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According to a recent (Sept. 21) article by David Blair in the London Telegraph, “The Maoist movement now wields de facto control over most of Nepal. By following the Mao Tse-tung model of guerrilla warfare—-becoming ‘fish swimming in the ocean of the people’—- the insurgents have won dominance of the Himalayas and of the foothills. King Gyanendra’s rule is now limited to Kathmandu, Nepal’s few towns and the southern lowlands of the Terai.” But even in the capital, the rebels flex their muscles; on September 16 they closed down Kathmandu with a highly successful general strike. (The Maoists’ actions caused Prime Minister Bahadur Deuba to request that the monarch postpone parliamentary elections planned for November by a year; the enormously unpopular King Gyanendar responded by dismissing the cabinet and assuming personal administrative control. This has only exacerbated the political crisis.) A British military source told Blair that the Maoists “will continue to gain ground. Unless something dramatic happens, it’s only a matter of time before they win.” So, for anybody paying attention, the situation has become quite interesting.
Indeed, the insurgents’ war, which they term a “People’s War” based on the military and political theories of Mao Zedong, has advanced with breath-taking swiftness since its inception in 1996. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which had been a significant legal political party represented in the Nepali Parliament, repudiated the system (a constitutional monarchy since 1990) and went underground. The war began modestly, with assaults on police stations and banks in the western regions of the country. The rebels used weapons captured from police, mostly 30-caliber, single-shot rifles, as well as the traditional national weapon, a heavy, crescent-shaped machete called the khukri. These days CPN(M)’s military wing, the People Liberation Army, attacks with thousands of (mostly peasant) troops, fortified headquarters of police and Royal Nepali Army (RNA) soldiers, killing hundreds, capturing more sophisticated arms, and in some cases securing control over the sites attacked. Meanwhile the party builds a substantial base of support among the urban intelligentsia, and there are even reports of monks temporarily donning fatigues to join military operations. Women are the backbone of the movement and participate fully in political and military activities.
The Maoists enjoy a solid support base. One need not consult sources sympathetic to them to confirm this. The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, which examines security issues in South Asia, carries on its website an analysis by Anju Susan Alex that notes, “The Maoist insurgents have a lot of popular support in the villages as they reel under poverty and unemployment.” (Nepal ranks next to Ethiopia as one of the planet’s most impoverished nations.) The South Asia Analysis group published in April a report that indicated, “The continuing capability demonstrated by the Nepalese Maoists to take the Security Forces by surprise not only in the interior areas, but even in Kathmandu, the capital, indicates disconcertingly the level of popular support still enjoyed by them due to the failure of the Government to win the hearts and minds of the people and the weak intelligence machinery.” The Hindustan Times (December 6, 2001) acknowledges that “The Maoists command popular support in the areas” where they are active. Such popularity seems to be based in part in their success in curbing the worst excesses of landlords’ exploitation of the peasants, and their swift administration of justice (particularly in cases of abuse of women).
I’ve never been to Nepal, and don’t know what the prospects for the guerrillas’ victory might be. But let’s say the British officer’s prediction materializes. Imagine the international consequences. The radical left throughout the world would be heartened by a victory, somewhere; impressed to see the red flag planted, as the secretary-general of the CPN(M), Prachanda, likes to put it, atop Mt. Everest, the roof of the world. (I think particularly of the Maoists in the Philippines, and their 14,000-strong New People’s Army, who are also engaged in a people’s war and have control over 8,000 villages throughout the Filipino archipelago; and of the Senderistas in Peru, who show some signs of revival.) The governments of the world—virtually all of them—would be very highly displeased, and mainstream intellectuals puzzled. The victory would, after all, constitute a challenge to the Fukuyama thesis (about the “end of history” as a clash of ideologies) and the Huntington thesis (about the “clash of civilizations”). We’d be back to the old capitalism vs. communism discussion, which was supposed to be behind us, all settled, and consigned to the rubbish heap of history!
But if the Maoists’ assumption of power were to happen anytime soon, it would occur in the context of the “war on terrorism.” The way Bush administration officials and others in the power elite use of the term, “terrorism” can of course mean a whole lot of things. (For example, most of them see the impending Iraq attack as part and parcel of the Terror War, while others see it as a separate and even distracting issue). Anyway I’d expect that the Maoist regime in Nepal would immediately be tagged as “terrorist”; indeed, Colin Powell, while on the first-ever visit of a U.S. secretary of state to Nepal (last January), told the Nepalese: “You have a Maoist insurgency that’s trying to overthrow the government and this really is the kind of thing that we are fighting against throughout the world.” U.S. Ambassador Michael Malinowski was more specific in a February statement: “Nepal is currently plagued with a terrorism that is shaking its very foundation as a nation. These terrorists, under the guise of Maoism or the so called ‘people’s war,’ are fundamentally the same as terrorists elsewhere” (Thus we’re supposed to believe that fundamentally, fundamentalist Islamist Bin Laden = secular dictator Saddam Hussein = Nepalese Maoists = Yassir Arafat and his Palestinian Authority = Colombia’s FNLA = all those other international groups and nations listed on the State Department’s idiosyncratic, ever-expanding roster.)
The CPN(M) is not, in fact, on that roster of international terrorist organizations as of this writing. Theoretically, to warrant that status the Maoists would have to attack an American citizen or American-owned property. (Actually, it appears that they scrupulously avoid attacking foreigners.) But this, or any ensuing U.S. administration, would surely treat Maoist Nepal as a “rogue” and terrorist state. Washington would probably try to link it to various more familiar villains. (On May 11 The Independent cited “Western intelligence agencies” as suspecting that the Maoists in Nepal have been receiving sophisticated weaponry from al-Qaeda, and the August 13 issue of the Christian Science Monitor claimed that Indian Maoists aligned with the CPN(M) may be willing to harbor al-Qaeda operatives. Such reports smell powerfully like disinformation to me.)
The U.S. government would surely attempt to undermine the new regime. However, military intervention would be unlikely if the U.S. were overextended, with forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines, Georgia, Yemen, etc. India, which has become increasingly intimate with Washington, would however be sorely tempted to invade; it faces Maoist insurgencies of its own, in Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere, which have ties to the Nepali movement. But should their giant neighbor invade, the fiercely independent Nepalese would likely unite more firmly around the new leadership in Kathmandu. One would expect widespread opposition within India itself to an invasion of a neighboring state.
China would frown on any expansion of Indian influence in the Himalayas. The regime would have to balance its opposition to Indian expansionism with its concern over the reemergence of Maoism, which it has itself, of course, long abandoned in practice if not in words. (As many, if not most, Chinese will tell you, the present Beijing government is itself no more Marxist, or Leninist, or Maoist at this point that the governments of Morocco, Liechtenstein, or Mexico; capitalism has obviously been thoroughly restored, although the regime alludes to it, with a straight face, as “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”) The official media in China refers to Nepal’s Maoists as “terrorists,” and denies that they actually follow the path of Mao, which they themselves, through a process insulting to the intellect, attempt to conflate with the path of Adam Smith. But the real Mao, the communist who said “It’s right to rebel!” continues to enjoy a following in the PRC, where the ranks of the dispossessed and unemployed number in the tens if not hundreds of millions.
One would expect Beijing’s leadership to look askance at a regime, in a neighboring country, reminiscent of China’s during Mao’s time; it would worry about the disaffected of China getting ideas about the potential for regime change at home, and a return to a vision of egalitarian socialism. But it would probably also want to maintain a proper diplomatic and trade relationship, and maybe even serve as a counterweight to Indian (and U.S.) pressure on the new revolutionary state. It just might be able to live with a Maoist bastion south of Tibet. In short, geopolitical circumstances could possibly allow, in the Himalayas, the renewal of the experiment begun on lower elevations of the globe in 1917.
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Nepal is the world’s only Hindu kingdom, but there is much Buddhist influence as well. The historical Buddha was born on what is now the Nepal-India border. (Both countries claim that Lumimbi, site of the Buddha’s birth, was within their present territory. This is an issue of importance to historians, archeologists, and even more so to the tourist industry catering to Japanese Buddhist pilgrims.) Two and a half millennia ago, the Buddhist movement, destined to transform the world, emerged in this region. Buddhism was at its inception not really a religion (as westerners tend to conceptualize religion), rejecting belief in a Supreme Being, immortal souls, and an afterlife. (Some Indian Marxist scholars have suggested that Buddhism was initially a kind of philosophical materialism, with a progressive social content.) The fundamental problem, for the Buddhist, was and is that of suffering. (Recall how, many centuries later, Marx identified religion as “the expression of real suffering and at the same time the protest against real suffering.”) Buddhism offered no pie-in-the-sky solutions to human suffering, but a way of life that steered between sensual indulgence and asceticism.
While focusing on the individual’s path to enlightenment, Buddhism did not ignore social reality. The early order of monks and nuns applied itself to charitable work, such as the establishment of hospitals and shelters for the homeless. In an extraordinary break with the social order, Siddhartha Gautama (a.k.a Buddha) rejected the caste system, declared that those of any background could be enlightened, and insisted on delivering his sermons in the local dialects wherever he traveled. He was in that sense a revolutionary. And a world-conqueror: the Buddha directed his followers to spread the word throughout the world, and thus Buddhism gradually spread from the Himalayan foothills to Sri Lanka, to northeastern Iran, to China and Japan, to southeast Asia.
The Maoists’ vision, like that of the Buddhist missionaries of old, is a global one. “We insist,” Prachanda told an American interviewer in 2000, “that the Nepalese revolution is part of the world revolution and the Nepalese people’s army is a detachment of the whole international proletarian army.” BBC correspondent Daniel Lak, visiting Rolpa, in western Nepal, last month, sat talking with one Comrade Bijaya, district committee member and political instructor, who overlooking the rice-paddies stated matter-of-factly, “We will win, not just in Nepal, but around the world” (World Tribune, Sept 24). That requires a stretch of the imagination, maybe, but world history is filled with twists and turns and surprises. Sometimes, in humankind’s endless quest to overcome suffering, wildly ambitious enterprises actually succeed.
GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: email@example.com