Nepal's students look for 'third way' out of civil war

The Army says it killed 500 Maoist guerrillas in a battle on Sunday. The rebels dispute claim and vow to press on.

Since the suspension of Nepal's parliament two years ago, student unions have stepped in to fill the country's political void. Students are widely seen as the voice of the Nepalese people who are caught in a deepening civil war between King Gyanendra and Maoist insurgents.

The eight-year conflict has left more than 9,000 dead. On Sunday, 500 Maoist guerrillas and 17 police and soldiers were killed in a 12-hour battle in the mountain town of Beni, according to the Army. The Maoists dispute the figure, and vow to press on.

To push for an end to the war and a return to democracy, all student unions except for the Maoists have united and joined with their parent political parties. Collectively known as "the opposition," they are pressing for a "third way" in what many analysts see as a military stalemate.

"We are tired of this war," says Bahadur, a 19-year-old science student and supporter of the Nepali Congress Party, once Nepal's elected majority. "We want the king and the Army to stop their dealings. We want our democracy back."

Gyanendra declared a state of emergency in 2002 and dismissed the democratically elected government. He has consistently opted for foreign military aid above development aid, escalating the fight against the Maoists, who claim to control 80 percent of Nepal.

Thousands of students have protested across Nepal, including large demonstrations earlier this month. They are demanding the restoration of parliament and an end to the king's assumed powers.

They also criticize the King's Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), responsible for "disappearances" of local civilians accused of being Maoists. In 2002, Nepal had the highest number of disappearances in the world, according to Amnesty International.

Analysts predict the opposition is close to demanding a republic if the king does not reduce his powers - a demand that the Maoist have made since declaring war in 1996. The opposition claims they would call on the Maoists to join the democratic process and stand in national elections.

So far, the king has not given a timetable for a hand over of power. The monarchy's popularity has slipped under Gyanendra, who took over after King Birendra was killed in a palace massacre in 2001. But the RNA remains under the king's direct orders, and much of its top brass is married to the royal family.

Student Union elections last month highlighted the Maoists' declining popularity. The Maoists' student wing attempted to boycott student union elections and declare a general strike in the capital. But after two days of their intended five-day strike, they were defied by representatives of all the other student political parties.

While the Maoists' gruesome guerrilla tactics - such as decapitation - drew international condemnation, many Nepalese initially appreciated the Maoists' aim to alleviate rural poverty.

One student at a rally in February suggested that the opposition is advocating peacefully for goals of equality and anticorruption that the Maoists failed to deliver. "We don't want the Maoists, they have good ideas but bad actions," says the student, who dares not give his name. "And the RNA and police? They are worse! We will stand here until the world listens to us."

Over the past three months, hundreds of students have been arrested by security forces during rallies - some of which have attracted 20,000 protesters countrywide.

"The US is skeptical of student protesters; they're seen a bit like a 'rent-a-crowd' to represent the more extreme views of the political parties," says David Seddon, professor at the University of East Anglia. "The US is more concerned to bring the political parties and the king together. And, while not doing that, the US is supporting Nepal's militarization against what the US perceives as an international terrorist threat even though the Maoists are little more than an indigenous insurgency."

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