The assassination of the chief of Nepal’s armed police force, Krishna Mohan Shrestha, and his wife on January 26, 2003, may have shocked but did not come as a surprise in the Kathmandu valley. The Maoists’ all-pervading presence in the valley can be gauged from the success of the bandhs called by them. Considering the Maoists’ track record of brinkmanship — offering to hold talks and then attacking the security forces — the attack on Shrestha may be seen as their way of pressing for talks, on their own terms.
Since the dismissal of the Sher Bahadur Deuba government on October 4, 2002, the Palace has shown little interest in calling for fresh elections. Also, the country’s political parties are too busy squabbling among themselves to make a strong united appeal for the restoration of democracy. But arch rivals in the Nepal Congress, Deuba and G.P. Koirala, agreed to postpone the elections slated for November 15, 2002, since no party could hope to campaign in 35 of the 75 districts without the sanction of the Maoists.
The West has recently stepped up military aid to Nepal — the United States of America has sent military experts to impart training to the Nepalese army, as well as 5,000 M-16 rifles; 5,600 Minimi rifles have also come from Belgium. But can this help resolve a conflict that has cost over 7,000 lives since April 1996' Hardly. Military aid will not strengthen the weak edifice of the state of Nepal. In the past, the Maoists have always got the better of the Nepali army. Also, one can be sure that before long, these sophisticated weapons will fall into the hands of the Maoists.
Indeed, the situation in Nepal has been steadily worsening. The army is losing out to the Maoists even in those areas where it had some support earlier, because of its penchant for torture and extrajudicial executions. Many instances have been reported of civilians using the army to settle personal scores by accusing others of being Maoist activists.
The army’s immunity from the legal consequences as far as human rights abuses are concerned is best illustrated by the January 21, 2003, decision of the Nepal supreme court to question the incumbent prime minister. Lokendra Bahadur Chand was hauled up in court on a contempt proceeding for not having released detainees held on charges of being Maoists.
The court had ordered the release of an advocate, Narayan Adhikari, arrested under the anti-terrorism legislation on charges of being a Maoist more than a year ago. Though the home ministry denied he was in custody, Adhikari’s family claimed that he had been shifted to Nakhu jail from Hanumandhoka immediately after the court issued orders for his release. The court felt the government had made a mockery of itself by defying its orders.
Recently, the government sought to placate the Maoists by refraining from labelling them “terrorists”. The Maoist leader, Prachanda, reciprocated by saying that the Maoists were ready for talks. But what has the use of the term “terrorists” to do with the dialogue'
The root of the conflict is the Maoists’ quest for political power in Kathmandu. It has been aggravated by the extreme poverty, feudalism, misgovernance and rampant corruption in the country. Public anger over political parties is reflected in the lack of response to the dismissal of the Deuba government and the subsequent arrest of Khum Bahadur Khadka, a former home minister, and Jayaprakash Prasad Gupta, a former information minister, on October 30, 2002.
The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, has been trying to mediate between the Maoists and the government. He sent two representatives to Nepal in January 2003. However, the king, supported by American arms and experts, shows little interest in restoring democracy and hence, peace appears elusive. Unless the king and the political parties shed their complacence and talk to the Maoists, both the palace and the democrats will soon lose all credibility.