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Nepal Marks 8th Anniversary of Maoist Rebellion - 2004-02-14

Nepal is marking the anniversary of eight years of an anti-monarchy revolt led by Maoist rebels, which has killed more than 8,800 people. The insurgency poses the biggest threat yet to the stability of the tiny kingdom tucked in the Himalayan Mountains. Violence scarred Nepal the week that marked the eighth anniversary of the Maoist uprising. Bombs hurled at a passenger bus killed and wounded several people, a general strike called by the rebels shut down the country on Thursday, and the government tightened security in fear of more attacks.

The strike and the attacks came as Maoists said they are preparing for a final push in their fight against the monarchy.

The Maoist struggle erupted in 1996 to replace the world's only Hindu kingdom with a communist republic. The government has made little headway in countering the rebels, who now control nearly one quarter of the countryside, and frequently attack government and military targets.

Yuvraj Ghimre, political editor of Nepal's leading Kantipur newspaper, says the insurgency has made people weary in one of the world's poorest countries.

"They [public] are not quite happy about it, they want [a] negotiated and peaceful solution of the whole problem," he said. "They have criticized the Maoists for acts of terror that they have been unleashing on the country."

Two attempts at holding peace negotiations with the rebels have failed, mainly because the rebels did not compromise on their demand for redrafting the country's constitution.

Violence has surged since the last round of peace talks collapsed in August. Authorities say since then more than 1,600 people have been killed.

But fresh efforts to tackle the rebellion have been set back by political turmoil in Nepal. The country has been ruled by a pro-monarchy administration since King Gyanendra dismissed a popular government a year and a half ago, and assumed executive powers. In recent months, the country's main political parties have been holding anti-monarchy protests, demanding the restoration of multiparty democracy.

Analysts say with the king and political parties locked in confrontation, the prospect of bringing back the Maoists to the negotiating table is becoming more distant.

Lok Raj Baral, Professor of Political Science at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, says that both the Maoists and political parties now want to see the king playing a smaller role in the country's politics.

"The Maoists and the political parties are likely to converge," said Lok Raj Baral. "The political parties are having a tough time with the palace, with the king. The king is very much determined to go along his own line."

However, some analysts feel there is room for hope. A stronger line taken against terrorism by South Asian countries in recent months has raised hopes that the Maoists - like some other rebel groups in the region - will be ultimately persuaded to join a peace process.

India recently handed over two top Nepalese Maoist leaders arrested in the country to authorities in Kathmandu. It was part of efforts by New Delhi to address concerns in Nepal that Maoist leaders often take shelter in India.

Mr. Ghimre says the increasing cooperation among South Asian countries on issues of terrorism is an encouraging trend.

"I think there is a collective need that countries in the South Asia region are realizing to defeat this process [of terrorism]," he said. "If this happens, Maoists will be under pressure to join a peaceful process."

But for the time being, the insurgency is having a devastating impact in rural areas, where rebels have been blamed for scores of kidnappings and widespread extortion. Mr. Baral says this has spread fear across villages, prompting many to flee their homes.

"Many people are leaving, fleeing their villages and trying to get shelter elsewhere," added Lok Raj Baral. "And it has been said that about 1,500 people leave their villages in the eastern hills everyday"

And as the Maoist rebellion continues, the once peaceful kingdom appears to have slid into a long, bloody conflict that could take years to resolve.