Nepal: Conflict Profile

Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries, and is still struggling to overcome the effects of the decade-long civil war that was launched by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in 1996. The conflict claimed the lives of 17,000 people, displaced an estimated 100,000 more, and ultimately brought about the abolition of a 240-year-old monarchy. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2006 was designed to create a permanent peace, but, whilst progress has been made, challenges remain; politicians are yet to agree on a new constitution and the country remains plagued by political instability.

Origins

The conflict’s origins, and the growth of popular dissatisfaction against Nepal’s traditional autocratic system, can be traced throughout the twentieth century. The desire for democratic reform was a feature of Nepalese society from the 1950s onwards, but efforts to establish a representative form of government were either unsuccessful or repeatedly thwarted by the ruling Shah dynasty.

Three Maoist rebels waiting for order on top of a hill in the Rolpa district, Nepal.

Three Maoist rebels waiting for order on top of a hill in the Rolpa district, Nepal. ( © Jonathan Alpeyrie via Wikimedia Commons)

The 1979 Nepalese student protests marked a significant turning point; a series of violent protests during the months of April and May forced the monarchy to agree to a constitutional referendum. Although small, the democratic reforms that followed laid the foundations for further campaigns of civil disobedience throughout the 1980s. In 1990 Nepal’s main leftist parties united within a ‘People’s Movement’, and combined with weeks of protests this quickly pressured King Birendra into establishing a multi-party political system and a constitutional monarchy later that year.

Nepali Congress won the subsequent elections in 1991 and formed the country’s first elected government in 32 years. However, a period of political instability amidst a climate of economic chaos followed, and the newly formed parties on the radical left began a programme of political agitation through industrial and violent action. The government’s forceful repression of these protests and other similar movements only served to further radicalise many activists and further increase tensions.

Civil War

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda), started a ‘People’s War’ on 13 February 1994 with the intention of deposing the existing government and replacing the royal parliamentary system with a ‘People’s Republic’. The conflict that followed was characterised by the Maoist rebels gaining significant control over Nepal’s rural areas, whilst the government remained in control of the main cities and towns. This status quo existed for many years, partly due to the fact that only the Nepali Police were mobilised to combat the insurgency. 

However, the situation changed dramatically in 2001 after the Maoist rebels withdrew from peace talks and launched a series of attacks against police and army posts in 42 of Nepal’s 75 districts. A National State of Emergency was subsequently declared by the government three days later and the Royal Nepalese Army was finally engaged in the conflict. Shortly after, the US State Department declared the Maoist political party to be a terrorist organisation and the US Congress approved $12 million to train Royal Nepalese Army officers and send shipments of weapons.

The renewal of the State of Emergency caused significant political instability over the following year, and support for the monarchy began to wane as the conflict neared the Kathmandu Valley in 2004. This sentiment was only exacerbated by King Gyanendra when he performed a Royal Coup. In 2005 he dismissed the entire government, assumed full executive powers and declared a second State of Emergency which restricted a wide range of civil liberties; a move that was met with widespread criticism abroad. 

People protesting in downtown Kathmandu, 2009

People protesting in downtown Kathmandu, 2009 (© izahorsky)

Dissatisfaction with the monarchy’s actions grew amongst domestic and international communities, and in late 2005 the Maoist rebels announced a unilateral ceasefire in order to join a loose alliance with Nepal’s seven main political parties. The formation of the Loktantra Andolan, a people’s movement intended to restore democracy, induced weeks of pro-democracy strikes which forced the King to reinstate parliament. The monarchy’s powers were immediately curtailed and ten years of Maoist insurgency came to an end as the government and rebels signed the Comprehensive Peace Accord on 21 November 2006.

Reconstruction

The Comprehensive Peace Accord brought a formal end to the civil war and provided the framework for a sustainable peace. Under the pact, the Maoists were allowed to take part in government in exchange for agreeing to lock up their weapons and confine fighters to UN-monitored camps. The King was also stripped of his political powers.

In the period immediately following the conflict, there were some promising steps: The Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction proposed legislation to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission; an interim constitution was adopted in 2007 with the intent of forming a Constituent Assembly; and Nepal became a democratic republic with the abolition of the monarchy in 2008.

A substantial step was also taken in November 2011 when the main political parties agreed on a deal to reintegrate 7,000 former Maoist rebels back into society, having remained in camps since the end of the conflict, with the support of the UN Interagency Rehabilitation Programme.

However, such successes have been few and far between, and the peace process has become extremely protracted due to a climate of continual political instability. Indeed, the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal has had six prime ministers in the last five years. Tensions between the Maoists and other political groups were particularly strained in 2010, sparking widespread protests, strikes and violent clashes. Prime Minister Nepal subsequently resigned his position in an attempt to pave the way for a national consensus government, but this only succeeded in giving rise to a seven-month political stalemate during which Nepal had no effective government.

Such turmoil has severely limited the country’s recovery, with the most obvious and fundamental example being Nepal’s failure to draft a new constitution. The Constituent Assembly was elected in 2008 with two-year mandate, but this was extended four times as the major parties were unable to agree on the country’s future federal structure. Each of these extensions was met with increasing popular unrest, and the Assembly was finally dissolved by Prime Minister Baburam Bhatturai in 2013 with a view to holding new elections.

Vehicles burnt by Maoists

Vehicles burnt by Maoists (© Leon Meerson)

Tourism in the region, Nepal’s greatest source of foreign exchange, has also suffered considerably due to Nepal’s stagnated recovery. Nepal remains 112th in the rankings of the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013, despite having ranked 106th in 2007.

Looking to the future

The situation in Nepal remains tense, national elections for a new Constituent Assembly have twice been delayed and this has led to significant popular unrest in 2013. Elections are now scheduled to take place in November 2013, though it remains to be seen if this target will be met.

Furthermore, other conditions of the Comprehensive Peace Accord remain unfulfilled: Nepal’s Supreme Court recently suspended the government’s plans for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, following concerns regarding a governmental decree to enable the granting of amnesties; and there is no agreement on how to best integrate the remaining 6,000 soldiers from the former Maoist army into the Nepal army. The civil war may be over, but Nepal’s fragile peace continues to be tested.

Last updated: July 2013