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Maoist guerrillas in Nepal have been flexing their muscles. In one recent demonstration of their strength late last month, they imposed a blockade on the capital of Kathmandu, which portends an escalation in the violence that has wracked the country. Unable to beat the rebels, the government has had little option except to negotiate. Yet the rebels’ dream of a peasant-led society looks like Nepal’s nightmare. The people of Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries, are getting caught in the crossfire of this conflict. They have suffered enough.

The Maoist insurgency began in 1996, when shotgun-wielding guerrillas simultaneously attacked six government and police outposts in western Nepal. After several years of similar acts, the group has grown in strength. It now is thought to have between 10,000 and 15,000 members, and experts estimate that it has a presence in at least two-thirds, if not all, of Nepal’s 75 districts. Many fear that the guerrillas control much of the countryside. More than 10,000 people have been killed in the insurgency.

The movement draws its strength from widespread dissatisfaction with the traditional order in Nepal. The caste system that dominates Nepalese society is the primary cause of frustration and anger, but there are political motives as well. Many of the rebel leaders were participants in the overthrow of the absolute monarchy more than a decade ago. While most of those individuals subsequently joined the political mainstream, others grew increasingly disillusioned with the government’s failure to better the lives of peasants, most of whom live on less than $1 a day.

Corruption and political infighting prevailed over constructive measures to ameliorate the country’s grinding poverty. Eventually, the rebels took up arms and their efforts have slowly gathered strength. The rebels have operated mostly in the countryside, but in recent years they have begun to target the main population centers. The movement’s growth has been facilitated by ineffectual government policies that largely ignored the guerrillas and thus allowed their influence to spread. The rebels began to target larger cities a few years ago, and has begun to strike in the capital more recently.

There were hopes for reform when King Gyanendra dissolved Parliament in 2002, but old conflicts prevailed and a ceasefire broke down a year ago when the rebels accused the government of negotiating in bad faith and abandoned talks. A new government took office in June, but the rebels have not responded to calls for new talks, preferring instead to repeat demands for a new constitution, the end of the monarchy, the release of their leaders plus investigations into the deaths of guerrillas that the government has blamed on armed clashes. The blockade of Kathmandu — a move that isolated the city even though the guerrillas never even put up roadblocks — testifies to the group’s growing strength.

The rebels have real grievances. Poverty is not being alleviated, and the country remains dependent on aid and tourism. The government has never admitted how many guerrillas are in detention, and Nepalese law allows the detention of individuals suspected of being rebels for 90 days without being charged. Human-rights groups claim that many are kept much longer.

Unfortunately, however, the rebels’ vision for Nepal resembles many nightmares of recent history. The model for the guerrillas is Peru’s Shining Path, whose aim was to destroy the traditional order in that country — a society as rigid as Nepal’s caste-based system — and replace it with a revolutionary peasant-led order. The horrors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge come immediately to mind. Human-rights groups accuse the rebels of atrocities similar to those committed by the Khmer Rouge: kidnapping, torture, extortion, rape and summary execution of innocent civilians. The rebels deny the charges, but United Nations observers back the charges. Most recently, hundreds of school children were kidnapped for a week of “re-education.”

Plainly, this is not the answer to Nepal’s problems, but the status quo is unsustainable. Negotiations are a prerequisite to progress, but trust is nonexistent. An independent third party will have to play the role of an honest broker, even though the Kathmandu government remains opposed to any such role for outsiders. The blockade and the escalation of rebel assaults suggest that the guerrillas sense an opportunity; they have certainly exposed the weaknesses of the Nepalese government. It is a bad combination, one that is likely to be played out through increasing violence. As always, the real victims remain Nepal’s long-suffering citizens.

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