Liam Cochrane | Bio | 29 Mar 2007
World Politics Review Exclusive
GAUR, Nepal -- In a small concrete shed next to Gaur town hospital in southern Nepal, the corpses of 13 young Maoists lay sprawled in a mess of drying blood. A red communist flag was bunched under one outstretched hand and outside the shed another 12 bodies were lined up in the midday sun.
The gruesome scene was the aftermath of the worst single day of violence since the Maoists rebels signed a peace agreement with the government last November. A day after the carnage of March 21, leaders of Nepal's top political parties arrived by helicopter to assess the damage, trailed by journalists and human rights workers.
The politicians walked across an open field still littered with the sandals of those who had fled for their lives 24 hours before, listening to the accounts of witnesses. Locals said the Maoist-affiliated Madheshi Liberation Front had set up a stage just 100 meters away from a rally being held by the Madheshi People's Right's Forum, who have been agitating for the rights of people living in Nepal's southern flatlands. The two groups have clashed in recent weeks and the situation was so volatile that local police informed the U.N. in advance that trouble was brewing.
Reports differ as to how the violence was sparked. Some say people who appeared to come from the Forum side of the field set fire to the Maoist's stage. Other accounts say that Maoists disrupted the Forum meeting. Shots were fired and the small group of Maoists was set upon by people wielding bamboo sticks split lengthwise to create surprisingly sharp-edged swords.
Within a few minutes, several people were killed on the field, while others who sought shelter in nearby houses were dragged out and hacked to death. A dozen Maoists were chased for more than 5 kilometers before being caught and killed in the village of Hajmonia and dumped in a canal.
"What is heinous is that five of the women were raped in public," said human rights activist Mathur Shresthra, who interviewed witnesses. "Later their breasts were chopped off and [their bodies] burnt to deface their identity."
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More than 40 people were injured in the clash and the death toll soon reached 29, with Maoists claiming a further 50 are still missing.
"Not only do we have a very high number of killed . . . but also the killings have been very brutal," said Lena Sundh, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal, after a separate visit to the site on March 22.
Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara said the attack was reminiscent of another mass killing of Maoists three years ago in Dorumba and believed the royal palace and Hindu fundamentalists were behind the attack.
"This incident makes us, our party, very serious. . . . I imagine this is just like Dorumba, which makes a political situation disturbed," Mahara said.
The grim face of Home Minister Krishna Prasaad Sitaula as he toured the scene reflected not just the horror of the killings but also the anticipation of political fallout that could end his career. He spoke briefly at a press conference, offering condolence to the families and promising an investigation. When asked by World Politics Watch if the Gaur incident was a failure of the security forces, Sitaula was defensive, saying "this is a crime and the government will control, the government will investigate and the government will take them into custody."
But the Home Minister's words rang hollow to some human rights workers on the scene. Despite the presence of 60 heavily armed police and also military, witnesses say the security forces did little to prevent the attack and it took four days for any arrests to be made -- even though locals had quickly identified some of the attackers.
"Why haven't there been any arrests, ask him that," demanded angry human rights leader Subodh Raj Pyakurel, as he shook his finger in the face of the home minister, the day after the bloodshed.
The backdrop to the Gaur massacre is not just Nepal's peace process between the Maoists and the government, but also the struggle of the Madheshi community for recognition and rights.
The Madhesh, or Terai, region is a belt of fertile agricultural land that runs along Nepal's southern border with India. Its inhabitants -- Madheshis -- make up more than a third of the country's population, yet claim they are treated as second-class citizens by "hilly people." There are relatively few Madheshi's in key government posts and almost none in the police or army.
"So what we are seeing today is just the manifestation of the long standing issues," said Ram Kewal Shah, a top surgeon and Madheshi activist. "When their silent protest did not work they resolved to violent protest now."
While the majority of Madheshis are peaceful farmers, long-standing discrimination has bred militancy. Two years ago, a group of hardliners broke away from the Maoist army to form the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), which means Terai People's Liberation Front. Late last year, JTMM split into two factions, and in the past few months new extremist groups have emerged, including the Terai Tigers and the Terai Cobras.
The rift between the relatively moderate Madheshi People's Rights Forum and the Maoists began when a young revolutionary shot dead a Forum worker on Jan. 19. Demonstrations swept across the south and in two weeks more than 25 people were killed -- mostly Forum supporters shot by police.
The Forum sealed the India-Nepal border, stopping the imports that prop up Nepal's economy, and when supplies of petrol began to dry up in Kathmandu, Prime Minister G.P. Koirala promised to amend the draft interim constitution to better include Madheshis. However, ten days later the Forum resumed its protests, claiming the government wasn't serious about addressing issues in the Madhesh. The rally in Gaur was a part of this second phase of protests.
Given the tensions between the groups, the Maoists' decision to hold a rally on the same day as the Forum -- which announced its event two weeks prior -- was a clear act of provocation. But the real story may run deeper still. A well-placed local source claimed that the Maoists had planned to kidnap Forum chairman Upendra Yadav when he attended the meeting in Gaur, but the plot was discovered and a counter-attack was coordinated by the two factions of JTMM, along with the Terai Cobras. There is no hard evidence to back up this theory, but a deputy commander of one of the JTMM factions did claim responsibility for the bloodshed later that day.
The fractured political situation in Nepal, however, means any number of groups could have played a part in the massacre. The Conflict Study Center, a local political think tank, says "six types of forces are found to be involved in the incident," including "agitated [Forum] activists, . . . criminals imported from adjoining district Sitamadhi in India, . . . Hindu fundamentalists along with Nepal's Sadhbhava Party-Badri Prasad Mandal [faction], . . . [the] Jwala Singh faction of Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), . . . the vigilante groups formed during the King's autocratic rule and provided with weapons against Maoists . . . and hidden forces against peace process, e.g. weapon manufacturers, traders, etc."
The consequences of this month's killings in Gaur are yet to be fully realized, but the Maoist spokesman's reference to the Doramba incident is worrying. On Aug. 17, 2003, soldiers stumbled upon a Maoist meeting in the town of Dorumba. According to Amnesty International, government troops shot one leader immediately and marched 19 other suspected Maists away, later standing them in a row and shooting them dead. Ten days after the Duramba killings, the seven-month old ceasefire agreement collapsed and the civil war continued for another three years.
"If unity and inclusiveness are not promoted, further bloodshed may result and Nepal's peace process could be imperiled," said a statement released by the U.S. embassy in Kathmandu last week.
Maoist chairman "Prachanda" warned of a "fresh struggle" if the Forum was not banned, and thousands of Maoists fighters left their U.N.-monitored camps to protest on major highways, a clear breach of the peace agreement. There is certainly a risk that the incident could derail the peace process, but the Maoists have much to lose if that happens -- they are closer to power now than at any time during their 10-year armed rebellion.
The peace process, though fragile, is more solid now than ever before. The U.N. Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) to monitor weapons and assist with elections has personnel on the ground and an $88 million budget. It has urged all parties to show "restraint and discipline" and the U.N. Office for Human Rights is conducting an investigation at Gaur.
Nepal faces a daunting task in establishing peace and stability amidst such violent acts of political sabotage. Many fear an organized campaign of mayhem is underway, with the aim of delaying a vote scheduled for mid-June to elect members of an assembly to rewrite the constitution. The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly will decide the fate of Nepal's unpopular king and, as monarchy may be the biggest loser if the poll is held, the palace is usually blamed by Maoists and others for stirring up trouble. While some of these accusations may be empty rhetoric, consistent reports from recent clashes in the towns of Nepalgunj, Birgunj and now Gaur have identified known pro-royalists encouraging violence.
In the short term, Nepal's Parliament has established a high-level probe and six people have been arrested by police in connection to the killings. It's too soon to judge the legacy of the Gaur massacre -- it could either result in a strengthened resolve amongst the country's politicians to demand law and order, or it could be a sign of things to come.
Liam Cochrane is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu.