From the CIAO Atlas Map of Asia 

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CIAO DATE: 01/03

Nepal: Maoist Insurgency

Chitra K. Tiwari

The South Asia Monitor
Number 31
March 1, 2001

The Center for Strategic and International Studies


Nepal, sandwiched between two Asian giants, India and China, is suffering from the worst political crisis in its history. A constitutional democracy established thanks to the protests of a broadly supported “People’s Movement” in 1990 it has been unable to contain a five-year old Maoist insurgency. By the middle of February 2001, the insurgency had claimed 1,500 to 2,000 lives. The movement feeds on poverty, discontent with repressive policies, and corruption. The highly confrontational character of the country’s mainstream politics has been a weak counterweight. The outlook is for continued unrest, with potential danger to American organizations and to the security of neighboring parts of India.

A rapid expansion: Led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ( “Comrade Prachanda” ) and Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist fired the first salvo of the People’s War on February 12, 1996. Its stated aim was to destroy the monarchy and establish a Maoist people’s democracy. The insurgency began in five mountain districts-the districts of Rolpa, Rukum, and Jajarkot in the mid-west, Gorkha in the West, and Sindhuli in the East-and has now spread to most of the country. In seven districts, the Maoists have declared the formation of district-level provisional governments. Their officials are raising taxes, dispensing quick justice, managing communal agriculture, and maintaining security. They have established a Robin Hood image, and their method of governance is being cited by critics of the government as an example for the Kathmandu government. Thus far, the insurgency has directly affected the lives of roughly two-thirds of Nepal’s 24 million people. The rapid expansion of their activities has raised concerns that Maoists might at some point be able to overturn the government.

Most alarmingly for the government, many of the Maoist affected areas are inhabited by a large number of well-trained, retired Indian and British Army Gurkha soldiers. Some people in government suspect that some of these retirees, along with retirees and deserters from the Royal Nepalese Army itself, are providing training and combat manpower to the guerrillas.

The Maoists have principally targeted the Nepalese state, and many of their victims have been from the police and its network of informers. Several weeks ago, a Maoist ambush nearly killed the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. They have begun threatening “American imperialist” organizations, including an attack on several CARE offices, demanding that they leave Nepal.

Government Policy: Since the start of the insurgency in 1996, the government of Nepal has treated the Maoist war as a law and order problem to be contained by police operations. The police in many places have killed more innocent civilians than guerrillas, a fact noted by several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International.

Faced with increasing pressure, from local and international human rights organizations for a negotiated settlement of the conflict, the government and insurgents both occasionally pay lip service to dialogue. In early November 2000 the government wanted to end the violence and bring the insurgents into the mainstream of politics through dialogue. However, when the government dramatically released a central committee member of the Maoist Party after forcing him to denounce the insurgency, a mediation effort for a dialogue failed.

Government leaders, including Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, have emphasized that the government’s policy is to launch integrated development work while strengthening security measures. The government has allocated U.S.$2.6 million to a development package called the “basket fund.” It has also created a 15,000-man Armed Police Force (APF), the army providing protection to district headquarters. The amount allocated for the purchase of modern arms is U.S.$4.72 million, nearly twice the allocation for development.

Some experts believe that the number of guerrillas under arms is around 2,500, backed by 10,000 or more militia, compared to government police and armed forces numbering around 110,000. Despite their small numbers, the guerrillas have had the better of the police in a number of encounters. The army outnumbers the guerrillas by roughly 9 to 1, a comfortable margin for conventional fighting, but well below the 10-25 to 1 ratio that counterinsurgency experts consider necessary for a conventional force to prevail against guerrillas.

A fragile government: Nepal’s constitutional government, only ten years old, suffers from highly confrontational politics. Most members of parliament were completely outside the political system before 1990. The two principal parties, the Nepali Congress and the United Marxist-Leninists, are bitter opponents. There has been no common understanding that accommodation is needed to make the system work. The Nepali Congress, which currently heads the government and holds a slim parliamentary majority, is further sharply divided. Since 1990, there have been nine different cabinets, averaging 14 months in power. The insurgency provides fodder for political attacks, but no party has put forward an effective strategy for countering it.

The administrative system and civil service are weak. The 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines jet out of Kathmandu illustrates the ineffectiveness of basic security measures. Corruption is rampant, and funds allocated for the development of interior areas may never reach their destination.

These vulnerabilities are magnified by Nepal’s poverty and its legendary isolation. Nepal’s population, a mosaic of different tribes, language groups, and religions, was secluded in the mountains for centuries. Many people live in remote villages that can only be reached by several days’ walk. Many villages are totally ignored by economic planners, without schools, roads, electricity, or medical facilities. At the national level, the number of unemployed people who have some education is increasing rapidly. Close to 100,000 rural youths failing high school examinations every year have neither a job nor a school to go to where they could be kept busy. There is little domestic capital to invest, and foreign investment is not coming in. Average economic growth, approximately 4 percent per year for the past five years, is insufficient to absorb the estimated 500,000 young people who join the labor force each year.

Popular Support: Maoists are receiving widespread support from those frustrated with poverty and corruption and from societal underdogs. Many unemployed youths 15 to 18 years in age are joining the ranks of armed guerrillas. More than one-third of the guerrilla force is said to be female, and over one hundred women have died fighting the police. The support and participation of non-Hindu ethnic castes (known as Janajatis) has been yet another forte of the insurgency.

Impact on neighboring countries: Nepal, in the past, has tried to maintain a balanced relationship between India and China. It has intimate economic links with India, and there is substantial movement of people across their porous border. India has traditionally regarded Nepal’s stability as an important ingredient in its own security, and has taken sharp exception to any military connection between Nepal and China. The worst Indo-Nepal crisis in modern history arose out of the harsh Indian reaction to reports of a military sales agreement between Nepal and China.

Nepal’s Maoists have links with India’s People’s War Group (PWG) and Maoist Coordination Center (MCC), which are active in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Bihar. These movements along with insurgencies in Assam and other parts of India’s northeast are a growing preoccupation for the Indian authorities, who have long suspected the intelligence services of Pakistan and China of stoking unrest. The governments of the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal recently established additional police posts along the Indo-Nepal border. Indian defense minister George Fernandes has talked of setting up army camps there.

China too will be watching Nepal closely, though Nepal’s economy is less closely linked to China than to India. The 120-kilometer Araniko highway linking Nepal and China, constructed in the 1960s with Chinese assistance despite India’s objection, passes through Kavre, Dolakha and Sidhupalchok districts, hotbeds of Maoist insurgency. China’s main concern is the possible use of Nepal as a sanctuary by the Free Tibet movement. To Beijing’s annoyance, Nepal has served as the transit point for Tibetan refugees headed for India, most prominently including the Karmappa Lama, recently granted asylum by India. There is currently no evidence of official Chinese support for the Nepalese Maoists, although an upsurge in Tibetan activities in Nepal could make the Maoists a tempting instrument for retaliation.

Continued trouble ahead: The situation is not yet ripe for a showdown, and the outlook is for at least several more years of guerrilla activity. The Maoists do not currently have a reliable external arms supplier, but if the Nepalese government deploys its newly established Armed Police Force, the Maoists will certainly attack them and seize significant quantities of modern automatic weapons.

Nepal’s options for negotiating with the Maoists are not encouraging. Economic development would figure in any negotiation, but in Nepal’s circumstances any economic package for remote districts would be slow to have an impact.

India has multiple potential pressure points on Nepal. These include the security provisions of the 1950 Treaty of Friendship, under which New Delhi can respond to Kathmandu’s request for military help, and Nepal’s dependence on India for import and export transit. India’s best strategy, though, may be the one it has already begun: strengthening border defense and dealing with its own insurgencies. Because China’s policy will probably be driven by India’s, India should seek to avoid sharp reaction that could spark greater Chinese involvement.

The United States does not have major interests in Nepal, but will be indirectly affected by increased volatility in India’s northeast, bordering on China. It will also be concerned about the likely deterioration in the human rights situation. Increased guerrilla activity could expand Nepal’s role as a haven for other forms of trouble-narcotics trafficking, for example. The most immediate U.S. concern, however, will be the security threat to its organizations and citizens.