A Convenient Emergency
Nepal uses Sept. 11 as a
pretext for repression and war
by Barbara Nimri Aziz
Toward Freedom magazine,
February / March 2002
How could remote Nepal - and the shocking
murder of its king and members of the royal family last June -
be connected with the global response to Sept. 11? One obvious
link is the recent declaration by Nepal s King Gyanendra, successor
to his murdered elder brother Birendra, that the country's six-year-old
rebel movement is "a terrorist organization." With this
announcement, Nepal, like India, Israel, Pakistan, Colombia, and
other regimes that may find the label useful in squashing public
opposition to their policies, fell into line with the US-led strategy
of routing out all resistance to its dictates.
At the same time he declared that Maoist
insurgents were "terrorists," the king announced a state
of emergency across the country, along with plans to buy updated
weapons from India and the US for his army. The "emergency"
also expands King Gyanendra's powers as monarch, cancels press
freedom, and forbids any meetings and discussions critical of
Since late last summer, the Nepalese army
has been mobilized and ready to move against the growing insurgency.
This followed the monarch's appointment of a new prime minister.
Gyanendra-a man with no prior political experience or ambitions
- also announced that he intended to take a more active, political
role in government. That was a shift. After the restoration of
democracy in 1990, his brother was removed from involvement in
the nation's governance, with the significant exception of remaining
commander-in-chief of the army..
Official explanations that the June 1,
2()01, palace massacre resulted from a family dispute were never
accepted. by the Nepalese public, who suspected a power struggle
lay behind the murders. They knew about the controversies inside
the court and military leadership concerning how to handle the
At first, after the trauma precipitated
by the massacre, things looked hopeful. The new prime minister
entered negotiations with the rebels in what appeared to be a
recognition of the Maoist's power and influence. But the talks
led nowhere, and immediately after they broke down, the Maoists
launched a series of attacks to expand their control over more
of the countryside and challenge the new king. The rebels went
after police posts and government offices, "liberating"
villages by installing a new administration, redistributing land
confiscated from landlords who fled, assigning teachers to schools,
distributing welfare, and so forth.
In November, after a bombing in Kathmandu
attributed to the rebels, the army began to move against them
with increased urgency. This came at a time when a new status
quo was in place across the world-the "war on terrorism"
led by the US.
In the Dec. 23 issue of Revolutionary
Worker, Li Onesto, who closely follows Nepal's Maoist movement,
described recent events. "After the Sept. 11 attack on the
World Trade Center in New York," she wrote, "the Foreign
Minister of India made a point of calling the Maoists in Nepal
terrorists-a label that, up to then, had not been used."
The same day that the king announced the state of emergency, the
US Embassy issued a statement approving "the use of force
by the government to counter growing Maoist violence." The
endorsement came with a US offer to supply Nepal with modern,
fully armed helicopters.
Despite the army's preparations, the Maoist
campaign expanded. Beginning in late November, "the people's
army carried out actions in more than 2() of the country's 75
district headquarters," Onesto reported. In a western district,
guerrillas attacked the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) for the first
time, killing 14 soldiers and nine police officers. Government
offices were ransacked, cash was taken from banks, and 37 prisoners
were freed from jail. In Syangja, another western location, about
1000 rebels raided a police post and destroyed an airport and
Then, on Nov. 25, near Mt. Everest, hundreds
of guerrillas engaged in a six-hour battle with government police
and soldiers. The state of emergency was declared and the Maoists
were branded terrorists. Onesto quotes a former army officer as
saying that, with the emergency powers, "the army can do
anything it wants-shoot at people, use bombs, arrest people."
Little news of these developments was
reported, even though the international press was present for
a recent meeting of South Asian heads of state in Kathmandu. According
to Onesto, "The government and military are keeping strict
control over information given to the press ... but it is clear
that fierce two-sided battles have continued." Government
press releases say that hundreds of Maoists have been killed and
hundreds more arrested, but journalists have been barred from
areas where fighting is taking place.
On Dec. 9, rebels attacked a communications
tower in Rolpa, igniting a seven-hour fight with the RNA. A helicopter
carrying reinforcements was damaged by rebel fire. Two days later,
guerrillas attacked the Tumlingtar airport in the eastern hills.
There were also reports of RNA soldiers being ambushed. According
to Onesto, one official said that the only way security forces
could avoid ambushes was to move into many areas through the air.
It must be troubling for the generals
to witness the ease with which rebel actions are carried out.
This couldn't happen without considerable local support. Certainly,
locals seem to offer little resistance to Maoist incursions, which
may explain the heavy government clampdown.
"The right to assembly has been suspended,
and 'terrorists' and suspected Maoist supporters can be given
life imprisonment," reports Onesto. "Police can conduct
searches without warrants, and the right to information, free
speech, and privacy has been suspended." Medical personnel
have been warned not to treat wounded Maoists, and a "shoot
on sight" order has been issued for anyone seen putting up
posters or other material sympathetic to the Maoists.
The new, expanded role of the Nepalese
army in the war against dissent could be linked to last June's
palace massacres. The Maoist movement had been steadily growing,
and posed a serious problem for the government, one the late king
refused to settle militarily.
Focusing on the escalation of conflict
after Sept. 11, and seeing how Washington endorsed similar actions
by Israel against Palestinian dissent and supported India's demands
against Pakistani-based dissidents, you might conclude that Nepal's
serious problems are only recent developments. In fact, they began
soon after the restoration of democracy in late 1990. A series
of elected, but incompetent and corrupt, governments refused to
initiate real economic and social reform. Poverty increased, agricultural
production fell, and despair spread.
The Maoists, who emerged only after 1994,
found fertile soil among the poor for their campaign of land reform
and anti-corruption. As they gained recruits from the impoverished
and disillusioned, steadily expanding their territory, the elected
government became weaker.
Doubtless, part of the reason no strong
action was taken against the insurgents was the widespread sympathy
and admiration they enjoyed, even among the urban middle class.
In keeping the military out of the conflict, the late king may
have believed the solution lay in the new democratic process.
With the installation of the new leader,
the RNA got a freer hand to move against the insurgents. And,
it appears that, in King Gyanendra, they've found a commander
whose sentiments fit their own. With the US
assault on its foes, Nepal's leader now
has international backing. In command not far from the borders
of Central Asia, and sharing a border with China, his loyalty
to Washington may come in handy in the not too distant future.
Barbara Nimri Aziz is a regular contributor
to TF. Her new book, Heir to A Silent Song, Two Rebel Women of