July 15, 2020
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View From Kathmandu

A Nation Under Siege

Much of the action is still going on in the hills and plains outside Kathmandu, but the detached complacency of the capital's denizens has now been shattered. The government's only response seems to be to impose curfews.

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A Nation Under Siege
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It has been more than two weeks since the end of the ceasefire between the government and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). When the rebels declared, on August 27, 2003, that there remained no justification for the seven-month-long truce, all had not seemed lost. Since they had not explicitly stated that the ceasefire had ended there still seemed a hint that it was a pressure ploy to force concessions out of the government. For its part, the government once again urged the Maoists to return to the negotiating table even while it declared that it was ready to face any new challenge.

But the very next day, August 28, the Maoists made clear their intent when they struck in the heart of Kathmandu. Two army colonels were shot, one of them fatally, sending the Kathmandu establishment in a tizzy over what could follow. Even more brazen was the attack the next day on a former state Minister for Home Affairs, Devendra Raj Kandel. It was during Kandel's tenure that the Nepali government had declared the Maoists 'terrorists' and announced rewards for the capture or killing of top Maoist leaders. Although Kandel survived the assassination attempt, there was no doubt now where the Maoists were going to focus their attention - Kathmandu.

In fact, during the ceasefire, the Maoists had made it quite clear that Kathmandu would not be spared in the next round of fighting, should the hostilities resume. Maoist leaders had proclaimed as much in their public pronouncements as well as in private conversations. In the preceding seven years, the capital had seen only occasional bombings, and these had not done much damage. The killings and sabotage had been overwhelmingly limited to the rural hinterland.

In a repeat of what the country saw in the initial days of the nine-month emergency imposed in November 2001, an average toll of 10 Maoists killed has been reported every day in various encounters since the breakdown of the peace process. There have, however, not been any major battles so far. The one exception was in the western Nepal district of Rolpa, in the heart of Maoist country, when a 'long-distance patrol' of a combined force of the Army and the armed police was pinned down in a gully by Maoists for nearly 24 hours. The government troops ran out of ammunition and the Army's newly acquired night-vision helicopters had to go to the rescue. Details of this engagement are yet to be revealed by the Army, and neither have any authoritative independent reports emerged.

Besides the Rolpa encounter, the Maoist dead are accounted for in minor skirmishes. The rebels themselves have, so far, not mounted any major attacks in the manner they did during the earlier fighting. They have struck soft targets such as soldiers and policemen on leave or on guard duty, suspected informants among ordinary folk, and abandoned police posts. They have also laid booby traps on highways and roads, injuring security personnel and civilians alike. The Maoists have also called for a three-day bandh (general strike) starting 18 September, and past experience suggests that this could be the occasion for greater violence. All in all, a strategy designed to strike terror among the general population appears to have been adopted, and it seems to be succeeding to some extent. People in the already sparsely populated western Nepal are fleeing their homes by the thousand, with the majority going to India to find work.

To meet the new exigencies brought about by the renewed fighting, the Army has entered an expansion phase. In the past two years, it has already grown by 10,000 to reach 60,000. It is currently planning to add another 5,000 soldiers to its force. In the field, counterinsurgency experts from the US military, numbering around 50, are believed to be conducting training. But the Army's image received a severe battering when the National Human Rights Commission indicted it for the massacre of 17 people in Ramechhap district in eastern Nepal, on August 17, 2003, the very day the Government and the Maoists sat down to the much-awaited third round of talks. The killings, and the implied insecurity for the Maoists, were cited as one of the reasons for the Maoist withdrawal from the talks.

Much of the action is still going on in the hills and plains outside Kathmandu, but the detached complacency of the capital's denizens has now been shattered. In the past week a series of bombs exploded, including one that killed a schoolboy. These daring attacks have forced the government onto the back-foot, and security for top government officials and politicians has been tightened. Security personnel have also been ordered not to venture out unless absolutely necessary. Kathmandu's security apparatus was put under the unified command of a Major General of the Army. An 11 pm to dawn curfew was imposed in parts of the Kathmandu Valley, outside the city limits. The capital appears to be in the grips of a siege mentality.

But that did not prevent the Maoists from shooting dead two people in a busy area on Kathmandu's outskirts on Friday, September 12. One of them was affiliated to the students' body allied to the Rastriya Prajatantra Party - the party of Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, and the other an ordinary bystander. The government's response was a night time curfew in Kathmandu as well as in the twin city of Lalitpur. For now, the siege seems complete.


Deepak Thapa is a Kathmandu-based journalist and editor. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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