Ghosts of war

Nearly three decades after the Maoists launched their armed struggle on 13 February 1996, Nepal is still haunted by the violence

The Maoist conflict began 27 years ago this week. The former Maoist commander is Nepal's prime minister for the third time, and politics has been in disarray ever since the war ended 17 years ago. Photo: KIRAN PANDEY/NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVE

This week marks 27 years since the start of the Maoist conflict that claimed the lives of 17,000 Nepalis. A whole new generation has grown up without any memory or knowledge of the insurgency, and how it has shaped Nepali society and politics, for better or worse (mostly the latter).

The fact that Chairman Prachanda who admitted to being responsible for “only” 5,000 of the deaths during his insurgency is now Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal for the third time has left many (including his own former guerrillas and comrades) wondering what it was all for.

When heinous war crimes including summary executions, torture, disappearances and war rape by both sides go unaddressed and unpunished, the sense of impunity makes Rabi Lamichhane’s citizenship debacle just a procedural lapse.

“A society that doesn’t know its history or doesn’t learn from it is bound to repeat the same mistakes,” warns Mohan Mainali, a film-maker who documented the conflict. “As it is, we are already seeing public disenchantment with the established parties turning into support for newer parties and their populist leaders.”

The question now is: are the new parties that emerged from the November federal elections really that different? The way Lamichhane got himself appointed Home Minister in the 7-party coalition showed a clear conflict of interest, where power trumped ethics. And the prolonged tirade against the media during his press conference was seen by many as a blatant attempt to divert attention from his transgressions by blaming the messenger.

In a way, Lamichhane is latching on to a mass yearning for change, much in the same way that the Maoist parties swept the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections by promising societal transformation through the democratic process. Overwhelming numbers of Nepalis voted for the Maoists then, not necessarily because they supported them, but because they did not want them to go back into the jungle.

The peace process that followed the conflict may not have made Nepali society more egalitarian, but there is now more inclusion in politics, the job market, education, women, and excluded groups having found space they previously lacked.  Nepal went from a Hindu monarchy to being a secular federal republic, and the Madhes movement would likely not have happened without the insurgency making people aware of their rights.

Read also: Armed Conflict and Conflict of Interest, Editorial

“But the question is, did we need to kill a whole lot of people to achieve that?” asks Rajendra Dahal, editor of Shikshak monthly. “Sure, we have matured as a society, but just about everything else is worse than before the insurgency: development, economy, education, and most of all, our politics.”

Even so, Nepal is considered a model for post-conflict reconciliation with the former rebels transitioning into mainstream politics in the past 17 years. Dahal is prime minister for the third time with the UML in the coalition, and Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress a close ally despite being in the opposition. The former enemies are no longer in government together, but Dahal incongruously heads a coalition made up of anti-secular, anti-federal and pro-monarchy forces.

“Sure, the war led to notable political and social reforms but unfortunately the very political decline that led to the conflict is more evident, the fact that the behaviour and mentality of our leaders haven’t changed makes all other achievements of the revolution meaningless,” says Mainali.

The former enemies do not want to rake up war crimes and want the atrocities their forces committed to be forgotten. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the Commission on the Investigation of Enforced Disappearances (CIED) have turned transitional justice into a farce.

“There is not much hope for transitional justice given the very perpetrators are now the state, but we as a society must remember to remember the insurgency and people who have blood on their hands, at the very least to prevent another war,” adds Mainali.

The families of the victims or those who disappeared during the war continue to wait for the truth. On the 21th anniversary last week of the execution by the Maoists of Muktinath Adhikari, a teacher in Lamjung, his daughter Sabita Adhikari pleaded for justice.

She wrote: “We lost our father. Nothing will bring him back. If his murderers are not caught and punished, there is a danger of another conflict that will make more orphans like us.”

Read also: Nepal's unpunished war crimes, Sabita Adhikari

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.