Welcome to the kingdom ruled by fear

Tourists are still beating a path to Nepal as its bloody civil war enters a critical phase. Malika Browne and Jan McGirk report
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Trekkers on Nepal's remote mountain trails last spring would return to Kathmandu with a cherished souvenir: a receipt for "donating" to the Maoist guerrillas' campaign to overthrow the monarchy. The receipt was in danger of beating the pashmina to become the most treasured memento of their stay in the Himalayan kingdom.

Trekkers on Nepal's remote mountain trails last spring would return to Kathmandu with a cherished souvenir: a receipt for "donating" to the Maoist guerrillas' campaign to overthrow the monarchy. The receipt was in danger of beating the pashmina to become the most treasured memento of their stay in the Himalayan kingdom.

Now, for the first time in their eight-year revolt, the Maoists are at the gates of the capital itself. They have blockaded Kathmandu for five days, forcing the authorities to bring in supplies by lorries guarded by military helicopters.

Yesterday, more than 20,000 businessmen and travel trade officials marched through the city in a peace rally, holding up banners reading, "We want peace. Withdraw the blockade".

Yet, despite government travel advice from Britain, the US, France, and Australia, some young backpackers still appear unfazed by the impact of Nepal's eight-year civil war that pits peasant revolutionaries against King Gyanendra and the country's elite.

Some of the travellers, watching female soldiers of the Royal Nepalese Army search the insides and roofs of their buses, said that they had not met Maoists, not even on the road between the trekking centre of Pokhara, Nepal's third city, and Kathmandu.

Lana Stonebrook, from London, said news of the blockade had not affected her decision to travel to Nepal last week. "When I heard about [the blockade] I panicked. But then I realised that the Maoists have been doing what they do for a while so it's no big deal. It's actually bliss for tourists at the moment, because there are not many people around."

The tourist season, which lasts from mid-September till late April, seems to take a break in June with the monsoon, when leeches and heavy rain make trekking near-impossible. Most tourists who fly to Nepal in July and August are passing through to Tibet, the "roof of the world" which sits in the Himalayan rain shadow and remains dry.

Although the Maoist rebels have never attacked tourists, nor announced their intention to do so, their energetic "donations" campaign was waged last winter and spring.

Trekkers were stopped by well-spoken young men, most of them former teachers who had joined the People's Army. Rebels would give a well-rehearsed speech about their "People's war", and demand "donations" of between 500 and 1,000 rupees (£3.60 and £7.30). Although the rebels were polite, tourists said they did not feel they had a choice of whether to donate, because the men may have been armed. In return, they were handed a receipt they could show if they were stopped again so they did not have to pay a second time.

Kristjan Edwards, managing director of the Tiger Mountain Group, which owns several jungle lodges and trekking operations, said: "In the past month, bookings doubled but business is down 25 per cent on a normal year. There have been no group cancellations in the past few days, and I don't expect there will be. There's a lot of trouble elsewhere in the world, not just in Nepal, so people are not that worried about a few invisible rebels any more."

Nepal is still a popular destination for backpackers and gap-year travellers, but mountaineers and wildlife enthusiasts are among the older, wealthier visitors. Thick jungle in the south offers wildlife safaris, and the snow-melt from the mountains allows some of the world's best white-water rafting.

Last year, the Nepal Tourism Board directed successful marketing campaigns at South Asian tourists in an attempt to boost flagging visitor figures. Nepal is home to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, which could and should attract many more of the world's 350 million practising Buddhists.

Indian tourists come on pilgrimages to the Pashupatinath shrine in Kathmandu, one of Hinduism's holiest sites, and pass through Nepal on their way to Mount Kailash in Tibet, a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains. Indians also come to Kathmandu to gamble in casinos, an activity banned in India.

The small bomb at Kathmandu's five-star Soaltee Crowne Plaza last Monday, described by Basanta Raj Mishra, president of the Nepal Association of Tour Operators, as "no stronger than a cracker", was a reminder by the Maoist rebels to 10 of the country's businesses to close. The hotel has financial links with King Gyanendra, whom the rebels are trying to overthrow. Nobody was injured.

King Gyanendra, who suspended parliament in 2002 and now appoints his ministers, has become the principal hate figure for the rebels. They label him a "royal dictator" , and condemn the political swings and roundabouts which have ensued since he took power. Nepal's five major political parties abhor the king's dismissal of the elected government in October 2002. He reappointed as prime minister in June the same man he sacked for "ineptness" at not holding elections.

Months ago, security forces arrested thousands of street protesters, including senior political party leaders. "Yours is just a rubber-stamp monarchy," a Nepalese protester told a BBC reporter at an anti-government rally. "But ours is a tiger which drinks the blood of the people. This king is not living in our hearts."

King Gyanendra is reviled by many who believe he manipulated his bloody accession in June 2001 after most of the royal family was massacred in a shooting spree by the drunken Crown Prince Dipendra, who then put a bullet in his head and died the next day. The Shakespearean orgy of regicide, patricide, matricide, fratricide and suicide placed King Birendra's brother on the throne.

Maoists increased the level of violence but restricted most attacks to the rugged hinterland. Since the palace slaughter, Nepal's ruling class has been in continual crisis, squabbling over how to deal with the growing insurgency. The Maoist rebels, reinforced by rural militias they forcibly conscript, are estimated to number between 10,000 to 15,000 . They have vowed to fight until a Communist republic replaces the world's only Hindu monarchy. At least 80 per cent of the country is now under rebel control. In just eight years, the Maoists have evolved from a small group of insurgents armed with knives and homemade shotguns to a formidable fighting force. Booby traps, "pressure-cooker" bombs, remote-controlled devices and rocket-propelled grenades are weapons of choice. Much of the western countryside is mined.

Washington has classified the Maoist insurgents as "terrorists", although grave human rights violations have been reported on both sides of the conflict. The United States provides Nepal with military aid and weapons worth a total of $22m (£13m).

Britain is contributing £35m in aid, this year and has urged other countries to support the government. But the Government has announced plans to increase development aid to £47m in 2006-07, "provided that increased support can continue to reach the poorest in Nepal". India, which wants to prevent its local separatist groups from sharing weapons and intelligence with the Maoists, provides helicopters and arms. The Maoist rebels are now the second-best organised threat on the sub-continent, after the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Bharat Mohan Adhikary, has urged the rebels to negotiate an end to the conflict that has sent the economy of the landlocked country plummeting.

"We have urged businesses and the public not to bow to rebel threats and assured them security," Mr Adhikary said. "What else can we do? We are ready to solve the problem peacefully. We are ready to talk to them without any condition."

Many Indian and British Army Gurkha soldiers have retired in rural areas controlled by the Maoist rebels. Authorities suspect that some now train the guerrillas, who have become more professional. The worst spate of violence was last March,when thousands of guerrillas bore down on Nepalese soldiers and police at Beni, a town west of Pokhara. There were massive casualties and hundreds dead. The Maoists do not spare government offices, private companies or public bus stations, though occasionally, the rebels will warn civilians to evacuate the area before launching an attack.

Yesterday there was further violence in the west of the country when hundreds of rebels attacked the mountain town of Khalanga, killing one soldier and seizing six policemen hostage. The rebels set buildings on fire as they retreated after troops returned fire. The army is combing the area backed by helicopters in search of the attackers.

In the capital, although flights are unaffected, many businesses remain shuttered. Vegetable prices have doubled as farmers speculate on potential shortages, although there has been no panic-buying in the capital. Kathmanduites have experienced many national transport strikes in the past few months. Although the Maoists have called this strike a "blockade" it has failed to incite the city's residents to excitement or panic. The only tangible difference in the air is that the traffic, which normally chokes the Kathmandu Valley with fumes, was nearly non-existent.

India is said to be preparing to airlift food supplies to Kathmandu. Analysts say that until there is substantial political change, and a new constitution, the blood will continue to flow.

TOURISM IN TROUBLE

  • In 1999, 500,000 foreign visitors travelled to Nepal, making it a peak year for tourism. But the figure was halved by 2002 because of the Maoist-led insurgency which began in 1996.
  • So far this year, 167,400 tourists have visited the kingdom.
  • The US State Department has warned against all non-essential travel to Nepal since 2003, while the British Foreign Office advises "there is a high threat of Maoist violence, including bombing and shooting, in public places and tourist areas throughout Nepal ... Tourists and other visitors risk being caught up in such violence."
  • Maoists have threatened tourist facilities throughout Nepal, and the Maoist leader, Baburam Bhattarai, warned travellers that they could be "caught in the crossfire of the contending armies", while perversely encouraging them to visit anyway.
  • Lonely Planet urges tourists in Nepal to remain vigilant, keep a low profile and avoid demonstrations. It warns them to adhere to curfews in Kathmandu and to take especially good care during bandhs (strikes). "If a bandh is called, do not travel during it and keep an extra low profile until it is over," it warns, citing the districts of Banke, Dang, Syangja, Surkhet, Rukum, Kalikot, Jajarkot, Rolpa, Salyan and Gorkha as particularly hazardous.
  • Army and police checkpoints can make travel in Nepal slow and there are reports that rebels threatening violence - and bandits posing as rebels using actual violence - occasionally target travellers for revenue-raising purposes.
  • The bulk of tourists to Nepal are Indians (34 per cent), followed by Britons (7 per cent), Americans and Japanese (6 per cent) and Germans (4 per cent).
  • The 50th anniversary of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's successful ascent of Mount Everest last year took place during the seven-month ceasefire that held from January to August.

Comments