After February First, and especially after the Maoist defeats at Khara and Rolpa in western Nepal, here in the east there is an unusual lull.
The RNA has been establishing new base camps near strategic passes that the Maoists need to move down to the tarai, while the rebels have been pushed up into remote villages in the hills and jungle hamlets along the East-West Highway and seem to be avoiding a confrontation.
"They aren't in a capacity to challenge us frontally anymore, if they do they know they will suffer even bigger casualties than in Khara and Rolpa," says a confident Major General Om Bahadur Pun, at the Eastern Division Headquarters in Itahari which looks after Mechi, Kosi and Sagarmatha Zones.
Pun, who took over two months ago, has visited his outposts and says the army has things under control. "The Maoists are losing popular support because they are terrorising the people and because of their extortion and forced recruitment of children," he told us.
On a recent trip up from Khandbari towards Terathum, however, Maoist militia armed with rifles and shoulder bags containing socket bombs were roaming freely in the bajars except in the district headquarters. Somewhere in Sankhuwasabha, the Maoists' 18th Battalion gave visiting journalists a march past with captured weapons, which included one GPMG, a couple of AK47s, INSAS rifles and a dozen SLRs. More impressive were their communication sets, which included satellite phones and walkie talkies with a range of 12 km. One Maoist was preparing a solar cell array to collectively recharge batteries for the sets.
Despite the show of force, the Maoists in the east have suffered major setbacks since their audacious attacks on Bhojpur and Pashupatinagar last year. Even in those raids, which were successful in penetrating the towns' defences, the Maoists suffered heavy casualties. The rebels deny any split in the party but admit suffering losses due to the capture or deaths of its senior leaders. Ram Bahadur Thapa (Badal) has taken over the rebel eastern command after the Indian Police arrested of Mohan Baidya in Silguri last year.
Desertions appear to be a serious problem. The party has tried to rely on ethnic-based Kirat, Limbu and Tharu fronts to extend its presence in the east but suffered setbacks after the Khumbuwan Mukti Morcha and the Madhesi Mukti Morcha not just split off but also took up arms against the Maoists. Despite this, Commissar Himal of the Maoists' 18th Battalion claims to control most of the countryside and says his forces feel safe in the villages because of his group's good communications that gives early warning of approaching patrols.
The army has starting setting up base camps on strategic passes like Aiselukharka near Khotang which links the eastern midhills to the tarai highway and Letang in Ilam. "There has been a decrease in Maoist activities since we set up the camps, meanwhile the morale of the soldiers is up after February First," says Major Raj Rana of the RNA's 2nd Brigade at Hile. At Aiselukharka, the RNA contingent were also having a march past and showed a dug-in 81 mm mortar used to defend the base perimeter.