Nepal after the coup – business as usual?

On February 1, the king of Nepal assumed full powers, sacking his prime minister and carrying out a royalist coup. The imperialists have shown some concern at this turn of events. They are worried that instead of stabilising the country it could play into the hands of the Maoist guerrillas.

On February 1, there was a coup in Nepal. What initially was reported by the Western media as a “move” by the king was finally a full-blooded coup d’etat. The BBC reported that, “By sacking Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government for the second time in just over two years and taking full control of the state power, Nepal’s King Gyanendra has taken an unprecedented risk.” (BBC News, February 1, 2005).

A few hours after the reports started to come out in the Western media all the newspapers in Nepal were shut down, the mobile phone network was blocked, as was the Internet. Many political activists, including leaders of the parties that were in the government were arrested or put under house arrest. Journalists also were detained, which created uproar among the International Federation of Journalists that issued a quick statement.

Another Royal coup

These events confirm that the political situation in Nepal has been in a deadlock during the last period. The influence of the Maoist guerrillas and their base of support (students, workers and peasant organisations) have been growing because they have been the only ones actually facing up to the pre-coup regime which was nothing but a dictatorship in disguise. In previous articles we have explained that Nepal has been in deep turmoil since 1996 when the Maoist guerrillas launched a major campaign against the government, and reached its zenith during the royal massacre in 2001.

The CPN-UML, as we have explained, has played the parliamentary game so much that they have actually fallen to the level of parliamentary cretinism. They joined a government that was in reality just a cover for the king’s rule. The positions adopted by both of the main left parties (Maoists and CPN-UML) in the aftermath of the coup are a good example of the line they have been pursuing.

In fact the position of the CPN-UML is as bad as it was before the coup. “Nepal’s communist leaders who escaped a crackdown in their country have urged their Indian counterparts to persuade New Delhi to act for the cause of democracy.” (World News, New Delhi, February 8, 2005). This shows how far removed they have become from a genuine communist position. They place their trust in the Indian bourgeoisie, a ruling class that has its own imperialist aspirations in the region.

It reminds us of the position some of the Sri Lankan left took when they supported the Indian government sending troops to the island to put an end to the ethnic conflict. The Indian troops were not there to help the Sri Lankan workers and peasants. They were there to defend the interests of the Indian ruling class. This shows you what kind of incredible blunders can be committed if you base yourself on the old Stalinist idea that somehow, somewhere, there is a “progressive bourgeoisie”. It reveals a lack of understanding of the role of Indian imperialism. To invite India to step in and “help” is like inviting local gangsters to look after your belongings.

The CPN (M) has at least taken a position of calling on the people to rebel. The party leader issued a statement: “Our Party forcefully appeals to all the country’s political parties, the intellectual masses, civil society and the masses of all levels and beliefs to create a storm of united countrywide rebellion, under the minimum common slogan of a people’s democratic republic and a constituent assembly, against this last lunacy of the feudal clique.”

“He warned that if the king did not withdraw his proclamation, the Party would launch an indefinite, countrywide shutdown starting on 13 February, the ninth anniversary of the launching of the People’s War, and called for ‘the political forces, civil society, the intellectual community, journalists and all levels and sections of the people to store supplies necessary for daily consumption and support our movement by all means to make it successful’.” (A World To Win, News Service, February 7, 2005)

Wider implications

The merit of this position is that at least it doesn’t place any confidence in the Indian imperialists to solve the internal problems of the country. It seeks a solution to the problem within the forces operating in Nepal. The call for a general strike is the key demand here. The problem with the Nepalese Maoists is that in the past they have called strikes and then called them off, as if the working class were a tap of water that you can turn on and off at your whim. Because of that there is no guarantee it will always respond. The working class must be placed at the head of the nation. It must be the leadership, not an auxiliary to the guerrillas. The guerrillas should be an auxiliary to the struggles of the working class in the cities, not the other way round.

Indeed, a general strike is what is needed to stop the king. But a general strike also poses the question of power. If the king is stopped by a general strike, then it poses the power of the working class in a very stark way. If the working class is so powerful, then why should it limit itself to a bourgeois constituent assembly? Why can’t it build its own organs of power, workers’ councils, or soviets? Not posing this perspective actually weakens the movement. For many workers will think “why should we struggle, simply to pass power from one corrupt wing of the ruling class to another?”

Marxists support the call for a general strike, but we explain that it must go beyond that. If there were a successful general strike, this would change the whole balance of forces in Nepal. It would be seen as a success for the Nepalese communist movement and a progressive step forward. Even if the communists did not take power, it could – for a temporary period of time – swing the pendulum leftwards. This is something that none of the governments of the neighbouring countries want to see. They do not want to see a Nepal “creating instability” as they would see it.

In fact China’s position is that this is an “internal affair” and they do not want to know anything about it. All they want to be assured of is that Nepal is safe and stable. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan told a press conference after the coup that: “China respects the choice of Nepalese in developing their own country and sincerely wishes the nation to realize social security, economic development and ethnic pacification.” (Xinhuanet Beijing, February 1, 2005). This statement could be interpreted as somewhat of a joke, if were not talking about hundreds of activists arrested and brutal repression against the labour and student movement. That is another indication of the character of the Chinese bureaucracy and how far detached they have become from their own past.

The Chinese bureaucracy in fact is concerned about the possibility that Nepal may become some sort of model for the masses in India, China, etc. Any minimal reform gained by the masses can change the outlook for thousands of left-wing activists all over the region. Nepal’s king has seized power from his government, detained leading politicians and cut off communications with the outside world. Though this Himalayan country is a small, faraway place, its slide towards becoming a so-called “failed state” threatens to spread unrest, and even terror, across Southern Asia. That is what is worrying leading strategists of the bourgeoisie, such as the British journal The Economist. The statements published in The Economist of February 1, do not complain about the coup in itself. What they are concerned about is the reaction that the coup might provoke in places like India, Bangladesh, and Bhutan...

In fact India, the UK and the USA have condemned the coup “hoping that the Nepalese government returns to normality”. They are concerned the coup will only further destabilise the country. What they are defending is not genuine democracy where the ordinary people really decide on issues. They prefer the democratic façade, for this allows them to better control the situation. It also looks good on the international arena. At the end of the day there are Nepalese soldiers in Iraq. They are part of the so-called “coalition of the willing.” How can we have a dictatorship helping to build “democracy” in Iraq? It would be a rather embarrassing position to be in.

Where next?

The army was clearly behind the coup. The Nepalese army declared a new offensive against the Maoist rebels five days after the king sacked the government because it could not get peace talks off the ground. The army said the new offensive will “bring back the country from disaster”. This has little chance of success; the Maoists have been building up a base of support in the mountains that will be difficult to smash.

The new government, however, is being ambivalent. On the one hand, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has imposed press censorship for six months with immediate effect. It has prohibited all media from publishing any news report or comment against the royal proclamation or that helps terrorist and disruptive activities (according to the Deccan Herald, February 3, 2005).

On the other hand, they have declared, in the words of Home Minister Dan Bahadur Shahi on state television: “We ask the Maoists once again to come to the negotiation table and help to solve the present political crisis.” (Deccan Herald, February 3, 2005). But this seems more a statement to try to win time and support, allowing them to regain the confidence of foreign “democracies”, which in real terms means winning time to smash any opposition while the imperialists look the other way.

Clearly Nepal is in a deep social, political and military crisis. The coup is only an attempt on the part of the king and the oligarchs to smash the guerrillas and take overall control of the situation and try to get more international support, probably imitating the “soft dictatorship” of Musharraf in Pakistan. The problem for them is that the Nepalese masses have shown their readiness to fight, not only in the countryside but also in the cities with several general strikes and massive shut-downs.

The situation is clearly an explosive one and anything could happen. There could even be a foreign invasion (of India possibly), which would be presented as “restoring democracy”. The real aim would be to have a strong military presence in the country to stop the Maoist guerrillas from taking power. For the seizure of power on the part of the guerrillas is not at all ruled out. They have a strong base and mass support. If they did come to power their perspective would be one of establishing a democratic Republic based on a constituent assembly. They would thus seek the cooperation of the so-called progressive wing of the bourgeoisie.

Their only problem is that however hard they may try no such wing exists. Down this road they would be falling into a trap. In the present epoch the bourgeoisie cannot play a progressive role. The Nepalese bourgeoisie in particular can only exist as clients of imperialism. The recent coup has a logic of its own. It reflects the impasse of Nepalese society. On the basis of bourgeois democracy, on the basis of capitalism, there are no solutions to the problems faced by the Nepalese masses. The ruling class cannot give the masses what they want, which is jobs, decent wages, housing, food, etc. All they can offer them is continued suffering and further impoverishment.

Whether the present regime will survive will not be decided solely inside Nepal. The more powerful neighbours of the country will have a big say, as will US imperialism in particular. What these are worried about is that a dictatorial regime could actually end up strengthening the guerrillas. The differences of opinion among the Nepalese ruling class and the imperialists, is not one of democracy versus dictatorship. It is merely a question of how best to hold down the Nepalese masses.

The next few weeks will show how stable this new regime can be. Even if it survives for a period it will not be able to hold back the flood tide of mass struggle that is inevitable in Nepal.

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