Analysis: Kathmandu Bombings and General Strike Highlight Growing Insurgency Threat Posed by Maoist Splinter Group

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A series of explosions in the capital Kathmandu along with unrest linked to a general strike late last month have again raised the specter of terrorism and insurgency in Nepal. The events have been linked to the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist-Chand (CPN-Chand) offshoot and followed a sporadic but disturbing pattern of similar incidents that ultimately caused the government of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to ban the CPN-Chand as a political party in March.

The CPN-Chand split off from the dominant CPN-Maoist Centre (CPN-M) wing of the party in 2014 after squabbles over party leadership and has since accused the main faction of betraying the revolutionary cause, particularly in light of the CPN-M’s successful integration into Nepali mainstream politics and its alliance struck last year with the erstwhile rival Unified Marxist-Leninist faction (CPN-UML) to form a coalition government.


Splinter Faction Becomes More Radical Amidst Government Crackdown

The CPN-Chand’s methods have become increasingly more radical as Nepal has settled into its new constitutional democratic structure, with the government ban and arrests of suspected CPN-Chand members in particular provoking more extreme methods. However, the Nepali government’s strategy has so far seemed ill-developed, as the CPN-Chand’s membership is now estimated to be in the hundreds and slowly growing.

The 26 May bombings made headlines both due to their location and how reminiscent they were of the country’s 10-year-long civil war which ended only in 2006 with the peace accords that integrated Maoist rebels into politics. The three blasts are reported to have been the work of CPN-Chand members who were attempting to craft gas cylinder-based IEDs to leave in various areas during the following day’s general strike. However, the IEDs appeared to have unexpectedly exploded during their construction and/or transport, killing four suspected CPN-Chand affiliates and wounding seven others. Only one individual not known to be associated with the party was injured.

During the general strike the following day, police also discovered makeshift bombs in Makawanpur, Kaski, Rautahat, Tanahun, Kailali and Baitadi districts across the country; reports also emerged of protesters torching vehicles in various locations. Businesses and educational institutions largely remained shuttered out of fear of violence, underscoring how little faith they seem to have in the government’s strategy to counter the growing CPN-Chand problem.

To date, the government still appears to be ambivalent about how to best tackle the problem, at times emphasising dialogue with CPN-Chand leadership and in other instances hinting at military force to neutralise the group. Such back-and-forth signals are likely the product of both the unexpectedness of the CPN-Chand problem as well as the fact that the group previously fought alongside the Maoist component of the current government during the civil war years, injecting a certain problematic sense of kinship and brotherhood into the equation. The government’s ban of the CPN-Chand and its subsequent rounding up of members in March followed another spate of bombings targeting both government entities and telecommunications infrastructure during the weeks prior.

While the Oli government had made repeated offers to hold talks with the CPN-Chand, its leader Netra Bikram Chand reportedly rejected the government’s insistence that the talks be direct and in-person; the government, for its part, refused to release a number of CPN-Chand members who had already been arrested – a precondition which the CPN-Chand refused to budge on. Thus, in the broader context of the failure of talks to materialise despite months of efforts and in the immediate aftermath of the February and March bombings earlier this year, the Oli government enacted the ban despite some consternation among the Maoist faction of the ruling coalition.

Somewhat tellingly, the opposition Nepali Congress (NC) had a similar reticence regarding the ban, as it feared that the move (and the consequent increase in arrests of CPN-Chand members) would only result in a further escalation of violence by the group, almost certainly recalling experiences from the civil war years.

Though there has been at least one recent high-profile defection from the CPN-Chand to the ruling coalition government, it does not appear that the government has made significant progress in stemming the CPN-Chand threat beyond bolstering security in certain districts – mainly eastern hill districts – that have reportedly seen a rise in CPN-Chand activity in recent weeks.


Looking Ahead

The Oli government currently finds itself in a critical period where, in all likelihood, it will maintain the relevant military force necessary to root out the CPN-Chand and prevent it from becoming a major insurgency force.

However, its insistence so far on dialogue despite the group’s clear unwillingness to engage has allowed the CPN-Chand to steadily gather force such that it now threatens to become a larger problem than the simmering conflict in the southern Terai region, which regularly sees unrest over alleged political discrimination and has been at the heart of the controversy over the country’s new constitution.

Indeed, terror attacks in the Terai have become rather rare in recent years despite the ability of groups there to still engage in occasional violent unrest. It is entirely possible – even probable – that the government focused too much of its attention on the Terai problem and other matters at the cost of allowing the nascent CPN-Chand insurgency to grow unchecked, perhaps believing in a false sense of security in terms of the Maoist conflict and the 2006 peace accords.

However, the government has since admitted that the CPN-Chand has successfully looted significant arms and munition from a handful of government-controlled locations, underscoring the group’s technical capabilities as well as its apparent ideological commitment. It is far from clear if the Oli government – or, perhaps more likely, its Maoist allies – can entice the CPN-Chand to lay down arms and integrate itself into the political process.

Yet equally unclear is whether, in the case that dialogue continues to fail, the government will be able to find the political will to muster enough intelligence and physical force to effectively check the CPN-Chand before it grows into a bigger threat. In the short-term, more bombings and strikes, notably in Kathmandu, are to be expected, particularly if the government moves to carry out more arrests of suspected CPN-Chand members. While it is unclear (and perhaps unlikely) that these bombings will grow to specifically target non-government civilians, their use will continue to pose an indiscriminate threat.