Nepal’s May First and After

From here in Kathmandu the monarchy ruled this mountain nation for two hundred years. This is where the national elite live, with its political parties, banks and walled compounds. But the streets now belong to the people, and it is this “people’s power” movement that they fear.

Kathmandu is chaotic on a normal day, but for May First the Maoists mobilized at least 500,000 people to the steets with both discipline and revelry. The Janandolan III, or popular uprising, they promised is here.

The Kalinki Gathering

We positioned ourselves by one of the eighteen gathering points for the May First events. Each of the gathered marches will then move through the streets to Martyr’s Field in the Kathmandu city center.

By 10 a.m. on the morning of May First, thousands of restaurant and hotel workers assembled around us at Kalinki. As contingents came in from every direction to the central intersection, cries of “Lal salaam!” (Red Salute) rose to meet the latest arrival.

The sight of city workers and students meeting country farmers was heart-warming. And it is in marked contrast to the bigoted hostility and fear the elites express toward the working classes.

In Nepal, the hammer and sickle is a living symbol of who this movement is: The sickle is for the farmers, the hammer for the workers. They are set together on the red flag of revolution.

Young Communist League cadre in their matching track suits set up perimeters protecting the march route – They hold hands in lines along the road and down the side streets leading in, facing off with lines of riot cops in black body armor.

Inside the crowd, recently trained protesters formed circles within circles, like an onion, to keep the protests orderly and remain prepared in case of the violent repression that the prime minister has so openly threatened.

Motorcycles provided communication between units. At the head of the march, a man in sunglasses and a flak jacket kept a cell phone to his ear. Messengers are constantly coming and going.

Human rights observers in blue uniforms stood off to the side chatting with teams of medics dressed in white. Among the Maoists, neighborhood associations all have their own color coordination and many of the country people come wearing the bright saris and wraps that are their traditional dress. It is the first time since I arrived in Nepal that I’ve the famous ethnic diversity of this country gathered in one place – and there is an undeniable fraternal spirit in the air.

Rivers of protesters flow by each other in swirls and cross-currents.

Right near us in Kalinki is the bus station where young men, women and teenagers have been arriving in the past two days from Nepal’s western districts. All of Nepal has been sending its youth to the capital – in high hopes and in deepest seriousness.

Maoist hopes for an overwhelming turnout has been achieved. They asked for “one member from every family to attend” and from the numbers alone, they have come close.

The crowds of revolutionary protesters are living in occupied universities, private schools, shopping malls and construction sites. Many of these marchers are country people — seeing the capital city for the first time. A few points remain under the direct power of the state — the halls of government and the formidable barracks of the Nepal Army. Organized, with discipline, this movement intends to bring down the current, unelected prime minister and begin to reshape the state.

The Maoists have promised that their massive display in this city would be non-violent, and so far it has been. For weeks, the isolated government warned that Maoist armed violence was imminent. Their accusations, made without sources or evidence, came masquerading as news. This is a country with two opposing army, but the government was still unable to arrest more than a few Maoist cadre for weapons, mostly kukhuri knives, plus one grenade.

All the hysterical reports reveal the fears of a government that is facing a human siege from a powerful popular movement.

In fact, the only weapons I have seen are in the hands of the Armed Police, the militarized force that faced the Maoists during the previous civil war. Nepal Army soldiers were mainly visible on their barracks roofs, in their green fatigues, watching the crowd.

So far the police presence has been light. Platoons of Armed Police are stationed at strategic buildings and mingle with the crowds of protesters. During two days of high tension protest that preceded May First, there have been no major incidents of violence.

Three Nepal Army soldiers were seized by the Maoists for spying on the crowd, displayed before reporters and then turned over to the police.

Armed Police rousted some encampments early in the mobilization, and kept squatters out of a few campuses. Since the Maoist forces arrived in earnest, police backed off. Now, whole sections of the city are housing people.

“Revolution is Good”

“Tribuvan University was named for a king,” said Bharat, a literature student in the national university told me while groups of village women filed into his school. “Now we are debating whether to call it Republic University or People’s University.”

He told me eighteen campuses are now occupied, with shopping centers, private homes and construction sites gathering the rest.

“The system isn’t right. Our weak infrastructure is the symptom of a broken political system,” he said. “We do not agitate to destroy. Revolution is good. Revolutionary students do not allow police to enter the schools, and we will welcome everyone until the government falls.”

Prime Minister MK Nepal said street protests would “not sustain long” and that the strategy of “state capture through street protests would be a suicidal step for the Maoists.”

Prime Minister M.K. Nepal is meeting daily with his Indian and American military advisors – so that when the Maoists charge that he serves the Indian establishment there is more than a little truth to it.

He constantly demands that these protests be called off – which does not appear likely. He has warned the army and police would be deployed in force if the post-May Day general strike turned violent. “The duty of all security agencies and government employees is to enforce law and order.”

The Maoists gave their answer. “It is a great mistake on their part to think that they could take us under control through the deployment of troops,” the main UCPN(M)’s leader Prachanda warned the sitting government. He claimed openly that many among the security apparatus support the coming of democracy to Nepal, and reiterated his call for them to join in for the change the people are plainly demanding.

The Maoists have described the struggle that starts May First a “decisive conflict” to bring a radical, democratic constitution and depose the current government to restructure the state.

Gajural, general secretary of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), recently reiterated that “The protests are not meant to capture state power, but to change the incumbent government.”

Maoist leader Badal termed this people’s power movement a proletarian revolt. “We are gearing for the final push. Prepare to dig graves for the feudals.”

Over and over the Maoists have pledged that they will not initiate violence. But they are also not naive. Their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is on alert in UN-supervised cantonments. And the the Maoist senior leadership has disappeared from view – which is obviously a wise precaution against a government decapitation strike.

Should the government’s army use lethal violence against the people, everyone in Nepal expects the confrontations to be armed on both sides. So for anyone wanting a peaceful solution – the hundreds of thousands now in the street offer the best chance, perhaps even the last chance.

Convergence on Martyrs Field

Eighteen marches converged at Martyrs Field by midday.

People simply overflowing the huge park, and then overflowed the surrounding streets. The city was packed for kilometers in all directions, with speakers echoing the speeches from the center stage. Prachanda, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, Kiran and other Maoist leaders from cultural and military fronts all shared the stage. Cameras were mounted on booms to capture the speeches. The international press has been noticeably absent.

“I searched the crowd for people who were pressured or forced to attend,” said a reporter for an English-language daily associated with the Congress Party. “Not only couldn’t I find any one who didn’t want to be here, but many complained there wasn’t enough room on buses for everyone back home to attend. The people are here to make history.”

Singers and dancers enacted scenarios with meaning for the coming days.

In one act, women dancers in green silk fatigues recreated this May First march on stage, with flags waving and proud faces. Then, ominously, troupes of male dancers in Nepal Army green and Armed Police blue pulled batons and knives. They attacked the dancers. Waves of people fell back before the onslaught, some were rescued by comrades; some fell dramatically to the floor. Suddenly the stage was overtaken by a rousing surge of people, including PLA fighters, who together pushed the army and police into the wings. When a group of dancers representing soldiers returned to the stage, they were holding the national Nepali flag as an offering and concession. They handed the flag over to dancers representing the PLA and they all held the flag high together and the crowd roared.

This city is alive. The Maoists may not have termed this uprising an “insurrection,” but the living city is under their control, with government buildings simply surrounded by protestors. Dancing and singing are everywhere. Troubadours, poets and agitators move from one cluster to another. When one song ends, another singing crowd turns the corner.

No Last-Minute Midnight Deal

By the evening of May First, the streets were still full. Groups of protesters were traveling past each other on route to their sleeping quarters.

As I gathered my thoughts to report on this day, a young photojournalist from one of Nepal’s daily papers called to tell me negotiators may have reached an agreement on a new constitution.

I rushed to the Radisson Hotel where the Maoists were meeting with Congress and UML leaders. After the overwhelming Maoist show of popular support, many expected the Prime Minister to resign.

Among the dozen reporters milling around the hotel entrance, word was that an agreement of some kind had been reached. It was Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoists’ intellectual architect, who appeared first to a blitz of camera flashes and questions.

“This government should first resign and pave the way for a national unity government,” Bhattarai said. “They were not prepared to make this agreement. So we will move forward with the general strike.”

Some of the reporters heckled him – it was those employed by TV networks associated with rival parties. Bhattarai paid them little mind, and left quickly. With the failure of negotiations, the senior Maoist leaders pulled out of public sight, and the general strike is now in full effect – with no planned end. The Maoists are open for new discussion, but no signs point to retreat.

The General Strike

At 7 a.m. on May 2, marchers were already in the street. They occupied every major intersection in the city. All stores were closed and shuttered. Protesters made way for emergency vehicles, press, diplomatic cars and water trucks servicing the crowd. The clamor of traffic was gone. The air (for once!) was clear.

The only sounds were human, groups in conversation, the rise and fall of chanting groups moving in every direction.

Clustered in groups of fifty to a few hundred, protesters filed out of occupied campuses, shopping centers and open fields converted into first aid centers and communal kitchens. Dancers performed for circles of protesters and poets moved like troubadours from corner to corner.

Near Singa Durbar, the government administration center, hundreds of riot cops behind steel barricades and coils of barbed wire faced off with the front edge of the protestors. They blocked the drive leading from the prime minister’s walled compound in Baluwatar.

Files of protesters moved in and out, then practiced running surges back and forth before the police lines, marshals kept the lines tight. Hundreds of people sat in groups, passing newspapers around for news, clustering in meetings and sharing water from trucks festooned with red flags. Then along the side, a hundred or a thousand would charge at full speed with flags waving, then stop on a dime, and run back the other way and do it again.

When an ambulance turned onto the blocked street, Lekhanath Neupane, a philosopher and leader of the Maoist-aligned All Nepal National Independent Students’ Union (Revolutionary) directed the blockade to make way even while they waved their arms in frustration. Everyone stood up to let the ambulance pass, then closed in immediately behind it, chanting and maintaining the blockade.

“Today is a peaceful demonstration only,” Neupane said. “We will not stop lifelines for the people. Our process is rising to the heights day to day.”

The blockade has been constant from dawn to dusk, when smoke started rising several streets down. Pyres were torched at a dozen locations near the city center in symbolic funeral of the current government and in theatrical climax to the day’s action.

“We will not start violence,” said one student whose slight build gave no clue to the years he spent in the People’s Liberation Army during the People’s War. “After five or seven days… we will see. Nobody is going home until we win. This is our country. These are our countrymen.”

He was pensive, reminding me of the battles he had seen before and the cost of the fight. Some the Maoists won, others left hundreds dead. His brother was among the first martyrs in the war, a school teacher turned soldier, killed by police in 1996. Many other friends have already fallen.

Much of the crowd is young enough that they were not combatants during the armed conflict. They are excited and eager to prove themselves.

“This is Prime Minister Nepal. We just killed him and burn him. He is doing wrong for our country,” said a young man with a shaved head and an accent of African-American English he had picked up at school in Los Angeles. He told me his name was KTM Gangsta and that he was a rapper and a rebel.

“We want a new culture, a new government. We don’t bow down to no man. We want to rule ourselves. Freedom means the rule of people and we don’t give a shit about big talk and big speeches. We will take bullets if we have to.”

“We have three points!” another young man interjected, visibly frustrated with the off-message enthusiasm of KTM Gangsta. Dewash Gautam said “People’s power, youth power and the crisis in capitalism are pushing this movement.”

Speaking with the direct cadence of a trained cadre, he said that among educated young people the support for the Maoists was 40 per cent, but among the illiterate people it was 90 per cent. “It is the great mass of people who will help us to win this time. If we lose now, we will need 100 years to rebuild the communist movement in Nepal. This is the last fight.”

He inquired if I was familiar with Rage Against the Machine, a band he liked.

“We are not here to rage alone but to build something new,” he said as the fire died down.

Organized Enforcement

The protests have no center. The Maoists have left stores open from 6 to 8 p.m. for food shopping, medicines and essential supplies. Some restaurants are open in the tourist areas and newspaper stands keep the papers outside the shop with the shutters down.

Groups of YCL cadre broke off from a torch march at dusk to enforce the strike closure on non-essential stores. A crew of twenty young men ran past me to some shops to pull the shutters down on stores that were open. When they aggressively surrounded a defiant restaurant proprietor, pounding on his windows, the YCL squad leader approached to mediate. The doors were closed.

The general strike is national, with protest programs in six cities: Pokhara, Durang, Dipaiel, Janakpur, Nepaljung. Kathmandu is the center, and the center cannot hold.

Update: General Strike Day 2

At dusk, police fired tear gas at marchers near Gongabu bus terminal, and live ammunition into the air to push back the crowds. No one was seriously injured, nor was anyone too shaken at the scene. People are determined and won’t be scared off. Rallies throughout the city. It’s on.

General Strike Day 3: Ring Road Red Revolution

Quick report: The ring road that circles Kathmandu was surrounded today in rings of protesters. 28 kilometers long in two rows, sometimes four. WIth 18 marches of roughly 20,000+ each. At dusk, the Maoist leaders Prachanda, Bhattarai and Kiran drove down the road.

JED BRANDT is an American reporter writing from Nepal. His reports and photographs appear on New images are being uploaded to his galleries []. Jed is a participant of the Kasama Project.