Ambassador Kedar ShresthaNepal Confronts Growing Insurgency
Nepalese Ambassador Kedar Shrestha has a message for the internationalcommunity: â€œYou will have to bear with us.â€
by Craig Mauro, in Washington Diplomat magazine, May 2005
When King Gyanendra dismissed the government, suspended fundamentalrights and declared a state of emergency on Feb. 1 to confront astrengthening Maoist insurgency, several countries condemned the move andcalled for a restoration of democracy. India and the United Kingdom, twoof Nepalâ€™s oldest and most important allies, suspended military aid tothe mountain kingdom. The United States and Denmark were consideringdoing the same. Shrestha, who became envoy to Washington about seven months ago, isunapologetic, saying the kingâ€™s actions were necessary to bring peace toa country bloodied by an insurgency that has become increasingly acuteand lethal in the past few years. â€œFor some time, we will have to curtail some civil liberties, we willhave to clamp down on human rights, we will have to put a few peoplebehind bars, which may not be very pleasing to Western countries, but wehave to take these measures,â€ says Shrestha, a career diplomat with morethan 40 years of experience in Europe, South Asia and the United States. â€œItâ€™s not as if tanks rolled into a functioning parliament and puteverybody under house arrest or started killing people,â€ he continues.â€œNothing like that happened. If anything, the action on Feb. 1 was seenby many, many people as a relief and hope that it may bring peace. Peaceis needed now in our country more than anything else. Once we have peace,then we can talk about other things, like democracy and human rights.This is for strengthening democracy in the long run.â€ King Gyanendra remains committed to multiparty democracy and upholdinghuman rights, Shrestha says, and he has pledged to hold elections withinthree years. So far, however, no clear roadmap for reaching that goal hasbeen annunciated. What is clear is that Nepalâ€™s Maoist insurgency,launched in 1996, is getting more powerful. Donald Camp, principal deputy assistant secretary for South Asianaffairs at the U.S. State Department, told a House committee in Januarythat Nepal confronts the â€œreal possibilityâ€ of the Maoists seizing power.â€œIn recent years the Maoist presence has spread dramatically throughoutNepal,â€ Camp said. â€œThe Maoists have made clear their intention to imposea one-party â€˜peopleâ€™s republic,â€™ collectivize agriculture, â€˜re-educateâ€™class enemies, and export their revolution to neighboring states. Thehumanitarian ramifications of such a regime would be immense, reminiscentof the nightmare brought upon Cambodia by Pol Pot.â€ About 11,000 people have been killed in the conflict, Shrestha says. TheMaoists use bombings, road blockades and extortion of businesses,institutions and even schools to wage war against the government andNepalâ€™s constitutional monarchy. Kidnapping, torture and conscription ofchildrenâ€”one from each family in villages that they raidâ€”are alsotactics. â€œLast year as many as 10,000 schoolchildren and teachers wereabducted for periods of up to seven days. They try to indoctrinate themand send them back,â€ Shrestha says. The Maoists have also had success in calling general strikes across thecountry, threatening shopkeepers and business owners with reprisals ifthey try to stay open. To protest the kingâ€™s clampdown, the rebels calledan 11-day strike in April that news reports said had affected much of thecountry except the capital. â€œThey try to paralyze the country, stop supplies from coming into thebig cities, especially the Katmandu valley, the capital, but this has notproven very effective,â€ Shrestha says. â€œThey stop day-to-day life to acertain extent, but they have not been successful in winning over theminds of the people, because the people are fed up by these blockades andstrikes happening every week or every other week.â€ The ambassador says there are an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 â€œhardcoreâ€rebels, plus about 12,000 to 15,000 â€œmilitiaâ€ on whom they can call. â€œButthat is a very rough estimate,â€ he cautions. â€œThey seem to come in largenumbers, but how hardcore they are, how well-trained they are, howwilling they are to fight is difficult to establish.â€ Their guerrilla-style tactics make it difficult to combat the rebelsmilitarily, Shrestha adds. â€œThey hit and run,â€ he says. â€œThey have thisadvantage of surprise and assimilation. They surprise you in the dark ofthe night and then they disappear and immediately mix in with the commonpeople. They are just not there.â€ Nevertheless, the Maoists suffered a major blow on April 7 whengovernment forces repelled a rebel assault on an army base in the remotewestern district of Rukum. The rebels attacked with rocket launchers andmortars, but officials said more than 100 of them were killed. Thegovernment said three of its troops died. â€œWe havenâ€™t seen this type of battle for quite some time now. The factthat the insurgents had so many casualties goes to show that a) thegovernment forces are stronger, and b) that the morale or management ororganization of the insurgents has grown weaker,â€ Shrestha says. â€œTheywill have to think again deeply about their mode of operations. Thisshould send the message to them that itâ€™s not in their long-term interestto keep on fighting. They cannot sustain these kinds of casualties forever.â€ Shrestha denies that the rebels have gained control of large swaths ofterritory or that they have broad popular support, although he said theydo have strongholds in remote parts of the country, particularly in thewest, where the insurgency originated. â€œItâ€™s not likely that theyâ€™llseize power, but their influence could grow if we do not address thisproblem squarely.â€ The ambassador says the governmentâ€™s strategy for containing theinsurgency focuses first on political dialogue, even though the Maoistshave twice broken cease-fires during peace talks in 2001 and 2003. â€œThey are Nepalese, and we want them to be in the national politicalmainstream. We donâ€™t want to exclude them. Weâ€™re telling them, â€˜Sit atthe negotiating table and letâ€™s see what we can agree on,â€™â€ Shresthasays. â€œWe have been doing that all these years, but it looks like theyare not coming to the negotiating table. They want to fight it out. Ifthat is the case, then we have no option. But the door is always open forthem to come to negotiations.â€ Reducing poverty will also be an important part of the governmentâ€™sstrategy. â€œThat is how they started to build their base. Poverty,backwardness, this is what the Maoist are feeding upon,â€ Shrestha says.â€œPoverty alleviation has been one of the major thrusts of our economicplanning. We want to give the basic necessities of life, like food andshelter, education, health, transportation. To do all of that, we needpeace first.â€ Human rights groups have accused Nepalese security forces of illegaldetentions, torture and extrajudicial executions, issues that U.S. andU.K. officials say they have pressed Nepalâ€™s government on. The kingâ€™sactions on Feb. 1 raised further concern among some of Nepalâ€™s keyforeign donors, which account for half of the countryâ€™s development budget. The United States and United Kingdom recalled their ambassadors in mid-February for consultations. A week later the United Kingdom suspended arecently approved $2.5 million military grant package that would haveincluded equipment for surveillance aircraft and several dozen landvehicles. Camp, the U.S. State Department official, told Congress thatthe United States is considering a similar step. U.S. security aid toNepal this fiscal year is about $2 millionâ€”one-twentieth the amount theUnited States gives to the country in economic and social aid. Shrestha says such steps would prove counterproductive, although theywonâ€™t cripple Nepalâ€™s armed forces. â€œThis will only embolden the Maoistsand strengthen them. It may weaken the morale of the state forces,â€ hesays. â€œAll these activities could end up helping the terrorist groupsrather than bring about peace.â€ On April 11, the government agreed to allow U.N. human rights monitorsinto Nepal. The move, which came as the U.N. Human Rights Commissionâ€™sannual session got under way in Geneva, was seen as an attempt to headoff a resolution condemning the kingâ€™s takeover. The U.N. bodyâ€™s chiefand Nepalâ€™s foreign minister signed an agreement that would set up anoffice in the country as soon as possible. Camp told Congress that the United States is â€œdeeply troubledâ€ by thekingâ€™s actions, but he also acknowledged that initial reaction from manyNepalese was positive, â€œreflecting widespread frustration and despairover the years of political impasse as the Maoists gained strength.â€ Indeed, Nepalese politics have been turbulent since democracy wasrestored in 1990 following more than two decades of a â€œpartylessâ€ systembased on local governing councils that effectively granted absolute powerto the monarchy. In the second half of the â€™90s, while the insurgency wascoalescing, five unstable coalition governments successively ran Nepal.Between 1999 and 2002, there were three prime ministers. The politicalinstability has continued in the last three years, as the Maoistsgathered strength. â€œAll the governments for all these years, especially during the lastfour, five, six years, do not seem to have been keen to address thismajor issue of the Maoist insurgency,â€ Shrestha says. â€œInstead of findinga solution, the issue has become more serious and acute. The country hasbeen suffering a lot, and there was no sign of a solution. The king hadto make a very bold decision and take the reins of the government intohis own hands.â€ After Feb. 1, the government put several opposition leaders, includingformer prime ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba and Girija Prasad Koirala,under house arrest, although they were released from the restrictionslast month. Shrestha says the move was ordered to prevent an outburst ofpolitical violence in the streets. â€œIt was also for their own safety,â€ headds. â€œWhen violence starts, you never know how it will end up.â€ Hundreds of opposition members have also been arrested for holding orplanning demonstrations, which are illegal under the state of emergencyimposed by the king. Shrestha says most are released shortly after theirarrest. â€œItâ€™s big news after we arrest them, but when we release themafter a couple of hours or a couple of days, the news doesnâ€™t get thatmuch publicity.â€ The government has also tightened its grip on the press, censoringâ€œanything that would help the insurgents,â€ Shrestha says. â€œSometimesthere are exaggerations in the press [that] are not entirely helpful.â€The ambassador says controls have been greatly relaxed since the daysimmediately following Feb. 1 and that the media is now â€œlively andcritical of the government.â€ Shrestha admits that the kingâ€™s clampdown may have helped to unify thepolitical opposition, but he insists that the move has significantpopular support. â€œ[Supportive] groups are not well organized, so you donot hear their voices as much as you hear the oppositionâ€™s voice,â€Shrestha says. â€œThere are many people who are supportive of the kingâ€™saction. Most people in Nepal want peace now because they are fed up withall the violence and destruction of the last nine years.â€ Shrestha, who has served before in Washington and Brussels and at theUnited Nations, has spent much of his first few months on the jobmanaging diplomacy related to the insurgency and the kingâ€™s moves. Hesays that if the issue wasnâ€™t consuming most of his energy now, hispriorities would be increasing trade between Nepal and the United States,and bringing more U.S. investment and tourists to Nepal. â€œWe are not giving up on that,â€ Shrestha says. â€œFor the time being, itmay be difficult. We are still trying hard to convince Americans [totrade, visit and invest in Nepal], because in the long run we have to tryto build a strong base for if and when things improve.â€
Craig Mauro is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.