With the collapse of the ceasefire and peace talks between government and Maoist insurgents, Nepal appears to be in for months more of bloody fighting. There are prospects for eventual resumption of negotiations since neither side can realistically expect a military victory, and there are indications of what a diplomatic compromise might look like. However, the international community needs to urge all sides toward compromise and press the government to restore democracy, bring the political parties back into the picture and control the army’s tendency to commit serious abuses when conducting operations. Similarly, the Maoists should discontinue targeted assassinations, bombing and widespread extortion.
The country quickly plunged back into the violence that has killed more than 7,000 people since February 1996. Sharp splits between government negotiators and the Maoists, particularly over a possible constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, led the Maoists to withdraw officially from the ceasefire on 27 August 2003. They marked the end of the ceasefire by shooting two Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) colonels, one fatally, in Kathmandu the next day, and violence quickly erupted across the country. In the weeks following the break down of the ceasefire, more than 500 people have died. Yet, in many ways, the official end of the ceasefire was almost a formality. Both government and Maoist forces were in regular violation of the code of conduct that was supposed to govern their activities during the halt in fighting, and both sides suspected the other of planning an imminent attack. The Maoists continued to recruit heavily and practice widespread extortion, and fired on a motorcade of former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba on 26 August 2003. Government forces continued to make their presence felt throughout the countryside, and in what would appear to be a gross violation of international law, summarily executed at least nineteen individuals they suspected of being Maoists on 17 August 2003 in the eastern village of Doramba, Ramechhap district.
As the conflict has resumed, the Maoists appear to be embracing an evolving strategy. Largely moving away from mass attacks on district police and army headquarters, the group has focused on attacks by smaller cells. This has included more widespread urban assassinations of army, police and party officials in an effort to tie security forces down in the cities. The Maoists have also expanded their activities in eastern Nepal and the Terai (the flatlands that border India), areas that had felt the crisis less acutely during earlier periods of fighting. The RNA, having significantly upgraded its firepower and improved base defences during the ceasefire, has claimed a number of successful offensives. Substantiating the battlefield claims of both sides remains difficult.
With both the Maoists and the RNA determined to use battlefield gains to secure leverage for future talks, the danger of a widening conflict are substantial. Further, and despite mounting international pressure for the palace and the political parties to work together, King Gyanendra still appears reluctant to install a genuine all-party government or fully restore the democratic process. Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa has expressed willingness to form such a government, but only under his leadership – a provision that will likely remain a deal-breaker with the main parties.
The return to violence is all the more unfortunate because it is not difficult to imagine a series of agreements around which the king, RNA, political parties and Maoists could coalesce. A number of useful proposals have been put on the table, although far more remains to be done to flesh out the implementation of a reasonable peace deal, and dramatic improvements could be made in the negotiating process itself. It also remains clear that the sooner a genuine multi-party government is established and democracy restored, the higher the chance for a durable solution to the conflict.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 22 October 2003