March 06, 2007
Nepal: Can Peace Hold?
BY Anuj Chopra
Former soldier, Teevrata Singh, 22, left her impoverished village three years ago to fight the Maosist cause.
We've spent five hours on the road from Kathmandu. The car is belching out thick smoke as it wobbles along the deeply rutted roads. The mercury has dropped dramatically, and fog is adding to the precariousness of the journey.
We're on our way to a remote hamlet in western Nepal in the district of Nawalparasi to spend time at a camp run by the country's Maoist rebels. Emerging from the shadows of their long, clandestine existence, Nepal's rebels are now in the process of laying down arms under U.N. supervision, officially calling an end to their decade-long revolution.
As we near our destination, the countryside is increasingly beautiful. Old wooden houses rise above vast tracts of maize in mid-bloom; little children wave at us as we pass by. In the distance, a red flag flies from the top of a watchtower, and a gun barrel darts out from a foxhole as we approach the camp.
We have arrived at the headquarters of the 4th division of the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA), a rag-tag company of Nepal's Maoists. Yesterday, I tried to meet with the rebels at another camp in the district of Nawalparasi. The camp's lanky deputy commander politely broke the news that he couldn't get permission from his "higher ups." So my translator and I had to turn back.
Today, we are in luck.
With the traditional "Lal Salaam" (the rebel salute of clinched fist against the heart), I'm greeted by Pratiksha, the division's commander. (Pratiksha is his nom de guerre. He won't give me his real name.)
In camps like these, Nepal's newfound peace is being tested. For more than a decade, the country's Maoists have carried out a protracted armed struggle across much of Nepal.
In the foreground, a group of young rebels in newly stitched army uniforms, rifles slung across shoulders, march in long, ungainly columns. Most of them don't look older than teenagers. Another group is busy playing volleyball. All are waiting to hand in their weapons.
In camps like these, Nepal's newfound peace is being tested. For more than a decade, the country's Maoists have carried out a protracted armed struggle across much of Nepal. Under the banner of Communism, the rebels mounted a peasant-style insurrection against government forces and what they saw as a broken feudal system run by Nepal's monarch, King Gyanendra. The struggle has cost at least 13,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands. More than 800 are missing, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. But Nepal's destiny is beginning to change.
Last November, under a novel power-sharing agreement with Nepal's eight-party ruling alliance, the Maoists were offered a place in an interim government, with elections to follow that would create a special assembly to rewrite the constitution. There's still no date set for the election, which has angered the former guerrillas. But they continue to sequester their troops in seven main camps, similar to this one, and 21 smaller ones across Nepal's heartland. Under U.N. supervision, the rebels will hand over their guns and other crude weaponry to be stored in padlocked containers. After that, the future is somewhat uncertain.
Maoist combatants from the 4th division of the Peoples' Liberation Army (PLA).
Teevrata Singh joined the Maoists three years ago. She says severe poverty drew her and other villagers toward the rebel groups, lured by talk of revolution and promises of a more fair and hopeful future.
"The rich get richer," she tells me, a large, archaic rifle in her hands. "It's us poor who suffer. I decided to pick up a weapon only to get my rights."
At 22, Singh is a well-trained guerilla fighter who has taken part in numerous raids on military camps. She shows no remorse as she tells me she has killed several soldiers from the Royal Nepalese Army.
But with peace now on the table, rebels like Singh are glad the Communists are taking a new turn. "I've lived in hiding for years," she says. "I can't wait to resume a normal life again." Many of her fellow rebels feel the same way. In hiding for years, they have faced some of the most basic challenges, such as finding enough food to eat each day.
When I ask one young rebel, who goes by the name of Prabhat, what he will do once he hands in his weapons, he replies, "Whatever our leaders decide." Prabhat joined the Maoists five years ago, after two of his brothers, suspected of being insurgents, were shot and killed by the Nepalese police. "They were only students," he says.
"No one wants the king to rule us," says Pratiksha. "They don't even want him as an emotional symbol. The monarchy has given us nothing but 240 years of bad rule."
Over steaming cups of Nepali tea laced with cardamom and ginger, the ex-combatants talk about how much they despise King Gyanendra, Nepal's 12th monarch, who seized power in a bloodless coup in early 2005.
"No one wants the king to rule us," says Pratiksha, speaking for the rest of the group. "They don't even want him as an emotional symbol. People need to choose their own leaders. The monarchy has given us nothing but 240 years of bad rule."
The ultimate fate of Nepal's royalty, already stripped of much of its power, still lies in the balance. But the Maoists' leader, Prachanda, said last week that securing Nepal's future as a republic is the most important issue for his party and urged the country to take the measure ahead of elections. His statement has rattled the interim government, as it not only goes against what was laid out in last November's peace accord but also questions the agenda of the interim coalition, which promises to resolve the future of the monarchy as soon as a new Constituent Assembly is elected.
In the meantime, disarming the rebels remains a key challenge. There's still contention over how many rebels there are to disarm. The rebels themselves claim there are 35,000, while the government says the number is closer to 12,000. At the same time, the Maoists want the national army of 90,000 reduced by half. Although there is talk of integrating the rebels into the Royal Nepalese Army, how the two former rival forces will come together is far from clear.
For now, there are just 40 U.N. monitors working to disarm the camps. This number will continue to expand until a full contingent of 186 is in place.
Maoist commander, Pratiksha, addresses local villagers about the group's commitment to peace.
The U.N. monitors are divulging little about the disarmament process, which is still in its early stages. What has begun, officials say, is the registration of weapons and the collection of rudimentary information about each combatant. Once that information is gathered and verified, a second stage of interviews will follow.
"So far, there has been excellent cooperation in most respects from the Maoist army commanders," Ian Martin, head of the U.N. mission in Nepal, told the press recently. But for now the Maoists are keeping the keys to those U.N. containers of weapons, and an armed contingent still protects rebel leaders, including the group's chairman, Prachanda.
There's also the issue of accountability. On a visit to Nepal earlier this year, the United Nation's top human rights official, Louise Arbour, called for former Maoist rebels to be prosecuted for human rights abuses -- including disappearances, brutal beheadings and torture -- during the civil war. It would be "catastrophic," she said, to grant amnesties to either side.
James Francis Moriarty, the U.S. ambassador to Nepal, recently accused the group of violating the peace accord by going on a recruiting frenzy, with the intent of keeping a sizeable guerilla army outside of the reach of U.N. disarmament camps. The Maoists also remain on the United State's list of terrorist groups.
"We picked up arms only to fight the feudal system of the state," Pratiksha tells the crowd. "Now it is no longer an armed struggle. Our means are different. The ballot will be our strength."
Toward the end of my visit to the camp, I follow Pratiksha, the camp's commander, into a forest clearing about two miles from the camp. A crowd has gathered there from neighboring villages to hear him speak.
His hour-long speech emanates, in fits and starts, from an ancient public-address system. People listen in rapt attention.
"We're not driven by the gun," he tells them. "We're intellectually driven. We picked up arms only to fight the feudal system of the state. Now it is no longer an armed struggle. Our means are different. The ballot will be our strength."
The Maoists have controlled 70 percent of the countryside, and the rebels' transformation from gun-wielding revolutionaries to part of the political mainstream seems to resonate with locals. Pratiksha's speech invites a burst of applause.
"We've seen much bloodshed," I am told by one woman, who came to listen with her family. "Now it's time that peace returns to the kingdom."
In a private moment later, I ask Pratiksha whether he believes the Maoists will keep the peace or return to their old ways of armed rebellion. After pondering this for a moment, he replies, "If there is no other way."
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Anuj Chopra is a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications. Chopra lives just outside Mumbai in India and is the 2005 recipient of the CNN Young Journalist Award in the print category.
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