Thursday, July 26, 2007

Nepal: Violence in Southeast

Hariram Joshi is too scared to reveal where he is hiding in the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, after fleeing his home last week in Siraha District, nearly 400km southeast of Kathmandu. He had received death threats from alleged members of Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), one of the most feared militant groups in the Terai region of south Nepal.

“I had to abandon my house and farmland for the safety of my family,” said Joshi, who is among hundreds of people newly displaced by violence in the southeast at the hands of groups demanding greater political rights and regional autonomy for the Madhesi community in the Terai.

Local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the UN, and aid agencies working with internally displaced persons (IDPs) have expressed concern over the newly displaced Nepalese whose numbers are growing.

“The situation is very serious. The new displacement is not being publicised and could have serious humanitarian consequences,” Vincent Omuga, humanitarian affairs officer with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Nepal, told IRIN.

There is still no official data on the number of new IDPs who are said to be afraid to register with the local government or police. Aid agencies are also having difficulty accessing villages where there are reports of displacement.

Lack of access, information

“Our access to the Terai has reduced greatly especially in remote areas where people need aid most,” said prominent Nepali civil society activist Subodh Pyakhurel, adding that rights groups, aid workers and journalists were under constant threat and unable to get any information from the affected villages.

The only information available is from displaced people who have managed to escape from their homes, he said.

OCHA says it was concerned that due to the lack information, immediate assistance was unable to reach those suffering food insecurity.

Among the newly displaced, those most at risk are the hill people, also known as Pahades, who have lived in the Terai for generations, according to a new IDP report jointly prepared by OCHA, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

The IDP report said a large number of displaced had already fled to Kathmandu and other major towns like Biratnagar and Hetauda in the east and that land belonging to the hill people had been occupied by various armed groups.

“If this trend continues humanitarian consequences could worsen,” said Onuga.

The Madhesi and Pahades

There has been tension between the Madhesi and Pahades communities ever since large numbers of Pahades migrated from the hills and lower mountain areas to the Terai in the 1950s following the eradication of malaria, according to the Conflict Study Centre, a local academic institute.

Since then, the Pahades have dominated politics and the local economy to become more affluent and privileged than the Madhesi, who feel bitter about this.

Emergence of radical groups

The number of militant groups in the Terai has been increasing and spreading fear among the Pahades, said local activists.

Among the most feared are the Madhesi Tigers, Cobra Group, two factions of JTMM and nine other similar groups who are bent on cleansing the Pahades from the Terai region, according to some local rights NGOs who requested anonymity for fear of attacks from these armed groups.

They expressed concern that new anti-Madhesi groups are also being formed. These include the notorious Terai Virus Cleaners, the Ajingar Group, Bhawar Ulka and the Chure Bhawar Ekta Samaj (CBES), which are expected to give rise to more inter-ethnic tension and possible further displacements, said the IDP report.

Complex situation

Some IDP experts are also concerned that it is not only the Pahades who are vulnerable but also the Madhesi population living alongside them in hilly districts. “The Madhesi people could also suffer from displacement and lose their only means of survival,” said the NRC’s Amrita Shrestha.

“Now it is only the government who can prevent further displacement and inter-ethnic tensions between people of the hills and the Terai,” said Pradeep Jha, protection officer from the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Published with the permission of IRIN
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or Mike Hitchen Consulting
Photo: Copyright Subodh Singh/IRIN