Postmortem of the daring Maoist attack on the Dolpo district headquarter in Dunai on Monday has raked up a host of unanswered questions which point to the police and army working at cross-purposes. At the root of this crisis is growing friction between the govern-ment and the palace that is beginning to shape Nepal's present polity. A deepening crisis will benefit anti-democratic forces of the left and the right who can take advantage of the ensuing chaos to take the country back to authoritarianism.
To complicate matters further, there is an intense power struggle underway within the ruling party between a faction which wants talks with the Maoists right away, and another which wants to build up police strength before talking.
This was a dramatic and massive attack. Around 1,000 Maoist guerrillas stormed Dunai early Monday morn-ing. The six-hour firefight left 14 policemen dead, 41 wounded, and 12 missing, presumed taken prisoner. Maoist leader Prachanda issued a statement several hours after the attack, blaming the government for not agreeing to peace talks even though his group was ready.
The attack itself was not a total surprise. Army personnel had notified headquarters of unusual activity in the mountains above Dunai of people with binoculars and guns. The Chief District Officer of Dolpo, Parsuram Aryal, had sent word to Kathmandu last week that a Maoist attack was imminent, and requested reinforce-ments. The government started mobilising backup support, and says it requested the Army, which has a company-level detachment 40 minutes away, for assistance. Army sources claimed they were "not formally asked" for help by the Home Ministry.
On Sunday afternoon, a 48-strong police contingent was helicoptered into Dunai from the south. Within nine hours they were in action, trying to repel the attack that they were expecting. The fighting began with a bang soon after midnight with the guerrillas pounding the police station with pipe bombs, peppering sentry posts with gunfire, and demol-ishing the nearby jail to free prisoners.
Then they went to the house of the manager of Nepal Bank Limited and forced him to open the vaults and made off with more than Rs 50 million in cash and jewellery. The bank had received Rs 35 million in cash from Nepal Rastra Bank on Sunday afternoon on a flight from Nepalgunj to Jufal airfield, four hours' walk away. The Maoists had prior knowledge of this money transfer, and had apparently delayed their attack by three days because the Royal Nepal Airlines flight remained cancelled until Sunday due to bad weather. No one knows why such a big amount was sent to an insurgency area without major develop-ment projects. Another mystery is why the regional and zonal police chiefs were both out of station at the time of the attack and without notice. Both have since been suspended. Wounded police personnel who were airlifted to Kath-mandu on Monday afternoon told reporters that they fought till they ran out of ammunition, and were waiting for the nearby soldiers to come to their rescue. One of the wounded told the Kantipur daily: "We fought till dawn and they came only in the morning to pick up the corpses." The Army has so far not allowed its helicop-ters to be used by the police, but did send one Mi-17 to pick up the dead and wounded on Monday.
The Dunai attack came as the government and the army have been locked in a behind-the-scenes tussle over deployment, training and re-equipping the police's anti-Maoist campaign. Fresh into office earlier this year, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, stirred a hornet's nest by threatening to use the Army in anti-insurgency operations. But he later backed out, realising that the generals wouldn't listen to him.
As a compromise, it was agreed that the Army would train a paramilitary police force and provide it with automatic weapons. So far, a contin-gent of 100 has been trained but they have not been deployed anywhere. Government sources say that although the Army has been paid for 9,000 self-loading rifles (SLRs) these have not been given to the police. The Army argues it will make the guns available only after the paramilitary force is raised.
Nepal's constitution is ambivalent about who actually controls the Army, the elected government or the palace. It is this ambiguity that is the source of uncertainty. Army Chief Prajwal Sumsher Rana said two weeks ago that the military should be placed under the National Security Council, which consists of the prime minister, the defence minister and the army chief. An emergency Cabinet meeting on Monday decided that the government would use "all security" means to enforce law and order. Sources said the cabinet essentially stopped short of calling for Army deployment to contain the situation, deferring a decision on it until the prime minister meets the king on Wednesday.
The Maoists have so far been very careful not to escalate the conflict to the point of dragging the Army in. And the attack on Dunai appears to have been just that: to ensure maximum damage and propaganda points, but stop short of actually capturing the district headquarters. Meanwhile, the Royal Palace has been sitting on a government ordinance that would provide the legal basis for the Armed Police Force now being trained. "It is lingering, neither moving forward or back," says a government source. "All they do is ask polite questions.