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Nepal: Renewed Violence Hampers Return to Normalcy - 2003-09-30

Nepal, one of the world's poorest countries, is again grappling with renewed violence following the recent collapse of peace talks between Maoist rebels and the government. The return to the insurgency has dealt a blow to the mountain kingdom's hopes for a return to normalcy.

Starting this week, tens of thousands of migrant Nepalese men working in India are heading home to join their families for the main Hindu festival season. Among them is 35-year-old Gopal Prakash, a domestic worker in New Delhi. Earlier in the year, he shared his country's sense of optimism when Maoist rebels and the government declared a truce in January.

Gopal Prakash says for seven months, he hoped to go back to a land where peace had returned after eight years of fighting. But fear now hangs heavy on his heart. Last month, rebels called off the truce after negotiations with the government came to a deadlock. It is the second time that peace talks have collapsed since Maoist rebels began their armed struggle in 1996 to establish a Communist republic in one of the world's most impoverished countries.

In recent weeks, the Maoists have again demonstrated their power through bombings, killings and a general strike that brought the country to a standstill in mid-September. Renewed clashes between the rebels and the government in remote rural areas have resulted in more than 200 deaths.

A temporary nine-day truce declared by the rebels to coincide with the main Hindu festival has not improved peoples' spirits in a country despondent about its future.

“Everyone thought that some kind of a way out will be found out and the violence would not return,” says Mohan Man Sanju, head of the independent Institute for Integrated Development Studies in Kathmandu.” “It is a very frustrating experience for people, because Nepalese people want peace, nothing but peace.”

Hopes that the nation's fragile economy would be revived are now in tatters. Much of the country's economy depends on tourism. The Hindu festival season in October was expected to bring a flood of visitors into the country and bonuses for the half a million people employed by the industry.

But a senior official at Nepal's Tourism Board. Aditya Baral, fears the return to violence will scare away most visitors in the tourist season. “The numbers had been increasing steadily so far till now, but since after the [end of the] cease-fire it is becoming difficult, and the impact is visible in other fronts also,” he says. “So now we should say the time is not good. We have been reported informally by entrepreneurs here that the cancellations are there in quite significant number.”

It is not only cities and tourist resorts that are affected by the renewed fighting. The impact of the Maoist rebellion is felt as deeply in rural areas where Maoists control an estimated one-quarter of the country.

Gopal Prakash says he and his companions worry that at least some of the annual savings they are taking back from India will have to be handed over to the rebels, who, according to them, regularly ask villagers for money. They say they cannot step out after dark for fear of being caught in the crossfire between soldiers and the rebels.

Travel and communication is also more difficult, because much of the infrastructure in the countryside has been destroyed by Maoists who regularly target government property. Mr. Sanju says all this means that the countryside impoverished at the best of times is now coping with rising prices and tougher times.

“When we started having this conflict situation, the infrastructure, the schools, the health centers, and minor irrigation projects, the suspension bridges were all destroyed by the Maoist elements, he says. ‘So certainly the poverty situation is aggravating in that sense.”

The sense of uncertainty about the future has been aggravated by a-year long political stalemate. Last year, King Gyanendra fired an elected government, replacing it with a pro-monarchy administration. Mainstream political parties have refused to join the government and did not participate in recent peace talks with the Maoists.

Mr. Sanju says the Maoist rebellion has become more violent since the country plunged into political uncertainty. He says people desperately want political parties to come together. “It is high time that the democratic forces in Nepal, the constitutional forces in Nepal, unify themselves and try to identify the most priority aspect in the present situation -- that is reverting back to the peaceful situation, restoring peace in the country.”

But analysts say it's a conflict neither side can win militarily. They say it is difficult for the well-trained but poorly-equipped Nepalese army to tackle the battle-hardened rebels in their remote, rural strongholds. All agree that negotiations are the only solution -- but, so far, there are no signs of either side moving in that direction in the near future.