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Human Rights in Nepal Caught in Crossfire of Conflict


For the past 10 years, Nepal has been caught up in a conflict between government forces and communist rebels fighting to overthrow the monarchy in the Himalayan country. The so-called Maoist rebellion has been mostly waged in rural areas, where civilians have suffered human rights violations by both sides.

VOA's Patricia Nunan traveled to some affected villages outside the western town of Nepal Ganj and spoke to civilians caught in the conflict, as well as rebels.

Sweeping the small yard in front of her house is one of the easier household chores for Laxmi Gurung. The 30 year-old mother of three has only one arm. The other had to be amputated after she was nearly beaten to death two years ago by members of Nepal's Maoist insurgency.

She says the Maoists attacked her because they thought she was a government spy. The army had captured some Maoist rebels, who had killed her brother, so the rebels blamed her for the arrest.

Gurung lives in the town of Gularia, in rural western Nepal, an area predominantly under the control of the Communist Party of Nepal - known as "the Maoists".

More than 12,000 people have been killed in Nepal since the Maoist rebellion began 10 years ago, with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy. Maoist leaders say they began the fight in part because of political repression and human rights abuses by the Nepalese authorities.

Human rights advocates say there is ample evidence to support that claim, but government forces are not the only ones to blame.

The U.S. rights group Human Rights Watch says security forces in Nepal killed more than 1,000 people in the last year alone, but the Maoists were responsible for at least 600 deaths. The group says many are civilians, like Gurung, accused by one side of working for the other.

Not far from Gurung's home, in the village of Sanoshree, Moti Lal works in his small photo shop. He too, is a victim of the conflict - this time, at the hands of the Nepalese police.

Four years ago, Maoist rebels attacked a police post in the village. Lal says he was arrested because his shop happened to be nearby.

He says, the police said, "Our station is burning down, do you expect us to stand by and let you laugh at us?" Lal says when he was arrested he thought he would be treated well, but police began beating him immediately.

Lal says he was held without charge for 14 months. He was beaten so much, he says, he lost feeling in part of his hand.

According to the United Nations, Nepal has the highest rate of reported disappearances of any country in the world. Between 2000 and 2003, security forces detained at least 662 people without charge, allegedly for security reasons.

But the Maoists are also responsible for abducting hundreds of schoolchildren and forcing them to attend Maoist political training before allowing them to return to their parents.

The rebels have stepped up their struggle since King Gyanendra's move to assume complete power a year ago. He dismissed the government, ironically, for failing to quell the Maoists. Now the rebels have moved their fight from the countryside and have started targeting cities.

But the base of the movement is still in the remote areas.

Beyond the villages, down roads through rice paddies just wide enough for a motorcycle, the Maoist leader in command of this area can be found in what is probably a temporary headquarters - a simple whitewashed house.

In an interview with VOA, Political Commissar Athak, says the rebels' fight, which is loosely based on Maoist communist principles, is really directed against the monarchy. He says King Gyanendra's takeover last year of the elected government has given the rebels unexpected allies, namely Nepal's ousted political parties. Athak says the push is now for a multi-party democracy in Nepal, but evidence of this has yet to be seen.

Athak believes the current system of government prevents Nepal's poor from improving their standards of living, and from challenging the monarch's authority. He also says the military is responsible for widespread killings in the countryside in its attempts to ferret out Maoist rebels.

When questioned about tactics, Athak admits the rebels have committed rights abuses.

He says that in war, not everything goes according to plan, adding that the rebels are engaged in an uprising, a rebellion, so mistakes have happened and his party accepts these mistakes. But he says Nepal's king and his army have consistently violated human rights far more than the rebels, and the international community should be paying more attention to the crimes committed by the state.

To an extent, the international community is now paying attention to the situation in Nepal.

The United States, the European Union and India have condemned King Gyanendra's takeover of government last year, and the arrests of journalists, rights workers and political opponents.

The king has defended these measures as necessary to quell the rebellion and restore security. He has promised an eventual return to democracy and is allowing local elections this week as a step in that direction.

The effectiveness of these elections is in serious doubt as the Maoists and Nepal's mainstream political parties have formed an alliance to boycott the vote. They want full elections held under the supervision of the international community.

Last year, King Gyanendra's government permitted the opening of one of the largest U.N. human rights offices in the world, in an apparent bow to international pressure. Roughly 35 field officers are monitoring the rights situation across the country.

In a recent nationally televised speech, King Gyanendra described the government as having "unflinching faith" in the principles of human rights. But he admitted it was difficult at times, to strike a balance between upholding the right of citizens, and fighting the Maoists, whom he has branded "terrorists."

That has done little to alter the fear that predominates in the countryside, or to inspire confidence in villagers like Lal or Gurung.

Lal says all he ever wanted to do is run his shop. He says he does not have any sympathies with either the Maoists or the government, he just wants a quiet life.

Gurung says she would like to see the government and the Maoists sign a peace deal. But she has grown resigned to the reality that faces so many Nepalese.

She says government forces rarely ever arrest or kill the Maoist rebels and that it is civilians who are hurt in the conflict. And the Maoists, she says, just do the same.

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