|STAKING A CLAIM: This welcome sign to the \'Republican Zone\' of Masuriya seems ironic, given the anarchy Maoists, \'democrats\', republicans, and dacoits are creating along the East-West Highway.|
It's four months into the peace process, but you wouldn't know that along Nepal's 1,100km-long lifeline, the East-West Highway.
We travelled along the highway for ten days starting1 September, and every day, and along every stretch heard stories and saw Maoist intimidation, as well as extortion, kidnapping, smuggling, turf wars between the rebels, 'democrats', and dacoits.
Police and the local administration can do little to ensure security amid all the lawlessness, and in many places the Maoists have taken law enforcement into their own hands. On and around the highway, there appears to be a complete breakdown of the state.
'Voluntary donations'-in reality anything but-are common in places like Siraha, and Lahan, where local businessmen shut down the market last month until Maoist district leaders assured them the intimidation would stop. The extortion takes different forms, such as forced 'voluntary' contributions of Rs 100,000 to support Maoist 'cultural events', protection rackets, checkpoints, tollbooths, and 'taxation'. No businessperson we spoke to would dream of refusing, because they\'re faced with guns. Maoist-condoned smuggling and illegal felling of timber have resulted in suddenly-sparse forests in Samling, near Urlabari.
Toll booths and blockades are everywhere, some openly run by the Maoists, and others in the name of 'pujas'. The price of a 45km bus ride has almost doubled to Rs 145. Trucks ferrying goods between Birganj and Urlabari pay 300 percent more than a few months ago. In ten days we saw five chakka jam, and disturbances and shutdowns in Butwal, Hetauda, Itahari, Mechinagar, Kakarbhitta, and other stops along the way.
Unable to cross the Rapti river after last year's Badarmude killings, the Maoists have intensified activities in areas they have access to. Trade unions are polarised, and the Maoists have taken over and destroyed property and service areas belonging to DDCs and VDCs.
There are PLA camps along the highway, particularly between the Koshi and Kamala rivers, and the soldiers are out in full force, conducting march-pasts, armed and in full battle regalia. Students are taken for forced militia training, as we saw in Bharatpur and Manahari. Local residents are forced to attend rallies and local political party working committees are subject to intimidation.
Self-determination and the Maoists entering the mainstream are moot. In Rautahat, when the rebels were asked to join a village meeting, they said they had no 'central directive' to work with other parties and instead asked for half the development budget to carry out projects themselves.
People live under the shadow of guns here. Face-offs between the Maoists, party members, police, and dacoits play out in crowded marketplaces and private homes. Sometimes the police intervenes and promises safety, but often they also claim to not know what is going on.
Meanwhile, the Maoists are also trying to run a hearts and minds campaign to win over middle-class sentiment. They are building 'people's hospitals' (often using illegally felled timber for beds), repairing stretches of road, and 'punishing' looters.
But as long as guns are present, no one believes they mean it. Many people we spoke to said it was all just 'for show', pointing out that a rebel-run hospital in Mangalbare, Morang, is a stone's throw from a government health care centre.
People are fed up with the anarchy. The feeling along the 1,100 km we travelled was that whether or not dacoits were responsible for much of the mayhem, the Maoists will have a lot to answer for if and when they are disarmed.