KATHMANDU: Seven weeks after the massacre of Nepal’s King, Queen, and others in the royal family by the crown prince, the country seems to be coming apart in violence. Seventy Nepali police are held captive by Maoist guerrillas, against whom Nepal’s army are now fighting for the first time. Bomb explosions have brought the rebellion into Kathmandu, the capital, helping to force the resignation of Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, who seemingly controlled a solid parliamentary majority. Will Nepal’s chaos bring the world’s last Maoists to power? The timing of the royal massacre could not have been worse for this kingdom of 23 million people wedged into the Himalayas between Asia’s two mutually suspicious giants – China and India. With over 70 different population groups packed within it, Nepal was seen as held together by its monarchy. That picture may or may not have been accurate, but the royal family undoubtedly was the one constant in Nepal’s fluid politics. Nepal’s political instability has its roots in a parliament that, since its restoration in 1990 after a three-decade hiatus, has failed to solidify a dominant role. Over the past eleven years ten different governments, half of them coalitions of political parties of all types, have come and gone. Since 1999, the Congress party has controlled an absolute parliamentary majority, yet intra-party wrangling has caused it to drift aimlessly. Scant economic development and a lazy bureaucracy mired in corruption work hand-in-hand with Nepal’s irresponsible political class to undermine public support for Nepal’s governmental system. None of this may sound out of the ordinary among developing countries, but there is a crucial difference here: five years ago an extreme left-wing group, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), began a violent uprising. The insurgents are active almost everywhere. Only a few remote mountain districts remain quiet. Nearly 1700 people have died in ambushes, killings of “class enemies,” and police operations. Five districts in west Nepal are controlled by the Maoists. By December 2000, the rebels had established their own ‘people’s government’ in these districts, complete with minor development projects, ‘people’s courts’ and social policing against alcoholism, usury and so on. Until the Maoists began their ‘People’s War’ in February 1996, they were but one among a dozen communist factions in Nepal. Since launching their rebellion, their progress has been phenomenal, due as much to ideology as to advocacy of the rights of ethnic communities marginalized by the state. This explains their strong hold on power in west Nepal with its large population of Magars, Nepal’s largest ethnic group. Since 1996 successive governments have responded with force to the Maoist threat. Perhaps the pitiful weaponry at first fielded by the Maoists inspired that choice, as victory seemed to be something that could be achieved overnight. But the Maoists soon captured better weapons during raids on the police. The Maoists also began to utilize booby-traps and other explosives. Training in the use of these, say the police, was provided by Maoist groups in India. More important, the Maoists also buy weapons from India’s illicit arms bazaar. Because Nepal’s police more or less declared that they cannot defeat the Maoists on their own, after much maneuvering, the government deployed the army under an Integrated Internal Security and Development Program (IISDP), reportedly modeled after the ‘hearts and mind’ strategy pursued by the United States during the Vietnam War. Nepal’s plan envisaged pursuing economic development projects with security for them provided by the army. Initially, the insurgents steered clear from confrontations with the soldiers. Now that the army has been dragged into the conflict, the prospects for peace are receding fast. A negotiated peace is, of course, the only alternative to violence and, goaded by public opinion, the government and the Maoists have made noises about holding negotiations. Hopes were raised last February when the Maoists held a national conference to outline their (still vague) plans and policies. Besides elevating their leader, who uses the
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