Friday, March 1, 2024

17,000 people reportedly died during decade-long conflict, is the number accurate?

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The re-filing of writ petition case by some conflict victims in the Supreme Court against PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal, aka Prachanda, the Maoist Supremo, has triggered a new debate on transitional justice and its consequences. There are now demands for PM’s resignation or sacking and outright imprisonment. The writ petition has brought otherwise highly fragmented and divided Maoists to come together to counter the judicial move and demand fast track resolution of transitional justice.

Transitional justice system that was expected to have completed its task by six months as mentioned in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement has dragged on for sixteen years and two commissions established for this mission has been defunct sans members. With transitional justice in limbo and a high degree of political instability, there is an imminent danger of Nepal returning to armed conflict. 

Among several important issues raised in the debate, one  has drawn public attention and interest. It is also mentioned as the core part of the writ petition: Prachanda has claimed responsibility for the death of 5,000 people, out of a total of 17,000. This gives roughly 29.4 percent, or to round it off, 30 percent of the total deaths. There is equally resounding question to ask: If Prachanda is responsible for 5,000 deaths then who is responsible for the remaining 12,000?

Meanwhile, Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai has tweeted that Maoists are responsible only for 20 percent deaths while the state is responsible for the remaining 80 percent.

There is equally resounding question to ask: If Prachanda is responsible for 5,000 deaths then who is responsible for the remaining 12,000?

Normally, conflict crimes are categorized into killing, disappearance and torture. The figure of 17,000 essentially is meant to refer to total number of lives lost. But the important question is: Where has this figure come from? The writ petitioners, citing university dissertation Statistical Record of Conflict Victims in Nepal, have mentioned Maoists responsible for killing 2,725 general public and 2,835 security personnel, giving a total of 5,560 people which is above 5,000 claimed by the Supremo himself.

ChatGPT

My inquiry with ChatGPT gave me following information:   

“According to estimates from the United Nations, the conflict resulted in the deaths of around 17,000 people, including civilians, Maoist rebels, and government forces. Additionally, thousands of people were injured, and many more were displaced from their homes. However, some other sources estimate that the death toll could be as high as 20,000 to 25,000, including both combatants and civilians.” The figure 17,000 is far outside the boundary of 20-25,000 estimate.

More than a decade back, after attending a lecture in Munich, Germany in 2004 on how to extrapolate conflict victims, I tried to relate newspaper reporting on incidence of combat deaths as reported by the state with the same reporting by the Maoists. I found considerable over and under reporting of the figures. Security forces exaggerated Maoists' deaths while under-reported the deaths of their own security personnel. Maoists did the same. In such a situation, it is too difficult to estimate total number of deaths and disappearances, forget about the exact number. This does not mean we should be discouraged from estimating the truth.

My further inquiry with ChatGPT gave me following data sources for estimating conflict victims: 

UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

- Nepali human rights organizations like Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), Advocacy Forum-Nepal, and the National Human Rights Commission of Nepal.

- Academic research databases such as JSTOR, Google Scholar, or other academic search engines, and

- Media reports

INSEC database

Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC) has maintained an elaborate database on conflict victims. One can get access through this link  https://www.insec.org.np/victim/candidate_display_user.php?lang=eng

However, the database is limited to 13,248 killings, 931 disappearances, and 780 disabled (tortured?).

Basing their analysis on 15,021 known individual victims, two researchers, Madhav Raj Joshi and Subodh Raj Pyakurel have done some analysis of the conflict victims, targeted between February 1996 and November 2006 in the Maoist conflict (May 2015). They agree on differences in numerical estimates published by different sources; however, they have estimated the toll to be over 13,000 and under 16,500.

Earlier, I collected some data from INSEC. Table 1 presents types of victims killed by their perpetrators:

Table 1: Number of People Killed during Maoists’ War (1996-2006)

Victims’ Occupation

Killed by

State

Killed by Maoists

Total

Killed

Agricultural workers

1,448

933

2,381

Teachers

59

86

145

Political workers

5,264

453

5,717

Police personnel

16

1,348

1,364

Students

204

140

344

Civil/private service

53

583

636

Social workers

6

7

13

Business persons

57

127

184

Workers

157

84

241

Health workers

2

3

5

Army personnel

23

666

689

Security Personnel

3

136

139

Photographers

2

3

5

Journalists

9

4

13

Law professionals

0

2

2

Prisoners

1

3

4

Dacoits

4

4

8

Engineer

 

1

1

Refugee

     

Unidentified persons

1,069

387

1,456

Total

8,377

4,970

13,347

 

Of the total number of people killed, 4,970 people (37 percent) were killed by the Maoists while 8,377 (63 percent) were killed by the State.

A large number of people killed by the Maoists included police personnel, agriculture workers, army personnel, civilians and political workers. Similarly, a large number of people killed by the State included political workers and agriculture workers (80 percent). Unless they have been killed in the cross fire or even friendly fire, it is difficult to understand why the personnel in police, army and security were being killed by the State.

When the same data is presented in a chronological order, some interesting patterns emerge. A massive number of people were killed after 2002 or after the imposition of emergency or after King Gyanendra’s takeover – both indirect and direct.

 

In the absence of reliable data, even of estimates, it will be stupid to think of concluding transitional justice process within two years. Hopefully, academic researchers will step in the days ahead to have a granular analysis of conflict victims, primarily, in terms of perpetrators. These should be not just in terms of aggregated forms like by the State and by the Maoists. The data should be in terms of police personnel, army, Maoists combatants, party workers and whether the victims were during combat or non-combat situations.    

Published on 16 March 2023

 

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