006 against the autocratic rule of Nepal's King Gyanendra brought the Maoists into the political mainstream, paving the way for the extraordinary transformation of a country ruled for two and a half centuries by Hindu kings into a secular republic. Both the Royal Nepalese Army and the Maoist guerrillas — the civil war's bitter foes — returned to their barracks and camps with the stated intention of eventually reforming into one new national force. "We all want democracy. No one here wants to fight again," Sandhya insists. Even her father, who has since retired, has reconciled with Sandhya. "He respects my decisions now," she says. "He realized I was a figure of change."
Change can bring uncertainty, however, not just for Nepal but for other countries. Nepal, a country of 28 million, is sandwiched between the world's rising giants, India and China, who both have cast their eye over the Himalayan nation as a buffer against the other. Any unrest in Nepal — hostilities have been suspended, not buried — could spill across into its restive borderlands, particularly Chinese Tibet and the troubled Indian state of Bihar — developments that Beijing and New Delhi would view with alarm. Nepal's Maoists, moreover, are still on the U.S. State Department's list of terror groups. They have traded their guerrilla hideouts for plush offices in the capital, but had a fearsome reputation for committing violence when the armed struggle raged.
Indeed, the hatreds that fueled the civil war threaten even now to bubble over. Elections for an assembly that would draft Nepal's new republican constitution are slated for April 10, but only after much bickering and dithering. Nepalis of all stripes are losing faith in the seven parties, including the Maoists, that make up the country's feuding interim government and see corruption and cynical power-politicking stifling the nation's slow reconstruction from the ashes of war. Over a third of the population still lives below the poverty line.
As the politicians fiddle in Kathmandu, a hundred mutinies burn around the country: vigilante gangs run rampant in the countryside, while ethnic groups long marginalized under the monarchy have taken to armed uprising, especially in the southern lowlands of the Tarai where over 40% of Nepal's population lives. A cocktail of anarchist elements, militant factions and a growing separatist movement hold sway there and prove a daunting challenge with elections coming in little more than two months. "What happened in Kenya could happen here," says Jayaraj Acharya, a former Nepalese ambassador to the U.N., speaking of the ongoing ethnic conflict in the African nation triggered by disputed elections, which has claimed hundreds of lives. "Only here," Acharya adds, "it will be worse." For part 2 and 3 visit the following links:

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