26 August 2004
The Maoists of Nepal
By Gwynne Dyer
“If we have a Pol Pot scenario, this would be extremely destabilising for the region,” said a Western diplomat in Nepal when the last ceasefire went into effect in early 2003. “India would probably come in and that would upset the Chinese and Pakistan and who knows what would happen.” Unfortunately, we may soon find out what would happen next, because the Maoist rebels in Nepal may be only a year or two away from victory.
The ceasefire of 2003 is long over, and the insurgents already control almost half the country. On 18 August they declared a blockade of the capital, and for a week almost nothing and nobody moved on the roads in or out of the Kathmandu valley (population 1.5 million). Then they lifted the blockade and let the city have fresh food again — but not because they had to. They didn’t even have to put road-blocks on the highways; they closed them by threats alone. They can do it again whenever they want.
Nepal is one of the few countries where you are tempted to say that reform is impossible and revolution is necessary. All but perhaps half a million of its 24 million people lead lives of grinding poverty (per capita income $220 a year), and nothing any government does changes the picture one bit. A Maoist-led peasant revolution sounds hopelessly out of date in the 21st century, but Nepalese peasants don’t live in the 21st century. For the most part, they live in the Middle Ages, with feudalism defining their lives.
There have been attempts at reform from above in Nepal, but they all quickly ran out of steam. Mass demonstrations in 1990 forced King Birendra to allow multi-party democracy, but it never really worked since all the major parties were led by people from the old elite who saw them simply as another opportunity to feather their nests. Then the king and most of his family were massacred in 2001 by the crown prince, a young man called Dipendra who was high on drink and drugs and cross about being forbidden to marry the woman of his choice. He shot himself, too.
When the shooting stopped, the last man standing was Gyanendra, brother to Birendra and now king in his stead. The trouble is that most ordinary Nepalese were very fond of Birendra and suspect Gyanendra of conspiring at his death. (It’s almost certainly untrue, but it is a measure of his unpopularity.)
Indeed, the only thing that inspires much loyalty to the 55-year-old Gyanendra is the fact that if he dies — and male members of the Nepali ruling family generally die of heart attacks before they turn 50 — then he will be succeeded by his bratty son Paras, who shows no more interest or concern for the real Nepal than his socialite friends.
King Gyanendra suspended Nepal’s shoddy democracy two years ago, and has since ruled through prime ministers appointed from the small pro-monarchy party. He has also turned the Nepalese army loose on the rebels, causing a steep rise in the killing. (Ten thousand have died since the guerrilla war began in 1996, but at least half of those were killed in the past two years.)
The Nepalese army once made a living by leasing itself out to the UN for peacekeeping missions, but US military aid and advisers, attracted to Nepal by the notion that it is part of a war against “terrorism,” are rapidly converting it into a duplicate of those Latin American armies that suppress peasant revolts in the Andes. In its 2003 report, Amnesty International said that “the security forces continued to carry out unlawful killings. It was estimated that of the more than 4,000 ‘Maoists’ officially declared as killed since 2001, nearly half may have been unlawfully killed.” That is to say, shot while in custody, shot by mistake, shot as an example to others, or just randomly shot to make the army’s numbers look better.
The Maoists could well win in Nepal — but that would be a much bigger disaster, for they belong to the same tradition of ultra-egalitarian and anti-foreign extremism that animated the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and Sendero Luminoso (the “Shining Path”) in Peru. Mercifully, the latter group never attained power, but between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge murdered about a quarter of Cambodia’s population in a drive to exterminate everybody who was a “class enemy” or had been exposed to foreign influences.
“Comrade Prachandra,” the 42-year-old ex-horticulture teacher who is the Nepali Maoists’ leader, never gives interviews, but deputy leader Baburam Bhattarai (whose PhD thesis was a Marxist analysis of Nepal’s problems) was chilling when asked whether his movement’s policies would really be similar to those of the Khmer Rouge: “There is no independent and authentic account of events in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge available so far. Whatever is emanating from the Western media appears to be highly exaggerated.” In other words, yes, they are the same.
If the Maoists win, an early Indian intervention might spare the Nepalese population the worst horrors of a Khmer Rouge-style genocide, but only at the cost to India of a long and thankless guerrilla war in Nepal plus serious international complications with China. Nepal is heading straight for hell, and nobody in the country seems remotely capable of stopping it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. (“Nepal…lives”; and”The Nepalese army…better”)