Asia Pacific Media Services Asia Analysed
Asian analysis
Latest Articles

Nepal's Maoists prepare for final offensive

By Bertil Lintner

There are signs that Nepal's Maoist insurgents may be preparing to wage a final offensive in accordance with their understanding of Maoist ideology. Bertil Lintner explores the methods, capabilities and resources of the group, and the government's attempts to counter the threat.

Two attacks launched by Nepal's Maoist insurgents in September have dashed hopes that the government's nine-month state of emergency had succeeded in crushing the country's militant movement. In the first attack on 7 September, Maoist rebels overran a police station in Sindhuli district, 85km east of the capital Kathmandu, killing at least 49 policemen and wounding 22 others before escaping with a haul of guns. The following day, insurgents attacked Sandhikharka, headquarters of the Arghakhanchi district, 300km west of Kathmandu. As many as 200 policemen, soldiers and civilians may have died in this attack. The government is now considering reimposing the state of emergency lifted on 27 August, a decision that could undermine public support for Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, the armed forces and the king, boost the insurgents and derail the political process leading up to general elections scheduled for 13 November.

The Maoists' strategy

In orthodox Maoism, there are three phases of protracted war: the strategic defensive, the strategic stalemate and the strategic offensive. According to this model, the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN(M)) has, in its battle with the government, reached strategic stalemate: it is not as powerful as the government in terms of troop strength and military equipment, but is almost equal in terms of actions, initiatives and control of the countryside. The question, therefore, is one of when the Maoist leadership will decide that the group will be ready to move into its strategic offensive, the final stage of the protracted war. "The Maoists appear to have decided that the time is ripe for their war ki par ['do or die'] moment", says Puskar Gautam, a Nepalese newspaper columnist and himself a former Maoist commander. According to Gautam, the CPN(M) leadership has carefully studied experiences from South America, especially what went wrong in Peru after the 1992 arrest of Abimael Guzman, leader of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). "In their analysis, the Shining Path and the Colombian revolutions failed because they let the strategic balance drag on for too long. In Nepal, the Maoists think a quick push when the state is vulnerable will take them to victory," he says.

There are signs that the rebels may indeed be preparing to make their final push. In April, during the height of the state of emergency, the insurgents began to target infrastructure in order to paralyse the government. Hydroelectric power plants, bridges, telecommunications centres and government building were blown up. Since the emergency was lifted in August, even Kathmandu itself has been hit by almost daily bomb blasts targeting shopping centres and other public places.

Rebel arms and men

In order to launch their final offensive, the Maoists will have to further strengthen their forces and, more importantly, acquire more sophisticated automatic weapons. Military analysts in Kathmandu estimate current CPN(M) strength at 3,000-4,000 'hardcore militants', or regular troops, and 10,000-15,000 men organised in various local militias. In addition, there are thousands of activists and other cadres who work openly in the countryside, or through front organisations in the towns. Initially, the insurgents had only hunting guns, mostly muzzle-loaders collected from local people and a few home-made rifles and pistols, which they had obtained from illegal gun factories in the neighbouring Indian state of Bihar. Their tactic of raiding police armouries has allowed them to expand their arsenal to include .303 rifles, 12-bore shotguns and pistols, while attacks on army camps have yielded hauls of Sten-guns and Indian-made self-loading rifles.

These small arms have been supplemented by bombs made from explosives smuggled into the country, mostly by sympathetic Nepalese labourers working on road construction projects in India.

Class struggle or caste war?

On the local level, Nepal's insurgency can be viewed as more of a caste war than a political struggle. While the conflict has been brutal on both sides, the violence can be explained in the context of an often-overlooked dimension to the Maoist insurgency: Nepal's intricate caste system and diverse ethnic composition.

Most of the leaders of the CPN(M) - Dahal and Bhattarai among them - come from higher castes such as the bahuns (the local term for brahmins) and the chhetris (kshatriyas), the Indo-Aryan upper strata of society. The vast majority of their followers, and, especially, the foot soldiers in the People's Liberation Army, come from the lower castes and so-called 'backward' ethnic groups such as the hill dwelling Mongol Magars and the Tharus in the narrow valleys closer to the lowlands.

The arrival of the Maoists and their 'proletarian ideology' has given lower castes and tribes authority and power over the higher castes, which traditionally have treated them as second-class citizens or worse. Those who have experienced the Maoist insurgency first hand argue that this helps explain why a seemingly anachronistic movement has made such headway. The country may indeed need a social revolution and, for many, the CPN(M) appears as the only genuine alternative to the old, repressive social order.

The Maoists have capitalised on the failure of the new political order introduced after the popular uprising in 1990, which toppled the absolute monarchy and promised to deliver greater equality. Kleptocracy - not democracy and a genuine free-market economy - succeeded the old order, disappointing many young activists, while widespread corruption, social and political instability, bickering parliamentarians and abuse of power has caused frustration among large segments of the population.

The Indian Connection

In India, the CPN(M) has links to some local Naxalite (or Maoist) organisations such as the Communist Party of India Marxist-Leninist (the People's War Group) and the Maoist Communist Centre, both of which are active in Bihar. Nepalese conspiracy theorists - and a large segment of the Nepalese media - seem to believe that there is an 'Indian connection' involving India's security agencies which, they claim, want to 'destabilise' Nepal. There is no evidence to support this allegation. The success of the Nepalese Maoists in procuring supplies and ability to move relatively freely in India may be more due to the fact the Indians, given their own problems in Kashmir and the northeast, have so far not put Nepal on the top of their security priorities.

It is not in India's interest to destabilise Nepal. According to Commodore Uday Bhaskar of India's Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi: "Any instability on the Indian periphery is undesirable, whether it is Sri Lanka or Nepal, particularly when it has an insurgency and terrorism aspect embedded in it. Any linkage between the Maoists and different left radical groups in India such as the People's War Group would be cause for concern."

The recent crackdown on the activities of the Nepalese Maoists in India may be a way for the Indians to show Kathmandu they are serious, and are now paying more attention to Nepal's problems. But the presence of millions of Nepalese in India, and the free flow of people and goods between the two countries mean that certain supplies - money, food, medicines, uniforms and weapons - will continue to move across the border.

Thus far, the Maoists have not used sophisticated automatic rifles, but there is evidence suggesting they are trying to obtain such weapons from abroad. On 2 November 2001 - just a few weeks before the rebels broke a six-month long ceasefire - a large consignment of 200-400 weapons was seized by the Myanmar authorities near their country's border with India. The United Wa State Army (UWSA) had trucked the shipment across Myanmar, an ethnic-minority force that has a ceasefire agreement with the ruling junta in Yangon that effectively allows it to move drugs, guns and contraband along government-controlled roads. This consignment was intercepted because, while most of the weapons were purchased by the UWSA from private arms dealers in China, some had been bought from poorly paid Myanmar soldiers. It would have been a major embarrassment for Yangon if its weapons had fallen into foreign hands.

It is still not entirely clear whom the guns were destined for. The buyer was identified only as 'Ariya', and could have been any of the local insurgent groups in India's northeast. However, the United Liberation Front of Assam, the biggest group in the area, has more weapons than soldiers while other, smaller groups in Nagaland, Manipur and Tripura are too poor to afford a consignment of such magnitude. This, combined with the timing of the seizure, suggests that the Nepalese Maoists were the most likely buyers.

Financing the revolution

A string of bank robberies and extensive collection of 'revolutionary tax' from people in the areas under its control as well as in all major towns and overseas has made the CPN(M) one of the wealthiest rebel movements in Asia. It has netted between an estimated five and 10bn Nepalese rupees (US$64m-$128m).

Considerable amounts also derive from 'collections' from Nepalese abroad, particularly the several million Nepalese who work in neighbouring India. The main organisation among them, the Akhil Bharatiya Nepali Ekta Samaj (All-India Nepalese Unity Society), was banned in July for links to the CPN(M). The Indian authorities arrested its secretary, Bamdev Chhetri - thought to be the most important contact for the Nepalese Maoists in India - on 7 September and extradited him to Nepal.

Poverty and social and political unrest have forced tens of thousands of Nepalese to emigrate. There are reports of a small but very active Maoist cell among the approximately 20,000-strong Nepalese community in Hong Kong as well as forced 'revolutionary tax collection' there. In Belgium, some Nepalese expatriates have linked up with the Workers' Party of Belgium, one of the few remaining Maoist parties in Europe, where they are reportedly trying to use the Belgian courts to block the sale of arms to the Nepalese Army.

However, the CPN(M) is not supported by any foreign power or major group abroad. Even China has assured the Nepalese government of its support, branding the Nepalese Maoists ultra radicals and not 'true Maoists'.

The government response

The state of emergency can claim few successes, and there is now Maoist-related violence in nearly all of Nepal's 75 districts, according to a 2002 report by the Informal Sector Service Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice, a Nepalese non-governmental organisation. In the western districts, including Rukum, Rolpa, Salyan and Jajarkot - the Maoist heartland in the hills - the government controls little more than district headquarters and strings of checkpoints on the roads leading down to the lowlands in the south. Even in Kalikot, Dailekh, Surkhet, Dang and Pyuthan, adjacent to the Maoists' main strongholds, the government's presence is negligible outside major towns.

The Nepalese Army did not enter the conflict until the state of emergency was introduced. Previously, the insurgency was considered a law and order issue, which fell to the 28,000-strong police force to control. The policy changed when Maoist forces broke a six-month ceasefire and attacked military positions in November 2001, prompting the government to call in the army.

When the insurgency began, the army had 47,000 men. The figure is set to rise, with an immediate goal to field a 60,000-strong fighting force. In addition, a paramilitary police force was set up to counter the Maoists. Its current strength is 9,000, but the plan is to boost numbers to 25,000. In July, the government announced a 25% increase in the defence budget to fight the insurgency.

Despite being home to the renowned Gurkhas, considered some of the best soldiers in the world, the country's regular army has no experience of combat. In the past, it was used mainly to guard national parks at home and for UN-sponsored peace missions abroad.

It is also poorly equipped, and attempts to buy weapons from abroad have run into unexpected problems. For example, an arms deal with Belgium was almost overturned when a government minister resigned arguing that according to Belgian law weapons cannot be exported to countries in conflict. In the end, the centre-left Belgian government survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, but the sale of 5,500 automatic weapons will be permitted only after 'free and fair' general elections have been held in November.

Other international help has been promised, however. Some assistance is coming from India, and US Secretary of State Colin Powell promised US$20m in aid during his visit to Kathmandu in January. But a further militarisation of the conflict could lead to more resentment in the hills, while the expansion of the army and the concomitant need for arms means that Nepal will divert more of its limited resources to the military, instead of development. This will exacerbate the already grave situation in the countryside.

Government activities have made little impact in the countryside, where state-mandated violence has alienated many. According to official figures, 744 policemen and 150 soldiers died during the emergency, compared to 2,850 Maoists - a far higher death toll than occurred during the previous five years of the insurgency, which broke out in February 1996.

As Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of the monthly journal Himal, asks: "Who really are the 'Maoist' dead?" According to Nepalese human rights organisations and journalists in the field, most of them may have been ordinary civilians who were caught in the crossfire or mistaken for Maoists by the security forces. For example, on 24 February government forces gunned down 34 labourers working at an airport site in Kalikot, having mistaken them for Maoists. In other places, members of local branches of perfectly legal leftist parties have been shot. "The army shoots first and asks questions later," says Mohan Mainali, director of Nepal's Centre for Investigative Journalism.

As a result, in the countryside at least, support for the Maoists has grown rather than diminished since the imposition of the emergency, according to Padma Ratna Tuladhar, chairman of the Forum for Protection of Human Rights in Kathmandu. Tuladhar says that: "Many have turned to the Maoists for protection against excessive violence by the security forces." Government restrictions on the transportation of grain and medicines into western Nepal, meant to prevent such materials from falling into the hands of the insurgents, has led to a severe shortage of food in the area. Famine now looms over several impoverished districts in the northwest.

The government has made some progress in curbing insurgent activities in the towns, however. Newspapers and periodicals sympathetic to the Maoists have been closed down and several journalists, intellectuals and others were detained during the emergency, although most of them were later released. The Maoists have also lost some support from the urban middle class due to their extreme violence and constant requests for 'donations', from government officials as well as shopkeepers and others in the towns.

Prospects for peace

The Nepalese government continues to pin its hopes on some sort of peace process. Both government officials and the Nepalese media speculate that there is a serious rift within the CPN(M) between 'softliners' such as Baburam Bhattarai (once the leader of the United People's Front, the Maoists' front organisation in Kathmandu); hardline followers of party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal; and the 'extreme hardliners' led by Ram Bahadur Thapa (alleged to be chief of the People's Liberation Army). Bhattarai is supposedly in favour of negotiating a settlement with the government, while Thapa wants to continue the armed struggle and Dahal is somewhere in between.

However, there is little to substantiate these assumptions, which sources close to the Maoist leadership say indicate just how little the authorities understand Maoist strategy. CPN(M) leaders see no contradiction between armed struggle and occasional appeals for a 'dialogue' with the government. In an interview on 28 May 2001 interview published in A World to Win, a magazine published by the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, a worldwide network of Maoist parties, Dahal said that: "Our guiding principles on the question of negotiations are the experiences of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty under Lenin's leadership and the Chongqing negotiations under Mao's leadership" - instances in which Lenin's Bolsheviks and Mao's communists talked peace while regrouping and preparing their forces for an offensive. He went on to quote Mao's dictums that "without a people's army, the people have nothing"; and that "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun". In other words, Maoist requests for peace talks do not mean that they are about to give up their armed struggle to take part in elections. If they did so, they would cease being Maoist revolutionaries and become just one of several dozen leftist parties in Nepal, sources close to the CPN(M) say.

The government appears to be caught in a classic catch-22 situation. Until there is substantial social and economic development in the areas of the countryside where the Maoists hold sway, the insurgency will continue. Development cannot happen until the government gains even limited access to these areas, and access can only be achieved by using highly unpopular and potentially counterproductive military means. Nepal is caught in a difficult dilemma. This may be why the Maoists believe the time is ripe to move into the strategic offensive, their 'do-or-die battle' that they hope will decide the future of the country.

This article first appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review, October 2002

Back to articles