Nepal: Where are the Maoists going?

Isolated king supported by China and the US

Nepal in 2006 is heading for even more tumultuous events than last year. The Maoist rebellion celebrates its 10th anniversary; the king has launched a military offensive; mass protests made the elections in February a fiasco. King Gyanendra’s coup of 1 February 2005 only isolated the monarchy further. The main question now is where are the Maoists going?

Journalists declared the anniversary of the coup a “Black Day” and many of them participated in a week of protests. Nepal accounted for “half the reported acts of state censorship in the world last year” according to Reporters Without Borders (Financial Times, 1 February). A state of emergency was declared for the first three months after the coup and the king kept a monopoly on radio until August.

The last 12 months have seen growing street protests, met by waves of arrests. The official opposition has rejected all invitations by the king to any talks.

In the years before the coup, King Gyanendra dismissed several governments and held no elections for local government despite their terms ending in 2002. The municipal elections on 9 February were supposed to give him back some democratic credibility.

The elections, however, were met by a general strike declared by the Maoists and mass protests in the capital, Kathmandu. The AP news agency reported, “More than 4,000 demonstrators swept into Kathmandu’s city centre Thursday afternoon, waving banners, shouting slogans and calling for punishment for the soldiers who killed a protester. Schools, markets, city streets and highways were largely deserted across Nepal on Sunday as people heeded a communist rebel call for a weeklong general strike to disrupt this week’s municipal elections, despite promises of protection from the government”. 150,000 people participated in the biggest opposition rally.

This was in face of increased repression. Hundreds were arrested in the weeks up to the elections and another 600 in the protests, among them 50 journalists. A daytime curfew was declared and 15,000 troops were on the streets of Kathmandu. Internet and telephone communications were cut off on election day. The police seized buses and forced some drivers to work, but the buses went empty. Leading opposition politicians were put under 90 days house arrest, not allowed to meet anyone.

The elections were a complete fiasco. The seven traditional parties, formerly allied to the king, called for a boycott. There was even a shortage of candidates and the turnout was just 20 percent.

Because of low turnout, the king “is going to weaken in the days to come,” Narayan Khadka, an independent analyst in Kathmandu told AP. “The king’s election plan has backfired on him. Instead of getting him recognition, he has plunged further into crisis”.

China and India

The response of the king and the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) was a major army offensive against the Maoists in the southeast mountains. Army helicopters carried out massive bombing raids in the mountains claimed to be rebel hideouts. A representative of the UN said this resulted in a resurgence of the civil war. The Maoists in February called off their ceasefire which had been in place since October.

Developments in Nepal are closely followed in the region. Nepal has strong political and economic links with particularly India. Oppressed layers, in the region and internationally, especially in rural areas and among youth – in the absence of a fighting workers’ movement – discuss the possibilities of success of the Maoists’ guerrilla struggle. The rulers in neighbouring countries, on the other hand, fear any spread of the struggle and threats to their power. The outcome for Nepal is therefore inseparable from the class struggle in the rest of South Asia and in China.

So far, the king has backing from China. The Chinese foreign minister was the first to visit the country after the coup. “Beijing looks sympathetically at the king as a bulwark against instability and pro-democracy forces”, the Financial Times wrote in an analysis on 3 January 2006. The Chinese rulers at the end of last year delivered 18 truckloads of arms and ammunition to the RNA. In addition, the Pakistani government gave the king loans for purchasing arms.

The Chinese regime favours cooperation with India, the traditional superpower in relation to Nepal. In this cooperation, Beijing is prepared to go further: “the Chinese ambassador here said Beijing was ready, if called upon, to provide help to New Delhi to put down Indian Maoists” ( This position confirms the changed nature of the Chinese regime, not even in words supporting a “Maoist” rebellion. This is important, since there are some, especially in the neo-colonial world, who think that China is a progressive counter weight to the US. The role played by the Chinese regime shows clearly that it intervenes not for progressive reasons, but for its own purposes. Workers and socialists should therefore not put hope in the Beijing administration playing any progressive role, either in China or globally.

The Indian government is also under pressure from its own army to support the RNA. For both countries, it is a question of “stability”. They fear national movements in Tibet and parts of India respectively. In India’s case, the government also worries over an increased number of armed Naxalite (Maoist) attacks in its own territory. In addition, the possibility of exploiting Nepal’s potential for hydropower is a key issue for India.

New Delhi at the time of the king’s coup chose to ally with the US and Western imperialism, mildly criticising the coup. With the failure of the king becoming more evident, however, New Delhi started to support the traditional opposition parties, the dominant being the Congress, the UML and the Communist Party [not Maoist]. A delegation of Indian MPs, led by CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechuri, including the former government party, the Hindu BJP, visited Nepal for this purpose. The CPI(M) plays a treacherous role in derailing a potential revolution in Nepal, at the same as it is banning strikes in West Bengal where it rules the state.

On 17 November, New Delhi hosted a meeting on Nepal between the seven-party alliance and the Maoists. These signed a formal 12-point agreement as the basis for a looser coalition. The agreement calls for a constituent assembly under UN supervision, including over the armed forces of the RNA (Royal Nepalese Army) and the PLA (the Maoist People’s Liberation Army). The document does not call for a republic, but for “absolute democracy”. It holds open for negotiations with the king. The Maoists were able to meet the parties in New Delhi with the knowledge of the Indian government. The Maoist leader, Prachanda, commented that since the coup last year, ”the role of the Indian authorities strikes us as positive”.

US imperialism

Despite its modest stated aim, this deal has worried US imperialism. The US ambassador to Nepal, James Moriarty, warned “the Maoist guerrillas had made massive gains in the past decade”. He continued, “If the Maoist insurgents and the parties successfully topple the monarchy, the Maoists will ultimately seize power, and Nepal will suffer a disaster that will make its current problems pale in comparison…” (The Guardian, 15 February). Editors of The Hindu, India, commented that “the US has emerged as the king’s strongest backer”.

Moriarty gives two key arguments. First, the Maoist uprising started ten years ago, in 1996, with some limited fighting. But the guerrillas today control 75 per cent of the countryside. Secondly, they are the only armed force within the opposition.

The traditional parties, in which the US puts its hope, are generally discredited. Their previous history in governments since 1990 have only resulted in splits and corruption, offering no solution to the masses. The seven parties have moved into the alliance with the Maoists from a position of weakness. A leader of the Nepali Congress, Ram Sharan Mahat, said it was a risk “worth taking”.

US imperialism might hope for an “orange revolution” in line with Ukraine or Georgia, establishing a Western-orientated regime instead of the king. But the political conditions are not the same. The official opposition are not posing as a “new alternative” and the Maoists are there as the main factor. China will also act to block any kind of “orange” movement.

The best US imperialism can hope for is probably a split in the army, in which a section would overthrow the king. The army only reluctantly left the barracks to fight the Maoists when the armed struggle started in the late 1990s. Since then, the military has been involved in destroying entire villages. The UN Human Rights Commission has recently sharply criticised the violence of the army (Around 3,000 RNA soldiers are serving in UN missions abroad).

It is not unlikely that war fatigue will lead to a search for a ceasefire. “The Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), loyal to the king, is looking nervous”, the Financial Times reported (3 January). Commenting on the relationship between the king and the army, the Maoist commander Prachanda noted, “We are now going towards a situation where the RNA is in the driving seat”.

What future for the Maoists?

Much of the perspectives for Nepal are linked to the development of the Maoists. The Maoists started as a parliamentary party following the popular uprising in 1990, but left after three years to start the “people’s war” in February 1996. Are they developing towards becoming a “normal” party, disarming and entering traditional capitalist politics? Or are they prepared to continue their armed struggle, up to and including confiscating capitalist property? Last year’s events and global developments point towards the Maoists not going the whole way. This, however, can be a drawn-out process with many twists and turns.

In 2005, the Maoists seemed to change some of their fundamental views. Baburam Bhattarai, for years number two of the Maoists, seemed to win an internal debate/crisis in the direction of “reforming” the Maoists. In an e-mail interview, he said that the party now wants “a new model of proletarian or socialist democracy devoid of the distortions of the Stalin era”. This would include a “dialogue with different political forces, both inside and outside Nepal” (Washington Times, 30 July 2005). In a long interview with The Hindu (10 Feb), Prachanda advocated “multiparty democracy”, since “without [political] competition, we will not be able to go forward”. After a plenum on these issues in August 2005, the Maoists launched a unilateral ceasefire (Oct-Feb) and promised to give back occupied land to leaders of the Nepalese Congress. This, and the New Delhi agreement, led to talks between the Maoists and the European Union.

Despite the attempt to distance themselves from Stalinism, another Maoist leader, Krishna Bahadur Mahar stressed, “we envisage a two-step revolution” (Financial Times, 15 May 2005). Bhattarai described, “we are not attempting a final victory right now, but are working for a negotiated political settlement, either directly for a democratic republic or for elections to a constituent assembly”. This was later fulfilled with the New Delhi agreement in November.

As a reason for a two-stage revolution, Bhattarai gave “the two huge states of India and China are both hostile to a revolutionary change, we feel constrained to settle for a compromise solution acceptable to all”. That included, according to him, a readiness to merge the armed forces with others. With these measures, Prachanda argues, ”real chance of ending the kingship once and for all and making democratic republic in Nepal”, is possible within 2-3 months. The US, he continues, have “no reason to regard us as a threat”.

In its content, these comments are not far away from what Mao Zedong himself said and wrote in the 1930s and 40s. Mao many times joined alliances with his archenemies of the Kuomintang. And even after the 1949 revolution, Mao envisaged decades of capitalism remaining alongside the political regime of Mao, as the first stage of revolution.

This two-stage theory, launched by the Mensheviks in the Russian revolution of 1917 and fine-tuned by Stalin in the 1920s, however, has never in history followed the pattern described in theory. The first “stage” makes little difference for the material conditions of the masses. In Russia in 1917, the workers took power in October as the only way to achieve peace, land for the peasants and food for the cities. The weakness of the national bourgeoisie in Russia then, and in neo-colonial countries today, with the dominance of capitalist globalisation, means that capitalism can’t complete the tasks of the bourgeois revolution – the national question, land reform, development of industry and economy, establishing democratic rights, breaking with imperialism.

Mao himself was forced to abolish capitalism to be able to stay in power. The same was the case with Tito in Yugoslavia, who like Mao had his own state apparatus (army). Building entirely on a guerrilla army, Tito’s regime became a nationalist, bureaucratic repressive regime modelled on Stalin’s, despite their armed conflicts. In contrast, the Russian Revolution in 1917 built on the organised working class and was able to establish a workers’ democracy. There was no privileged bureaucracy, but an open a free debate among workers’ delegates in the soviets and the Bolshevik party, ruling society. Another complete difference was that Stalin, Mao and Tito replaced the internationalism of 1917 with nationalism. The regimes of the latter were deformed workers’ (Stalinist) states, in contrast to the workers’ democracy of 1917.

Other attempts at this artificial stage-theory have been crushed by counter-revolution, as in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The Sandinista guerrilla movement established its government, but did not go as far as Mao. They did not abolish capitalism and establish a worker’s state. As a result, imperialism, the national capitalists and the old state apparatus were over a shorter time than in the Stalinist states able to stage a counterrevolution. In this case this was not a military action, but a counterrevolution in a “democratic” form.

So, when Nepalese Maoist Krishna Bahadur Mahar claims, “we want a 21st century democracy”, and Prachanda speaks of an ”anti-imperialist and anti-feudal” multiparty democracy, they are contradicting the experience of history. The Maoists, both in Nepal and India, almost entirely focus on “political democracy”, aiming for agreements with other parties, but hardly mentioning the capitalists who actually control the politicians.

Nepal’s future

Whatever their words, the Maoists in practice run much of the country. “He controls a large part of western Nepal, and is in charge of roads, power, irrigation, schools and health care”, Reuters reported from an interview with “Comrade Dhurba”, a Maoist leader in the Rolpa district (450 kilometres from Kathmandu).

The Maoists have several advantages over the traditional parties. In a country with widespread oppression of women, 40 per cent of the Maoist fighters are women. Nepal has ten major ethnic groups and a kind of apartheid system is used against the lower castes. The Maoists have given lower castes and oppressed tribes increased power, despite many of their leaders coming from higher castes. Feudal structures have been crushed.

In Nepal, with 85 per cent of the population living in the countryside, a peasant army is part of a revolutionary programme of Marxists. To abolish capitalism, semi feudalism and feudalism on the countryside the rural population have to be armed. The complexity of Nepal, with 10 major languages and 80-90 smaller, ethnic and caste divisions, also demands a united movement in the villages.

The decisive force in a socialist revolution, however, is the working class. Because of its role in production, workers have a collective consciousness in difference to peasants. Through democratic organisations of its own workers can organise struggle and the nucleus of a new democratic and socialist society. Even in Nepal, today 8.8 per cent of the workforce is in manufacturing, compared to 1.1 per cent in 1971. The potential of the working class is at the moment manifested in a general strike called for on 3 April. A fighting workers’ movement with an internationalist programme is necessary to spread the revolution to the strong working class in India, China and Pakistan. There is no national way out for any country, even less for a Nepal left in backwardness by imperialism.

In a struggle for socialism, a peasant army would be important, but it would have an auxiliary role. The Maoist’s methods of struggle, however, are not preparing for a genuine socialist society. They are building on their military actions and a general support in the struggle against the regime, but they are not building a movement with mass involvement and democratic control from below. The military actions of the guerrilla also include bombings that have killed civilians indiscriminately. Some of these features of the Maoists will also hold back support from the working class internationally.

The top-down military style is what makes sudden changes in their policies possible. The Maoist leader, Prachanda, will decide what suits his immediate goals. He understands that international circumstances have changed since Mao’s revolution, when China got backing from Stalin’s Soviet Union. “The menace of Maoism is making a comeback”, the Financial Times wrote in a headline 21 February. It’s true that the Maoists in Nepal have established a stronghold unique in recent years. They are also inspiring the Naxalites (Maoists) in India, who in 2004 merged into a single party. But in this period, the Nepalese Maoists are unlikely to come to power in Nepal as a whole. Their political weaknesses and the international environment speak against this.

India, China and the US would all attempt to intervene if the Maoists were close to power. The Maoists, in line with their theory, do not think there is any threat from India or China, only from the US, if only they limit their programme. They also advocate the same turn to be made by the Naxalites in India.

Dramatic international events, however, can at a certain stage force even populist movements to nationalise and attack the interests of capitalism and imperialism. But we are not yet at that stage in Nepal, despite the deep crisis in the country. If the Maoists were close to come to power, or even formed a government, it would have big political affects in the region. The Baluchistan Liberation Army and the armed forces of the Naxalites would get a strong impetus. The possibility to overthrow today’s society would be attractive to oppressed layers in the region. The limitations of the Maoists – nationalism, the two-stage theory, not building on the working class – will however, as explained above, put the revolution in a straightjacket.

Whatever course the Maoists will take, there is anyway a dramatic political and social change going on in Nepal. The king “has not realised the significance of the radicalisation of the popular imagination, nor has he understood that the parties have tremendously radicalised their agendas too because they want to address the fundamentals issues raised by the Maoists”, commented Hari Sharma from a think-tank in Kathmandu (Financial Times 3 January).

Socialists in Nepal must fight for democratic rights and the overthrow of the king’s dictatorship. Democratic organs of workers’, poor peasants’ and youth should be established, also in the Maoist controlled areas. This struggle is closely linked to the struggle against capitalism and imperialism, the world system that has thrown Nepal into misery and crisis. The struggle in Nepal must also be linked to workers’ struggle in all South Asia, for a socialist confederation of the region and global socialism.

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