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Experts Say Nepal Rebels' Plan Resembles Peru's Shining Path - 2004-08-25

Nepal's communist insurgency has been flexing its muscles, with a successful blockade of the capital Kathmandu. Experts say the Maoists have modeled themselves on Peru's Shining Path, using violence to end Nepal's rigid caste system.

Although it is a popular destination for tourists, Nepal is also known for its grinding poverty and communist revolutionaries.

Nepal's farmers typically earn less than a dollar a day and the United Nations says malnutrition in the countryside is on the rise.

It is amid impoverished peasant communities that Nepal's Maoist revolutionaries make their home. Roughly 10,000 to 15,000 rebels are spread throughout the country.

Experts say the Maoists' popularity is fueled by widespread frustration with the Hindu kingdom's rigid caste system.

Ali Saleem is with the advocacy group the Asian Human Right's Commission in Hong Kong.

"Nepal is very hierarchical, a class-based society; so it's deep rooted, this mentality where you have lower class and untouchables ? If you are rich, if you are from a certain caste or family, you get jobs, if you are not, then you don't have a possibility to get a job," Mr. Saleem explained.

Eight years ago the rebels were centered in a few remote villages in the mountainous midwest.

Now they are now active in at least 50 of Nepal's 75 districts. For nearly a week, the Maoists were able to shut off most traffic into and out of the capital, Kathmandu, to press for the release of jailed guerillas and an investigation into alleged government abuses. They called off the blockade on August 24 to see how the government will respond.

The rebels started their so-called people's war in 1996, vowing to overthrow the constitutional monarchy, scrap the caste system and establish a Marxist republic.

The eight-year rebellion has claimed more than 10,000 lives and at times has threatened Nepal's fragile government.

The rebel movement includes former politicians frustrated with government corruption and infighting.

The movement's leaders openly express admiration for the Shining Path, Peru's violent Marxist radicals.

Like the Shining Path, the Nepalese Maoists want to raze the existing government. In its place they promise a new, peasant-led society.

The original such movement - in China under communist leader Mao Zedong - led to the deaths, political purging or imprisonment of thousands during the Cultural Revolution, which began in the late 1960's. The Maoist Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia in the 1970's caused the deaths of more than a million people, who were executed or died of hunger, abuse and illness. In both countries, the drive for agrarian and political revolution left the economy battered.

Like the Shining Path and other Maoist movements, the Nepalese insurgents can be brutal.

Human rights groups say the rebels are guilty of kidnapping, extortion, rape and torture. The Maoists insist they target only government employees.

But the United Nation's Sangita Khardka in Nepal says government workers are not the only victims.

"The children are being kidnapped from the school by the Maoists and there are violent brutal killings going around and the situation is terrible. All the people just want peace," she says.

The government for years did not consider the rebels a significant threat. It was not until 2001 that the Nepalese army was even mobilized to confront the Maoists.

By then, say experts, the insurgents had established a network of supporters and strong defensive positions.

Political science professor Patrick Weller at Griffith University in Australia advised the Nepalese government on political reforms. He says it appears the rebels have fought the government to a standstill.

"Can they bring it down? No. Can the government suppress them, equally no, we're sitting in a sort of stalemate - they'll never be able to take the Kathmandu valley, the combination of army and police is too powerful but they can make the whole system unworkable," Mr. Weller said.

He says it appears the rebels may be looking to carry out a drawn-out war of attrition.

The rebels offer few clues as to what they expect. The fighting has been marked by periods of cease-fires and negotiations. But peace talks have twice collapsed when the rebels insisted on a new constitution and an end to the monarchy.

And while the government insists it is committed to resuming negotiations, officials appear unwilling to rewrite the constitution.