The civil war in Nepal intensifies

Thursday, 28 October 2004
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This article was written in September shortly after the August blockade organised by the Maoist guerrillas. Although with a little delay, we are publishing it now as it is relevant to the general situation and the impasse the country is facing. The Maoists have a strong position but because of their view that the revolution will be bourgeois-democratic – and not socialist at this “stage” – the situation is one of stalemate and growing instability with no clear way out. This article tries to give another perspective to the Nepalese Communist movement.

This article was written in September shortly after the August blockade organised by the Maoist guerrillas. Although with a little delay, we are publishing it now as it is relevant to the general situation and the impasse the country is facing. The Maoists have a strong position but because of their view that the revolution will be bourgeois-democratic – and not socialist at this “stage” – the situation is one of stalemate and growing instability with no clear way out. This article tries to give another perspective to the Nepalese Communist movement. (October 28, 2004)

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On August 18 the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in Nepal launched its “indefinite” blockade, announcing that it would maintain this until their demands were met. The aim was to pressurise the government into freeing jailed guerrillas and providing information on others who are missing. This opened up the most important crisis that the recently elected Nepalese government has had to face.

The guerrillas threatened to attack any vehicles travelling on the highways. The blockade was only broken by a small number of military vehicles. The capital city of Kathmandu, with about 1.5 million inhabitants, survived only thanks to the stockpiling of basic necessities.

The President of the All-Nepal Trade Union Federation (ANTUF-R), Shalikram Jamarkattel – from an undisclosed location – explained that the blockade had been announced in order to solve the people’s day-to-day problems. He claimed that there was widespread support for this movement. The ANTUF-R is the trade union confederation linked to the CPN-M (the Maoists who are behind the guerrillas). Some major industries, the ten biggest companies, were forced to shut down, either because of armed threats or because of the direct action of the workforce.

But just one week after the blockade had started the Maoists decided to lift it after the Government had agreed to set up a human rights commission within a month’s time – which can hardly be considered a revolutionary victory compared to the initial stated aims. In spite of this, the action was a clear show of strength on the part of the guerrillas, who later issued a statement in which they explained that with their action they had demonstrated that they are a force to be reckoned with and that the ruling elite in Nepal will have to negotiate with them.

The New Government

The new government had only been in office for a few months and it was already on a knife’s edge. This is further proof that the situation in Nepal is extremely unstable. It is not only the Maoist guerrillas, but also the parliamentary parties that are trying to overthrow the present government.

As we have explained on this website in previous articles, there have been mass protests led by the CPN-UML [Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, the other of the two Communist Parties], called the People’s Movement. This movement includes the Nepal Congress Party (NCP), the CPN-UML and some other minor left groupings. It is demanding the restoration of parliament and national elections. Following the resignation of the previous Prime Minister Thapa, the king called on the political parties to put forward candidates for the position of new prime minister. While they did not submit a name, the opposition parties met with the king on June 2, after which the appointment of Deuba was announced.

Until recently no opposition party had joined the government. But the CPN-UML decided to throw its weight behind the present government, which undoubtedly will be used by the Maoists of the CPN-M to justify their current campaign against their former comrades.

Deuba, the Prime Minister, sits atop a cabinet of three – himself and two other members of his small Nepali Congress-Democratic Party, a breakaway from the NCP. This “mini-cabinet” was sworn in on June 10 with Deuba incredibly holding personally more than two-dozen ministries, including finance, defence and royal affairs. This makes Nepal a shining example of one of those “democracies” that the US Bush administration likes to present to the world as an ally in the struggle against terrorism!

Who are the CPN-M and what is their real strength?

The August blockade was really aimed at assuring that the Maoist guerrillas are taken seriously by the government authorities. The CPN-M has been in a very strong position lately, but with the peace talks broken down due to the latest impasse, they were getting worried that they might be added to the list of American targets in the so-called “war against terrorism”.

The CPN-M was initially formed in 1995, the product of a split in the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN). Pushpa Kamal Dahal (alias Prachanda) and Baburam Bhattari denounced the CPN and other mainstream communist factions as ‘renegades’ and ‘revisionists’ because of their participation in the parliamentary process.

On February 13, 1996, Prachanda and Bhattari announced a People’s War in an effort to establish a “New Democracy” in Nepal. This is perfectly in tune with the classical Maoist position of first looking for a base of support – which for them is the Nepalese peasantry – and then through armed struggle start the “strategic people’s war” in the rural areas. In practice this means basing the whole strategy on winning control of the rural areas and then “surrounding the towns”. Obviously in all this there is very little room for independent action of the working class in the cities. The working class is called on from time to time to support the guerrillas, but they are not to take action independently of these!

This year, according to the CPN-M, is the ninth “glorious” year of peasant struggle and now the “strategic equilibrium” is being discussed. This in Maoist terminology means that they feel they are in a strong position and they are debating if they can take power in Nepal. They certainly do have the means to attempt a takeover, and if they did they would have a very good chance of being successful.

Nepalese government reports indicate that there are approximately 10,000 combatants, 15,000 militia, 4,500 cadres, and 200,000 sympathizers actively associated with the CPN-M. They also have an active student wing, comprised of approximately 400,000 members. This a considerable force by any standards.

So it is clear that the Nepalese Maoists are indeed a mass force and could be in a position to take power – if they wanted to take it! But The PLA thinks along the same lines as Sendero Luminoso in the early nineties in Peru. They idealise the role of the peasantry and deny any independent role to the proletariat in the urban areas. They also lack any internationalist outlook, which means they do not see the Nepalese revolution as one link in a chain of revolutions. They do not see how their “revolution” could spread to India, Pakistan and beyond. This means that in spite of the terrible conditions that the Nepalese masses are facing, and the clear desire of the Nepalese masses for revolutionary change, the Maoists do not know how to move forward and take advantage of the opportunity that is presenting itself to them.

In January 2003, the Maoists called for a year-long truce in order to negotiate with the Nepalese government. This truce lasted only a few months. The Maoists unilaterally withdrew from the seven-month cease-fire on August 27, 2003, after the two sides had failed to reach an agreement over the role of the Nepalese monarchy. The demands of the Nepalese Maoists were not met. They were: for a democratic republic; an independent human rights commission; and the integration of the Maoist guerrillas into the Royal Nepalese Army, as we will see later.

Here we see the enormous contradictions between the revolutionary potential that the situation offers, and the very limited demands of the Maoists, that are far from being revolutionary socialist demands.

In spite of their limited perspective of the national democratic revolution – which is what their position amounts to – to date, the CPN-M rebels have been at loggerheads with the Nepalese government. They are demanding that they not be classified as a terrorist organization, and are calling for the release of senior party leaders in government detention and the abolition of the monarchy.

Given the breakdown of the 2003 peace talks, renewed talks between the government and the rebels are unlikely to occur in the near future unless a good showing on the part of the Maoists changes the government’s views on this issue. The government is insisting that the rebels must drop their demand for the abolition of the monarchy. However, a simple reform from the top – some kind of gesture – could be the excuse that the Maoists might use to justify reopening peace talks.

The Maoists insist that a special committee should be drawn up to draft a new constitution for the country, which would offer the option of abolishing the monarchy. In fact if this should actually be accepted, the Maoist leaders would be very pleased and might even lower the level of confrontation. If such a deal were possible, and the Maoists were accepted as a bona fide political party by the Nepalese authorities, the thinking of their leaders is that the chances of being added to the terrorist “blacklist” by the Americans would be minimised.

The question of the constitutional set up of the country has become an issue. Marxists do not ignore these questions and indeed they can be used to mobilise the masses. Marxists are not indifferent to the question of the monarchy. We are for the abolition of the monarchy and we make our own the demands for greater democracy. However what we do not do is make this the central point of our programme.

We place the question of the abolition of the monarchy within the more general programme of the socialist transformation of Nepal. One is not separated from the other. In fact, the abolition of the monarchy without adding the more social and economic questions can become meaningless to an important layer of the masses.

The masses see the abolition of the monarchy as a means to an end, not an end in itself. If only the monarchy is abolished but the capitalists and landlords remain in power what real advantage will there be for the poor masses of Nepal? Therefore the question of the monarchy must be closely linked to the removal of the whole class of oppressors. The coming to power of the working class supported by the peasants must be posed.

Along with the other major political parties, the Maoists did indeed oppose king Gyanendra’s attempt to transform himself from a constitutional monarch into an executive monarch on October 4, 2002. This move of the king gave the Maoists some political advantage. They pressed for the protection and consolidation of the gains that flowed from the restoration of bourgeois democracy in 1990, and worked for it to become a common political agenda. This has also given them more support, because the assassination of the political opponents of the king was seen by the masses for what it was: a coup d’etat.

What policies should the Nepalese Communists adopt?

Opposition to the king’s manoeuvres is all very good, but the real problem is that this doesn’t go far enough. The Maoists have a programme, but it lacks a socialist content. The reason for this is that it is based on the old Stalinist idea that the revolution in Nepal must go through stages before it reaches the socialist stage. They limit their vision to the narrow national confines of Nepal itself. For them Nepal is a backward underdeveloped country and therefore the socialist perspective cannot be posed. They thus seek out a “progressive wing” of the bourgeoisie. The problem is that in Nepal there is no such wing. The Nepalese ruling class is merely a pliable tool in the hands of the imperialists. None of the factions that make up the ruling class can be relied on to lead the struggle against imperialism.

The programme of the Maoists is a poor mix of vague anti-imperialist demands combined with a minimum programme on the basis of which they see collaboration with at least some wings of the regime as being possible. Again, it is based on the idea that there is a “progressive wing” of the bourgeoisie.

The main demand they pose is for some form of bourgeois democratic republic. As we have seen, they openly talk about integrating their forces with the RNA (Royal Nepal Army) after a period of national “regeneration”. This totally ignores the question of the class nature of the Nepalese army. The RNA is not an independent institution, above the classes. It serves the interests of the ruling class, and can serve no other interest. It is incredible that the Nepalese Maoists can even pose the question of fusing their armed forces with those of the bourgeois state!

But again this fits into their view that what is to be built in the next “stage” in Nepal is a modern bourgeois democracy. They see the impoverishment of the country, as a consequence of the international policies of imperialism. This is correct, but it is not the whole explanation of things. The Maoists believe that what is needed is a strong local capitalism that can defend the interests of Nepal as a whole, workers and peasants included. Their view is that what is needed in the near future is a prolonged period of capitalist development. Only much later would the perspective of working class struggle be posed and the socialist transformation of Nepal be possible.

That explains why they give no role whatsoever to the proletariat in the present struggle. Although they have a trade union federation, the task of the workers is merely to support the call for a new parliament, a bourgeois democracy, and not go beyond that. This is reflected in their documents and statements. In a recent publication about the blockade they say the following:

“The Maoists are relying on the people’s war and not strikes to overthrow this state, and they did not, as some silly journalists said, expect this strike and blockade to provoke an insurrection in the capital at this point. These actions were part of the process through which the party is leading in weakening the reactionary regime and preparing the urban masses to rise up when the party judges the time ripe for urban insurrection in connection with successfully surrounding the cities from [the] countryside.” (A World to Win News Service, August 30 2004)

Here we have in a nutshell the strategy of the Nepalese Maoists. And yet in the same article they claim that through pressure they were able to shut down the main companies and industries of Nepal: Soaltee Hotel, Surya Nepal Ltd, Elite Oil Store, Tankeshwar Garment Industry, Pashupati Spinning Mill, Shanghai Plastic Industry, Norsang Carpet, Srawan Garment, Yeti Fabric and Makalu Yatayat Pvt Ltd. Most of those industries belong to the Royal family and its cronies.

The fact that the main industries of Nepal belong to the royal family confirms what we said above. The abolition of the monarchy is part and parcel of the socialist transformation of the country. You can nominally take away the “royal” from their titles but they will remain the same people who oppress and exploit the Nepalese workers and peasants. It is perfectly logical to add to the call for the abolition of the monarchy the call for the expropriation of the properties of the members of the royal family.

The problem for the Maoists is that to pose that question means passing over in one uninterrupted process to the tasks of the socialist revolution. It means posing the tasks of the Permanent Revolution, as explained by Trotsky. It means applying the lessons of Russia in October 1917. Russia too was a poor, backward underdeveloped country, but it never occurred once to Lenin to limit the scope of the Russian Revolution to the mere bourgeois tasks. The Nepalese Maoists should learn from this experience.

The workers in the industries listed above should not be seen as an adjunct to the guerrilla army. They should be at the very centre of Communist strategy. These workers should not be used like a tap that you can turn on and off at the whim of the party leadership. They are called to come out on strike when the party says so and then they are left to suffer the consequences when the guerrillas retreat to the mountains.

For a genuine Communist Party, i.e. a Marxist and Leninist party, the duty is to organise the working class at the point of production, in the factories and in the working class neighbourhoods of the towns. These workers should be placed at the forefront of the class struggle in Nepal. They could become the means by which to extend the revolution to other workers elsewhere throughout the whole of the South Asian subcontinent.

This Maoist outlook has played a pernicious role because it relegates the working class to a passive position in the revolution. And yet according to Marx and Lenin, the working class in the cities is the class which a Communist Party should base itself on. But the Nepalese Maoists, although they have the ANTUF-R, refuse to organise the workers in any meaningfully democratic manner. They decide when it is good for the working class to rise and when it is not. And if they do rise without the consent of the “all powerful” party they can be physically threatened by the guerrillas or at the very least left to their own devices.

This actually weakens the position of the “Communists”. If they were to consciously base themselves on the urban working class they would be in a much stronger position. They would be on the verge of taking power. Instead they hold back the industrial workers. This in reality gives the regime more room for manoeuvre. The working class is confused and even divided. They see two “Communist” parties, one waging a rural, peasant based guerrilla war, where they have no real role to play, and the other enmeshed in collaborating with the bourgeois, monarchist regime in the cities. Neither of them poses the issue in working class terms. In one way or another both of them are posing the continuation of capitalism for the foreseeable future.

The problem facing the Nepalese Maoists is that the revolution cannot be limited to the bourgeois democratic stage. If it is thus limited it will be an abortion of a revolution. The abolition of the monarchy, the eradication of landlordism and all the other tasks of the bourgeois revolution cannot be carried out by any section of the Nepalese ruling class. The tasks of the bourgeois revolution can only be accomplished by the working class. But once the working class begins to move it will pose tasks that go beyond the bourgeois “stage”, such as the expropriation of the royal family. That means the revolution can only be successful if it becomes socialist.

Genuine workers’ power – workers’ democracy – cannot be accomplished by a peasant based guerrilla army. Marxists do not deny the role of the peasantry. In the less developed countries they are still a force that can play an important role in allying itself with the working class in the cities. But the struggle for worker’s power is a social process that must involve the most advanced layer of society, the working class. This is not a matter of opinion. It is a question of life and death for the Nepalese revolution. A successful socialist revolution is the only way of guaranteeing victory in the struggle against imperialism.

The experience of China in the past, the model for the Nepalese Maoists, has some very important lessons contained within it. A peasant based guerrilla army, did indeed overthrow Chinese capitalism and landlordism. But let us not forget that Mao’s perspective in 1948 was not that of the overthrow of capitalism. His perspective was very similar to that of today’s Maoists in Nepal. He saw the period after the taking of power as one where modern, democratic, capitalist relations would develop. The socialist tasks would only be posed after at least one hundred years of capitalist development. But that is not how things unfolded. By defeating Chang Kai Shek and his armies, Mao had in effect smashed the old bourgeois state. To consolidate his power Mao went on to take over the economy as well. There was no “progressive” bourgeoisie to run the economy.

However, that is not the only lesson, which we can draw from the Chinese experience. The fact that the Chinese working class in 1949 at best played a passive role in the whole process, meant that there was no real workers’ power. The regime that was created – although immensely progressive in that capitalism had been abolished – was not a genuine regime of workers’ democracy. It was deformed from the very beginning. Power was in the hands of the state bureaucracy and not the workers. This implied the inevitable differentiation within society and the emergence of a privileged caste. Today more than fifty years later we see this same caste guiding China back towards capitalism. Because it was not the working class that consciously took power in China, it meant that the danger of capitalist restoration could not be excluded. Today this is quite obvious. That is why the Chinese experience is full of lessons for today’s Communists in Nepal.

Nepal is one link in the chain of international relations

One limit of the Chinese leadership back in 1949 was that they had a nationalist outlook. Their perspectives did not go beyond the borders of China. This was because they saw the revolution as national, bourgeois-democratic. But this approach is contrary to any genuine Marxist tradition. In spite of this, China at least had the advantage of being a very huge country, and could thus achieve some degree of development in spite of the bureaucratic deformations. But Nepal is very small and is surrounded by unfriendly regimes. A narrow nationalist outlook can never be justified for a Marxist, but in Nepal this is a central point in understanding the weaknesses of the Maoist approach.

Today the Nepalese working class, as any other “national” working class, has no motherland, not because Marx said so, but because the interests of the workers in Nepal are exactly the same as the interests of the workers in Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Venezuela. But it goes even further than that. The working class can take power in one country and start the socialist transformation of society, but unless its revolution spreads to other countries, unless it becomes international, sooner or later defeat or bureaucratisation is implicit in the situation.

So the first task is to place the Nepalese working class at the head of the nation. To do this it must have its own independent organisations. The working class must also be organised through its own democratically elected committees in every workplace, every mine and mill.

However, the Nepalese revolution has many enemies: the Indian ruling class, the Chinese bureaucracy, American imperialism, etc. The only natural ally of the poor peasants and workers of Nepal are the workers and the oppressed of the world. An internationalist banner needs to be raised to defend the revolution. The programme of national unity – that is unity of the workers and peasants with the capitalists and landlords – against imperialism will not achieve this. Why should the Indian workers, or the Pakistani workers, support the struggle in Nepal if this is aimed at bringing to power only one wing of the present ruling class?

If on the other hand the struggle in Nepal were against the bosses, against the exploiters, and for workers’ power, the workers in other countries would immediately understand and would instinctively lend their support. Without understanding the effects of such a social liberation of Nepal among the masses in the subcontinent one cannot develop a coherent revolutionary policy.

International relations and the war on terror

In the recent period some military operations of the Indian Army near the Indo-Nepalese border have discovered bases of the local Naxalites (the Indian Maoists close to the Nepalese guerrillas) where Maoists close to the Nepalese PLA were offering military training. There are clear links between the different guerrillas in this area. That means the PLA plays a part in the regional chess board that has many pieces on it and it is also part of the so-called Asiatic “Great Game”.

The Indian ruling class is also in a deep crisis as the result of this year’s general elections proved, and would be keen to find anything to distract the attention of the Indian masses away from the real social problems. They have always behaved as a regional imperialist power. They see Nepal as falling within their “sphere of influence”. Thus they would be very happy to extend their influence into Nepal, especially when the Nepalese monarchy has been embracing US imperialism in order to hold back the Maoist guerrillas. They would use the excuse of the “war on terrorism” to disguise what they would really be doing.

The Indian ruling class is divided over the question of US influence in the region. Some are in favour of developing an alliance with China, as a counterbalancing force against the growing influence of US imperialism, which already has a heavy presence in Afghanistan and some of the ex-Soviet Republics that border the region. Others have a more resigned approach and see the growth of US power in the region as inevitable and something they cannot stop. They are in favour of opening up more to Western imperialism and becoming a good trading partner of the West.

However, the Indian masses are extremely unhappy about this pro-US option. Linking up with China would look better therefore. But the Indian bourgeoisie does not have an easy option. Opening up too much to China also has its problems. It means opening up even more the Indian market to cheap Chinese products.

Clearly the strategists of US imperialism do not want to see an Indo-Chinese alliance developing and will try to prevent such a force from taking shape. But the equation is more complicated than that. The US has been giving support to the regime in Pakistan in an attempt to achieve some kind of stability in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. If the US maintains its support for Pakistan it creates problems in building closer links with India, which they need to ward off China.

The US have raised the idea that the Indian government should help them to deploy troops in Nepal for their “war on terror”. If the Indian ruling class should allow the transit of US troops or help them in any way in getting military hardware into Nepal, that would be handing a gift to the Nepalese Maoists and to all kinds of leftist, Islamic and nationalist opposition forces who are opposed to the Indian government.

The Indian ruling class cannot afford this at the moment. The Nepalese ruling elite is desperate to make friends everywhere and is behaving like a young princess looking for a prospective groom: everyone can make an offer. The former Prime Minister of Nepal, Surya Bahadur Thapa, has said that an understanding with India is key to resolving the Maoist insurgency. What that means is that they may need the military services of India in the near future to help put down the rebellion.

China is also busy building up a network of support in readiness for any future clashes – more serious than the current ones – with the US. Taiwan is a clear issue as well as Korea, therefore at the moment the Chinese bureaucracy is not very keen on having a so-called “rogue” radical Maoist government in neighbouring Nepal. When they are clamping down on their own Chinese Maoists and are moving towards capitalism very fast, it would be a bit of a contradiction for them to support the Maoists in Nepal.

That means the Maoists are isolated as far as international support is concerned. Their coming to power would be seen as provoking instability in the region, which is the last thing that the Chinese bureaucracy, the Indian ruling class and all the other regimes in the Indian subcontinent need at the moment.

While we have this ongoing conflict for spheres of influence between the regional powers, we have the US imperialists who are happy to step into everyone else’s backyard. Support for “democracy” and a multi-party government is viewed by the US as a means of dealing with the Maoists and buying off the Nepalese monarchy.

Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, outlined US strategy in April: “The preservation of Nepal’s system of constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy is key to defeating Maoist challenges. The palace and the parties must unify – urgently – under an all-party government as the first step to restore democracy and presenting a unified front against the terrorist insurgency.”

Like every other statement emanating from the Pentagon, this one needs a bit of translation. Basically it means the following: Keep it up boys! In your war against those “terrorists” we will help you, but that help will come at the price we say. You keep up the democratic facade and we will provide the raw materials for your “war”. That way our business interests and your privileges are guaranteed!

That explains why the US and other major powers have been putting pressure on King Gyanendra to accommodate the opposition parties. In early May, the Nepal Development Forum, comprised of 20 donor countries and organisations such as the World Bank, issued a statement calling for urgent steps to “have the democratic process restored”. On the same day that Deuba was appointed prime minister, the World Bank approved financial aid worth $US40 million. We know who runs the World Bank and why they give such support.

With this interplay of international forces the Maoists need to urgently review their whole strategy. With their methods and perspectives, although the conditions are ripe, they could easily throw away the opportunity that presents itself. The idea of them leading some kind of national-democratic revolution becomes a utopia.

Unless they base themselves on the Nepalese working class and link up to the workers’ movement in India, China and beyond they will isolate themselves. They must develop an internationalist approach. Their revolution can only succeed as part of the all-South Asian socialist revolution. Their destiny is inextricably linked to that of the Indian and Pakistani labour movements.

They also need to appeal to the workers of the US, Europe, Japan, etc. The problem for the Nepalese Maoists is that they do not appeal to the advanced working class of any of these countries because their methods have little in common with the best traditions of the proletariat – of mass trade union and political struggle.

What is the way out?

The current crisis is reaching a clear impasse. The guerrilla methods are showing their limitations. The reformist policies of the CPN-UML in the urban areas are also revealing their limits. Because of this the influence of the CPN-UML is giving way to the growth of the Maoists in many areas of the country. All this while the ruling elite, with the monarchy at the forefront, is not willing or capable of developing the country.

What Nepal needs urgently is for the ranks of both the CPN-M and the CPN-UML to review the programme, strategy, tactics and perspectives of the two parties. It is necessary to return to the genuine traditions of Marxism, of Leninism. From this process a genuine Marxist party with a revolutionary programme could offer the Nepalese workers and peasants a clear class alternative. This would be the way of breaking out of the isolation and joining with the revolutionary forces of the South-Asian subcontinent.

If this is done then the Nepalese revolution could be the spark that sets the whole of the subcontinent, and indeed the whole of Asia, in motion towards the socialist revolution. There is no other way out.

September, 2004