Rebels become important players as Nepal lurches toward democracy
As Nepal catches its collective breath after weeks of turmoil, renewed attention is focusing on the country’s Maoist rebels and their decade-long violent insurrection aimed at toppling the monarchy in favour of a communist republic.
In the view of some analysts, the Maoists have the upper hand politically now that King Gyanendra has bowed to popular pressure — applied in part by their alliance of convenience with mainstream political parties — and has begun ceding absolutist rule.
Yesterday, the King appointed Girija Prasad Koirala, a feeble and sickly 84-year-old politician, as Prime Minister as the first step to restoring multiparty democracy.
But the real drama involves efforts to somehow draw the Nepal Communist Party (Maoists) away from their past terrorist tactics and into the acceptable democratic sphere. The Maoist insurgency has claimed more than 13,000 lives; the rebels control large areas of rural Nepal through intimidation and brutality.
"They may yet be brought into non-violent mainstream politics, but only if the moderate forces are backed unequivocally by the outside world," says Rhoderick Chalmers, a Kathmandu-based analyst for International Crisis Group. " . . . For the time being, they are in the driver’s seat."
Despite the rebels’ declaration of a three-month ceasefire, they remain in an "active defensive position."
In an interview with Reuters from one of their southern redoubts yesterday, Comrade Sunil vowed that the rebels would not lay down their weapons until the Royal Nepalese Army is disbanded.
Moreover, Sunil insisted that even a ceremonial role for the monarchy would be unacceptable.
"We do not want a ceremonial monarch, nor a constitutional monarch, we want a republic," said Sunil, a member of the Maoist party’s central committee.
Former government minister Padma Ralna Tuladhar told Agence France-Presse that the role of the Maoists in mobilizing thousands of protesters, and the fact that they’ve stayed clear of violent tactics in recent weeks, gained them respect among Nepalis and opened a door for negotiations.
"It’s a historical opportunity for them to have a republican state and they don’t want to miss it," he said.
Still, any moves by the Maoists in Nepal’s transition from the King’s absolutist rule to a stable multiparty political system will be viewed with great suspicion.
"My real concern is that the successor government may end up being dominated by the Maoists," U.S. Ambassador James Moriarty told reporters. "The Maoists would, under the current situation, swing a lot of weight because they have the weapons and the parties do not."
Mr. Chalmers, of International Crisis Group, has argued for the formation of a group consisting of India, the United States, Britain and the United Nations to prepare for a small international ceasefire-monitoring mission as well as a channel of communication with the rebels.
The Maoists, whose rhetoric contains numerous communist references to class warfare and social inequality, say that in their "people’s war" they are liberating the population from a caste system, giving women equal rights, and overthrowing an oppressive monarchy.
Critics of the Maoists point to human-rights abuses such as many extrajudicial killings, and also alleged rapes and conscription at gunpoint. The European Union has sharply criticized the Maoists for using children as soldiers.
In the summer of 2004, the rebels abducted hundreds of schoolchildren on the outskirts of Kathmandu for week-long "re-education."
Although no longer considered relevant in China, Mao Zedong’s revolutionary-peasant brand of communism still has adherents around the world, mostly in Southeast Asia.
Nicknamed Shampoo "because he brainwashed people," philosophy professor Abimael Guzman founded the rebel movement in the 1970s. It began trying to impose communism on Peru by burning ballot boxes on the eve of democratic elections in 1980.
A government truth commission in 2003 blamed Shining Path for 54 per cent of an estimated 69,280 deaths by rebel groups and the military in the 1980s and 1990s. The group was largely crushed in 1992 with Mr. Guzman’s arrest, but several hundred diehards remain holed up in Andean and jungle areas.
The Indian Maoist rebel group was born in the south in 1980 and its network has since spread to 14 other states. Authorities estimate the Naxalites have about 9,300 fighters and have launched more than a dozen assaults on government targets in the past year. They are most active in areas predominated by ethnic minorities who have benefited little from rich mineral resources in their areas.
New People’s Army
The rebel group has been fighting for a Maoist state in the Philippines for three decades. Its roots can be traced from the Hukbalahap, a resistance group formed during the Second World War Japanese occupation.
Starting out with 60 fighters and 34 rifles, the NPA quickly spread throughout the Philippine Islands during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and helped in his downfall. Estimated to have about 8,000 fighters, the rebels are blamed for 40,000 deaths.