Cambodia 1974, Nepal 2004: How to Avoid Nepal’s Descent Towards a Failed State ?

I just returned from a 3 weeks visit to Nepal. Although I went there on home leave, I could not go to my home village as the security situation has deteriorated everywhere outside Kathmandu valley and a few major towns. I therefore took advantage of my prolonged involuntary stay in Kathmandu to informally meet with senior government officials, political leaders, diplomats and civil society leaders to assess the situation and to explore what, if anything, could be done to bring peace and reconciliation.

It is my considered judgment that Nepal is rapidly descending towards a failed state syndrome. There are eerie similarities between Nepal in 2004 and Cambodia in 1974. Let us hope that what happened in Cambodia in 1975 will not happen in Nepal. But if the international community does not act more proactively now, there is likely to be not only a failed state but a humanitarian disaster.

In many striking ways, Nepal in 2004 reminded me of Cambodia in 1974. As in Cambodia in 1974, the Government of Nepal controls the capital city and major provincial towns, while much of the rest of the country is either a lawless no-man’s land or under the control or influence of the Maoist rebels, a group very reminiscent of the Khmers Rouges both in terms of their ideological convictions and the brutality of the methods they use.

Like Phnom Penh in 1974, Kathmandu in 2004 has become the refuge for many displaced people from the countryside – with those who cannot afford to go to Kathmandu congregating at district headquarters or migrating to neighbouring India.

The elite of Kathmandu valley live in a bubble of safety, protected by high fences and security guards. As the Lon Nol Government of Phnom Penh in 1974, high officials of His Majesty’s Government of Nepal proclaim confidently that they are weakening the Maoists, even as the Maoists are able to lay seize in and blockade 16 districts simultaneously; mount surprise attacks on military garrisons in district headquarters; disrupt transport and communication throughout the country at anytime; and create a sense of insecurity and panic among the general populace.

In an eerie similarity with Cambodia of 1974, there are reports of the Royal Nepalese Army becoming ill-disciplined and committing human rights abuses with impunity. There are reports of the military becoming a power onto itself, out of control of civilian authority.

Background of the Conflict in Nepal

The Maoist insurgency is a home-grown, radical leftist movement that seeks to abolish the monarchy and establish a socialist republic. Initially the Maoists championed certain populist causes and enjoyed some popularity among the poor and the oppressed. However, the movement has now degenerated and thrives on violence, intimidation and extortion as the principal basis for its power and influence.

Though driven by an outdated ideology that has failed elsewhere in the world, the Maoists profess to champion certain progressive social and political agenda, including letting the people decide the fate of the monarchy through an elected sovereign Constituent Assembly. But the fact that they are armed and are unwilling to renounce violence, casts doubts on their sincerity to seek a peaceful, democratic solution.

In 8 years of insurgency, over 10,000 people have been killed, including hundreds of children. Large numbers of schools, health posts, bridges, hydro-electric plants, village development offices and telecommunications towers have been destroyed. Banks are regularly looted. Schools are frequently closed. Students are abducted and coerced into joining the Maoists movement. There are reports of many people simply “disappearing” and of extra-judicial killings and human rights violations by both the Maoists and the government troops.

To complicate matters further, there is an unhealthy jockeying for power between the King and parliamentary political parties.

King Gyanendra ascended the throne under inauspicious circumstances, following the massacre of most members of the royal family. He dismissed an elected government and assumed de facto executive powers. While the King professes to believe in constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy, his actions point towards an activist, authoritarian monarchy. The King’s detractors accuse him of constantly maneuvering to outsmart the parliamentary political parties and to rule through loyal political cronies, with the support of the military.

All of Nepal’s friends in the diplomatic community say that they have been pressing the King and the parliamentary parties to reconcile, but to no avail, largely on account of the King’s intransigence, although the leaders of the political parties are also blamed for lacking clear vision, being unprincipled and corrupt.

Nepal’s short-lived multi-party democracy in the 1990s was functioning relatively well at the local level and was beginning to produce good results. But at the national level, the parliamentary political parties had acquired notoriety for mismanagement, corruption and constant bickering for power and perks. Many of their leaders were seen as lacking vision, maturity and accountability. Yet, as elected representatives of the people, they have a rightful claim to form and run a democratically legitimate government. They are currently deeply distrustful of both the King and the Maoists, whom they regard as undemocratic forces. They have continuously rebuffed the King’s gestures to join his hand-picked government as unconstitutional and insincere.

The Maoists are taking advantage of the lack of unity between the King and the political parties.

Failed Efforts at Negotiations and Mediation

Compared to many other complex political crises in the world, the conflict in Nepal ought to be more manageable. Fortunately, Nepal’s conflict has no racial, ethnic or religious connotations; no temptation of drugs, oil or mineral riches; and there are no colonial, superpower or other external forces trying to fuel or profit from the conflict. With enlightened leadership, it should not be so difficult to find a common ground among Nepal’s political protagonists.

Yet two rounds of cease-fires and peace talks between the government and the Maoists have collapsed. And it seems doubtful that there is enough mutual trust or a unifying vision among the Nepali parties to reconcile their differences to end the conflict, without some helpful external mediation.

There have been many offers of international mediation and support, including by the United Nations, the European Union, and some non-governmental organizations. Recently, the Maoists have sent messages to the UN through a variety of channels, saying that they are prepared to enter into negotiations under UN auspices. Nepal’s parliamentary political parties and civil society too seem to be in favour of UN-brokered peace talks. However, the government has systematically rejected any outside mediation on the ground that this is an internal conflict and the Nepalis can and ought to deal with it without outside “interference”.

Nepal’s neighbour India is known to be opposed to any third party mediation. And the US government, viewing the Maoist insurgency from the optic of terrorism, has generally taken a hard-line position. But everybody agrees with the recent statement of the UN Secretary-General that there is no military solution to the conflict.

In explaining why Nepal cannot accept third party mediation, including that of the UN, some Nepali political leaders have argued that as Nepal is surrounded by two giant neighbours, third party involvement would somehow be offensive or unacceptable to them. Contrary to this view, it is my judgement that precisely because Nepal is surrounded by two giant neighbours, it needs a neutral, impartial organization without any vested interest, like the United Nations, to facilitate the peace process. Since eventually the peace process will entail disarmament of combatants and monitoring of elections, the UN would be uniquely qualified and acceptable to all parties.

It is also my assessment that while India would not welcome any third party mediation, including that of the UN, if Nepal really wanted it, India would grudgingly accept UN’s help. India too is exasperated by continuation of conflict in Nepal and its negative impact on India.

The King’s Shenanigans

The King has recently called for general elections by April 2005 to restore a constitutional government. But outside the immediate entourage of the King, nobody believes that free, fair and credible elections can be held while the insurgency continues. Most of the parliamentary political parties are likely to boycott the proposed elections, as they see it as a ploy by the government to stage fraudulent elections.

Recently the King has started visiting various parts of the country to receive “felicitation” by local people. These royal visits, under heavy security umbrella, seem intended to show that the King is popular and can travel to all parts of the country, even in the Maoist strongholds. These visits are considered very damaging and counter-productive by Kathmandu-based diplomats and other political observers. Besides being a big drain on the national budget, the royal visits also require redeployment of security forces to provide protection to the King, thereby leaving other parts of the country vulnerable to Maoist build-up.

There are reports that following the King’s visits, the people seen to be “felicitating” him, or just expressing their anguish to the monarch, become subject to reprisals by the Maoists.

People Caught Between Maoist and Military Atrocities

Life has become unbearable for ordinary villagers. Roving bands of Maoists visit villages demanding food, extorting money, forcibly recruiting people – increasingly including children. In recent months, the Maoists apparently demand that people declare whose side they are on – the Maoist or royalist – with no option of neutrality allowed. Those that do not declare to be on the side of the Maoists are asked to leave the village, or else life could be made miserable for them

Since over 3 years ago there is no police presence in the country side, as all police were withdrawn to district headquarters for their own protection. The police and the Royal Nepal Army are now under “unified command” and are basically confined to the capital city and district headquarters. From there occasionally they go out on patrols to villages to flush out the Maoists.

An ominous pattern of military behaviour seems to have developed as part of these patrols putting people in an impossible situation. It is reported that if a 100 soldiers go out on a patrol to a village, 90 or so would go armed and in military uniform, whereas the rest would go ahead of the armed troops wearing ragtag civilian clothes, including Maoist bandanas, and pretending to be Maoists. These fake Maoists would then greet the villagers they encounter with “red salute”, putting them in a difficult situation of either having to return “the red salute” greeting and be identified as Maoist sympathizers or not to return the salute and be identified as “pro-royalist”, as the army too does not want to see anybody as neutral.

Many villagers are thus framed as “Maoists” or their sympathizers (since most people in villages have had some kind of contact with the Maoists, it is not difficult to set them up as “sympathizers”). When the armed patrol arrives, the fake Maoists would identify villagers they encounter as “Maoists”. If the villagers protest that they are not Maoists, they would be asked to run away, and as they start running they are shot and wounded or killed. Thus ordinary people find themselves in an impossible situation with whatever they do making them vulnerable for reprisals by either the Maoists or by the royal army.

Outline of an Action Plan

In a paper I presented to a development forum in Nepal on 19 March 2004, in my personal capacity, I suggested the following actions that the key political protagonists – the King, the Maoists and the political parties ought to undertake.

  1. Reconciliation between the King and the political parties, with the former making some bold, courageous and genuine efforts to entrust the formation of a multi-party government to the major parliamentary parties.
  1. The parliamentary political parties to adopt a code of conduct for their future behaviour that gives people some assurance that they would rectify some of their past mistakes, and will govern with greater integrity and accountability in the future.
  1. The Maoists to renounce their acts of violence and intimidation as a prelude to resumption of peace talks.
  1. The signing and implementation in a monitorable manner of specific commitments on protection of people’s human rights by government security forces and the Maoist militia.
  1. Initiation of peace talks, perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations.

Petition of Nepali Diaspora

These action points have been warmly welcomed by many leaders of civil society and a wide cross-section of parliamentary parties in Nepal. In fact, inspired by these ideas, a group of Nepali Diaspora in North America has just launched a worldwide signature campaign with an urgent appeal for acceptance of the UN Secretary-General’s offer of good offices for peace talks, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance.

However, the level of intransigence, especially of the King/government and the Maoist insurgents is very high. The King seems to feel assured of international support as the insurgency is portrayed as part of the global war against terrorism. And the Maoists seem buoyed by their success in making the country ungovernable and generating growing support for their anti-monarchy movement among mainstream political parties. Thus both sides lack sufficient incentive to seek a negotiated settlement at this time.

UN’s Vital Role

In the absence of proactive efforts by the international community, especially the UN, I fear that Nepal is destined to become a failed state like Somalia or Liberia, or Cambodia of an earlier era. The cost to the international community of rescuing Nepal from its ever deepening crisis is only likely to grow. It is my considered judgment and advice that Nepal should be a prime candidate for a more proactive, preventive conflict resolution approach by the UN without waiting for further deterioration.

The UN is one of the few institutions that is highly respected in Nepal. Outside the top government circles, there is widespread public support for and expectation of UN assisted mediation for peace, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance. If the situation is allowed to deteriorate further, I fear that the international community would one day have to invoke the principles of “the responsibility to protect” civilian population from untold suffering, and rescue the country from violent anarchy.

“Days of Tranquility”

To alleviate the immediate suffering of the population, I have recommended that the UN country team consider calling “days of tranquility” to provide urgent humanitarian supplies and services as UNICEF and the UN have done before in other conflict situations. I have mentioned this proposal to some key Maoist leaders, and to the government. They have both agreed to it in principle, although both sides claim that the onus lies on the other to bring about any tranquility. In my soundings, I found the Kathmandu-based diplomatic community and Nepali civil society very favourable to such an initiative. If properly handled, it could even serve as a confidence building measure to help de-escalate the conflict and generate momentum towards negotiations.

To make such “days of tranquility” really successful, both the government and the Maoists would have to explicitly agree to abide by the “Basic Operating Guidelines” that the UN agencies in Kathmandu have put out collectively. These guidelines call for the UN agencies to have free and unhindered access to civilian population in need, without any threat of violence, intimidation, extortion, etc. Unfortunately, it is far from certain that the parties to the conflict will strictly conform to the UN operating guidelines. But we must try and persuade them.

Even as we pursue such humanitarian assistance for civilian population in need, especially for women, children and vulnerable groups, there is, in my judgment, a need for the international community to encourage all parties to the conflict, and Nepal’s friends and neighbours to accept the UN Secretary-General’s offer of good offices for resumption of peace talks.

At present the government seems least ready to accept any mediated negotiations, although it too regards the UN Secretary-General’s offer of assistance as positive, and eventually as necessary. But I fear that the government’s delaying tactics will only lead to prolongation of the conflict, ensuing humanitarian catastrophe, and eventually a greater burden for the United Nations and international community to rescue the country from a more chaotic situation.

While given their actions and violent methods, one cannot fully trust the Maoists’ credibility as seeking and accepting a peaceful, democratic solution, it is preferable to engage them in talks than in warfare. In Nepal’s present desperate situation, the ordinary people’s yearning for peace must trump over politicians’ calculus for power-sharing.

(Mr. Gautam is Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author in his personal capacity, and not necessarily those of the United Nations or UNICEF.)