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“People’s War” Turns to People’s Vote

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Issue: 51 Section: Accounts Geography: South Asia Nepal Topics: democracy, elections, social movements

May 20, 2008

“People’s War” Turns to People’s Vote

Maoist return to the democratic process

by Matthew Howard

A villager in Nepal. The grassroots success of the Communist Party Nepal-Maoist relies on support from rural areas of Nepal. Photo: Matthew Howard

Communism in Nepal is not a new concept. Nepal’s first communist party was created in 1949 and communism has shaped the history of the country ever since. In 1994, a coalition government came together to form one of the few elected national communist-party governments in history. The breakdown of this coalition led to the death of 13,000 Nepalese in a brutal decade-long civil war.

Often portrayed as brainwashed savages holding onto an anachronistic ideology, the Nepalese Maoist movement receives virtually no Western media attention unless blood is shed in the name of the cause. Nepal’s recent election has given Western media another reason to focus on the Nepalese Maoist movement.

On April 10, the Communist Party Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) won a majority of seats in Nepal’s election. The victory has been seen as a cause for alarm for the Bush administration, which sent both military and financial aid to the former Nepalese government in order to fight the Maoist insurgency.

Before the election, in November of 2007, I was brought to a rural Maoist village where I had the opportunity to talk with Maoist leaders and locals. I was able to see the human side of the civil war in Nepal as well as the grassroots organization of Nepal's Maoist party.

The author and his friend Nanda in rural Nepal. Nanda is giving a Maoist salute. Photo: Matthew Howard

The rise of the CPN-M is a success story for grassroots movements. On February 13, 1996, Maoists began what is known at the “People’s War” by taking control of the Small Farmers Development Bank in Gorkha. Bank workers were overpowered late one night, leading to a takeover of the building, the burning of loan papers and a speech that described the bank as instrument of exploitation used by the state. After a brief parting speech, the Maoists left. Thus marked the beginning of the “People’s War.”

Most peasants who witnessed the takeover had no idea who these rebels were, but understood their message and shared their anger. Many villagers were subjugated to cast, ethnic, linguistic and gender injustices and became sympathetic to the Maoist cause.

The CPN-M held political gatherings throughout the “People’s War.” The message espoused by Maoists not only spoke to the outrage felt by the villagers throughout the countryside, but did so in the local dialect. The Maoists respected the local languages, customs and beliefs of various tribes and promised to bring about a secular, democratic state with safeguards for minority rights including language protection. Women also played a vital role in the movement.

It was in the mountainous villages of Lamjung on the border of Gorkha where I was introduced to the Maoists' way of life and the hardships they face. I was first taken to my friend Nanda’s village. The village is ethnically Mongolian and residents hold both Buddhist and Hindu religious beliefs.

The murder of journalist Birendra Shah at the hand of Maoist card holders occurred only one month before my visit. The Federation of Nepalese Journalists had released a statement in the Kathmandu Post warning journalist not to meet with Maoists due to safety concerns. I departed from tourist friendly Pokorah on a seven-hour bus trip and was dropped off on the side of a windy, mountainous road. Two jeep rides and a two-hour hike landed us in Nanda’s village.

It is hard to describe the stunning natural beauty and sense of community one feels when entering such a village. Nanda had recently been paid and we spent the better part of our first day visiting villagers and distributing gifts and money. In the days that followed I travelled to surrounding villages and was taken aback by the communal way of living and property sharing embedded in the culture. Hiking from village to village the sense of collectivism was ubiquitous.

Although the people I met shared what they had, communities were lacking in essential services like medicine. While traveling to a neighbouring village, I met an elderly woman who asked if I had any medicine for her stomach pains. I gave her what medicine I had and through Nanda explained how it was to be taken. Further up the mountain I saw a man being carried on another man's back, clearly in pain. He was being transported to a hospital 10 hours away.

The lack of general social services (including electricity) along with the lack of employment opportunities forces many young villagers into urban areas in search of wage-labour work. In cities one experiences a different Nepal: a Nepal with electricity and paved roads. Once living in cities, the low wages and lack of transportation infrastructure into rural areas makes returning home a onerous task. Nanda’s sister has a one-year-old child. Her husband works over ten hours away and comes home whenever he can. He literally has to climb the Himalayas to see his wife and child. It is within this context of neglect that the Maoists released their 40 demands in 1996.

Of the 40 demands, perhaps six could be seen as communist in nature. The rest focus on basic rights, including: the abolition of the caste system, rights for women, the creation of a constitution, the end of the monarchy and the creation of a democratic secular state with intellectual freedom for all. When these demands were not met, Maoists began their “People’s War.”

The war on terror gave Colin Powell the perfect pretext to visit Nepal in January 2002. He pledged support for the government’s “war on terror,” known to locals as the People’s War. To date, the U.S has donated an estimated $29 million in military aid to Nepal. According to critics, this aid led to the widening of the war and an increase in atrocities on both sides. While surely not Powell’s intent, this military aid also helped the Maoists gain new sympathizers, members and soldiers.

When she was 11 years old, Nepalese police killed Sita Kumari’s brother while he was harvesting potatoes. Quoted in the book When There Were No Men: Women in the Maoist Insurgency, Kumari’s story exemplifies how these attacks helped the party recruit members. “Yes my brother was killed. But we have 1000 brothers of the same kind. We will all come together and take revenge. We will not spare those responsible for our grief.” Before her brother's murder Sita Kumari was not a Maoist, nor were any of her family, however, after he was killed she became an ardent Maoist supporter and her two older brothers became Maoist insurgents.

Maoist military strategy dictates that the rural areas must come under party control before any action is taken in urban areas. After cities are surrounded by Maoist-supported communities, major military offensives on urban areas can take place. While limited-scale attacks took place in Kathmandu and other urban areas during the civil war, no full-scale military assault occurred. Instead, the party chose a different tactic: the CNP-M formed the All Nepalese Trade Union Federation (Revolutionary), and spoke to the needs of the urban working class.

As the party grew in both membership and legitimacy in cities and throughout the country, the CPN-M decided to re-enter the political sphere in January of 2008. It agreed to rejoin the government allowing Nepalese Maoist to be sworn in as cabinet ministers.

I had the opportunity to meet with a Maoist district leader (who wishes to remain nameless) and his second and third in command. All three have been members since the beginning of the civil war. All are in contact with Prachanda, the leader of the CPN-M and leader of People's Liberation Army (PLA), the military wing of CPN-M. All have served in the PLA in varying forms.

The first thing I was told during our meeting was that if I had any problems I should come to these men; that they were the security in the district. Nanda then told me of the soldiers who patrolled the mountains, going from village to village to ensure domestic peace and to record any grievances. These patrols are organized by the district leader and report directly to him. An hour before we arrived in one village, two soldiers passed through. These routine patrols have caught many unsuspecting trekking tourists by surprise, when the soldiers request a “donation.” The donations cost an average of three American dollars. For the three trekkers I met, the donation experience was not frightening. Of the three, two were issued receipts and one lied and said she had already paid. Maoists feel it is well within their rights to ask tourists for a modest amount for crossing their lands, since the Nepalese federal government charges 1,270 Rupees (20 American dollars) for trekking permits yet provide no services to the areas in return.

As we spoke, some villagers came to listen to our conversation. All showed the utmost respect for the PLA leaders. It was difficult to ascertain whether the respect came from fear or admiration.

“We are confident that we will win many seats,” the leader said. “Our country knows what is at stake and the sacrifices we have given in the name of justice.” While the leader sounded very confident, most prognosticators at the time did not believe the Maoists had a chance at becoming the ruling party in Nepal. “We are on a path of peace, and we feel that this election will serve to prove to the people of Nepal our party is serious about its commitment to peace and democracy.” On that note the three men stood up, gave the Maoist salute and walked off into the valley.

The next day while trekking, I met the CPN-M’s third ranking member, Dubar. He remembered me from the day before and affably invited me to his village for tea. I agreed and we hiked to his village where he put on tea and introduced me to his family. This took longer than one might expect due to the fact that the entire village was in some way related to him. After the introductions, he turned to me and said, “This is the face of Maoism in Nepal.” He took great pride in his village and their accomplishments. He was eager to show me that a few of the younger villagers could speak some English.

I attempted to ask Dubar more about the upcoming elections and the future of his party, but he preferred to discuss politics in my country. He was very excited to hear how communism was progressing in Canada. I explained to him how the New Democratic Party was most popular socialist party in Canada, amassing 17.4 per cent of the popular vote, and that both Communist Parties do not receive one per cent. He was shocked but still in high spirits. His face brimmed with hope and enthusiasm when he asked, “What does average Canadian think of us Maoists? What we have accomplished?” I did not have the heart to tell him that the average Canadian knows virtually nothing about Nepalese Maoists, or that the only way that the average Canadian hears about the Nepalese Maoist movement is when government troops die or when police stations are raided. Instead I told him simply that the movement receives little attention in Canada.

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