Nepal's Maoists grow angry amid fears for peace

Nepal's former guerrillas grow increasingly angry amid worries over fragile peace process

by Tim Sullivan, AP News, June15, 2009


The former rebels pass their days on an old research farm now set behind a tall barbed-wire fence, a place of flimsy wooden buildings, weed-filled roads and laundry strung from the volleyball net.s

Or they wander through the dusty two-street town, some walking with limps that tell of battlefield injuries, of years spent fighting in the mountains. Many still wear jungle camouflage. They are bored, frustrated and increasingly angry.

Three years after war ended in Nepal, these former Maoist guerrillas remain in a U.N.-monitored camp and are among the biggest threats to the Himalayan nation's fragile peace.

"We don't want to go back to war, but we might have to," said a 35-year-old Maoist military commander who still goes by his nom de guerre, Pratik. He spent years fighting what the Maoists called the People's War, leaving his family to disappear into a bloody insurgency that cost Nepal some 13,000 lives and crippled the economy in an attempt to abolish the monarchy and usher in a communist state. "It's a fluid situation. Maybe we'll fight, maybe we won't," he said, smiling.

His former foot soldiers - there are more than 19,000 in U.N.-monitored camps scattered across Nepal - are far more blunt.

"We spent years fighting for the people. Now the government should be helping us with jobs, houses, everything. But they've already forgotten us," said a young woman who joined the Maoists at age 15 and now lives in a disarmament camp in Dastratpur, in the foothills of western Nepal. She spoke on condition that her name not be used, fearing retribution from her commanders.

She is nostalgic for her fighting days, when life seemed far simpler and Maoist guerrillas were the law through much of the countryside. "War? It would be good for us if the war began again."

"I wanted to change society," she continued. "We wanted equality: rich and poor, men and women, everyone."

Such rhetoric had strong appeal across much of Nepal, where per capita income is about $25 a month, illiteracy is widespread and vast social divides have left millions working as tenant farmers for feudal landlords. The mainstream political parties, meanwhile, are widely seen as inbred, corrupt and paralyzed by internal bickering.

So in 1996, the Maoists launched an insurgency that finally ended with a 2006 peace agreement. In the years since, the monarchy has been abolished and the Maoists have come into the political mainstream. They won 2008 elections, though they fell short of an outright parliamentary majority. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the top rebel leader, became prime minister.

But key commitments of the peace process remain unresolved. Most critically, little progress has been on a draft constitution to create a new government structure and the Maoist guerrillas - who were promised positions in Nepal's security forces, or help in returning to civilian society - remain stuck in their camps.

Chaos, very often, seems all too close.

Last month, Dahal tried to fire the head of the country's army, in part for not integrating the former guerrillas into the armed forces. When the president overruled his order, Dahal resigned as prime minister.

In the days since, the Maoists have repeatedly blocked parliamentary proceedings and launched protests that have closed government offices across the country. Their youth wing has become a widely feared urban force of violent protesters, and street clashes have become common.

So how close is war?

The Maoists' leaders insist they will press forward with the peace process, and most observers do not foresee an imminent return to all-out combat.

But the situation remains extremely unpredictable, and few in Nepal take the Maoists at their word when they declare they want peace. Last month, local TV stations played a video showing Dahal proudly telling a Maoist meeting that he had tricked the United Nations into believing there were far more Maoist guerrillas than actually exist - and that his party would eventually achieve total control of Nepal.

Meanwhile, a string of militant ethnic groups have sprung up over the past several years, many in regions that sent thousands of people into the Maoist army. Now, some fear, the former guerrillas could find homes in those groups, magnifying the bloodshed.

Then there are the disarmament camps, which are monitored by the U.N. but under the control of the Maoists themselves.

Karin Landgren, the head of the U.N. mission in Nepal, warned the U.N. Security Council last month that the lack of progress on the Maoist fighters was an "Achilles' heel of the peace process." The camps "were never intended to last this long," Landgren said in a Saturday interview. "Conditions are not the best, and the monsoon here can be very rough."

Most Nepalese politicians view the camps extremely warily, seeing them as a type of militant insurance policy, something the Maoists are keeping in reserve in case they find themselves politically shunted aside.

Certainly, there is little trust of the Maoists' intentions.

"There has been some suspicion ... that the Maoists are trying to capture power, trying to capture the military, that they want to put their Maoist military cadre inside the top positions of the Nepali military," Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal told the AP in an interview.

At the Dastratpur camp, Pratik said war may be thrust upon the former rebels. He spoke cryptically of powerful forces working against the Maoists. "The government is uncertain, other parties are making trouble. Suspects are everywhere," he said, declining to give any details.

But, he said, if it came to war his guerrillas would be ready. The peace agreement allows for weapons to be stored in well-locked containers in the disarmament camps.

The lock, though, will not be a problem: "There is only one key, and we have it."

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