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Nepal: Back to the Gun International Crisis Group 2003-10-22

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 ASIA Briefing
Kathmandu/Brussels, 22 October 2003
crisis group
With the collapse of the ceasefire and peace talks
between government and Maoist insurgents, Nepal
appears to be in for months more of bloody fighting.
There are prospects for eventual resumption of
negotiations since neither side can realistically expect
a military victory, and there are indications of what a
diplomatic compromise might look like. However,
the international community needs to urge all sides
toward compromise and press the government to
restore democracy, bring the political parties back
into the picture and control the army's tendency to
commit serious abuses when conducting operations.
Similarly, the Maoists should discontinue targeted
assassinations, bombing and widespread extortion.
The country quickly plunged back into the violence
that has killed more than 7,000 people since February
1996. Sharp splits between government negotiators
and the Maoists, particularly over a possible
constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, led
the Maoists to withdraw officially from the ceasefire
on 27 August 2003. They marked the end of the
ceasefire by shooting two Royal Nepalese Army
(RNA) colonels, one fatally, in Kathmandu the next
day, and violence quickly erupted across the country.
In the weeks following the break down of the
ceasefire, more than 500 people have died.
Yet, in many ways, the official end of the ceasefire
was almost a formality. Both government and
Maoist forces were in regular violation of the code
of conduct that was supposed to govern their
activities during the halt in fighting, and both sides
suspected the other of planning an imminent attack.
The Maoists continued to recruit heavily and
practice widespread extortion, and fired on a
motorcade of former Prime Mnister Sher Bahadur
Deuba on 26 August 2003. Government forces
continued to make their presence felt throughout the
countryside, and in what would appear to be a gross
violation of international law, summarily executed at
least nineteen individuals they suspected of being
Maoists on 17 August 2003 in the eastern village of
Doramba, Ramechhap district.1
As the conflict has resumed, the Maoists appear to
be embracing an evolving strategy. Largely moving
away from mass attacks on district police and army
headquarters, the group has focused on attacks by
smaller cells. This has included more widespread
urban assassinations of army, police and party
officials in an effort to tie security forces down in
the cities. The Maoists have also expanded their
activities in eastern Nepal and the Terai (the
flatlands that border India), areas that had felt the
crisis less acutely during earlier periods of fighting.
The RNA, having significantly upgraded its
firepower and improved base defences during the
ceasefire, has claimed a number of successful
offensives. Substantiating the battlefield claims of
both sides remains difficult.
With both the Maoists and the RNA determined to
use battlefield gains to secure leverage for future
talks, the danger of a widening conflict are
substantial. Further, and despite mounting
international pressure for the palace and the
political parties to work together, King Gyanendra
still appears reluctant to install a genuine all-party
government or fully restore the democratic process.
Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa has expressed
willingness to form such a government, but only
under his leadership - a provision that will likely
remain a deal-breaker with the main parties.
The return to violence is all the more unfortunate
because it is not difficult to imagine a series of
agreements around which the king, RNA, political
parties and Maoists could coalesce. A number of
useful  proposals  have  been  put  on  the  table,
See the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal,
"Doramba Incident, Ramachap", On the spot Inspection and
Report ofthe Investigation Commission, September 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 2
although far more remains to be done to flesh out
the implementation of a reasonable peace deal, and
dramatic improvements could be made in the
negotiating process itself. It also remains clear that
the sooner a genuine multi-party government is
established and democracy restored, the higher the
chance for a durable solution to the conflict.
In many ways, Nepal's seven-month ceasefire ended
the way it began. Just three days before the ceasefire
was announced on 29 January 2003, the Maoists
assassinated the Chief of the Armed Police Force,
Krishna Mohan Shestha. Just one day after the
ceasefire broke down on 27 August 2003 following
three rounds of peace talks, the Maoists targeted two
RNA colonels in Kathmandu, killing Colonel Kiran
Basnet in his home and wounding Colonel Ramindra
KC. Colonel Basnet is the highest ranking military
official killed to date. Violence has also flared across
much of Nepal, including many areas that had
largely been spared attacks during earlier fighting.
The breakdown in talks comes almost a year after
King Gyanendra essentially suspended Nepal's
democratic system.2 Public concerns about the
suspension of democracy were muted amid high
hopes that the palace could deliver a peace deal with
the Maoists. Yet, after more than a year of royalist
rule, largely fruitless talks, the continuing isolation
of political parties and a renewed spate of killings by
both sides, hard questions are being asked about the
course on which Nepal now finds itself.
The proximate cause of the breakdown in the
ceasefire was the Maoists' unwillingness to discuss
issues other than the constituent assembly in the
third round of peace talks. (In theory, a constituent
assembly would gather elected representatives from
across Nepal to draft a new constitution.) By most
considerations, however, the return to war must be
seen as the culmination of a steady erosion in
confidence between the Maoists, the royalist
government and the largely marginalised political
parties. As one Nepalese political scientist
bemoaned, "It was obvious that talks would break
down", and both the Maoists and the RNA were
clearly preparing for war even as they were
speaking of peace.3
For a number of reasons, the Maoists had come to
view the constituent assembly as a make or break
issue. Several factors drove this perspective. First
and foremost, they had come to doubt the sincerity
of government negotiators and were concerned by
what appeared to be a deliberate go-slow approach.
The government's pace did leave much to be desired
- it took seven months of negotiations before the
government put its first substantive proposals on the
From the onset of negotiations, the government
appeared to envision that talks would stretch well
over a year, allowing it to focus on working with
displaced people and restoring local infrastructure. It
also hoped to reintegrate Maoist cadres into village
life through food-for-work programs. This approach
was explicitly endorsed by the donor community. It
also seems that the government reasoned that
protracted talks would buy sufficient time to bolster
the RNA and effectively limit the Maoists' military
While this approach may have been quite rational at
one level, it had major flaws. First, instead of
bringing the mainstream parties along, the palace
deliberately sought to marginalise them. As one
journalist commented, "The king has made up his
mind. He will solve the Maoist problem first and
then deal with the parties".4 The code of conduct did
not mention the parties at all, and over time, they
began to view street protests as their only outlet to
protect their interests.
Further, the government appeared to miscalculate
badly the strains that protracted talks would place
upon the Maoists. The insurgents' ability to engage
in rather leisurely discussions with the monarchy
they had long hoped to abolish was limited. As one
Western diplomatic official noted of the Maoists,
"They had to keep dal bhat in the stomachs of their
cadres".5 Local commanders were unhappy with the
peace process, and given the difficulty of sustaining
an active guerrilla force in the field, the Maoists
viewed a go-slow approach as a deliberate attempt to
sap their military strength. Not surprisingly, after
2 See ICG Asia Report N°50, Nepal Backgrounder: Ceasefire
or Strategic Pause?, 10 April 2003, for a fuller discussion of
the constitutionality ofthe king's dismissal of Prime Minister
Deuba on 4 October 2002.
3 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 22 September 2003.
4 ICG interview, Patan, 19 September 2003.
5 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 19 September. Dal Bhat is the
Nepalese national dish, consisting of rice and lentils.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 3
seven months of talks, the Maoists were eager to
push explicitly political issues such as the
constituent assembly up on the agenda. "They know
an elongated peace process is a trap", one diplomat
The government's decision to backtrack from its
agreement during the second round of talks on 9
May 2003 to limit the RNA to a five-kilometre range
from its bases during the ceasefire also soured the
environment. (The decision to jettison the five-
kilometre limit appears to have been largely driven
by the RNA, which was not consulted when the
proposal was offered and had legitimate security
concerns about essentially giving the Maoists free
rein in the countryside.) In retrospect, this also
would appear to mark the point from which the RNA
has taken a much more active role both in talks and
public life generally. A journalist argued that the
RNA is now more influential than ever, and "has
become a powerful political force".7 Some maintain
that it now has a de facto veto over any prime
minister the king might choose, leading one local
political scientist to comment, "The military has
tasted power, and it is very dangerous for a country
like this".8
The replacement of its entire negotiating team when
Prime Mnister Lokendra Chand stepped down on
30 May 2003 and was followed by Surya Bahadur
Thapa further added to the perception that the
government was dithering. The king's unwillingness
to appoint an all-party government after Chand's
resignation - even after the main political parties
jointly proposed the Unified-Marxist Leninist
(UML) general secretary, Madhav Kumar Nepal, to
head it - sharpened doubts among both the Maoists
and the political parties that the king was sincere
about power sharing.
The lack of progress in the talks fuelled increasing
restiveness among Maoist hardliners and many rural
cadres. While decision-making within the politburo
remains opaque, differences, but not splits, appeared
to open up among the leadership as the third round
of talks loomed.9 According to some accounts, the
chief Maoist negotiator, Dr Baburam Bhattarai, and
6 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 18 September 2003.
7 ICG interview 19 September 2003.
8 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 22 September 2003.
9 This analysis is based upon ICG interviews with a range of
commentators and officials, including individuals familiar
with the thinking of senior Maoist leaders.
a number of rural commanders pushed to end the
talks, while part of the politburo, including Pushpa
Kamal Dahal (nom de guerre Prachanda) and the
military chief, Ram Bahadur Thapa, felt they were
making inroads in expanding their political base
around the country and favoured remaining at the
table. The alleged compromise was to make the
take-it or leave-it proposal for a constituent
assembly. That assembly has always been a bedrock
Maoist demand so it is no surprise that the politburo
and rural cadres could rally around such a position.
When the government presented a position paper at
the third round that offered substantial reforms that
could be constitutional amendments but not a
constituent assembly, things quickly fell apart.
Maoist leader Prachanda claimed that those "not only
failed to address the basic problems facing the
country, it proved their conspiracy to strengthen the
feudal retrogression of 4 October with reformist
sugar coating".10 The government position paper may
well have been a good jumping off point for dialogue
in February or March 2003, but by August the
Maoists saw it as further proof of government
stonewalling. While they left the door open to future
talks, as did the government, what had been a
promising window for peace quickly slammed shut.11
A.    Erosion of Confidence
In many ways, the slide toward conflict followed an
all-too-predictable path. The RNA and the Maoists
were never able to develop effective mechanisms for
monitoring and verifying the "code of conduct" they
had agreed would govern their behaviour during the
Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), "Statement by
Comrade Prachanda", Revolutionary Worker #1212, 14
September 2003.
11 Why the Maoists have remained so insistent on a
constituent assembly instead of accepting the concept of
amending the constitution or negotiating specific reforms
with the government and other political parties is a
legitimate question with no definitive answer. In addition
to the tactical elements described above, they take the
position that the 1990 constitution is defunct and therefore
not a proper subject of mere amendment. They presumably
also believe they can achieve more sweeping changes to
their liking in an assembly that would presumably have
representatives of more social groupings and be less tightly
structured than a diplomatic conference. For a more
detailed considerations of these matters, see ICG Asia
Report N°57, Nepal: Obstacles to Peace, 17 June 2003, in
particular section II, "Constitutional Considerations", pp. 11
and following.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 4
ceasefire.12 The lack of an influential guarantor to
help referee the code was one reason the crisis in
confidence grew so severe. A facilitator at the talks
observed, "From the very beginning, the Maoists
were complaining about the government, and the
government was complaining about the Maoists".13
Mutual suspicion was pervasive.
The RNA felt the Maoists were using the ceasefire to
smuggle arms, expand recruiting, intensify extortion
and plan new attacks. There continue to be credible
reports that the Maoists employ child soldiers and
forcibly recruit. Maoist support for pan-revolutionary
causes such as the Revolutionary International
Movement (RIM), a loose coalition of communist
guerrilla groups and insurgencies across South Asia
and beyond, have made some observers question the
genuineness of their commitment to both peace and
democracy. The failure of the Maoists to articulate
their vision for how a constituent assembly would be
conducted - what some have called an "agree and we
will tell you" approach - also raised questions about
their ultimate intentions. One journalist maintained
that the Maoist leadership remained essentially
beholden to its cadres, "and didn't have the courage
to tell the cadres that the war can't be won".14
The Maoists had equally serious concerns about
their opponents. The RNA and police resisted being
restricted to their barracks, and the second team of
negotiators, headed by Communications Minister
Thapa, took a harder line than its predecessor, led by
Physical Planning Minister Colonel Narayan Singh
Pun. As one diplomatic observer commented, the
new negotiators saw the confidence building
measures established under Prime Mnister Chand as
"one-sided concessions where the Maoists got away
with murder".15 The RNA and the palace appeared to
believe that the Maoists would simply lay down their
guns as a deal got closer and did not work to
establish a credible demobilisation process linked to
substantive talks. The Maoists were also deeply
concerned by a steady flow of foreign military
assistance to the government, their appearance on
the U.S. State Department Terrorist Watch List,16 the
For the full text of the code, see ICG Asia Report N°57,
Nepal: Obstacles to Peace, 17 June 2003.
13 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 21 September 2003.
14 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 21 September 2003.
15 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 17 September 2003.
16 U.S. State Department, "Patterns of Global Terrorism", at
http://state.gOv/s/ct/rls/pgtrpt/ 2002.
king's unwillingness to meet directly, and growing
unrest among their cadres.
Both sides sought to maximise their gains during the
ceasefire. The Maoists expanded their financial base
and got more and more people to talk seriously
about potentially embracing a constituent assembly.
In a major concession, the government freed more
than 100 Maoists from prison - cadres who are again
fighting government forces. The Maoists also
expanded recruitment in eastern Nepal and the Terai,
and worked to harness the energy of disaffected
groups in these areas. A civil society activist noted,
"The Maoists were successful in their mission, they
got senior leaders out of prison, collected more
money, had court cases dropped and reorganised".17
The RNA also used the ceasefire productively. It
significantly improved the defences of its bases,
making the high-profile attacks that marked the
previous phase of the war far more difficult. With
much improved fire power, some air capabilities and
a new focus on field intelligence capabilities, it is in a
far better position to engage in direct confrontations.
A diplomat commented, "On the ground, the
ceasefire was essentially over. The RNA was stung
by the five-kilometre imbroglio, and was much more
aggressive in asserting where it could go".18 This
included setting up army health camps for the
public, a step the Maoists viewed as a provocation
and that led to a series of clashes. One journalist
argued that it had become clear "the army detests the
ceasefire".19 Code of conduct violations by one side
or the other became almost daily occurrences, and
mutual suspicions reached a fever pitch. Both the
RNA and the Maoists appeared sincerely to believe
that the other was preparing for attack.
The lack of confidence among the Maoists
manifested itself in calls to have provisional
agreements reached in the second round of talks
implemented before initiating a third round. In late
July 2003, the Maoists closed a liaison office in
Kathmandu, and leaders quite publicly returned to
the underground.
ICG interview, Kathmandu, 18 September 2003.
ICG interview, Kathmandu, 18 September 2003.
1 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 21 September 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 5
The government's lack of confidence manifested
itself in unwillingness to present a substantive
position, increasingly hard-line language, and a
very messy political situation in Kathmandu. As the
peace process started to fray, and the political
parties became more active in their agitation, the
royalist government increasingly fell back on ad
hoc solutions. One Western diplomat commented
that while the Maoists "seemed sincere earlier",
hopes for progress dissipated amid "the mess ofthe
second round of talks and change of government".20
However, others questioned whether the Maoists
were ever serious about the talks.
The most disturbing security incident came on 17
August 2003 as the third round of talks began in
Nepalganj. It should stand as a stark warning to
both the international community and the Nepalese
on the dangers of protracted conflict. By most
accounts, a raid in Doramba conducted by over 60
RNA troops captured twenty individuals in a house,
of whom eighteen were affiliated with the Maoists,
and two lived there.21 Whether these were actually
Maoist fighters remains in dispute - there are
credible suggestions that the group was gathered
for a wedding. The RNA unit led the detainees out
of the village and marched them for several hours.
Nineteen were then shot and their bodies - most
with hands still bound - were pushed off the side of
the steep trail, in what one who investigated the
scene said could only be described as "summary
executions".22 One woman remains missing.
It will be difficult to ascertain definitively whether
this was the action of a rogue commander or was
sanctioned by the RNA command. But it strains
credibility that on the very day peace talks
reconvened, a local commander in charge of a
sizable operation would take extreme measures that
obviously could effectively end the ceasefire
without any authority.
It is also troubling that the incident has not generated
a greater public outcry. While the Human Rights
Commission released fairly tough findings, donors,
NGOs and the press seemed almost to downplay the
20 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 17 September 2003.
21 See the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal,
"Doramba Incident, Ramachap", op. cit.
22 A senior member of the diplomatic community and a
National Human Rights Commission investigation team
member used this identical language in describing the incident
to ICG during September 2003 interviews.
matter. Doramba also calls into question the efficacy
of international military assistance to and training of
the RNA. Donors have always insisted that training,
including human rights training, was a vital part of
military aid. The argument was that by engaging
with the RNA, the international community would
have a better chance of modifying its behaviour. If
the military does not fully account for its actions at
Doramba and prosecute any individuals who
committed crimes, the international community
should conclude that it is inappropriate to provide
current levels of military assistance to an undemocratic
government in an increasingly dirty war.
Doramba left the Maoists deeply angry, and the third
round of talks was largely stillborn. On 26 August
2003, the Maoists fired upon the motorcade of
former Prime Mnister Deuba in Kailali. Deuba was
unhurt. The attack made little sense - his party has
been one of the few to support a constituent
assembly - and called into question Maoist control
of some local commanders.
The next day the Maoists announced their unilateral
withdrawal from the ceasefire.
C.    A Note On Process
The three rounds of talks during 2003, much like the
talks conducted under Deuba between August and
November 2001, were poorly run from a technical
standpoint. The process was often chaotic; mediators
and negotiators appeared to lack training; there was
no real secretariat; and international technical support
for it as well as monitoring of the ceasefire was
extremely limited. In a number of instances, the
government team appeared to work at cross purposes,
and competing press conferences seemed to get as
much weight as the substance of negotiations.
However, the Thapa team of government negotiators
gets higher marks for professionalism than its
predecessor, and the atmosphere at the talks was said
generally to be quite cordial.
Having facilitators who are almost directly aligned
with the sides (two facilitators were viewed as tilting
Maoist, two as being loyal royalists) may not be the
best idea. The government informed the facilitators
by letter after the collapse that any future talks will
be "arranged in a new manner" with some overhaul
ofthe facilitation team.
A number of individuals close to the talks observed
that the Maoists were concerned that government
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 6
negotiators were a somewhat selective conduit of
information to and from the palace, in a situation
where "the king was just behind the screen".23 In a
secret meeting between Maoist officials and the
government before the third round, Baburam
Bhattarai allegedly sought clarification on the king's
role and was assured that he was fully in charge and
willing to embrace progressive changes.
The confusion over decision-making authority
prompted repeated calls by the Maoists for the RNA
and the king to declare that any agreement reached
at the negotiating table would be binding. This
underscores the need for government negotiators to
have plenipotentiary powers so that decisions made
at the table actually represent a deal. There may also
be reason for King Gyanendra himself to engage in
negotiations directly with the Maoists and the
political parties. He has said that a direct meeting
with the Maoists is "not impossible", although he
also downplayed his own significant hand in
government saying, "A government with executive
powers is involved in negotiations, and it will
decide. A constitutional monarch need not meet
them and make decisions".24
The Maoists might also wish to take a hard look at
their own diplomatic representation. A source close
to the talks noted of Dr. Bhattarai, "He doesn't have
a great understanding of compromise".25 A journalist
echoed this and maintained, "For Baburam Bhattarai,
compromise is a sign of weakness".26
In many respects, the government failed to take
advantage of seven months of ceasefire other than to
bolster its military capabilities. Beyond controversial
army health camps, it delivered little assistance to
conflict affected areas. This highlights the difficulties
of keeping the governance of Nepal frozen as the
royalist government and democratic political parties
steadily work to undercut each other.
India continues to resist all but the mildest forms of
international engagement with the conflict. And, as
one international official said of its influence on
outside mediation or negotiation, "If they don't want
it to happen, it won't". However, there may be some
willingness from Delhi to concur in international
help for establishing a secretariat or the provision of
specific and low-key expertise during future talks.27
As fighting has resumed, it has become clear that
its nature has significantly changed. The Maoists
are attacking on more fronts, in a more diffuse
fashion, and looking to keep the RNA and police
off-balance and on the defensive. The RNA hopes
to use improved training, an upgraded arsenal and a
revamped approach to intelligence to inflict heavy
casualties. That more than 500 have died since the
ceasefire ended, including a relative lull during the
Dashain holiday, would seem to indicate that the
lethality ofthe conflict escalates the longer it lasts.
A Nepalese NGO official noted, "The Maoists
changed their whole strategy of war; they can't attack
district headquarters anymore".28 This observer
argued that the Maoist leadership, although receiving
extensive press coverage from them, viewed attacks
on army and police headquarters as of limited utility
and increasingly costly in casualties.
The Maoists have chosen targets more selectively,
while largely avoiding large mobilisations. In an
effort to limit their own casualties, they have moved
to more hit and run attacks organised by small cells
of two or three. On 7 September 2003, six separate
bomb blasts hit Kathmandu, wounding about a
dozen people and killing a twelve-year old boy.29
Some appeared to be relatively sophisticated, and
RNA officials indicated that the Maoists are using
more remote control devices triggered by cell
phones and pagers. The bombs came on the heels of
the aforementioned shooting of two RNA colonels in
In addition, the Maoists conducted a three-day
general strike (bandh), 18-20 September, which was
widely observed and largely peaceful. The Maoists
have also launched a wave of bank robberies and
destroyed the houses of a number of government and
political officials. On 22 September they shot a sub-
' ICG interview, Kathmandu, 21 September 2003.
* Nepal Magazine, 18 August-1 September 2003.
' ICG interview, Kathmandu, 17 September 2003.
' ICG interview, Patan, 19 September 2003.
27 This indication comes from multiple discussions with
members of the Indian diplomatic community in Nepal and
elsewhere, as well as well as from other international
representatives in Kathmandu.
28 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 17 September 2003.
29 Kathmandu Post, 8 September 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 7
inspector of police in Kathmandu. An international
security expert noted, "The Maoists are able to
attack where and when they want".30 The RNA is
still fairly slow to respond. Often the perpetrators are
long gone by the time the army or police arrive.
Maoist officials insist that unless the government
offers peaceful and forward-looking solutions to
the conflict, they will begin what Baburam
Bhattarai calls "the preparatory stage of transition
from strategic equilibrium to strategic offensive".31
Bhattarai contended that:
Some isolated incidents of unintended death
of civilians in legitimate sabotage actions or
capital punishment to certain individuals in
recent weeks have been highly exaggerated
by the genocidal monarchical state and a
section of the media, but this does not reflect
any fundamental change in the military
strategy ofthe party.32
The Maoists have also sharply increased attacks in
the Terai and eastern Nepal, having successfully
expanded recruitment in these areas during the
ceasefire. There appears to have been a particular
effort to reach out to the Mahedesi in the Terai, a
group that has long operated on the margins of
society and suffers widespread discrimination.
Increased activity in these areas also opens up new
sources of extortion for the Maoists. Their efforts to
secure financial support in parts of the desperately
poor western and mid-western regions - where
many banks have been repeatedly robbed - must
encounter something of a law of diminishing
The Maoists still do not appear to believe that an
all-out military victory is possible, particularly with
international actors such as India, the U.S., China
and the UK willing to prevent such an outcome.
Instead, a medium intensity conflict would seem to
fulfil a number of their needs: it convinces the
cadres that their leadership has not "gone soft", and
it keeps pressure on the military and the political
establishment to accede to their demands without
burning all bridges.
However, the strategy of urban assassination carries
significant risks, since many in the international arena
30 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 19 September 2003.
31 Correspondence with ICG, 26 September 2003.
32 Ibid.
are more likely to view such actions as terrorism, even
if they are directed against military targets. Maoists
continue to feel that violence has helped them
achieve greater international recognition and a more
say in discussions of Nepal's future. However, they
may have dangerously misread the relative impunity
they enjoyed after the January 2003 assassination of
the chief of the armed police. There will likely be a
point of no return for the Maoists if they are widely
perceived internationally as a terrorist organisation.
The Maoists are clearly aiming for a magnified
psychological impact in Kathmandu, and in some
regards this is working. The assassinations have sent
a chill of concern into the capital's elite: generals are
increasingly sleeping on their bases, and politicians
have taken measures to improve their security. The
Maoists may reason that by amplifying pressure in
Kathmandu, the public and elites will be more eager
to accept a constituent assembly. There is a palpable
sense of tension among many Nepalese whose lives
had largely been untouched by the earlier fighting.
An NGO official argued that the new strategy is
"clearly alienating the middle class in the cities", but
that this is not a group the Maoists have considered
crucial to their agenda.33
There seem to be two views of the targeted killings
in urban areas: it could make the political and
economic elites more eager to compromise and give
in on the constituent assembly (a position to which
they were drifting even before the ceasefire broke
down); or it could cause them to dig in their heels
and support a more sweeping military approach
against Maoist forces.
Already in control of significant parts of the
countryside, the Maoists hope to keep the military
tied down in the cities and limit its mobility. They
may also be seeking to dominate a number of more
rural districts in order to develop a rump government
more fully. According to knowledgeable security
officials, some 400 police have already been
withdrawn into the Kathmandu valley, where more
than 50 per cent of the security services are now
stationed. This leaves the army spread quite thin for
waging a traditional counter insurgency campaign.
The emerging Maoist strategy also has given local
commanders greater authority to decide who should
be targeted for violence and extortion. This is a
worrying trend, in that less central discipline over
ICG interview, Kathmandu, 22 September 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page <
such decisions often leads to greater violence driven
by local vendettas. Indeed, there are already
increasing reports of greater violence used not for
political reasons, but simply because individuals
refused to comply with extortion requests. This may
well be a problem of a guerrilla organisation growing
in size, where "more killings [are] not based on
politics but just because of donations", as one NGO
official explained.34 There are also more reports of
NGOs being harassed in the field, even those which
have had an established relationship with the Maoists.
The RNA may be falsely reading the shifting nature
ofthe conflict as a victory. Lt. Colonel Kaji Bahadur
Khattri argued in a late September press conference
that the Maoists' shifting strategy reflected weakness
and disorganisation and that RNA firepower far
outmatched that of the poorly armed insurgents. He
said, "they have not been able to give a good fight to
the army".35 Yet, the pace of casualties has been as
high as at any period of the war. The RNA has
greatly upgraded the defensive perimeter of its bases
with mines and other measures,36 and the Maoists'
may no longer feel comfortable fighting toe-to-toe.
But there is no reason they have to. An international
expert observed, "The RNA is prepared for what
they did, not what they are doing".
The government and Maoists have engaged in claims
and counterclaims with regard to casualties. For
example, RNA officials claimed to have killed 45
Maoists during a single encounter in Rolpa while
losing six of their own men and one policeman. In
contrast, the Maoists claimed they had only lost
seven while killing twenty RNA and police.37
Similarly, a Maoist press release claimed that cadres
had killed as many as 41 RNA on 15 September in an
ambush in the far western district of Kailali while
suffering far fewer casualties. This was disputed by
the RNA. It is very hard to tell exactly who is getting
killed at this point.
Anti-Maoist sentiment and institutional pride within
the RNA have grown more intense with the
assassination attempts in Kathmandu. This is the
first war the RNA has ever really fought, and there
are many in its senior ranks who want to ensure that
it can only be regarded as a victory. A journalist
argued that "The RNA has been humiliated and
wants to wash itself clean" after incidents such as
Dang where it suffered heavy losses earlier in the
war.38 By almost all accounts, the RNA is stronger
and ready to escalate violence.
Some within the RNA appear to feel that a military
solution is now possible with its new equipment and
training, although incidents such as Doramba raise
doubts about how an intensified campaign would be
conducted. Diplomats have made clear to the
government that military excesses could endanger
support, and there are some reports that the RNA is
doing slightly better at limiting what were
extraordinarily high civilian casualties. However, many
Nepalese remain deeply concerned by what they see
as general unprofessionalism in RNA operations.
There continues to be a curfew on most of the
country beyond Kathmandu's ring road, and the
government has again declared the Maoists a terrorist
organisation. While a state of emergency has not
been declared, the government and the RNA have
few checks on their power. Whether the Maoists can
mount spectacular attacks in Kathmandu remains to
be seen, but the capital is not known for airtight
security. The conflict continues to place a serious
burden on Nepal's economy, with tourism revenues
again sinking. Growing numbers, having fled their
villages, are now concentrated in Kathmandu. While
the violence may have resumed with both sides
hoping merely to give the other a bloody nose before
returning to talks, its level may make the situation
hard to bring under control. As one source close to
the talks complained, "In the name of pressure, both
sides will let thousands more die".39
That the royalist government continues to hold
democracy and mainstream political parties at arm's
length has only made achieving peace more difficult.
Even though the war has resumed, the capital
remains consumed with political manoeuvring amid
an environment of deep distrust. Political parties,
shut out of power for more than a year, continue to
reason that keeping pressure on the government is
34 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 22 September 2003.
35 See The Kathmandu Post, Kantipur and Himalayan Times,
24 September 2003.
36 ICG interview, Patan, 19 September 2003.
37 The Himalayan Times 19 September 2003.
38 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 21 September 2003. After the
break down in talks in 2001, the Maoists simultaneously
attacked an army barracks in Dang and a police post in
Syangja killing fourteen soldiers and 37 police.
39 ICG interview, Kathmandu, September 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 9
their only viable option. While the palace continues
to say the right things about democracy, including
recent suggestions that it would like to see the
democratic process restored at the local level, its
actions have often lagged behind its rhetoric as
concerns mount that the king is interested in
maintaining a quasi-authoritarian role.
The end of the ceasefire did bring important
developments to the ongoing protests by the political
parties designed to force the king to restore
parliament or name an all-party government. The
parties had hoped that a large rally long scheduled for
4 September 2003 would provide a decisive push
against the sitting royalist government. Major players
in the diplomatic community, including India, the
UK, U.S., China and Pakistan, were alarmed that
demonstrations so soon after the breakdown of the
ceasefire could quickly spin out of control. Both
embassies and the palace appeared quite concerned
that a mass rally could further destabilise the
situation and open the door to potential Maoist
manipulation of street protests. Fears that a tense
situation in the streets could trigger widespread
violence or a major government crackdown appeared
to be justified.
This is one of the first times that the above named
countries have taken a common position. All called
for the "constitutional forces" (the palace and the
political parties) to work together and take a joint
position to help restore peace and democracy. They
also stressed that they would like to see the king
institute an all-party government as an important
step in moving the process forward, although it
remains unclear how much genuine pressure has
been applied. As a result of international pressure
and threats of a government crackdown, the parties
substantially scaled back the 4 September events,
and what once was billed as a "decisive battle
against" political regression, quickly became a far
smaller face-saving protest.
This unprecedented display of international cohesion
sparked much local press rhetoric about foreign
meddling. However, given the substantial aid
provided by donors, it is not unreasonable that
diplomats would try to make their voices heard. One
analyst argued that the front is "an alliance of
convenience and self-interest; all have specific
reasons why further upheaval in Nepal is not in their
long term interests. They want neither to get sucked
in nor to see Nepal go under".40 Such heightened
engagement in the domestic situation makes it all the
more imperative that the international community
get its policy right.
Mainstream political parties continue to express
concerns that some members of the international
community simply want them to play along as the
palace sets the agenda and question whether genuine
pressure is being put on the monarch to restore
democracy. A measure of scepticism is
understandable. For a year, the king has been
reluctant either to appoint an all-party government or
restore the suspended parliament. He continues to sit
at the apex of a government that is unconstitutional
by all reasonable standards, and he frequently seems
to take a "divide and conquer" approach to dealing
with the parties.
When the ceasefire broke down, the king and the
international community were displayed new
eagerness to present the sitting government as a
"constitutional force", but it is not difficult to see
why party leaders have little trust in the monarchy.
"The king had the benefit of the doubt after
[dismissing Prime Minister] Deuba, mainly because
the situation was so bad", argued a journalist, "but
now with the ceasefire off and the country back in a
spiral of violence, he has to do something to get back
his legitimacy".41
Until the king either establishes an all-party
government or restores parliament, it will remain
quite difficult to accept the royalist government as
constitutional. The king and the prime minister, in
messages over the Dashain holiday, spoke of
restoring democracy, with a particular emphasis on
local elections. However, yet again, the impression
left was distinctly that democracy is a matter for the
future. Prime Mnister Thapa argued that elections
were the only acceptable means to restore the
parliament but stressed that a minimum atmosphere
of security would have to exist first.42 There is a
Catch-22 aspect about this: it will be difficult to
restore stability and security while the parties
continue to feel alienated, but the government does
not want to hold elections until calm is restored.
Prime Minister Thapa has also emphasised restoring
local government bodies. This preference for local
40 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 22 September 2003.
41 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 19 September
42 The Himalayan Times, 6 October 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 10
governance has some shades ofthe earlier panchayat,
or partyless, era of royal rule before 1990 where
democracy was largely tolerated only in name. UML
party leader Madhav Kumar Nepal argued:
The experiences of the last one year have
shown that the country cannot move without
the participation ofthe political parties. Parties
should be given the right to choose the prime
minister and ministers. In the 21st century, it is
not in the interest of monarchy to get involved
in controversy.43
One Nepalese NGO complained about the diplomatic
community, "They made the protestors work with the
government; why doesn't the international community
tell the king he needs to return to a ceremonial
role"?44 Yet, King Gyanendra has made quite clear
that he sees his position as more than ceremonial.
While he says an "active monarchy is not reasonable"
in the 21st century, he has voiced his support for:
...a constructive monarchy that, remaining
within the constitution, performs its duty
toward the people....The country should not
have a situation where people from different
professions, religions, shades of opinion and
customs are driven to frustration, and because
there is no one to redress their grievances,
they are forced to rebel.45
The notion that the king would be in a meaningful
position to address what he sees as the grievances of
the people suggests that he envisions a reasonably
active role for himself in the governance ofthe state.
Equally clearly, the current situation - where the
king is able to appoint and dismiss prime ministers
at will - gives the monarch not only an active role,
but an overarching one. While the diplomatic
community in Kathmandu remains coy, there is also
a sense of growing frustration toward the king.
The palace, including some relatively hard-line
advisors, still appears to prefer dealing with the
Maoists first and address the role of the parties and
democracy as a whole subsequently. Parties would
only be brought in during a roundtable phase that
would   also   bring   together   the   Maoists,   the
government, and a wide range of social groups. This
would essentially freeze democratic actors out ofthe
process until after a deal was signed - an approach
that seems to be regarded almost universally as ill-
conceived. One diplomat commented that the refusal
to accept a common candidate from the political
parties "exposed the king's charade for what it was:
an effort to keep the foreign community quiet".46
It can be argued that there has been an over-emphasis
on talks with the Maoists and an under-emphasis on
sorting out the overall political situation. While
restoring democracy is obviously not a panacea (the
war started during democratic rule), it is difficult to
imagine crafting a viable peace deal that would
include major constitutional revisions without the
democratic forces at the table. It is also true that the
parties appear willing to work with the king to a
certain degree, largely because they have no
The king and prime minister have both expressed a
willingness to form an all-party government under
Prime Minister Thapa - the king's hand-picked
political leader. This seems to be a fundamental
misreading of what an all-party government would
represent. Efforts to pull the UML or another party
into the government under Thapa have enjoyed
limited success, and such a veneer of democracy
would do little to stabilise the general situation. If a
single major party was to break ranks and join the
Thapa government, it would also likely make it a
magnet for verbal and physical attacks. For example,
if the UML were to join, it would likely be targeted
by the Maoists while being derided by Congress and
others as having sold out. Such fundamental
calculations should not be lost on the palace.
In many ways, the king has dwindling options.
Moving from quick-fix to quick-fix to tamp down
street protests is not sustainable. Repetition of the
game of musical chairs that would accompany yet
another switch in royalist prime ministers have
limited utility. Disturbingly, murmurs are increasing
in Kathmandu that the king is interested in sterner
measures. One journalist noted, "If the government
cannot control the situation, it will have several
possible choices, and we hear rumours that an
emergency will be declared soon".47
Spotlight, "This Country Cannot Bear the Conflict and
Confrontation for Long", Vol. 23, No. 14, 26 September-2
October 2003.
44 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 22 September 2003.
45 Nepal Magazine, 18 August-1 September 2003.
1 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 17 September.
ICG interview, Kathmandu, 21 September 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 11
As long as the parties and the palace refuse to work
together constructively, and the palace treats the
democratic process as little more than a sidebar, the
Maoists will continue to exploit the tumult.
The breakdown in talks between the government
and the Maoists and the generally poor handling of
them have obscured the fact that the differences
between government, Maoists and political parties
are bridgeable.
In April 2003, the Maoists presented a position
paper to the government that included both broad
and quite specific demands.48 The Maoists called for
clarification on and release of prisoners of war,
withdrawal of court cases against cadres, repeal of
the Terrorist and Destructive Activities Act, return
by the RNA to barracks and a committee to monitor
the code of conduct. Consistent with their position
during talks in 2001, they called for a roundtable
conference including "democratic, patriotic and
leftist forces which have a proved popular base", an
interim constitution and interim government by the
roundtable conference, elections under the interim
government to establish a constituent assembly with
broad social representation, and the drafting of a
new constitution by the constituent assembly. The
Maoists also proposed merger of the RNA and their
forces, a secular country, repeal ofthe 1950 India-
Nepal treaty and a number of other positions related
to economic and social questions.
Insistence on a constituent assembly has scant roots
in traditional Marxist ideology. The Maoists have
been adamantly reluctant to articulate the details of
such an assembly. As one mediator observed, there
needs to be a "detailed discussion on how to elect
assembly members, draft a constitution and see that it
is passed".49 For an issue that has twice derailed talks,
it is striking how little anyone seems to know about
how a constituent assembly would actually work in
practice. Certainly, security would be central to how
any constituent assembly would be implemented, and
the parties, the Maoists and the government all have
apprehensions that the process could be manipulated
by the others.
An open-ended process poses existential threats to
each actor: the parties fear they could be squeezed
out as armed Maoists and armed government forces
turn back the democratic rights secured in 1990; the
king fears a republic could be established and end
his reign; and the Maoists, who have not participated
in elections since the early 1990s, fear they could be
far less popular than they imagine.
The Maoists' negotiator, Baburam Bhattarai, argued:
This round-table conference should work out
an interim constitution, form an interim
government and decide on all relevant issues
necessary for a free and fair election to the
constituent assembly, including the interim
security mechanism. And finally, the interim
government should hold a free and fair
election to the constituent assembly within a
stipulated time, preferably six months....Of
course, different political forces would be free
to put forward their separate agenda on varied
questions like the fate of the monarchy, but
should abide by the decision of the constituent
assembly. This was, in brief, our minimum
political agenda proposed at the recent peace
negotiations, which was rejected by the
royalist regime leading to the ultimate
breakdown of negotiations and ceasefire.50
A number of foreign diplomats publicly praised the
position paper the government presented at the third
round in August 2003 as a response to the paper
forwarded by the Maoists in April. This was quickly
viewed by the Maoists as further evidence that the
international community was in bed with the
monarchy. A Nepalese NGO official also argued
that international support for the position paper "was
not appropriate at that time" and created the
impression among the Maoists and the others that it
had been jointly prepared by the king and foreign
That said, the paper was progressive in many
regards, although it side stepped several major
issues. It largely glossed over the current messy
state of affairs and resisted any suggestion that the
government was in power by unconstitutional
means. Instead, the paper maintained:
48 For the full text of these demands, see Depak Thapa , A
Kingdom under Siege: Nepal's Maoists Insurgency, 1996 to
2003 (Kathmandu, 2003).
49 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 21 September 2003.
1 Correspondence with ICG, 26 September 2003.
ICG interview, Kathmandu, 17 September 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 12
In spite of certain inconsistencies and obstacles
in the implementation of some constitutional
provisions, the constitution is alive and
functional to date as an excellent document in
view ofthe democratic values and norms.52
The government's position included a number of
major accommodations, largely on the social front,
and called for the constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy to be the bedrock of governance.
Prospective reforms included: establishing neutral
governments three months before general elections;
proportional representation; restructuring of the
upper house to include more groups that have
traditionally suffered discrimination; reserving 25 per
cent of all seats in representative institutions for
women; special provisions for reserving positions for
discriminated groups in education, health and
employment; broader use of local languages in local
government; and referendums for issues of national
The roadmap for the peace process detailed by the
royalist government went as follows: negotiations
with the Maoists to reach consensus on "objectives,
contents and process" for reforms; a roundtable
conference including the political parties designed to
produce a national consensus; formation of an
interim electoral government including the Maoists;
parliamentary elections; and, lastly, constitutional
amendment. Several issues were notable by their
absence. The government offered a roundtable
conference, but no constituent assembly. Control of
the RNA - an issue of increasing importance to both
the parties and the Maoists the longer the conflict
has ground on - was pushed to the side, as was any
suggestion that the monarchy's powers might be
diminished. The paper also stressed that "the issue of
handing over of the arms and ammunitions lying
with the Maoists side should be one ofthe important
items ofthe agenda ofthe negotiations".
Both sides continue to focus most closely on the
power issues, and despite the lofty rhetoric they use
with regard to minority groups and social issues,
"His Majesty's Government of Nepal Concept of forward-
looking reforms in the State System", The Government of
Nepal, August 2003. The position paper also closely paralleled
comments by the king: "The monarchy is exercising powers
enshrined in the constitution prepared by the leaders of the
change in 1990. We have never crossed the limit. The
monarchy has not acted against the people's wishes, royal
tradition or constitutional boundaries, and it will never do so".
Nepal Magazine, 18 August-1 September 2003.
control of the government is the main point of
contention. One NGO official observed that the
Maoists "are not fighting for minority rights, they
are fighting for power".53 A Western diplomat
maintained, "The Maoists did not have any great
quarrel with what was in the paper, it was some
things that are not".54
The issue then becomes the best arrangement that
would allow both Maoists and royalist government
to save a measure of face while ensuring that the
peace process actually does broadly respect the
rights of Nepalese and restore the democratic
process. Ensuring that the parties are represented at
the talks is essential. The Maoists have given
repeated signals that they would be willing to accept
the continued existence of the monarchy, as long as
the king was relegated to a far more ceremonial role.
However, a Nepalese political scientist argued that
while the Maoists may be more conciliatory than
their public tone would suggest, "there would be a
major split in the party" if they accepted something
short of a constituent assembly.55
The government has also shown some flexibility.
"When you listen to the government team, it all
sounds quite reasonable. They are willing to discuss
any subject, even the monarchy", said a party close
to the talks.56 The royalist government appears to be
willing to deal with the status of the monarchy and
the RNA as long as this is within the more controlled
confines of a constitutional amendment.
It would clearly be useful if the parties, royalist
government and the Maoists could reach
understandings about the ultimate contours of a
peace agreement and basic constitutional principles
while agreeing also on some process that gave the
Maoists rhetorical cover with their cadres to claim
that a constituent assembly had been secured.
Baburam Bhattarai rather cleverly leaves the door
open to such an approach even though insisting that
a full constituent assembly is the only way forward:
...any idea of "partial sovereignty" to the
people is fraught with immense loopholes and
danger to democracy. Attaching any
"precondition" to [a] constituent assembly
does precisely that. Our Party is, therefore,
ICG interview, Kathmandu, 17 September 2003.
ICG interview, Kathmandu, 17 September 2003.
ICG interview, Kathmandu, 22 September 2003.
1 ICG interview, Kathmandu, September 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 13
opposed to the idea of attaching any
precondition to the constituent assembly. Of
course, different political parties and the king,
for that matter, can go to the people with their
own agenda during the election. Also, if the
particular historical condition and the
prevailing balance of forces so demand, there
can be common understanding on certain
issues during and after the election, but not
certainly in the very beginning or right now
and on fundamental questions of democracy.57
There has also been some discussion that a
constitutional commission could be formed as in
1990, drawing elements from the palace, the parties
and the Maoists. Neither the parties nor the royalist
government should accede to a constituent assembly
until it has been far better defined, the parties have
been brought to the negotiating table and there have
been extensive discussions about security
arrangements that would accompany any ballot and
demobilisation agreement.
There is every indication that the violence could
continue at least for months. With both the Maoists
and the royalist government seemingly bent on
another period of muscle-flexing, innocent civilians
will again pay the heaviest toll. As one journalist
lamented, "Whole villages are getting up and
leaving".58 Both the army and the Maoists appear to
feel confident, having made their preparations, that
they stand to gain from continued intimidation. Both
sides may consider that a quick return to negotiations
would diminish their stature: the Maoists because
they had just rejected a government proposal and the
government because it had just made a proposal that
was rejected.
Grim storm clouds line Nepal's horizon. There has
been increasing talk ofthe king taking a more active
and central role in the affairs of state for an extended
period of time, and the palace has manoeuvred itself
into a position where authoritarian solutions may be
ever more likely. A journalist maintained, "The
monarchy is surviving on the credibility of the
RNA". In many respects, the longer the palace
continues to be the focus of all questions not only of
war and peace but also of governance, the more
jeopardy the monarchy may find itself in.59
The international community, while showing some
signs toward unity, remains divided on how much
leeway to give the royalist government and whether
force or diplomacy ultimately is the best tool for
dealing with the Maoists. The more activist approach
has again raised fears among local commentators
and the Maoists about foreign intervention in
Nepalese domestic affairs. These fears aside, a more
coordinated approach would be welcome, and it is
useful that all of the major international players in
Nepal have gone strongly on the record in support of
a rapid return to democracy. However, the
international community must also take great care to
fashion its intervention so as to support lasting peace
and stability.
It remains an open question how long the Nepali
Congress and UML will remain accommodating if
there is no progress toward restoration of the
democratic process from the palace. Pressure will
also likely mount from smaller parties to intensify
agitation to restore democracy, and widespread
protest activity could further fuel the environment
of chaos.
Now would seem to be the time for the international
community to lean heavily on all the actors to
behave responsibly. The Maoists should be warned
that they are in ever growing danger of being seen as
a force that is unwilling to embrace compromise and
consequently of being increasingly condemned and
opposed. The royalist government should be warned
that the time for hollow rhetoric about democracy
has passed and that an all-party government should
be formed and the RNA held accountable for abuses
in the field. Lastly, the parties should be warned that
they can only expect to have a responsible role in the
life and death matters of civil war, when in the
national interest they put aside their own in-fighting
and venality.
Kathmandu/Brussels 22 October 2002
Correspondence with ICG, 26 September 2003.
1 ICG interview, Kathmandu, 19 September 2003.
' ICG interview, Kathmandu, 20 September 2003.
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 14
Boundary representation ts
not necessarily authoritative.
1 MahakaFi
8 Gandaki
9 Narayani
3 Karnali
10 Bagmati
4 Bheri
11 Janakpur
5 Rapti
12 Sagarmatha
6 Dhawalagiri
7 Lumbini
14 Mechi
Base 801532 (B00750) fi-<30
Courtesy of The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin
 Nepal: Back to the Gun
ICG Asia Briefing Paper, 22 October 2003
Page 15
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E-mail: icgbrussels(@,crisisweb .org
New York Office
420 Lexington Avenue, Suite 2640, New York 10170 • Tel: +1 212 813 08 20 • Fax: +1 212 813 08 25
E-mail: icgnv(
Washington Office
1629 K Street, Suite 450, Washington DC 20006 • Tel +1 202 785 1601  • Fax: +1 202 785 1630
E-mail: icgwashington(
London Office
Queen's Wharf, Queen Caroline Street, London W6 9RJ • Tel: +44(0)20 8600 2538 • Fax +44(0)20 8600 2539
All ICG reports are available on our website:


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