heart of the Rukum district, in the barren and impoverished
west of Nepal, is a Maoist guerrilla stronghold. The
region, cut off from the world by mountains, is overpopulated
- a Dantean nightmare of skeletal children dressed
in rags, their stomachs bloated with malnutrition.
There is no electricity, no running water, no roads,
no doctor within a two-day walk: get well or die.
first Maoist re-education camp is at the bottom of
a lost valley, on the farm of an expelled "capitalist".
A young man called Sagalmatha, barely 18, explains:
"This profiteer was exploiting a family of farmers;
they were forced to work, unpaid, to pay back their
debts. We kicked him out." He points at another
young man: "That's the capitalist's nephew. He
can stay. He's innocent. Only those who commit crimes
against the people must go."
shows us nearby terraced rice fields: "This land
now belongs to the party and the whole community benefits.
We even built a mill." Onlookers nod their obligatory
assent. Maoists have a wide definition of what constitutes
a capitalist. Only a few acres of land have been requsitioned
but these plots of land are signs of affluence.
guerrillas and children bustle about the converted
farmyard. "The prisoners work the fields by day
and learn Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theory by night,
how to behave in the new society," says Sagalmatha.
"They were tried by a tribunal of fighters, including
at least one person who knows the law."
but one of the prisoners were on leave, visiting their
families. The one who was present was too frightened
to speak. "A few escape while on leave, but we
can't hold people permanently, like they do in reactionary
prisons," says Sagalmatha. "We have murderers,
thieves, violent husbands and alcoholics."
Maoists have banned alcohol inside their statelet
because of the level of domestic violence. "Young
people who have sex before marriage are also detained,
even men and women fighters," Sagalmatha tells
us; this is a crime punishable by five to eight months
in prison. A third of the rebels are women, so great
care is taken to counter rumours about their reputation.
What about gamblers, since they waste household resources:
are they also sentenced to prison? "No,"
says Sagalmatha. "We just make them eat their
his scarf is an embroidered inscription: "Long
live Marxism-Leninism-Maoism-Prachandism." Prachanda,
"the powerful", is the pseudonym of Pushpa
Dahal, president of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist;
rebels launched their people's war in February 1996
with attacks in the region of Rolpa, 300km from Kathmandu,
their goal to overthrow the constitutional monarchy.
About 8,000 people have been killed since then, according
to the Nepalese human rights NGO, Insec (informal
sector service centre); the Maoists killed about 2,650
and security forces the rest (1).
"Maoist violence is selective, aimed against
precise targets," said the International Red
Cross Committee (ICRC) in Kathmandu.
guerrillas' control over the population relies on
violent coercion - and real popular support. The most
vulnerable appreciate guerrilla actions: women are
delighted by the bans on alcohol and gambling, the
equality of inheritance rights and an end to forced
weddings. Ethnic minorities, some 35% of the population,
are pleased with promised autonomy.
lower castes tell you how pleased they are even when
there are no Maoists around to hear. "They will
not allow us to be humiliated," says a group
of untouchables. "If a Brahmin abuses us, the
Maoists will beat him." The caste system was
officially abolished in 1963, but the practice has
lingered in this Hindu kingdom. In the countryside,
untouchables (Dalits, 21% of the population) cannot
go to the temple, draw water from a well, sell their
goods, or touch non-Dalit food. Sometimes they are
tortured for "witchcraft" by an entire village.
The Dalits say that "The Maoists speak of equality
between men. We can go to the temple. They give free
literacy courses to children as well as adults."
What can they learn? "To read, write and count,
so we're not swindled by merchants; also political
history and socialism."
want political change, so the Maoists take advantage
of that. They suck people like leeches," says
Yadav, an old farmer in a destitute village. "People
are caught between the Maoists and the state. Yes,
the Maoists have built bridges and paved roads. They
help farmers in the fields, they punish teacher absenteeism,
and they kick out profiteers. But we've had enough
of their violence. We're afraid; we want peace"
other villagers agree and a teacher says: "I
have to pay a revolutionary tax. They changed the
school curriculum and they say that 'religion is the
opium of the people'." This statement is incomprehensible
to the villagers, for whom Hinduism is part of daily
life. The group falls silent when young rebels appear
suddenly with traditional kukhri daggers on their
amazed at the idea of a doctrinaire communist guerrilla
movement in 2003 should study Nepal's social situation.
In this country without natural resources, 71% live
in total poverty; 80% survive through agriculture.
"Agricultural growth, at 2.2% per annum, is insufficient,"
says Laurent Chazée, an expert at the Asian
Development Bank in Kathmandu. "Farmers often
have only a third of a hectare and they need three
times that." Social inequality is staggering:
46.5% of revenue is in the hands of 10% of the people;
hundreds of thousands of people, including children,
earn 50 cents a day breaking stones along river banks
labour is widespread. The Child Workers in Nepal Concerned
Centre NGO has documented 127,000 cases of exploited
children, often working for $4 a month; "90%
of cases are unaccounted for" (3).
Education is fee-paying beyond primary level, as is
health care: luxuries inaccessible to most people.
Two out of three Nepalese are illiterate and a woman
dies in childbirth every two hours. A quarter of the
national budget is money remitted by emigrants and
half comes from international aid (4).
Corruption is rife. A knowledgable source estimates
only "3% of aid arrives at its intended destination.
The rest is funnelled. The elite are too concerned
with caste hierarchy to care about the underprivileged."
state's negligence and arrogance disgust ordinary
people. The last vestige of serfdom was only abolished
in July 2000: 226,000 Kamaiyas and their families,
semi-enslaved farm workers, were "liberated".
But since there was no social readjustment plan, they
were left homeless, penniless and forgotten. The July
2003 budget granted them each 50 cents a year.
democracy was established in Nepal in 1990 after a
long struggle. It finally brought freedom of speech,
but also entrenched the quasi-feudal practices of
local notables: corruption, ethnic or caste discrimination,
usury and partiality. There have now been 14 governments
in 13 years. In October 2002 King Gyanendra, in power
since the June 2001 royal massacre (5),
sidelined parliament and has ruled since with an iron
fist. He is unpopular. On 7 July a parade was organised
in Gorahi to mark his birthday. Although the town
is still under army control, there was not one spectator.
analysts say: "The conservative elite, even those
to the left, stake their futures on the preservation
of traditional structures and social relations. Without
state control, the elections turned into a fund-raising
campaign" (6). In the countryside
all that the state does is collect taxes (offering
no services in return) and fund a corrupt police force.
In 1992 the bankrupt state, encouraged by international
financial institutions, began privatisation, ending
the few remaining services. Drinking water and security
are now market opportunities. A new consumer class
emerged, after a brief economic upturn, but corruption
soon drove away investors.
such conditions it is unsurprising that those on the
margins should resort to violence. In 1992 observers
evoked a Peruvian - Shining Path - scenario. "Well-off
people in Kathmandu talked of Maoist terror, without
realising that the guerrillas had wide social support,"
notes Rita Manchada, a member of the South Asia Forum
for Human Rights and journalist for the British magazine
Frontline. "The Maoists are the direct result
of state corruption and incompetence," adds Rimal
Madav Kumar, director of the liberal weekly Spotlight.
guerrillas all believe in development; doctors, roads,
bridges, electricity, hydraulic dams and the chance
to export harvests. They want to break out of misery.
Those with rank in the party are from the upper castes
- young, educated men who have studied in cities and
seen fortunes built on corruption, privatisation and
tourism. Without any other future, they view the struggle
as a radical opportunity for social climbing: eliminate
the privileged and take their place.
started by attacking the police with kukhris and pitchforks.
Then they took the guns from the police they killed,"
recalls Yadav. After seven years of struggle, 10 million
people now live in "liberated" Nepal, out
of a total population of 23 million. The Kathmandu
press writes ironic ally that, as with China and Taiwan,
there is "one country and two systems".
insurrection is national and gets no aid from India
or China; its only outside support is the Revolutionary
Internationalist Movement, a London-based Maoist organisation
regrouping the remains of the Shining Path; the Bengali
Naxalite guerrilla movement; Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan,
Turkish movements; and even movements in the United
States (7). RIM encouraged the
CPN-M to refuse the ballot box and go underground.
According to a Western military attaché in
Kathmandu, Maoist party figures were trained in India
by the Naxalites and in Peru by the Shining Path.
There are also many military veterans in Nepal: former
Gurkhas (mercenaries of the British Army) and former
UN peacekeepers have funded and trained the fighters.
uprising started with the terrorising or murder of
local notables and the destruction of what little
state infrastructure there was. The rebels then tried
to fill the power gap with concerned citizen committees
(samiti), which organised social life and denouncements.
Active opponents, supposed informers and farmers who
refused to feed rebels were beaten or killed. Civil
servants, merchants and even NGOs were threatened.
Young Maoist party figures used both the social prestige
of their education and armed threats to persuade apathetic,
illiterate farmers of the merits of revolution. "Maoists
provide simple solutions to complex problems,"
says Insec presi dent Subodh Raj Pyakurel. "They
tell farmers the landlord needs you, but you don't
need him. Chase him away, and if he comes back, kill
guerrillas have 10,000-12,000 fighters and 15,000
militia men in training," estimates Lieutenant-Colonel
N S Pun, a former government negotiator. Forced enrolment
of teenagers is common but the ICRC denies there has
been massive recruitment of child soldiers. The opposition
musters 77,000 policemen and 45,000 soldiers, all
underequipped and unmotivated. The rebels were better
adapted to the terrain and more mobile; they won quick
victories. "Kathmandu did not take the threat
seriously at first," says the military attaché.
"Historically, the elite consider Nepal as Kathmandu
and its valley," adds a diplomat. "It didn't
matter losing control of some backward mountains."
Mao's strategy of encircling cities from the countryside,
the guerrillas attacked country police stations, forcing
the state to limit its presence to regional capitals,
and besieged military barracks in the cities. In November
2001 they attacked Gorahi, capital of the Dang district,
killing 14 soldiers and 23 policemen and looting banks.
"Some of the poorer mountain fighters saw cars
for the first time in their lives during the attack,"
says a witness.
scale of the attack led to a state of emergency. Since
11 September 2001, in the name of the war against
terrorism, the US and the United Kingdom have been
drawn into it, and the US ambassador, Mike Malinowski,
has linked the Nepalese troubles to al-Qaida and the
Khmer Rouge. Another diplomat says: "The US wants
stability in the region and wants to avoid Nepal becoming
a failed state between China and India." Washington
has provided $41m military and development aid and
the UK has given $20m. India has increased its border
surveillance. The Nepalese army is trained by 50 US
military advisers and has 14,000 M-16 assault rifles
from Washington. It also has two Russian MiG-17 helicopters,
paid for by the UK.
5,000 people were killed in 2002. Security forces
and rebels both tortured, mutilated and massacred
(8). In December 2002 the CPN-M
was added to the US State Department list of terrorist
organisations, an act of intimidation that may have
persuaded the CPN-M to sign a ceasefire agreement
on 29 January 2003. Nepal announced in July that it
was sending 900 soldiers to Iraq. But on 27 August
the Maoists broke the ceasefire because of the government's
refusal to accept their main demand: the adoption
of a new constitution.
government now only controls the cities and the main
roads by day. In Kathmandu, guerrilleras extort shopkeepers
and trekking agencies. They can strike in the city
centre: in January, after the ceasefire breakdown,
they killed the chief of police and an army colonel.
Dozens of people pressed charges at CPN-M offices
open for a while in the capital; some preferred the
Maoists' radical methods to the slow and complicated
official justice system. In Kathmandu, as in the mountains,
the rebellion's swift strikes are replacing the power
of the failing state.
negotiations, the rebels requested that the army be
confined to within a radius of 5km of barracks. But
its principal demand was for elections leading to
a constituent assembly. It was an unrealistic demand,
since the voters in liberated zones have no freedom
of expression. And the CPN-M's commitment to a multi-party
system is rhetorical: nothing in the rebel speeches
or authoritarian practices indicates democratic behaviour.
The Kathmandu authorities refused the demand, insisting
on prior disarmament by the rebels. In politics the
slide towards the centre of the former communist,
now neoliberal, UML party (Unified Marxist-Leninist)
could open up space to the left for the CPN-M.
violations became commonplace during the summer: threats
to US NGOs, forced recruitment, execution of informers,
gunfights between rebels and the army - even an assassin
ation attempt on a former prime minister. During discussions,
the army, bolstered by Washington, pressured the government
not to give in to demands (9)
while the rebels issued untenable ultimatums. They
were preparing for fighting even before the ceasefire
broke down. A medical source reported that they were
stocking up on morphine. The palace was expecting
the worst; by mid-August, 27 members of the royal
family had requested visas for Europe.
side is convinced it can defeat the other. The royal
army has US support and profits from the communists'
international isolation. But the rebels believe that
US setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan have reduced the
threat of the Pentagon's direct intervention in the
Himalayas. The insurgents are counting on their city-encircling
strategy being infallible. The Kathmandu valley is
not unassailable: taking two roads, the airport and
a petrol depot would be enough to topple the capital,
and then the country.
29 August almost 10,000 people demonstrated in Kathmandu,
urging the Maoists and the government to restart negotiations.
But the fact that the people want an end to the fighting
doesn't concern the "enlightened avant-garde
of the proletariat" or the royal army and its
Cédric Gouverneur is a journalist
by Jeremiah Cullinane
article is carried here with permission from the author.
By 2001 only 4% of Nepalese wanted a military solution
to the conflict. Kanak Dixit & Shastri Ramachandaran,
State of Nepal, Himal Book Publishers, Latitpur,
Quoted by The Himalayan, Kathmandu, 6 August 2003.
Sources: State of Nepal, op cit, and interviews
with officials from the Asian Development Bank.
On 1 June 2001, Dipendra, heir to the throne, massacred
the royal family before committing suicide. People
suspected a conspiracy by Gyanendra, the late King
Birendra's unpopular brother, to seize power.
State of Nepal, op cit
See A World to Win, a Maoist on-line publication
Insec 2003 report, Kathmandu.
See Steven C Baker, a conservative academic from
the Center for Security Policy, Frontpage, Los Angeles,
July 2003. According to him, a communist Nepal would
be another North Korea, even a potential haven for
Index: Current Articles + Latest News and Views + Book Reviews +
Letters + Archives