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Recent events in Nepal, while drawing little notice from the U.S. press, are worth some attention. The Himalayan nation of 24 million people has been rocked by a Maoist insurgency since 1996, but now, for the second time in two years, the government and the Maoists are sitting down for peace talks. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) negotiates from a position of considerable strength. It may control about half the country, and can paralyze seemingly at will even the capital, Kathmandu, when it calls for a general strike. The government is in disarray. Last October King Gyanandra dismissed the prime minister and sidelined the parliament, infuriating the electoral parties (over half of which see themselves as “communist” in some sense, although they oppose the Maoists’ violent strategy for effecting radical social change). Since then the king has exercised power through a puppet prime minister and cabinet commanding little popular support.
The Maoists’ guerrilla war (which they call a People’s War) now engages not just the paramilitary police but also the Royal Nepalese Army (newly supplied with Belgian Minimi machine guns and British MI-17 helicopters, among other western military equipment), answerable directly to the king. But negotiations between the crown and the rebels, following a ceasefire that began January 29, have let to some extraordinary developments. Talks had occurred earlier (in late 2001) between the Nepali government and the Maoists, but they broke down over the issue of a key CPN(M) demand: a constitutional convention to produce a republican form of government. The government of the prime minister at the time had refused, saying the existence of the monarchy was not negotiable. The Maoists relented on that point, but still demanded a constitutional assembly to involve all parties. When the government refused, the Maoists resumed the armed struggle, wreaking some severe and embarrassing damage on the RNA. In that context, the highly unpopular Gyanandra made his power grab. Now the king’s circle is once again negotiating with the Maoists, while the sidelined legal political parties fume that they’re being left out and protest vigorously against the king. (Various political parties held a demonstration against the king May 8, 50,000 strong in Kathmandu.)
The Maoists, earlier this year, demanded as a precondition for talks that the government stop referring to them as “terrorists,” something the government had started to do from January 2002, apparently at the instigation of the U.S. Colin Powell had that month made the first-ever visit of a U.S. secretary of state to Nepal and referred to the war against the rebels as part of the international “war on terrorism.” (Thus he conflated al-Qaeda with Maoism, which doesn’t make any logical sense, but you know how freely and creatively the Bushites use that term.) Now the king of Nepal has indeed officially removed that designation, conceding to the rebels’ demand as a precondition for peace talks.
So now the number two man in the CPN(M), Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, is in Kathmandu circulating openly as head of the Maoists’ negotiating team. The party has openly set up an office in the capital, phone number to be announced soon. Preliminary talks have been cordial, even as some aspects of the armed struggle, and political mobilization, continue. But into this relatively congenial atmosphere of negotiations, the U.S. State Department for some reason saw fit to contribute a new element. Whereas it had not in the past placed the CPN(M) on its official list of international terrorist organizations, it elected, on April 30, to suddenly do so.
The apparent reason for the designation is that two Nepali security guards around the U.S. embassy were killed in 2002, and another embassy attack occurred on January 26, just before the ceasefire was announced. These actions have been linked to the CPN(M). The timing of the designation is interesting. (It may be influenced by Indian worries about the negotiations underway; India has its own Maoist insurgencies linked to the Nepalese, and India becomes increasingly allied to Washington. See the Weekly Telegraph, May 7) Just as the Nepali government itself was saying, “We agree that you’re not really terrorists,” Washington decided to announce, “We’ve now decided you definitely do fall under our ‘global terrorism’ category.” It may be a signal to the Nepali political establishment that it must not allow the Maoists to negotiate their way into power.
In response, Bhattarai and an aide headed to the U.S. embassy May 5, and had a meeting with a first secretary, saying, apparently: “We’re a liberation movement. We’re not terrorists, and would appreciate it if you’d stop calling us that.” Then Ambassador Malinowski, who has for quite a while been calling the rebels terrorists, started sounding almost conciliatory: “We really wish that the Maoists will have their name out from the list as soon as possible.” He urged them to renounce violence as a means to effect change. (Rather ironic, given that the neocons in charge in Washington advocate violence on a colossal scale to produce their kind of change, which they don’t see as terrorist but rather anti-terrorist. But I digress.)
So they are, or they aren’t, on the list, these Nepali Maoists who fully intend to plant the red flag on Mount Everest crowning their People’s War, their political power growing out of the barrels of their guns, but also resulting from painstaking political work. If they are “terrorist,” and if they gain power, those describing them as such may have to put up or shut up, attack them or reach some accommodation. If they aren’t terrorists (and can be depicted as merely bad, but not really a major problem to U.S. interests, which are actually very few in Nepal), maybe Washington will, if they come to power (perhaps as the key element in a multi-party system, to which the Maoists indeed seem committed), just leave Nepal alone. Or they might apply sanctions, or forbid American citizens from mountain-climbing in the country and financing badness through hiring Sherpas. Or maybe they’ll assign the handling of this particular problem to newfound ally, New Delhi. But that would irritate Beijing, not for ideological but geopolitical strategic reasons.
Could the Maoists in Nepal acquire power soon, in this setting where the U.S. juggernaut probably can’t intervene effectively? One recent column in the Kathmandu press (which has been under severe censorship since November 2001, when a “state of emergency” was declared and many journalists arrested) pooh-pooh’d the idea, saying that the strengthening of the RNA and the opposition from India and the U.S. precludes a Maoist victory. On the other hand, the Kathmandu newspaper Janadesh (which was banned in November 2001, and its editor arrested and tortured to death, but which has now resumed publication) supplies evidence to the contrary.
Seems that on February 28 of this year members of the Maoists’ guerrilla force (the People’s Liberation Army) held a program to celebrate the inception of the People’s War in 1996 in the village of Dullu, in western Nepal. This took place in the context of the ceasefire. After the festivities the guerrillas withdrew from the site. RNA forces moved in and began to loot and burn and beat up local people, apparently to punish them for supporting the rebels.
“The Maoists wanted to talk with them,” according to the Janadesh report, ” and get them to leave the village. The president of a revolutionary student organization, Kaman Singh Basnet, went to speak to them. The RNA grabbed him and began to beat him. They demanded to know who he was. Basnet answered that he was a student leader and that he wanted to talk to them.” The government soldiers rejected this overture, saying that talks between the Maoists and the government were being held at higher levels and that soldiers had orders not to talk to Maoists. The student informed them that if they were there to fight, they should know that “you are surrounded by the PLA and none of you will go back alive.” Suddenly the soldiers bothering this student activist became enlightened, and the student was taken to talk with an RNA major, who then learning that PLA Company Commander Comrade Jokhim was nearby, sent a team of soldiers to negotiate with him. Jokhim suggested that the RNA return looted goods to the villagers and request their forgiveness. This the soldiers did, according to the report.
The Janadesh account concludes: “For whatever reasons, the RNA team began to say Lal salam! (red salute!) to the PLA fighters and shake hands with them. The RNA major was furious at having seen his men asking questions and listening to explanations about the People’s War and People’s Liberation Army. He shouted, ‘Oh, boys! If you stay and talk with them for 20-25 minutes, you will also become communists! We must leave now.’ Then they went away. But the RNA soldiers waved goodbye until they disappeared in the distance.”
That Bhattarai can saunter into the U.S. embassy in the capital city of a country torn by war, representing the highest level of the communist insurgency, and get the U.S. ambassador to state that he himself wishes (for whatever reasons he adduces) to remove the insurgents from the terror list “as soon as possible,” suggests that both the Maoist leader and the ambassador are thinking realistically. It also suggests that the Nepali revolutionary movement is strong and confident, and that even being tagged by that “terrorist” designation (which considering the source, can be mistaken, libelous, and merely used to intimidate and vilify) won’t cramp the comrades’ style.
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