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Nepal struggles to cope with diehard Maoist violence

Taking Peru's Shining Path group as its role model, Nepal's Maoist insurgency has strengthened during the past three years to its current position, which threatens the country's political stability. Bertil Lintner examines its recent history and the strengths of the protagonists.

WITH the recent demise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the virtual disintegration of the New People's Army in the Philippines, most observers in Asia thought that the era of Maoist insurgencies was over. Yet during the last three years, a new vicious communist rebellion has swept over Nepal. More than 700 people - some sources claim as many as 2,000 - have died in guerrilla raids and counterattacks by the police since the first petrol bombs were thrown at isolated police stations in the country's impoverished northwestern region in February 1996.

Most of the casualties have occurred in the last 12 months as the Nepal police have intensified their campaign to contain and counter the guerrillas. While Nepal is in no danger of being overrun by Maoist militants, the insurgency is threatening the political stability in the Himalayan kingdom. Strategically located between India and China, it could prompt either Asian superpower to intervene.

The limited resources of the Nepal police, thus far the only government force that has been used against the Maoists, are already overstretched. The authorities in Kathmandu are painfully aware of the fact that use of the regular army would be an extremely costly operation. It could also be politically counterproductive. An all-out war with government troops rampaging through remote villages - where. the population is already hostile to the central authorities - in search of an almost invisible enemy would only exacerbate exactly the kind of resentment on which the Maoists thrive.

The rise of the Maoists

The rise of the Nepalese Maoists is directly connected with the fall of the absolute monarchy in the spring of 1990 and the subsequent introduction of a parliamentary democracy. Scores of demonstrators were killed in violent clashes with the police in Kathmandu before the King eventually gave in to popular demands for an end to the old system.

However democracy failed to live up to the expectations of many of the young activists: like in Eastern Europe, where authoritarian regimes of a different kind fell at about the same time, kleptocracy - not democracy and a genuine free-market economy - succeeded the old order. Widespread corruption on all levels, social and political instability, bickering parliamentarians and abuse of power caused frustration among large segments of the population.

At first, the extreme left-wing participated in the democratic process. Their front organisation, the Samyukta Jana Morcha (United People's Front - UPF) emerged as the third-largest party in the 1991 election, winning nine seats in the 205-member lower house. Led by Baburam Bhattarai, a 42-year old intellectual, the UPF's initially not-so-radical slogans appealed to many young disgruntled Nepalese: down with corruption, and distribute the wealth of the country among the poor.

However, the situation went from bad to worse when Nepal's first democratically elected government, which was made up of the Nepali Congress, dissolved parliament in July 1994. Fresh elections in November of the same year led to the formation of a minority government led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninists). Nepal thus became the first country in which communists came to power through elections, save for San Marino and the Indian states of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura.

Yet even the new left-wing government failed to improve the lot of the poor and to clean up corruption. It fell after only nine months in power and gave way to a series of fragile and implausible coalitions, where the politics of gain rather than common ideologies motivated new alliances between the parties.

Despite its name and official rhetoric, the CPN (UML) was not radical enough; it resembled a European social democrat party rather than a militant organisation that was going to introduce any radical political or economic changes. Throughout Nepal revolutionary sentiments were still simmering, ever since the popular uprising for democracy in 1990. A clear indication of the direction in which Nepal's radicals were moving came in September 1992 when Abimael Guzman, or 'Chairman Gonzalo', the leader of Peru's Shining Path guerrillas, was arrested in Lima. The London staff of the International Emergency Committee to Defend the Life of Abimael Guzman was astounded by the volume of mail received from Nepal in support of him.

Main Communist Parties in Nepal

1949: The Communist Party of Nepal was formally established on September 15, 1949 in Calcutta and was banned along with all other political parties in December 1960. Two years later, the Sino-Soviet conflict and the subsequent split in the international communist movement also divided the underground Nepalese Communists into the 'Royal Communists' led by Keshar Jang Rayamajhi, who recognised the authority of the King and remained loyal to Moscow, and a more radical faction led by Puspa Lal Shrestha ('Comrade PL’), which opposed the monarchy and was loyal to China.

1978: The Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) was set up in 1978 by radicals who, inspired by the pro-Naxalite Movement in India, mounted a similar, violent 'annihilation campaign’ against 'landlords’ and 'reactionaries’ in the Jhapa area near Biratnagar in the southeastern plains. In the same year, another similar faction of the pro-China movement in the southeast was formed as the Nepal Peasant’s and Workers’ and Party.

1987: The Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist) was another communist faction that emerged from the turbulent years of the 1970s. It was set up in 1987 by the merger of followers of communist veteran Man Mohan Adhikari (a former General Secretary of the CPN and erstwhile follower of 'Comrade PL’) and of 'Comrade PL’s’ widow, Sahana Pradhan, and modelled after India’s 'independent’ communist party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

1970s and 1980s: During this period, several other radical groups also emerged: The Communist Party of Nepal (Fourth Convention) was set up in 1974 by two radical communist leaders, Mohan Bikram Singh and Nirmal Lama, after holding what they claimed was the CPN’s fourth congress. The Communist Party of Nepal (Masal) was the name adopted by Mohan Bikram Singh after a split in the CPN (4th Convention) in 1983. The party boycotted the 1991 election and maintained a Maoist stance. The Communist Party of Nepal (Mashal) was a new group that broke away from the CPN (Masal) in 1985. Mashal (both Masal and Mashal mean 'the Torch’) was led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal ('Comrade Prachanda’) and merged with the remnants of the CPN (4th Convention) to form the Unity Centre in 1990.

1991: The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninists) was formed in 1991 when the CPN(ML), led by Madan Bhandari, and the CPN(M), led by Man Mohan Adhikari, merged. Adhikari became chairman and Bhandari general secretary. In 1993, Bhandari died in a controversial road accident and was succeeded as general secretary by Madhav Kumar Nepal. The movement quickly developed into one of Nepal’s most powerful parties and became the largest in the 1994 election. Adhikari subsequently served as prime minister from November 1994 to September 1995 and died in 1999. The new leader is Madhav Kumar Nepal. Despite its name, the CPN(UML) resembles a European social democrat party.

1995: The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was set up in 1995 following a split in the Unity Centre. A radical faction led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias 'Comrade Prachanda’ ('the furious one’) and Baburam Bhattarai set up the CPN(Maoist) and denounced the CPN(UML) as well as all other above-ground factions as 'renegades’ and 'revisionists’ because of their participation in the parliamentary process. It resorted to armed struggle on February 13, 1996 by attacking police stations in Rukum and Rolpa districts in the hills of northwestern Nepal.

1998: The Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist) was resurrected in February 1998 when the CPN(UML) split and a faction broke away. Led by general secretary Bamdev Gautam and chairman Sahana Pradhan, it became the main opposition party to the Congress-UML coalition government that took over in 1997. The CPM(ML) has since rejoined the CPM(UML).

1990s: Others. There are also about a dozen smaller communist parties and groups, but none of them is especially important outside Kathmandu. The only other communist party of any significance is the Nepal Peasant’s and Workers’ and Party, led by Narayan Man Bijukchhe, alias 'Comrade Rohit.’ It has four seats in the parliament, but its activities are limited to Bhaktapur near Kathmandu and a few places in the western hills.

1990s: Communist-led front organisations. After the 1990 pro-democracy uprising, many left-wingers gathered under the banner of the Samyukta Jana Morcha (United People’s Front, UPF), which emerged as the third-largest party in the 1991 election, winning nine seats in the 205-member lower house. It split into two factions on the eve of the 1994 election. One faction, led by Baburam Bhattarai, boycotted the election and in 1995 went underground with the CPN(Maoist). Today, the Maoists have managed to infiltrate several urban-based front organisations comprising students, lawyers, human rights activists and other intellectuals.

Nepal's Maoists were already tied to their Peruvian comrades through an obscure organisation called the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement (RIM), which comprises Maoist groups from the USA, Latin America, India, Iran, Turkey and Western Europe. RIM's periodical, A World To Win, a smart, glossy magazine that comes out twice or three times a year, contains information about the revolutionary struggle in other parts of the world.

Peru: the role model

According to Stephen L Mikesell, a research scholar writing in Kathmandu's Himal magazine, "appealing geo-cultural analogies can be drawn between Peru and Nepal. Both countries straddle major mountain ranges of their respective continents, in which isolated valleys and high ridges have given way to a wide variety of cultural traditions. While neither country has a history of a recent foreign military conquest and occupation, as was the case in China in the 1930s, both have large rural indigenous populations subordinated to small ruling elites whom they are divided by racism or casteism and regionalism."

Both Peru and Nepal have also experienced sharp and growing divisions between the city and the countryside. In Nepal, despite the introduction of democracy and a more open economy nine years ago, wages have remained virtually stagnant and GDP-growth has averaged an abysmal 2.3% annually. This means that the annual rapid increase in population of 2.4% has eaten up the achievements. According to the Kathmandu-based thinktank the Nepal South Asia Centre, 71% of the wealth even in relatively well-developed capital is in the hands of the top 12% of the households, and only 3.7% of the national income reaches the poorest 20% of the country's families.

Regional disparities are also severe. The annual per capita income in Kathmandu averages 20,939 Rupees (US$312), while it is as low as 5,000 Rupees in the poorest districts in the northwest: an area which is served neither by roads nor development activities. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a foreign-funded research institute, lists in its 1997 report the western districts as "the worst" in terms of child illiteracy, child labour, landless households and per capita food production.

Shyam Shrestha of the left-wing monthly magazine Mulyankan describes Nepal's northwest as a "poverty-stricken area... inhabited by Magars, a very 'backward' ethnic group which continues to be sustained through migrant tabour to India. A region ruled historically by feudal princelings, the area even today retains a medieval relationship between the rich and the poor - a classic setting for Maoist activity."

The road to armed rebellion began when the powerful Samyukta Jana Morcha split on the eve of the 1994 election. The main group, led by Baburam Bhattarai, an Indian educated engineer, decided to boycott it, while a smaller faction under Niranjan Govinda Vaidya took part in the election but did not win a single seat. With the extreme left divided, and, it appeared, with its influence waning, the authorities launched a campaign to crush what they thought were scattered remnants of the erstwhile front.

Nepal's Operation 'Romeo'

In November 1995, Nepal's government launched Operation 'Romeo' against the extreme communists. In what was to become his last interview before going underground, Bhattarai told the weekly Nepalese newspaper The Independent in December: "Under this armed police operation around 1,500 policemen including a special trained commando force sent from Kathmandu have been deployed to let loose a reign of terror against the poor peasants of that rugged mountain district [Rolpa] in western Nepal. So far about 1,000 people have been arrested, of whom about 300 are kept in police custody or sent to jails under fictitious charges while the rest have been released on bail after severe torture."

Shortly after that interview, Bhattarai left Kathmandu to be reunited with his old friend, a firebrand called Pushpa Kamal Dahal, or 'Comrade Prachanda', another left-wing intellectual who had been involved for years in the extreme communist underground. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was born, although the exact date of its formation is still a bit of a mystery. It could have been set up as early as in late 1994, before the police operations began in the west, and whatever the official name of the organisation, an underground Maoist network was already in place by the time of the 1994 election. Deepak Thapa, a Nepalese writer and expert on the Maoist movement, says that the party was officially formed in March 1995, when Prachanda's group, the Unity Centre, held its Third Plenum and renamed itself the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist).

The 'Sija Campaign', the counteroffensive

In 1995, the Maoists launched its own 'Sija Campaign' (after Sisne and Jaljala, the two most prominent mountains in Rukum and Rolpa respectively) to propagate its ideology in Rolpa and Rukum districts, which were to become its main powerbase in the northwest. On February 13, 1996, police stations were firebombed and guns snatched from remote outposts. The insurgency soon spread to the neighbouring districts of Salyan, Jajarkot and Kalikot. The 'people's war' had begun. The new slogan was much more militant than the relatively mild rhetoric of the Samyukta Jana Morcha: 'War, war, and war! From the beginning till the end!'

It was not Nepal's first Maoist uprising. In the early 1970s, an extremely vicious peasant rebellion swept across the eastern Terai, the Nepalese lowlands adjacent to the Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal. Centred in the district of Jhapa near Biratnagar, Nepal's industrial centre, it was inspired by a very similar movement across the border in India: the Maoist Naxalites, named after the Bengal district of Naxalbari which borders Nepal. Militants from Nepal's Jhapa Movement, like their role models in West Bengal, went on a gruesome spree, decapitating local landlords before being suppressed by the security forces.

That movement nevertheless gave birth to the radical Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist), which continued to work underground until the stormy events of 1990 when it became a major legal political party. In 1991 it merged with the somewhat less extreme Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist) to become the CPN (UML), today the country's second largest party after the Nepali Congress.

The Maoists, however, have repeatedly condemned the above-ground communist parties as 'revisionists' and 'renegades' because they take part in the parliamentary process. "It is not only the leadership of the UML that has degenerated into reaction, but also the new revisionist ringleaders who claim themselves as the upholders of 'New Democracy' and 'Mao Thought' that have been serving the reactionary state against the People's War and thus revealing their true character," wrote Prachanda in an internal party document.

Lessons from Shining Path

Nepal's second Maoist rebellion appears to have learned from the mistakes of the first one, and the model this time is Peru's Shining Path rather than India's Naxalites. Instead of hit-and-run campaigns of annihilation against landlords in the densely populated lowlands, it has established strongholds in remote mountain regions, where police outposts are few and far between, enabling the guerrillas to move about freely.

Its exact strength is not known, but the police in Kathmandu estimate its core fighting force at 1,000-1,500 with many more sympathisers and volunteers who usually follow the armed units on raids and on patrol. Their arms are primitive: old hunting rifles and home-made pistols, petrol bombs and landmines. Many carry only kukris: traditional Nepalese daggers. Most of the guns have been collected in the villages, where farmers usually keep hunting rifles at home, or they have been snatched from the police during raids in remoter districts. Some small arms have been bought on the black arms market in India; the neighbouring state of Bihar is infamous for its local gun factories, which produce crude pistols.

Money for the movement comes from taxation in the villages and contributions from sympathisers in urban areas; there is no indication that guns or money from any foreign source are received. Moral support comes from the RIM network, which also helps the Nepalese Maoists maintain their own website on the Internet.

Since the first bombs exploded three years ago, the Maoists have been able to expand their influence away from the northwest, and the police say that their activities now can be felt in more than half of Nepal's 75 districts. New strongholds have been established in Sindhupalchok, only 80km north of Kathmandu, and in Gorkha near the Chinese border northwest of the capital. Recently, the US Embassy in Kathmandu even advised its citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to Ramechhap and Sindhuli districts east and southeast of the capital, far away from the original Maoist heartland in the northwest.

Winning the PR war

The spread of Maoist influence is not only due to rural poverty and disillusionment with the performance of successive democratic governments. The Maoists have also managed to exploit nationalist feelings, which are strong all over Nepal. Being a landlocked country, it is highly dependent on India for its foreign trade. For years, Indian companies have bought timber and other natural resources from Nepal. Now, water and hydroelectric power have become issues which make many Nepalese feel disadvantaged. Consequently, 'Indian hegemonists', rather than the usual 'Western imperialists', have become the main enemies in the Maoist rhetoric.

In a pamphlet called 'Two Momentous Years of Revolutionary Transformation', 'Comrade Prachanda' brands the Nepalese authorities "this government of Indian stooges", and Bhattarai in his "Politicoeconomic Rationale of People's War in Nepal" calls his country "India-locked" and goes on to state that "the biggest direct manifestation of world imperialist oppression and exploitation in Nepal is Indian expansionist exploitation and oppression". Combined with promises of a classless society without landlords, this propaganda has won supporters in many rural communities in Nepal.

Many local organisers are district schoolteachers, the only intellectuals in the countryside, and they as well as the peasants appear attracted by the discipline and incorruptibility of the Maoist leadership, which sharply contrasts with the behaviour of most local government officials. Prachanda has also quite successfully managed to portray himself as the 'Chairman Gonzalo' of Nepal, a modern Robin Hood figure who kills the rich to save the poor. The violent nature of the movement - and the fact that both he and Bhattarai actually are high-caste Brahmins; - has not deterred thousands of idealistic youths from rallying behind them and their movement. The result is similar to that of Peru's Shining Path, or, in the past, Cambodia's Khmer Rouge: an army of poor, uneducated peasants led by bourgeois-born super-intellectuals.

Violence: the two-edged sword

The movement's critics, even among the Nepalese left, have argued that the Maoists have isolated themselves by killing not only class enemies but also innocent civilians. Many of their victims are real or imagined government spies and informers: a tactic which also seems adopted from the Shining Path. As in Peru, this violence has had the dual effect of galvanising their own ranks at the same time as it has instilled fear among the public at large.

However on occasion, the well-educated Maoist leadership has displayed extreme naivete. Shrestha mentions raids on the rural branches of the government-owned Agricultural Development Bank where the Maoists destroyed records to 'liberate' poor villagers of their loan commitments - but forgot that all banks maintain copies of their files outside the branch offices. Moreover, the Maoists' extreme violence may appeal to many rural youths, but it seems to have alienated many urban leftwing intellectuals. The party's support base among urban workers is also negligible, as is its influence in the lowlands along the Indian frontier.

In order to smuggle in more weapons from India and abroad, a stronghold in the south is essential - and in Bihar a very like-minded group with which the Nepalese Maoists have links is also active: the People's War Group. There are also other Naxalite groups. A direct link-up between the Nepalese and Indian Maoists would create real difficulties for the authorities on both sides of the border, and the Indian movement is not a small one by any standards. In late December 1998, more than 50,000 journalists, poets, academics, activists, politicians, peasants and landless labourers gathered in the state capital of Patna for the funeral of Vinod Mishra, one of India's best-known Naxalite leaders.

One reason for the Maoists' seeming lack of interest in forging closer links with their Indian counterparts could be their extreme nationalism. Another could be that they are firm believers in the Maoist strategy of establishing base areas in remote rural areas first, only then moving closer to major population centres. A RIM document lends credence to the latter explanation: "The People's War is based mainly in the countryside and implements the strategy of mobilising the peasants as the main force in surrounding the cities."

However, Nepal's Maoists have also shown that they can instill fear even in urban areas. In the spring of 1998, their above-ground front organisation, the United People's Front, called a countrywide bandh, or strike, which paralysed most of public life in Kathmandu. Even the Kathmandu Post conceded that the capital resembled "a ghost town and in many other towns and cities throughout the country shops were closed and traffic came to, a halt". According to the Maoists' official organ, The Worker, the strike was called "to protest against the state terror, genocide and repression unleashed by the fascist state throughout the country".

Kathmandu-based analysts say that the reason why life came to a standstill was not due to popular support for the Maoists in the cities but because most people feared retributions if they did not comply with the order from the militants. Similarly, the Maoists managed to disrupt local elections in Rukum, Rolpa and Jajarkot in early 1997. The Maoists had threatened to kill those who won the election, and in 42 village centres; no one even dared to file nominations. Elections could not be held in more than 70 village centres.

Despite recent shows of strength by the Maoists, few observers in Nepal believe that they will actually succeed in seizing power in Kathmandu, not even if the war becomes a protracted one. The Nepalese state is still strong enough to resist the insurgency, and neither China nor India would permit the emergence of an ultra-radical people's republic in the sensitive border mountains that separate the two Asian giants. Analysts also emphasise that although Nepal has a long and strong communist tradition, like all other politics in the country it has always been wrecked by personal politics, factionalism and splits. For the moment, the Maoists are advancing, which is keeping them together as a disciplined force, but under pressure they may also crack again, as they have done on so many other occasions in the past.

Nevertheless, many fear that the Maoists will cause considerable disruption to civil life, the economy and development activities. They have already begun to attack foreign aid offices in the countryside, and many foreign tourists who used to go trekking in the hills - a major source of income for poor Nepal - now prefer to limit their visits to a few days in Kathmandu and Pokhara. The main concern at the moment is the effect of the election, which was originally scheduled to take place in the first week of May. As JIR went to press, it had been announced that the elections were to be held in two stages, the first on 3 May and the second on 17 May, with 40,000 security personnel on high alert. The security personnel employed are stretched to their limit, and at least six people were killed on 3 May. More casualties were expected before the 17 May round.

The 47,000-strong Nepalese army has no experience in combatting insurgents, and its few transport aircraft are not enough to send troops and equipment to remote areas and to provide logistical support for sustained operations in the hills. A controversial counter-insurgency campaign would also unavoidably claim civilian lives - and thus jeopardise foreign assistance from human-rights-conscious Western nations, on which the country depends.

Nepal is caught in a dilemma: without development, Maoist influence in the countryside is likely to grow. In order to launch any development, the authorities will have to confront the Maoists and face the consequences. As long as social injustices continue to plague Nepal the country will remain a social and political anarchy where chaos in one form or another will continue to reign.

This is an adapted version of an article which first appeared in Jane's Intelligence Review, June 1999

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