The US quietly wades into South Asia's rebel conflicts

Armed insurgencies in Sri Lanka, Kashmir, and Nepal have hit crucial turning points.

In this lush Hindu kingdom tucked away in the shadow of Mt. Everest, a brutal Maoist insurgency has killed more than 3,500 people.

The fighting is escalating, and the casualties are mainly civilian. More than 1,700 Nepalis have been killed in the past four months alone, a greater number than in the previous six years combined.

The insurgency in Nepal is just one of three deadly conflicts in South Asia which have brewed quietly in the background of the Afghan conflict. But the lack of media attention is no indication of a lack of US involvement. In all three conflicts, which together have claimed tens of thousands of lives over the past two decades, US officials have quietly been applying pressure and support for peace talks, and, in the case of Nepal, a war against Maoist rebels.

• In Sri Lanka, the US has thrown its support behind a Norwegian-brokered cease-fire that's now in its fourth tenuous month, but the US has also sent emissaries to warn ethnic Tamil guerrillas to desist from terrorism.

• In the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, US diplomats are quietly pressuring both India and Pakistan to step back from their current war-footing, and resume talks over the Muslim-dominated state that they both claim.

• In Nepal, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba arrived in Washington yesterday to finalize a $20 million US military aid package – which reportedly includes counterinsurgency training by US special forces – to help fight against Maoists.

"All these conflicts have a common feature of not being at an end," says Kanti Bajpai, a national security analyst at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "Everyone is split and in doubt; everyone is waiting for everyone else to make the first move."

Nepal: the killing terraces

Of all the major conflicts in South Asia, Nepal's seems the furthest from resolution. The Maoist rebels, who declared a "People's War" in 1996, have accelerated their 10-year plan to overthrow the current monarchy and parliamentary system and replace it with an egalitarian "dictatorship of the proletariat." To date, nearly 3,500 Nepalis have died in the past six years, the vast majority of them civilians.

"The Maoists are today all over the place," says Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian Army general based in New Delhi, who has extensive contacts with the Nepalese Army leaders. "They just knocked off 22 police posts at will, and the state is unable to prevent them or respond."

Over the past five days, the poorly trained, poorly equipped Royal Nepalese Army appears to be making some successes, reportedly killing some 550 Maoists in the Maoist heartland in Western Nepal.

Despite a three-month cease-fire, following the June 1, 2001 royal massacre of King Birendra and much of his family, the Maoists have escalated the level of violence. In addition to attacking "hard targets" such as police stations or army patrols, Maoists have also attacked public services that benefit common Nepalis, such as village development offices, mini-hydropower plants, drinking water projects, airport towers, and telecommunication lines. Today, nearly one third of all Nepali villages have no local officials to run health or education programs; 17 out of 75 districts have lost phone service.

In addition, Maoists have begun rounding up citizens who they consider to be informers and executing them.

"They are attacking everything that used to be a success story in Nepal," says Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times, the main political weekly based in Kathmandu. "If you look at the broader picture, they're trying to use the year after the royal massacre to speed up their revolution. But it can be seen as a sign of desperation to put pressure on the government to get the public opinion to say, 'Enough is enough; let's have talks.' "

Last week, the shadowy Maoist leader Prachanda, alias Pushpa Kamal Dahal, called for immediate peace talks to halt any "foreign interference." Prime Minister Deuba rejected this call, however, saying that the Maoists must first surrender their arms. "No talks are possible with the followers of Pol Pot," Deuba said, referring to the Maoist-trained Cambodian leader.

Deuba's cabinet say US military assistance is necessary in present times.

"The threat to the law and order situation is so intense, threatening, and sophisticated that the [military] apparatus needs to be reinforced and modernized," said Prakash Sharah Mahat, Deuba's military adviser, to the Himalayan Times. As for the Maoists, he ruled out peace talks. "They are on the run. We need to give them a decisive push."

But there is a growing chorus building for talks, backed by businessmen, opposition leaders, and even a few members of Deuba's ruling party, including former Prime Minister Girija Koirala. In this view, every day of bloodshed weakens Nepal's chief industry – tourism. "The answer is simple: Clear up corruption and bring transparency to government, and the support for the Maoists will go away," says Bharat Basnet, a prominent social activist and tour operator in Kathmandu. "If we go on fighting, we will destroy Nepal."

Kashmir: battle fatigue

Farther west on the Himalayan mountain chain, in the valley of Kashmir, a group of Muslim separatists calling themselves the All Parties Hurriyat Conference have pushed for separation from India, although they agree on little else.

It was the brazen attacks of Kashmiri militants – a truck bombing of the state assembly in the summer capital of Srinagar last October, killing 40 people, and the Dec. 13 assault of India's parliament itself in New Delhi – that pushed India and Pakistan to the brink of war. At present, nearly a million Indian and Pakistani troops remain on a war footing along the Indo-Pakistan cease-fire line.

Yet in the valley itself, there are signs that militancy has lost its popularity among the shopkeepers, hoteliers, and taxi drivers who once made a living off of tourism. Daily newspapers regularly now show the bodies of Kashmiri militants, stacked like cords of wood. With no visible results from the armed militants – no "liberation zones," no shift of boundaries – there is a growing chorus for peace talks among separatists.

Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a leading separatist and perhaps the most powerful Muslim cleric in Kashmir, recently told his followers that it was his "duty to God to end the bloodshed in Kashmir." Many Kashmir-watchers say this may be an indication that Mr. Farooq may start pushing his fellow separatists to restart negotiations with the Indian government, or more shockingly, that he may decide to enter mainstream politics in the state elections this fall.

On the militant front, Kashmir's top indigenous militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, took Delhi by surprise on Friday by offering a cease-fire.

"Once India takes an initiative with will and good intentions, she will find us 10 steps ahead of her one step," wrote Moin-ul-Islam, deputy supreme commander of Hizbul, in the Srinagar-based newspaper Greater Kashmir.

Previous attempts to begin such a peace process have failed. Even so, a number of recent visits by top US diplomats, including US Secretary of State Colin Powell and last month's visit by the assistant secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, show that the US wants tensions eased between the two nuclear powers.

"America is paying attention, but they have to be a bit careful about how much pressure to apply," says Dr. Bajpai, the national-security expert. "India has balked at intervention in the past, so the lowest-key contact is with the Indian government. Still, the US is working with all three parties (India, Pakistan, and the separatists) very quietly, more forcefully with Pakistan and less forcefully with us."

Sri Lanka: a shaky cease-fire

On paper, Sri Lanka's cease-fire appears to be holding. On one side are ethnic Tamil guerrillas, who seek a separate nation in the north. On the other are the Sinhalese majority, who control the government.

But in the past two weeks, there has been evidence that the feared Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), or Tamil Tigers, have been using the cease-fire to rearm themselves. Two weeks ago, the Sri Lankan Navy captured three boats packed with heavy weapons destined for the northern Tamil stronghold of Jaffna peninsula. A fourth boat, stopped by Navy gunboats on Thursday, exploded while Sri Lankan Navy personnel tried to conduct a search of its contents. Tamil rebels rebuke the government's assertion that the boats were used for arms smuggling.

Some experts suggest that this peace process may succeed because of the advancing age of the chief Tiger commander, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who has led the insurgency for some 23 years. Last month, at his first meeting with journalists in 12 years, Mr. Prabhakaran said the LTTE "is for peace and a negotiated political settlement."

Yet if the Tamil Tigers are rearming, so is the Sri Lankan military. Last week, the military announced that it had begun recruiting once again, and retraining the troops they have.

Opinionmakers in Colombo, the capital, say that there is little likelihood of turning the current cease-fire into a lasting peace.

"I don't think anyone here takes the cease-fire seriously," says Roland Edirisinghe, an economist and political columnist in Colombo. "Mr. Prabhakaran wants to rearm and replenish his army, and he is regarded by Sri Lanka and India as a mass murderer who has killed nearly 20,000 Sinhalese, including 600 Buddhist monks." Prabhakaran is also blamed for the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and India wants to extradite him.

In addition, the war in Sri Lanka has raged so long now that it has become a prime driver in the economy, Mr. Edirisinghe adds. Nearly 1 million people get their incomes from war, as cooks, seamstresses of Army uniforms, and even as private guards (some 400,000 of them). "War is good for the economy," he says.

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