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NEPAL: Tension in south could lead to war, analysts warn

KATHMANDU , 9 April 2007 (IRIN) - As Nepal continues its transition from a decade-long armed conflict towards a peaceful democratic nation, analysts say a serious hurdle stands in its way – violence and unrest in the country's southern Terai region.

For the past three months, ethnic Madhesi groups have been demanding regional autonomy and greater political rights for their community in the Terai - home to almost half of Nepal’s 27 million inhabitants, the majority of whom are Madhesis.

More than 60 people have been killed in violent clashes between police and Madhesi protestors, largely led by the popular Madhesi People's Rights Forum (MPRF) - known as a platform for all pro-Madhesi activists and supporters but yet to be recognised as political party.

There are other Madhesi political groups, including militant ones, which are gaining notoriety for abductions, kidnappings and killings of civilians, government officials and observers say.

What started as anti-government protests has turned into violence between various ethnic groups, largely the Madhesis and the Pahadis. The Pahadis are from the hill areas, but over the past half-century many migrated to the Terai to escape hardship in the hills.

Terai is a fertile area which is considered the country’s breadbasket, in contrast to less productive hill and mountain areas. Pahadis make up about 30 percent of the Terai population.

Most of the Pahadis are better educated and richer than the Madhesis, say analysts. They are more active and dominant in Nepal's political parties and government offices.

The Madhesi leaders say their community has been neglected and excluded from most of the country’s developmental and political processes due to Pahadi leaders discriminating against them.

Security in Terai worsening

Analysts say the security situation in the Terai is worsening with extortions, intimidation, threats and kidnappings occurring every day. The government frequently announces curfews to maintain security.

Last week, some senior officials were abducted by a Madhesi-affiliated group known as the Terai People's Liberation Front. The police have been pursuing the case but with no success.

Independent analysts, both local and international, have urged the government to take Madhesi demands seriously.

There are fears that if these demands are not addressed, the current regional uprising is at risk of escalating into a full-blown war between the Madhesi and Pahadi communities.

"This fear is always there. The risk of communal war is always there whenever you have inefficient political parties and government," said Chandra Kishore Lal, a prominent analyst in Nepal. He added that the government was taking the issue as a law and order case rather than a crucial political issue.

International specialists say Madhesi demands should not be construed as political gimmicks to jeopardise the peace process, as has been implied by the Maoists and other political parties.

"The issues need to be taken seriously as we have already seen that the country was recently on the brink of paralysis," Rhoderick Chalmers, an analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN. He added that there was still a chance to address the Madhesi issue by promoting an inclusive political process, particularly one that includes a majority of Madhesis in the electorate.

Pivotal role of elections

Nepal is for the first time preparing for Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, scheduled for June, but the CA hardly addresses the Madhesi issue, analysts say.

"Even the formation of the CA mechanism fails to address any aspiration of the Madhesi and there is still no talk of how to develop the mechanism process," said Lal. He added that instead of resolving the issue, its main aim is to legitimise former Maoist rebels by bringing them into mainstream politics.

With the elections nearing, Madhesi groups have said they will jeopardise them and make the CA irrelevant. Madhesi leaders have already gone underground and taken refuge in India, from where they are giving directions for more protests, said Lal, an ethnic Madhesi himself.

Some political party leaders, who did not want to be identified, said the elections should be postponed until the Madhesi issue is sorted out.

"The next few months prior to the elections will be very critical for Nepal's new phase but there are fears of the country slipping into conflict again if the Terai issue is not resolved," said Natalie Hicks from International Alert, an NGO working on early warning issues.

Local NGOs say that many families in the Terai have already left their villages and migrated to India in search of better security and livelihoods. They say there is no longer the old harmony between the Madhesis and Pahadis.

"I fear to walk at night in the Madhesi neighbourhood," said Sharan Poudel, an ethnic Pahadi in the southwestern city of Nepalgunj.

Om Kumar Kurmi, a Madhesi who also lives in Nepalgunj, now fears the Pahadis. "I fear that I might get beaten up by the Pahadis for my Madhesi identity. I have nothing against them and most of my friends used to be from the Pahadi community, but the situation has completely changed now," he said.

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Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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