Nepal’s war on terror
Nepal, a small country sandwiched between India and Tibet and probably best known for Mount Everest and the birthplace of Buddha, doesn’t have a day like September 11 to reflect on its own experiences with terrorism.
But the Maoist guerillas that have been attacking army outposts and raiding villages have left just as indelible an impression on the lives of the Nepali people as last year’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., have here in the United States.
I worked in Nepal this summer for a human rights organization. Coming back, one of the most striking differences for me has been each country’s distinct approach to terrorism.
First, let me say a little bit about Nepal’s experience with terrorism. In 1996, a radical offshoot of the Communist Party took to the hills. Since then, its members, who call themselves Maoists, have been attacking government and military installations. They have demanded greater wealth sharing, sweeping land reform, and an end to the present political structure.
Within the past year, the Maoist attacks have increased in frequency and intensity. They now have bigger and better weapons. In addition to army installations, they’ve attacked municipal water supplies, post offices, and airports. They’ve assassinated school principals and kidnapped teachers. There are stories of them taking villagers hostage-some of them children-and using them as human shields in fire fights with army troops.
Them and us
In response, the government imposed a State of Emergency. It suspended most civil liberties, established military checkpoints throughout the country, and granted the army broad powers to do, in effect, whatever it needed (or wanted) to do.
A real fear exists among many Nepalis. They are afraid they could be plucked off the streets, then detained indefinitely without formal charges ever being brought. And an even larger fear exists when, driving through the city at night, one gets stopped by a pack of soldiers, checking for identification and weapons and toting machine guns.
Granting the F.B.I. broader wire tapping authority suddenly doesn’t seem so bad.
In the United States, Americans rallied around their leaders after the attacks. Nepalis talk of their government and many shake their heads, disparaging its corruption. When the first State of Emergency expired, the ruling party split over whether to re-impose it. As a result, the prime minister dissolved his own parliament in a controversial move that was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. Nepal faces new elections this fall despite parts of the country being in Maoist hands.
There is a chance their democracy may not survive this crisis.
In the United States, one of the common themes in the days after September 11th was the importance of returning to normal life. To show the terrorists who’s in charge-that was the refrain.
In Nepal, with the State of Emergency and with daily accounts of battles trickling in, life can’t return to normal. Nepal doesn’t have a September 11th because terrorism didn’t strike just once. It happens every day.
I am doggedly optimistic about Nepal’s future-as are many Nepalis. But my optimism, and maybe theirs as well, lacks foundation and confidence. Bereft of something as concrete as a one-year anniversary-to reflect on what happened and, maybe more importantly, what’s been done since then-assessments of Nepal’s past and future can’t compete with anxiety over its present. The threat of another attack leaves room for little else.
September 11 approaches, and I find I’m grateful that it’s possible to reflect on the past year and to project into tomorrow – whatever the insights it may bring. Better than to be lost amidst a terrible uncertainty about today.
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