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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Social Inequality, Grinding Poverty, State Negligence
Nepal: old-style Maoist revolution

Poor, corrupt Nepal has been in chaos in the year since King Gyanendra dismissed the prime minister and dissolved parliament. Political parties want the electoral process reinstated. Maoist rebels want an end to the monarchy. Fighting broke out again after a ceasefire failed in August. Since 1996 some 8,200 people have been killed.

Cédric Gouverneur • 21 March 2004

THE 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.

Nepal's 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."

Sagalmatha 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.

Young 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."

All 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."

The 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 playing cards."

On 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; CPN-M).

The 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.

The 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.

The 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."

"People 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" (2).

The 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 belts.

Anyone 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 for gravel.

Child 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."

The 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.

Parliamentary 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.

Political 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.

In 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.

The 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.

"They 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".

The 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.

The 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 him."

"The 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."

Following 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.

The 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.

Nearly 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.

The 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.

During 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.

Ceasefire 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.

Each 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.

On 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 US allies.


* Cédric Gouverneur is a journalist

Translated by Jeremiah Cullinane

This article is carried here with permission from the author.



(2) By 2001 only 4% of Nepalese wanted a military solution to the conflict. Kanak Dixit & Shastri Ramachandaran, State of Nepal, Himal Book Publishers, Latitpur, Nepal, 2003.

(3) Quoted by The Himalayan, Kathmandu, 6 August 2003.

(4) Sources: State of Nepal, op cit, and interviews with officials from the Asian Development Bank.

(5) 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.

(6) State of Nepal, op cit

(7) See A World to Win, a Maoist on-line publication from RIM

(8) Insec 2003 report, Kathmandu.

(9) 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 al-Qaida.





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