There are many questions to be answered in these troubling, mysterious days. Prime among them is whether the government and the security forces are trying to win the war against the Maoists by military means? If not win, then put increasing pressure on the rebels to abandon the path of violence and return to the peace process that collapsed in August. An examination of what ministers and occasionally, members of the forces are saying points to this whatever might be said to visiting dignitaries and diplomats about being ready for negotiations at any time.
If so, then it's time for someone in authority to say it plainly. The Nepali people deserve no less than to know that their country is going to become more violent, that soldiers and the police will be fighting more, not less, in the weeks to come. Yes of course, the Maoists too should make their intentions plain but to be fair, they have long rejected the existing order, and are fighting for its overthrow. Their web sites and press releases over the years have said no less. I think we know where they are coming from. 'Peoples' War' is pretty plain speaking.
No, it's the government, the monarchy and the security forces who need to come clean about their intentions. There are hints galore, and not just from Nepali sources. The New York Times quotes US officials as saying the Maoists must be "bent back to the bargaining table". This from the country that is supplying the security forces with weapons and counterinsurgency training. Government ministers who negotiated with the Maoists in the last round of the peace talks are frank: they didn't like the tone or substance of their interlocutors' submissions to the process, didn't believe that they only wanted peace and democracy and now think that they must disarm if there is to be a meaningful peace process in the country.
That last point makes some sense. Looking at Northern Ireland, where the British government and the IRA have been doing a danse macabre for years around the notion of peace and autonomy. A peace process acclaimed by the world sits suspended because IRA hardliners won't give up arms and explosives. "Decommissioning" it's called, in an attempt to make disarmament seem less than surrender. International players from America, Canada and Europe are quietly trying to put the two sides back on track, and find forms of words that ease them into peaceful conflict resolution, rather than angry rhetoric and more violence. So far, that, at least has been the case.
Here in Nepal, there's a sense of limbo at the moment. While the level of violence has been alarming in recent weeks, there's not been the steady stream of body count press releases from the Defence Ministry that there was before the ceasefire earlier this year. Perhaps that's because, as one Nepali newspaper reported a ministry spokesman as saying, the army doesn't tell the Ministry what it's doing anymore. Or perhaps it's a deliberate strategy of keeping public expectations low. Or perhaps, more ominously, it's an attempt to minimise the impact of civilian casualties or even human rights problems as the recent incidents in Doramba and Doti seem to indicate.
This, in the end, is why the Nepali state, in whatever form it chooses to present itself, should now be honest with the Nepali people about its military aims in the fight against the Maoists. Because if this is all out war, as it seems to be, then war has rules and those rules must be respected. Even more, those who investigate the conduct of war need respect and support from both sides, but especially from the government and the security forces. War cannot be won by those who treat civilian security and rights as disposable quantities. This is the international standard to which conflicts are now held, especially if international support is to be proffered to one side over the other, as is the case right now in Nepal. Donor governments, those accused of interfering in the country's internal affairs, are increasingly uneasy about the potential for a spiral of violence here that could turn the place into another Afghanistan, another Cambodia.
If this is not war, then what is it? Is there a strategy other than fighting the Maoists? Is anyone out there winning hearts and minds, or even trying to develop the country beyond the Kathmandu Valley and the richer sections of the tarai? Is there a role for the political parties and other parts of civil society in any of this? Will proven human rights abuses ever be properly and publicly handled, to the satisfaction of survivors, victims and others? What's more important? Peace? Or supremacy of arms? Tough questions, but the answers are probably even tougher.