Washington Post: While carnage in Israel and Kashmir and Colombia has dominated international attention in the past few months, a still-bloodier conflict has been taking place in Nepal, a desperately poor country of 25 million people wedged between India and China. Most people think of Nepal, when they do, as a tourist destination for Himalayan mountain climbers; now that image, and the country's vital tourist business, are being overtaken by reports of grisly battles between government troops and rebels. Major encounters have been happening almost weekly this summer, and death tolls in the hundreds are common. Since the war intensified seven months ago, an estimated 2,800 people have died.
Nepal's democratic government and its supporters, which range from the Bush administration to China, often describe the conflict in terms of the war on terrorism. In reality, this war is a throwback to an earlier era -- a rural-based insurgency by lightly armed but well-organized guerrillas who seek to impose vintage 1950s Maoism on Nepal. The insurgents' spokesmen praise Joseph Stalin and spout agitprop rhetoric of the kind no longer heard outside North Korea; even China's post-communist Communists are appalled. That makes negotiations with the insurgents next to impossible -- their idea of a compromise is to replace Nepal's parliamentary government with a Communist-dominated front and draw up a new "people's" constitution.
Sadly, this anachronistic movement has succeeded in devastating Nepal's economic infrastructure, has taken control of up to half its countryside and has gravely weakened its democracy. The government's imposition and subsequent extension of a state of emergency have caused internal rifts that recently led to the dismissal of parliament and scheduling of early elections. The biggest winner may be the local Communist party, which is not affiliated with the guerrillas but shares much of their agenda. The government's strategy has been heavily focused on military measures; the new annual budget announced this month includes big cuts in development aid while devoting 85 percent of spending to the army and police.
The United States will fund the equivalent of more than 10 percent of that military budget, provided Congress approves a Bush administration request for $20 million in new military aid to Nepal. The aid is desperately needed; but so is the $38 million in development aid the administration has requested. As senseless as their agenda may sound to the rest of the post-Cold War world, the Maoists have won significant support from poor Nepalese peasants who have never been touched by official development programs or aid. Nepal's democracy deserves help in fighting off the insurgents' attacks, but it also needs to be prodded toward policies that will remedy some of the misery on which such movements have always fed.