Asia Program

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The Maoist Insurgency in Nepal: Challenges for Building Peace and Democracy

June 17, 2003 // 2:30pm5:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity

Nepal, still a nascent democracy, has suffered a number of severe knocks over the past 13 years since a national constitution was established in 1990. Today, one of the principal obstacles to democracy and stability in Nepal is the Maoist insurgency which began as a small, seemingly ineffectual protest in 1996, yet today controls much of the countryside and has managed to destroy 40 percent of the village development centers throughout the country. This panel of experts representing the U.S. government, Nepali journalists, and NGO representatives, came together to discuss the current situation, the root causes of the insurgency, and how both Nepal and the U.S. can move toward peace, stability, and democracy.

Michael Malinowski, U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, opened his remarks noting that “even in the best times, Nepal is a difficult country to govern.” The high mountains of Nepal (the Himalayan mountain range in Nepal boasts the highest peaks in the world) make it difficult to provide services, communicate, and move goods. If you combine these obstacles with the dynamics of rapid population growth and a lack of arable land, you are left with a nation of impoverished and suffering people. Malinowski also pointed out the effects the information explosion of the 1990s has had on the people. Social mores are disintegrating, people are travelling as never before, and with exposure to the outside world, are asking questions. All of these factors have combined to provide what Malinowski considers the root causes of the Maoist problem---social and economic unrest among the people.

The goal, Malinowski observed, is not to kill the Maoists (increasingly the Maoists are 14-16 year olds), but to reintegrate them into society. To accomplish this, there are 4 areas that need to be addressed:

1. Consensus building among the legal forces in the country---the palace, political parties, civil society, and journalists. “In this area the U.S. wants to have influence, but it is here where the Nepalis must figure it out for themselves,” said Malinowski.
2. Address the root causes of the conflict by making Nepal a fairer society. The most important way to accomplish this, according to Malinowski, is to create jobs. Here, the United States can help with money directed at stimulating economic and social development in Nepal. The U.S. has already increased aid this year from $24 million to $38 million. Malinowski stressed that this aid money should be “made relevant to the insurgency.”
3. Strengthen security for the people of Nepal. A government’s first responsibility is to provide security for its people. The government needs to step up security, particularly in the rural areas where citizens are most vulnerable. Military pressure needs to be put on the Maoists.
4. International statements in support of Nepal.

Despite the fact that Nepal is across the globe and has little geo-strategic importance for the United States, the U.S. should and will play a positive role in the effort to stabilize Nepal.
While the U.S. can make a contribution to Nepal’s future, Malinowski maintained that the U.S. would not be the appropriate mediator in the negotiations with the Maoists, given that the Maoist rhetoric is anti-American and anti-west. The role of mediator should be played by a regional group.

Kanak Mani Dixit, Editor of Himal South Asian, a magazine based in Kathmandu, focused his remarks on the political parties of Nepal. He pointed out that 12 years is not a long time to make democracy work, particularly in a nation with no experience in parliamentary government and with the complexity of several layers---the King, the military, and the political parties. Dixit presented a surprisingly optimistic view of the current situation by pointing out the successes of the early 1990s since the founding of the constitutional monarchy: specifically, the freedom of the press and the success of elected village and district councils in decentralized decision-making on development. Dixit underlined that while the political parties have made mistakes and have been marred by corruption, the parties and the parliamentary system must be given power for the sake of the political stability of the country.

Turning to the question of why the Maoists decided to “come above ground,” Dixit credited such internal factors as diminishing returns of violence, the resiliency of the state, and disorganization among the Maoists. The reaction and support by the United States, the UK, and India also contributed to the Maoists’ willingness to negotiate. As for the future, according to Dixit, it is important that the Maoists not fracture so that if they disarm, the message is delivered down the line and followed. Dixit also agreed with Malinowski that it is important that the establishment (the political parties and the palace) speak with a unified voice.

Deepak Thapa, an editor with the Himal Association, emphasized that Maoist control is pervasive with 73 districts experiencing Maoist activity and killings. The government has never really had a presence in the rural areas aside from police posts with 3-4 officers, so it was relatively easy for the Maoists to seize control. While the ceasefire is holding, it is not clear whether the Maoists intend to work with the political parties. What is clear is that they are against the monarchy. Thapa said that ironically, Nepal is fortunate it has Maoists, and not an ethnic war. Dixit too remarked that this conflict is an ideological conflict rather than one based on identity. With the many different ethnic groups in Nepal, the Maoists could have based their strategy on identity. In the end, Thapa said, “Constitutional change must be the order of the day.” All political change in the country must be made according to the 1990 constitution.

Jeffrey Key, Associate Professor of Government, Sweet Briar College, said that there is much we do not know about the situation in Nepal. We don’t know the capabilities or the long-term intentions of the Maoists. We don’t know the dynamics of the reconstituted royal family, nor the health of the political parties. What we do know is that Nepal is in the midst of a revolution in the sense that since 1990, Nepal has been undergoing radical change and that often such “revolutions” take decades. He cautioned that the ceasefire should not therefore be viewed as the beginning of the end, but rather the beginning of a process toward what will hopefully be an inclusive system of government. Professor Key made a number of recommendations for future action: 1. A frank dialogue among all the players about what the government should look like. 2. Expanded support for NGOs and rule of law projects.
3. More support of social scientists in Nepal (Dixit also made this point). 4. The rebuilding of local institutions in Nepal (also reiterated by the other panelists) and 5. Increased assistance to the military. Key felt the military needs the ability to put pressure on the Maoists to provide security for the citizenry.



Robert Hathaway, Asia Program Director, 202/691-4012
Drafted by Lauren Crowley

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