As the three-month ceasefire period comes to an end, it is becoming apparent that the level of desertions and surrenders from the movement has increased in the period. In Parbat, the Vice-platoon commander of the Gandak Region Dhana Bahadur Chhetri (Comrade Dharan) and Jit Pun of the Magarat Freedom Front surrendered to the security forces. Recently, the vice chairman of the district Maoist student union Gopal Bhandari deserted the movement. Comrade Dharan was in Grade 8 in Waling when he was impressed with Maoists' song and dance performances and joined the insurgents. He received training even fought in famous battles in Waling, Tarkughat and Gulmi where he was wounded. Now, he has decided to leave the movement and go abroad to work. The Platoon Commander from Myagdi, Comrade Dil has also quit. Jit Pun says he was put off by the slaughter he witnessed during the attack in Beni in March 2004 and says he will now go abroad to work. Student leader Gopal Bhandari, on the other hand, was in charge of fund-raising for the party and appears to have fled to India with a lot of money.
In Rukum, the Maoists have passed an edict that the Thanti market be relocated to Bhlakcha. Little did they realise that market towns in Nepal are located where villagers from surrounding districts find it convenient to travel to. One can't just relocate them on a whim. The Maoists say the Thanti location was 'detrimental to the people's war' and closed it down. "We can close markets and open them wherever we like," says the Rukum head of the 'people's government', Comrade Drone who refused to say why the location was a problem for the struggle. Elsewhere, the Maoists were forced by public pressure to withdraw their order to relocate Simrutu Bajar. Maoists have called anyone who opposes their orders 'traitors' and businessmen don't usually speak out against it. But Man Bahadur Oli does say cautiously: "By moving the market, the people have suffered a lot. They shouldn't have done that."
There are signs that local Maoists are degenerating into extortion gangs during the ceasefire. The Maoists always used to say they'd never harm trekkers and ask tourists for donations according to the party's pre-determined rate. Not anymore. A group of tourists in Humla and Mugu recently were extorted by Maoist groups and sub-groups in the two districts. Earlier, if they showed the receipt they didn't have to pay the Maoist tax twice. In Thame of Khumbu, suspected Maoists in one recent night went house-to-house and extorted Rs 10,000 each from a dozen tourist lodges.
In some parts of central and mid-western Nepal, local Maoists are behaving as if they are a political party campaigning in elections. They arrange programs for local villagers in much the same way as political parties. "Our party wants a peaceful way out and we think a democratic republic is the only way out," says Battalion Commisar Comrade Roshan at a public meeting in a school in Kailai's Urma VDC on 29 October. But the people are confused, do the Maoists really mean it? Is this a ruse? Or do they now genuinely want to form a political front organisation? Comrade Atom has the answer: "There is no place for monarchy in a democracy, it doesn't mean we have given up the struggle, we are just uniting with the anti-regression forces of the parties."
The rebels seem to have given up their long boring speeches and show a willingness to share the podium even with people they don't agree. Comrade Roshan sounded conciliatory when he began his speech in Kailali by saying: "Please point out our weaknesses, be open, give us suggestions."
The UML's Durga Sodari took up the challenge: "We think you Maoists are dominant in the villages only because you have the gun. We don't agree to this." Some party members still don't trust the Maoists and think their recent softness is a trick. But ex-MP Maheswor Pathak says: "If the Maoists take part in peaceful meetings and rallies even the government should applaud." But Congress central committee member Sunil Kumar Bhandari cautions: "As long as we don't get an explicit commitment from them that they are now on a peaceful democratic struggle, it will be difficult to trust them." But the Maoists here haven't yet publicly announced that they have adopted the new strategy.
Despite the uncertainties, the Maoists seem to have having serious second thoughts about violence. Says in-charge of Phulbari VDC in Kailali, Comrade Sangharsha says: "It took us 10 years to realise it's wrong to kill people and it took the Nepali Congress 61 years to realise it shouldn't carry the king on its shoulder."
In Argakhanchi and Pyuthan, however, there is a big gap between what the Maoists say and do. There is a lot of fear about what will happen after the ceasefire and the new Maoist graffiti on the walls say: 'Let's make the phased strategic counteroffensive a success.' Locals have taken this to mean that the Maoists will rejoin the warpath after the ceasefire. Despite the thaw in relations with the parties, the rebels are still targeting party workers. Najir Mian can't go aback to his village in Pali VDC because he couldn't pay the Maoist the Rs 100,000 they demanded.
In Gulmi, the NC's central committee member Man Gyawali has had his property confiscated. Ramji Ghimire of the UML hasn't been able to go back to his village for five years. The only reason is that the Maoists fear that allowing party workers back to the village could dilute their power. So the strategy seems to be: 'Cooperate with the parties at the centre but maintain influence in the villages.' The Maoists have not been able to bring up a new generation of political leaders and even their cadre are deserting in droves. The Maoists district secretary ran away with Rs 2.8 million recently.
In Jhapa and the eastern districts Maoist brutality has not gone down since the ceasefire. On 8 November the Maoists killed mentally handicapped Chudamani Mainali: his fault was to ask an armed Maoist patrol for a cigarette. Chudamani's father, 60-year-old Shiva Prasad, was himself in mourning for his own father when his son was shot. "My son needed treatment, how could they have killed him?" says Tulsa Debi, Chudamani's mother. Villagers shouted "The man is mad, don't kill him" but the Maoists shot him anyway. A week earlier, the Maoists kidnapped Nirmala Basnet of Khotang whose Maoist husband accused her of being unfaithful to him.
She was later killed. Fifty-five year old Januka Bhandari of Tehrathum had left the Maoists and was sitting at home in Simle VDC when the Maoists came and tortured and beat her up until she died of her wounds. The Maoists then kidnapped Januka's daughter Krishna Kumari. In Ilam the Maoists abducted Rudra Dhungana because he couldn't pay them Rs 200,000 'donation'.
Narendra Dewan has been locked out of his house by Maoists because his son is in the army, he hasn't been allowed to harvest his ripened rice.