May 24, 2013
More Mao Than Thou: What the Hell Is Happening in Nepal?
Posted on Sep 1, 2010
By Reese Erlich
KATMANDU, Nepal—On Sept. 5, Nepal’s parliament will attempt to elect a prime minister, the sixth try in almost three months. Nobody is ringing gongs in anticipation of success.
The impasse reflects the deep antagonism between the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the country’s traditional parties.
Four years ago the Maoist guerrillas stopped fighting and agreed to run in parliamentary elections. Two years later, much to the surprise of the traditional parties, the Maoists won a plurality in popular elections for a Constituent Assembly. Newspaper columnist and political analyst Prashant Jha told me, “The Maoists have gone through tremendous changes in the last few years” and have to be treated as a serious political force.
The U.S. and neighboring India strongly oppose the Maoists coming to power, and fair elections haven’t resolved the underlying issue of who is in charge. Pro-U.S. ruling elites around the world encourage leftist and nationalist insurgent groups to lay down their arms and participate in the political process, claiming democracy can resolve their problems. But the Nepal situation belies that cheery rhetoric.
Nepal’s effort to build genuine democracy, or its failure to do so, holds lessons that could impact insurgencies from Colombia to Palestine.
Since the 1950s, Nepal had been a constitutional monarchy with the king holding significant, sometimes dictatorial, power. The military always exercised considerable control behind the throne. In June 2001, the crown prince grabbed a rifle and mowed down the king, queen and other members of the royal family in an incident that still hasn’t been fully explained.
The king’s brother, Gyanendra, took power. In 2005, he dissolved the parliament and seized dictatorial powers for himself. The army waged an increasingly brutal war against the Maoist insurgency, which had begun in 1996. An estimated 13,000 people died in the civil war, most killed by the army.
The Maoists also stand accused of human rights violations, including forcible conscription, recruiting child soldiers, seizing property of local landlords and business people, and killing suspected turncoats.
The UPCN (Maoists) are part of an international movement that includes the Shining Path in Peru and the Revolutionary Communist Party in the U.S., led by Bob Avakian. In most countries, the parties’ ultraleftism renders them irrelevant or unable to respond effectively to harsh government repression.
Nepal’s Maoists adopted many of the same ideological positions. For example, Nepalese Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai, in a 2009 interview with a British Maoist newspaper, praised the policies of Josef Stalin and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China as examples of “proletarian democracy.”
Nevertheless, the Nepalese Maoists developed popular support among peasants, urban workers and some intellectuals. Particularly after the dictatorship imposed in 2005, the Maoists were seen as guerrillas fighting a repressive regime. While other parties supported the traditional concept of a Hindu constitutional monarchy, the Maoists called for establishing a secular, federal republic.
The two main traditional parties, the Nepalese Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), were forced to play catch-up with the Maoists. Politics have moved so far to the left that the social democratic Nepalese Congress is considered conservative and the CPN (Unified Marxists-Leninist) centrist.
General strikes in 2006 led to the collapse of the monarchy, a peace agreement signed by all the major parties, and agreement to write a democratic constitution.
Each of the other parties thought its political tendency had won, pointing to general strikes called by its union supporters.
The Maoists and major political parties signed a Comprehensive Peace Accord that required both the army and guerrillas to stay in barracks with their arms locked up. Today almost 20,000 guerrillas remain in camps scattered around the country. The army has 84,000 troops carrying out normal duties. Critics say the army is far too big for a country of 30 million people with no likelihood of being invaded.
After numerous delays, in 2008, Nepalese voted for a Constituent Assembly to write the new constitution. The Maoists ended up with 239 seats, the Nepalese Congress 110 and CPN (UML) 103. Critics claimed the Maoists coerced voters and engaged in other fraud during the elections. But international observers, including the Carter Center, judged the elections fair.
Maoist successes alarmed the traditional parties, the army and Nepal’s two powerful neighbors, India and China. India does not want a Maoist government next door while it fights a domestic Maoist insurgency. China is wary of a party that it considers ultraleft.
The Maoists themselves have also gone through major ideological upheaval over the past four years. Officially, they continue to uphold the need for socialist revolution. But they no longer call for a Maoist-style guerrilla war.
“We need to complete the democratic revolution in a peaceful way,” Commander Pasang, head of the Maoist ex-guerrilla army, told me. He wouldn’t specify how long it might take to complete that democratic revolution.
New and Improved Comments