NEPAL, 20 Feb 2006 (IRIN) - Nepal's brutal conflict between Maoist insurgents and security forces has exacted a heavy toll on the civilian population, especially those in contested hill districts, many of whom already live near or on the global poverty threshold. An estimated 12,000 people have been killed since the Maoist faction of the Communist Party of Nepal, officially launched its "people's war" in February 1996.
A local human rights watchdog claims that a quarter of those deaths occurred in 2004, after an escalation in the violence following the collapse of a ceasefire the year before.
Nepal faced the prospect of renewed conflict in January 2006, when armed followers of the Maoist faction of the Communist Party of Nepal ended a four-month unilateral ceasefire. The Maoists launched their armed rebellion against the state in 1996 and ended their latest ceasefire in response to King Gyanendra's failure to reciprocate. Nepalis living outside the capital, Kathmandu, remain hostage to a climate of impunity that has evolved over the last decade. They are caught between local Maoist commanders and a security regime that has often operated beyond the confines of the law.
Civilians, especially those in heavily contested rural districts, have been exposed to a catalogue of abuses at the hands of both sides. The Maoists have killed, intimidated or coerced local government officials, such as local village leaders, teachers and political workers. They have harassed civilians suspected of having government or military sympathies and abducted school children into their indoctrination programmes. They have also restricted freedom of movement of civilians, extorted money or demanded taxes for goods and services. This has had implications for agricultural and livestock production, food security and market access.
Equally bleak is the record of the armed forces and police, with evidence of arbitrary arrests, detention, disappearance, torture and summary executions. The Nepalese army has been singled for particular criticism by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. In the last two years, Nepal has also had the highest number of disappearances reported to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
The physical and psycho-social effects on families, children and women who have witnessed or been subject to violations and attacks will reverberate for years to come. Teachers and school children have been badly affected. The head teacher of a school in Rukum district, 300 km northwest of Kathmandu, said that children could barely concentrate on their studies for fear of being abducted by Maoists, or being visited by the security forces. "Those who think they are targets for abductions, or torture or mishandling, may just leave for India," he said.
Local human rights groups have been limited to what they can achieve in such a hostile context. However, their morale was boosted with the arrival of a UN human rights team in May 2005. Headed by Ian Martin, the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been tasked to monitor and report on human rights violations related to the conflict. Martin said that while the Nepalese army was not always happy with the mission, cooperation was forthcoming, especially on access to detainees in army custody. "At scrutiny here is the performance of the RNA [Royal Nepalese Army]. And they take pride in their UN peacekeeping role -- so I think we have considerable influence," he said.
Pockets of vulnerability
While aid officials have maintained there is not a humanitarian crisis in Nepal, there is genuine concern that local conditions could deteriorate to warrant greater assistance. Local communities were "very vulnerable, very poor and could be pushed over from a tolerable, manageable situation into a real crisis," said Mark Segal, conflict adviser with the Department for International Development in Kathmandu.
In Rukum district, farmers complained that their greatest obstacle was the ability to move freely about the district. The Maoists restricted movement, especially to the army-controlled town. This has deprived farmers of vital supplies, seeds, the ability to graze livestock unhindered, and most importantly, access to the local market.
Displacement and migration
An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people are thought to have been internally displaced. Largely from rural communities, they have fled from targeted attacks, violence and increased economic hardship. The majority live with relatives in temporary abodes, or on abandoned plots in district or regional towns, or in the capital. Few statistics are available, not least because most displaced people would not want to attract the attention of the security forces. Up to 2 million people are thought to have left, migrating to India or beyond.
Women displaced by conflict were especially vulnerable. The coordinator of a local NGO in Rukum district, said that a number of displaced women had resorted to distilling alcohol and to being sex workers. This phenomenon was likely to increase if the conflict continued. Human trafficking across the border with India had also increased, according to a local NGO monitoring movement of girls.
Future humanitarian action?
According to one aid official, Nepal lay on a line between sudden humanitarian crisis on the one hand, and reconciliation to the conflict on the other. Aid officials have been paying close attention to political developments in Kathmandu. Most are aware that unless there is a resolution to the political impasse, ongoing assistance can offer little more than "a holding pattern".
It was unrealistic to think that a major difference could be made to the conditions of the population until there was peace, said Segal. "Peace is the thing. It is the continuation of the conflict which is really destroying or limiting the impact of development to improve people's lives," he said.
Analysts in Kathmandu have claimed that ending the tremendous suffering and misery of the Nepali people is not impossible. Kunda Dixit, prominent editor of the Nepali Times, said that ending the military stalemate and political deadlock required "a bit of vision and statesmanship on the part of the king, and some understanding on the rebel side that violence and conflict is not going to lead them anywhere".
The Maoists appear to have understood this message. Analysts in Kathmandu claim that the February 2005 royal coup has presented the insurgents with a chance to enter mainstream politics. In September 2005, the Maoist leadership announced a unilateral ceasefire, which eased conditions for those living in contested areas. In November, the Maoists met the seven main opposition parties in New Delhi and agreed on a peace process that would restore democracy and end direct rule by the monarchy. Despite peace-seeking efforts from the united front of Maoist and other political parties by extending the ceasefire and by holding one of the largest pro-democracy rallies ever held in the capital in early December, King Gyanendra, failed to respond. The Maoists curtailed their ceasefire at the end of the year resulting in the official resumption of conflict at the start of 2006 with dire socio-economic and humanitarian implications for the new year.
What happens next in Kathmandu is likely to determine the course of the conflict. The resumption of fighting between Maoist insurgents and the security forces will have a direct impact on communities in rural districts. However, even a protracted stalemate will pose challenges for donors and aid agencies trying to reach the most affected. Unless there is marked improvement in the political and military situation, the need for more intensive humanitarian engagement may grow.