“So far,” notes Peter Lee of the Asia Times, “Western media have reported remotely and somewhat uncomprehendingly on the massive demonstrations in Kathmandu led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), with a marked lack of interest. This perhaps reflects the shared desire of the Indian, Chinese and Western governments not to inflame the situation with excessive attention and rhetoric.” He refers to the two-day action in the Nepali capital Thursday and Friday.
But those demonstrations should be of enormous interest. According to AsiaNews, “The second phase of the so-called ‘people’s movement-III’ saw more than 150,000 participants, including former Maoist guerrillas and United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPM-M) members of parliament and militants, gathered around the Singha Durbar, Nepal’s official seat of government.”
The Maoists virtually paralyzed the government in a stunning display of power. All the top Maoist leaders marched through the city, some meeting the police at the barricades and breaking through to assume positions around Singha Durbar where they addressed the huge crowd.
It was overwhelming a peaceful, even festive andolan or mass demonstration, although there were some clashes with police. A senior Maoist leader, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, was among those wounded. He told Agence France-Presse, “We are now giving the government and other parties an opportunity to look into our demands. The ball is in the government’s court.” The most powerful Maoist figure, former prime minister Prachanda, issued a sharper warning to the regime, giving it a seven-day ultimatum (to November 20) to restore “civilian supremacy” or face a general strike and other strong protests.
When you watch video of Baburam Bhattarai, the brilliant academic who became the number two figure in the Maoist movement and served as finance minister under the administration of Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Pranchanda), leading the marchers confronting the helmeted police, successfully pressing through, you get a sense of genuine historical momentum gathering here.
Rekha Thapa, one of Nepal’s most popular young actresses, arrived as one of many who sang and danced for the huge crowd. She told those assembled, “I’ve always danced with film heroes. Now I want to dance with the real hero of my country.” A rather embarrassed looking Prachanda briefly accommodated her, the images captured on national television and on newspaper covers.
It was brilliant political theater.
According to S.D. Muni, a professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore and authority on the Nepali Maoist movement, “The numbers they were able to mobilise and the fact they were able to keep control and maintain the peace indicate the protest was a success. It also showed the government is incapable of dealing with this kind of challenge.”
I’ve followed the Maoist movement in Nepal since the inception of the People’s War in 1996. I’m always struck by the creativity of the Nepali Maoists’strategy and tactics. From 1996 to 2006 the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (now the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist)—originally a parliamentary party, the leadership of which had determined that armed struggle was the only way towards liberation—waged a guerrilla war against the monarchy. Its success was breathtaking. It controlled 80% of the country by 2005 when the very unpopular King Gyandendra seized absolute power sidelining the seven main political parties.
It then, having surrounded Kathmandu Valley with its People’s Liberation Army, agreed to the 2006 Comprehensive Agreement with the political parties whereby they would all jointly work to bring down the king, restoring parliamentary democracy, while the Maoists would lay down their arms under UN supervision, ending the war. A key provision of the Agreement was that the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army be integrated into the Nepali Army (formerly the Royal Nepali Army).
The Maoists also demanded the convening of a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution, and the proclamation of a republic. They won these demands, and in the April 2008 elections for the assembly, won 38% of the vote, twice the number of the next party. In August Prachanda became Prime Minister. So much for the “End of History” thesis. A Maoist having established his credentials by the barrel of a gun was having them further validated by the ballet box. Jimmy Carter was there to confirm that yes, indeed, it was a fair election.
But this was not yet revolution. This was not state power. This was communists who had control of the countryside, who did not want to bludgeon their way into Kathmandu Valley (or were not sure that they could do it, not necessarily confident that they had enough urban support), savvily working out a strategy to gain a presence in this zone where over a million of Nepal’s 28 million people live so that they could develop their political base here prior to a real seizure of power. The strategy seems to have worked out very well.
First the Maoists, playing by the parliamentary rules, swept the polls. Then they exposed the shamof the system to which they were being asked to conform. So many had praised them, for laying down their arms, for agreeing to participate in normal electoral politics! But they for their part had pointed out that their army needed to be merged with the Nepali Army as part of the Comprehensive Agreement.
And the Nepali Army, still ridden with pro-Royalist sentiment, had refused to implement the provisions in the agreement pertaining to PLA integration and instead sought to recruit new troops. This was really the crux of the problem.
I’m quite sure at least some of the Maoists had anticipated this scenario all along. That is, they had foreseen that the old state power reliant ultimately on armed force would not submit to the terms of the agreement or to the will of the people as expressed in elections.
The real issue is of course state power, and you can’t obtain state power when you don’t control the army. In May Prime Minister Prachanda asked the head of the Army, Gen. Rukmangad Katwal, to step down and appointed a new army chief. The President, Ram Baran Yadav, a member of the Nepal Congress Party, countermanded the order keeping Katwal at his post. It is widely thought that he enjoyed India’s support in this action. At that point Prachanda did something quite unexpected: in a televised address he denounced the president’s move as “illegal and unconstitutional” and resigned.
The Maoists not only quit the government, but pronounced the selection of a new one by the parliament as an unconstitutional process. They boycotted the election of Prachanda’s successor, party leader Narayan Kaji Shrestha declaring, “Without restoring civilian supremacy and correcting the president’s move, the new government will be unconstitutional. This government has wrong political ground as it is being formed as a ploy to sabotage the peace and constitution-making process and restore military supremacy. I want to give you a benefit of doubt, if you are nationalist, you will come back to the path drawn by the people’s movement.”
In the six months since the Maoists have made it impossible for the 22-party coalition government to function, accusing it of being unwilling to enforce the Comprehensive Agreement integrating the two armies. They have focused on this issue of “civilian supremacy,” which is really a matter of focusing upon the fact that there remain two headquarters of real power in the country.
There’s the status quo in the Singha Durbar complex, where the Maoists have tried to negotiate their way as parliamentary politicians but where power is ultimately guaranteed by the old state’s army backed up by India and U.S., the army that the Maoists confronted and humiliated big-time. And there’s the new order being built elsewhere.
Last week, Maoists in the state of Kirat declared the autonomy of that state. This was in accordance with the “first phase” plans for the People’s Movement III prior to the mass show of strength in the capital. But the announcement of ethnic-based states in a federal system had been postponed after some discussion and it’s not clear whether local party leader and politburo member, coordinator of Kirat State Uprising Committee, Gopal Kirati actually had Central Committee permission. The plan to shut down the international airport was cancelled after ambassadors’ protests but the plan to cut off all roads to Kathmandu was executed efficiently after November 1. Ambulances and other essential vehicles were allowed egress and ingress; the Maoists having acquired much valley support are not looking to lose it.
But they are making the point to their political colleagues, with whom they’ve worked through the Comprehensive Agreement but who they see as for the most part only temporary allies at best, that just because they’ve put down their arms doesn’t mean they can’t use their mass organizational skills to scare the hell out of them. The next step is a general strike.
In the meantime, the plan is for a no-confidence vote in the parliament. Meanwhile, the Maoists control access to the valley and it’s quite likely that activists are pouring in for the next round of andolan. The “Prachanda Path” as articulated since 2001 has involved a fusion of the Chinese People’s War model and the October Revolution. Which of course means: urban insurrection.
Meanwhile UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, noting the obvious—that the PLA demobilization under UN certification, which was supposed to result in the integration of the two armies under the terms of the Comprehensive Agreement, wasn’t happening—in late October criticized the current Nepali government for proceeding “with a fresh round of recruitment into the Nepal Army” and resuming “the import of lethal military equipment.”
In the assessment of UNMIN [United Nations Mission in Nepal], either step would violate the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the Agreement on Monitoring the Management of Arms and Armies. UNMIN has continued to consistently convey this position to the Government and the public. The Minister of Defence, Bidhya Bhandari, has called for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to be revised, claiming that restrictions it places on recruitment, arms purchases and training had been detrimental to the effective functioning of the Nepal Army. UCPN-M has strongly protested her statement.
Prachanda cited this report at the andolan last week. And I believe he cited this passage in Ban’s report
In my meeting with the Prime Minister, Madhav Kumar Nepal, at Sharm el-Sheikh in July, I conveyed the strong concern of the international community at the lack of progress in the peace process and stressed the need for a time-bound effort to resolve the impediments hampering the process. My Representative in Nepal and other senior officials have consistently encouraged consensus and dialogue between the parties, recommending the establishment of a more formal dialogue mechanism to streamline negotiations and find creative solutions to overcome the current impasse. At the same time, my Representative has also underlined the need to avoid provocative statements or actions in order to maintain a positive climate for dialogue.
That is to say, Ban’s urging the reintegration of the Maoists into government, realizing they’re organizing outside government from a position of strength. And the Maoists naturally use this report to strengthen their case at this time.
The South Korean diplomat has absolutely no personal interest in facilitating the consummation of the twenty-first century’s first revolution led by a self-pronounced Maoist party. But he apparently thinks it’s best to recognize the reality of Maoist political strength and to stick to the 2006 agreement.
Given this statement, the Maoists who now boast they have all Kathmandu behind them can say much of the world as represented by the UN secretary general agrees with their goal of “civilian supremacy,” and that the 22-party coalition with the UML and Congress at its head, linked to the Army, India and ultimately U.S. imperialism is the isolated, marginalized force.
There are so many logical and moral arguments to assemble as Nepal’s October approaches. It’s the mix of models, and ever-shifting tactics, and adaptability and revolutionary competence of these communists that never ceases to impress me. I truly think they may pull it off.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org