Nepal: Violence hurts the fragile tourist trade

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The views of the Annapurna were sublime. The Pokhara Mountain Lodge with its chalets scattered over the slopes of a steep hill nicely balanced rigour and luxury. The next day we were to begin our trek - but for now we were relaxing, enjoying some traditional dances by the lodge staff to celebrate Nepal's new year

Draped across the Himalayas like some amazing rug, Nepal is one of the world's most spectacular and fascinating countries. A hermit kingdom down the centuries, guarded impenetrably by the peaks, it began opening a chink only 40 years ago.

Those who come today, and they come in the tens of thousands, finds it has guarded its marvels well: its ancient cities still replete with fabulous old temples covered in intricately carved wood. And there are well-trodden tracks up into the mountains now, with guides and porters and rest houses, and all the charming paraphernalia of the Third World as it strives to make an honest penny out of the wealthy visitors.

But there is trouble in this paradise. It's not only the beauty of Nepal that is eternal: the poverty too is deep-rooted, and desperate. And now, Nepal's bitter poverty is biting back. A Maoist insurgency has been simmering in the countryside for five years. Yesterday it exploded, killing at least 38 people in two separate massacres, and injuring 39 more. In the remote village of Rukumkot in the thinly populated west of the country, at least 30 policemen died when their post was blown apart by rebel gunfire. Twenty-eight injured policemen were flown to the capital, Kathmandu, for treatment. On the other side of the country, at Dolakha, 90 miles east of the capital, five more policemen and three rebels died in a two-hour gunfight.

The attacks were the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CNP(M)) telling the world it has been in action for five years. While the dithering Nepali government, with most of the press in its pocket, has steadfastly tried to defeat the uprising by pretending it is not happening, from now it is going to be more difficult.

Yesterday's spectacular assaults were a trailer for the nationwide general strike the Maoists have called for Friday, to protest at what they call "government excesses". The strike will be widely observed indeed. The guerrillas had warned of actions leading up to the strike, but the scale of death and destruction yesterday was unprecedented.

Officials who visited the police posts said both were destroyed, and the insurgents had taken a large quantity of arms and ammunition and abducted two dozen policemen. They also set off two large bombs in Kathmandu, causing extensive damage but no injuries.

Nepal's insurgency began in early 1996, after the NPC(M) had been banned from contesting a general election because of its opposition to Nepal's constitutional monarchy. The group went underground and adopted the sort of violent methods preferred both by the Sendero Luminosa (Shining Path) in Peru, with whom they are sometimes compared, and India's ultra-left Naxalites across the border in Bihar, northern India.

The idea was to sink roots in the villages in the impoverished countryside, building support and intimidating opponents, until the relatively wealthy cities, essentially Kathmandu and Pokhara, 125 miles to the west, found themselves surrounded. Yesterday's attacks show that the strategy is succeeding, aided in large measure by the feebleness and corruption of the government.

Ten years after "the End of History", the very idea of Maoism may seem quaint to most in the West, but the poverty and backwardness of most of Nepal is so acute, unemployment so rampant and the contrast with the life of the Kathmandu élite so stark, that these simple notions of justice and revolution find fertile soil.

More than 80 per cent of Nepal's population of 23 million are subsistence farmers living hand to mouth on their crops of rice, wheat, maize and potatoes. The per capita GDP is £171. While the world changes around them, and in front of their eyes in the form of the Western trekkers who still pour through the place, the Nepali peasants remained enmired in the Middle Ages, stuck at the bottom of the rigid caste system, living lives of great squalor and with a government that shows no interest in anything beside enriching itself.

That is why, say diplomats and development workers, the insurgency has had striking success, bringing violence to 50 of the country's 75 districts. Not least among those stirred by the call to arms are Nepal's young women, whose expectations are even more hopeless and circumscribed than those of the men.

For the first time someone from the outside world has expressed an interesting in helping these people transform their lives, and offered them a programme for doing it. And if there is an element of revenge, revolutionary justice, of simple bloody murder in the Maoists' appeal ­ well, the peasants of Nepal have plenty to feel vengeful about.

The Maoists assassinate police, landlords, politicians and rural officials of the ruling Nepali Congress Party. They bomb tax offices, rob banks and extort money from foreign-backed non-governmental organisations. They have also taken foreigners hostage, including this writer and his son and have robbed at least one party of foreigners, though it does not appear that they actually harmed any visitors. Some foreign missions, including the British and the American, have restricted official travel through the more disturbed areas and caution nationals to avoid them.

Because the Maoists have been nice to foreigners so far, their capacity for violence should not be underestimated, and it is directed at civilians as well as the police. On 14 February, Maoists pulled two men out of a political procession in the town of Rukam and beheaded them in front of hundreds of onlookers ­ probably because they were carrying Nepali Congress flags. Ten days later, in Sindhupalchowk near the border with Tibet, insurgents seized a local official, tied him to a tree and hacked him to death. The death toll in the five years of violence now exceeds 1,500.

For now, the charmed, bizarre life of Kathmandu carries on with its hotel casinos (the only ones in South Asia) coining money for the well-connected owners, the frenzied shopping streets of Thamel in the middle of town, crowded with trekkers and latter-day hippies, wall-to-wall with cafés and e-mail shacks and souvenir shops. But only two years ago, people said Kathmandu was immune to the insurgency, too well guarded by the Army (loyal to the king, and keeping a studied distance from the rebels in the countryside), too dangerous for the Maoists to penetrate.

Yesterday's bombs gave the lie to that. Even before them, owners of the smart restaurants would admit with a scowl of resignation that, yes, protection money was paid, for if it wasn't ... Yesterday as the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, Ram Cahndra Poudel, flew to inspect the carnage at Rukumkot, word came that the government had decided to equip the police with modern weapons to help them fight the Maoists. And the government is again trying to start peace talks. But come Friday and the general strike, Nepal is likely to be a very quiet country.