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Nepal: Revolution At The Roof Of The World
The June 1 murder of King Birendra of Nepal and eight other members of the royal family hit headlines like a bizarre tale of regicide out of Hamlet or King Lear. Within hours, thousands took to the streets in Kathmandu and conspiracy theories buzzed through the crowds. Few believed the official story that Birendra's son went on a berserk shooting spree because his mother disapproved of his girlfriend. The new king, Gyanendra, who was on vacation during the fateful dinner, took the throne in a haze of suspicion.
The full account of what happened may never be known. But like all such events, the king's murder took place in a context—and the context is the growing strength of Nepal's Maoist insurgency.
Since it began in 1996, the Maoist People's War in Nepal has gained strength and momentum. It has spread to almost all of the country's 75 districts. Over 1,500 people have been killed by the government and the police have carried out widespread human rights violations of rape, torture, and murder—chronicled by groups like Amnesty International and even the U.S. State Department. Recent military encounters have involved hundreds of guerrillas and the Maoists now control large areas of the countryside.
Today, the defining political question in Nepal is whether to support or attack the Maoist People's War. King Birendra was enmeshed in the growing crisis within Nepal's ruling class over how to deal with the insurgency. The media portrays Birendra as just a figurehead. But Nepal's Constitution gives the King supreme command of the army and the power to appoint its commander in chief, while the police forces are under the command of the ruling government. This setup made Birendra the focus of debate over whether or not to mobilize the army against the Maoists.
Concern that the People's War in Nepal could shake the South Asia region was underscored this spring by a parade of diplomats from India, China, Britain, and the U.S.—who held meetings with Nepalese officials with the Maoist insurgency a major item on the agenda. But it took a bloodbath in the royal palace for news of this conflict to make it to the United States.
In The Guerrilla Zones
In Spring 1999, I traveled for several months through guerrilla zones in the mountains of Nepal. My trip was arranged by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which is leading the insurgency. Guerrilla squads escorted me through some of the most intense areas of fighting. I traveled and lived with members of the people's army and interviewed political and military leaders, soldiers, relatives of those killed in the war, and villagers in areas under guerrilla control.
As we trekked from village to village, I could see why these peasants would support a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the present order. Nepal is one of the poorest and most undeveloped countries in the world. Living conditions are extremely primitive, even by Third World standards. Per capita income is $210 and 85 percent of the people live in the rural areas without electricity, running water, and basic sanitation. There are hardly any doctors in the countryside and malnutrition is widespread. Life expectancy is only 55 years.
Peasants talked about landowners and corrupt officials who steal their small plots of land and money lenders who charge exorbitant interest. “We work all year,” one farmer angrily told me, “but the crops we harvest only provide food for three to four months.” His face lit up when he described how the Maoists have set up a new tax system, burned property-ownership records, and redistributed land. He said, “Our vision is that we can seize the land of landlords, socialize the land, grow crops on those lands, and have everyone work together. We will then be able to grow enough food to eat for the whole year.”
The first guerillas I met were members of a people's army cultural squad in the Eastern Region. The first to speak were young women— 16 and 17 years old. Like thousands of women, they had been attracted to the revolution's offer of equality.
About a third of the people's army squads are female and in the guerrilla zones just about every village has a revolutionary women's organization.
Traditionally, Nepalese parents arrange their children's marriages and many other feudal customs discriminate against women. But in the guerrilla zones, women have the right to own land, choose a husband, and go to school. One woman told me she had been stuck in an arranged marriage for six years. But then she began working with the party and ran off and joined the people's army.
Government repression has also driven many people to support the revolution. One woman in an eastern village said, “They have killed a small child of only five years old and an old man of 90. They have raped a 10-year-old girl and a 70-year-old woman. They have looted our property. They have taken the property of even the old people. They have raided homes and put people in jail. In the elections they force us to go out and vote, even though we don't want to. There are massive violations of human rights. Men who speak out, demanding that the government act according to the law and Constitution, are being hunted down. Women are also being forced to go underground. Sometimes the men are separated from their wives for one or two months and then the police come and interrogate and rape the wife. Because of this terrible situation created by the reactionary government we have come to the understanding that we need to pick up arms and fight them.”
Crisis and Indecision
Nepal was never colonized, but foreign powers, especially Britain and India, have dominated the country for decades. Yet Nepal has remained relatively isolated and untouched by the kind of dependent development “globalization” has brought to many other Third World countries. For most of the 20th century the political system was controlled by feuding dynasties.
From 1951 to 1990, Nepal was ruled by the Shah monarchy and all political parties were banned. Then after widespread protest, the King was forced to institute a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament. General elections were held for the first time in 1991. But hopes that the new parliamentary system would bring change were quickly dashed. And for the last 10 years, the government, widely seen by many as thoroughly corrupt and beholden to India, has been unable to solve the country's social and economic problems.
The main force deployed against the People's War are the police, who have carried out several counter-insurgency campaigns. They have arrested and tortured hundreds of suspected guerrillas and Maoist sympathizers. But they have not been able to crush the insurgency. Police posts in guerrilla zones have been forced to close down. The police have suffered many casualties, and there have been widespread defections and demoralization. Meanwhile, areas under Maoist control have grown. All this has intensified the debate among Nepal's rulers over whether to mobilize the army.
Some government forces may fear that giving the army the main responsibility for defeating the Maoists could put too much power in the hands of the monarchy. There is also concern that mobilizing the Royal Nepalese Army could lead to bigger and more destabilizing defeats that would discredit key institutions of the state—the monarchy and the army.
One major force looming over the unfolding events in Nepal is India. While I was traveling in Nepal's Middle Region, my translator was a sympathizer of the People's War who studied engineering in India. He was constantly pointing out how so many things around us were made by India—from the roads to the busses to the music playing at roadside foodstands. On the border, we saw trucks backed up for miles bringing Indian goods into Nepal.
King Birendra—as well as the ruling Nepali Congress party— have had long-standing ties with and backing from the Indian power structure. In 1950-1951, India directly intervened to put Birendra's grandfather, King Tribuvan, on the throne.
India has long considered Nepal strategically important in its often hostile relationship with China. This conflict intensified after China was liberated in 1949 and Mao came to power. In 1965, aiming to prevent friendly relations between Nepal and the socialist government in China, India secured an arms treaty in which Nepal agreed to purchase arms only from India, Britain, or the U.S. Today, the anti-Maoist regime in China shares India's hostility to the revolution in Nepal, but India remains concerned that China will take advantage of the instability created by the insurgency.
It is largely, though not exclusively, through India that Nepal is linked to the world imperialist system. India dominates the economic life of the country—plundering Nepal's natural resources, enforcing unequal trade agreements, and exploiting millions of poor peasants who are forced to cross the Indian border to work. Many businesses are run by Indian capitalists, and much of the fertile land in the Terai area near the border is owned by Indian landlords.
In 1996 the controversial Mahakali Treaty basically established India's right to steal Nepal's water. Nepal's mountains and rivers make it one of the richest in water resources—with as much capacity to generate electricity as the U.S., Mexico, and Canada combined. But unequal treaties force Nepal to sell much of its water to India at give-away prices. Meanwhile, 40 percent of the rural population in Nepal lack regular supplies of potable water. Only about 10 percent of the country has access to hydro-electric power.
As a landlocked country, Nepal depends on India for transhipping of imports and exports. In 1989, after a trade dispute, India imposed a virtual trade embargo on Nepal. Much of Nepal's trade disappeared overnight, along with essential supplies of fuel and medicine. India cracked down on the border to prevent goods from other countries getting into Nepal. Nepalese working in India were not even allowed to bring their salaries across the border.
Every year, thousands of poor farmers in Nepal go to work in India. Some stay for years, others work for several months and then return to farm their land. It is estimated that at any given time, as many as seven million Nepalese are working in India.
One squad commander in Nepal, who had worked in India, told me: “My family is very poor, so when I was 15 I went to India to find work. I lived there eight years, working as a laborer in the countryside, collecting raw materials for medicine. Later I went to the city and worked in a factory making plastic bags. I also worked in a steel factory as a security guard, in a chocolate factory, and a pencil factory. The wages were very low, about 400 rupees ($6.00) a month.”
Ironically, the fact that so many Nepalese peasants work in India has created a favorable factor for the revolution. There is a strong movement of Nepalese Maoists in India who are building support for the People's War in Nepal. There are friendly ties between the Maoists in Nepal and Maoist groups waging armed struggle against the Indian government. There have been large demonstrations in India in support of the insurgency. I met people in Nepal who were first exposed to Maoism in India—and then returned home to join the revolution.
It is widely expected that India would take military action to prevent the Maoists from taking over the country. When I interviewed Prachanda, the top leader of the CPN (Maoist), he pointed to the possibility of direct intervention. “Ultimately, we will have to fight with the Indian army,” Prachanda said. “That is the situation. Therefore we have to take into account the Indian army. When the Indian army comes in with thousands and thousands of soldiers, it will be a very big thing. But we are not afraid of the Indian Army because, in one way, it will be a very good thing. They will give us lots of guns. And lots of people will fight them.”
Surrounding The Cities
Nepal is not the only country where Marxist parties have long been a significant part of the political scene—including within the government. But what is interesting here, is that a distinctly Maoist movement has gained such widespread influence, especially among the poor peasantry—and that its strength has actually grown after initiating armed struggle against the government.
In the mid-1990s, Prachanda and other leading members of the CPN (Maoist) analyzed that the conditions in Nepal were ripe for launching, building, and sustaining an armed struggle, and that such a struggle was the only way to unleash the revolutionary energies of Nepal's peasantry. Starting in early 1995, the Maoists began a year long campaign to build support among the peasants for initiating people's war. Centered in the western districts of Rolpa, Rukum, and Jarjarkot, the revolutionaries sent cultural teams into the villages, organized the peasants to challenge local authorities, and mobilized the villagers to build roads, bridges, and latrines.
But the decision to start the war was very controversial in the revolutionary movement—as well as within the party. Prachanda told me, “In making the plan for initiation there was great debate over how to go to the armed struggle because many people were influenced by ‘peaceful' struggle, work in the parliament, rightist and petty bourgeois feelings, and a long tradition of the reformist movement. Then we said that the only process must be a big push, big leap. Not gradual change.”
Before 1996, many of the leadership and cadre in the CPN (Maoist) were working underground. But developing a people's army required a whole new level of commitment. One leader in the Gorkha region told me, “In the past, the party members here were mainly more educated intellectuals who could not leave their jobs and be full-timers. When the Central Committee decided to start the People's War, this presented us with a problem. Before the initiation, we held district committee level meetings with all the members and united with the decision to go to armed struggle. We decided it was necessary for all the members to become full-timers, but most said they didn't want to do this. So the party decided to dissolve this district party committee and form a new district committee—made up of dedicated persons and young people who had participated in the class struggle and were willing to do revolutionary work full time.”
When the government began launching a series of counter-insurgency campaigns, many veteran party members were killed, and new, younger leadership had to step into their shoes. Throughout this process, the character of the party changed as more peasants were recruited. Today, the party and the people's army are overwhelmingly made up of peasants.
Prachanda explained that, from the beginning, the guerillas envisioned a protracted war, “waging guerrilla warfare to surround the cities and eventually seize power.” Prachanda told me, “Geographically when you look at the whole country of India you can travel in one or two days to every part and corner. But in Nepal you have to walk up and down for many days. Therefore, while Nepal is a small country, the mountainous region is very favorable for guerrilla warfare, for people's war. We also saw that because there has been a centralized reactionary government for more than 200 years there has also been a tendency for the masses to resist throughout all of Nepal.”
The Rolpa and Rukum districts in the Western Region—now known as the storm center of the People's War—were key areas of strength at the time of the initiation. So I was really excited to be able to spend a month traveling through guerrilla zones in these two districts.
We had to trek at night, for many hours in the mountains, without flashlights to avoid the police. Sometimes in the middle of the night, a squad member would knock on the door of a village house and a sleepy peasant would take us in and give us blankets and a spot on the floor to sleep.
These areas are remote and far from the seat of power in Kathmandu—which makes quick and large mobilization of government forces difficult. Even before 1996, Maoist forces had a lot of influence in these poor districts where the Magar people—one of the 25 or so oppressed nationalities in Nepal—make up much of the population. Most of the guerrillas I met in these areas were Magars, attracted to the Maoists' promise of an end to discrimination and the right of self-determination.
In Rolpa and Rukum I was struck by the absence of Hindu temples—and one of the guerillas explained that the lack of strong religious influences in this part of the country also has made it easier for revolutionary ideas to take hold.
Many different sections of Nepalese society have been drawn to support the Maoists' fight against the government: the rural population wants land and development, women want equality, and millions throughout Nepal want democracy and independence. In Kathmandu, I met middle-class intellectuals, artists, and even high-level government workers who supported the Maoists' program of democracy and ending foreign domination. But the heart of this revolution is in the countryside. It is here that the guerrillas are building base areas of power.
Sitting on the floor of a small village house, the cadre responsible for developing people's power in Rolpa explained to me that within the first few years of the revolution, government officials, landlords, and police were driven out of the villages. This created a power vacuum which allowed the guerrillas to establish military, political, and economic control in huge areas of the countryside. It also shattered the repressive climate and allowed peasants to openly take part in revolutionary politics for the first time. Today, some two million people in the Rolpa and Rukum districts of Nepal are living under guerrilla control, setting up new forms of government.
“People's power” committees— made up of party members, guerrillas and representatives of mass organizations—hold court to settle land disputes, punish rapists, and decide on other forms of justice. They set up new taxation systems, run schools, and build bridges, latrines, and playgrounds. They also figure out how to deal with spies who give information to the police. Peasants told me that thousands of cases had been settled by “people's courts,” conducted at gatherings of up to 500 villagers.
The Maoists in Nepal see the development of “base areas” as a strategic part of eventually being able to “surround the cities and seize power.” In these areas, the guerrillas are constructing the outlines of the new society they hope to build if they succeed in overthrowing the government. According to Prachanda, “At first, we did not teach the masses—they taught us how to begin exercising power. It cannot be dictated from above. The masses themselves, through the process of People's War, through the process of struggle, gave birth to the forms of new people's power.”
A central part of this new people's power is land reform, carried out under the slogan “land to the tiller” and the principle of “women's equal right to property.” The guerrillas also carry out collective and cooperative farming and organize volunteer production teams to help farm the land of families whose relatives have been killed by the government. A system of cooperative loans has been set up, as well as cottage industries to produce goods for local consumption and to support the people's army. People's power committees have also launched health and hygiene awareness campaigns and adult literacy programs. Local militias work together with squads from the people's army to provide military training and security against the police.
The Maoists in Nepal have a big vision—wherever I went, people in the guerrilla zones emphasized how they see their struggle as part of the “world revolution.” Prachanda told me, “Nepal is a small country, we are a small party. But we have a big perspective. Our People's War may be a spark for a prairie fire.” Z
Li Onesto traveled to guerilla zones in Nepal in 1999. Her 22-part series for the Revolutionary Worker can be found at rwor.org.