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Nepal’s blocked revolution

Rupak and Ajay are both 20 years old, both Maoist militants in Kathmandu, and both believe that communism can save the world. “Civil war was necessary for our country,” said Ajay. “We won it, but we still don’t have independence or even self-confidence... We don’t want the Soviet system any more than the Chinese one. We need to go through a parliamentary system to change society. We want change to be gradual. Before achieving socialism we have to get out of feudalism through progressive capitalism, and defend everyone’s rights, especially indigenous peoples like us : we’re Tamang.”

Nepal’s population has doubled in 30 years to 27 million. In the capital it has risen by 60% in the last decade and cars have multiplied too, despite taxes levied on them since 2008 by the first Maoist-led government. The unrepaired roads are in poor condition, and it’s a feat to reach 30kmh among the hawkers, cycle rickshaws and tuk-tuks (motorised three-wheeler taxis). It’s cheap to ride the public buses into the city centre for 20 US cents, although tourists prefer small Japanese-made taxis. What would be 9-seater minibuses in Europe here seat 15, and often many more, though Nepalis who’ve succeeded in business and tourism drive highly taxed 4 x 4s. Rupak rides a little Indian-made motorbike. Roads are the rare places where all the classes intermingle — and the fast disregard the slow.

’We won the war, but not entirely’

Henri Sigayret, 76, a former engineer from Grenoble, France, said : “The Nepalis drive the way they behave.” After he accomplished the first 8,000-metre descent of Annapurna on skis in 1979, he fell in love with the mountains and the people. He has now lived in Nepal for 20 years and has become a Maobadi, a Maoist partisan. He compares them to the sans-culottes of the French Revolution of 1789. “The poorest people in Asia revolted and fought against a monarchy, a caste aristocracy and a feudal bureaucracy.”

“We won the war, but not completely. We won the elections, but again, not completely,” said Hit Bahadur, former minister and member of the Central Committee of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN-M). When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in November 2006, the Maoists controlled three-quarters of the country. They were in a position to depose the king, eradicate the caste system and elect a Constituent Assembly. But they did not have enough rebel troops to take the big towns and an army backed by the US, UK, India and even China.

On 28 April 2008, against all predictions, the Maoists came ahead in elections to the new constituent assembly and won 229 seats out of 601 (30% of the votes and 38% of the seats through a semi-proportional representation system) (1). They beat the Nepali Congress Party (119 seats), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist, CPN-UML) (109), and the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (83). The Maoists got their republic, but a consensus to pursue the peace process was harder to obtain. The future constitution must be adopted by a two-thirds majority of members of parliament and the political manœuvring has resumed, punctuated by blockages, threats, street demonstrations, and rifts followed by hugs.

Who’s who politically

Western observers may be tempted to classify all the main Nepali political parties as being to the left of the political spectrum. Officially, the Nepali Congress has always presented itself as socialist. Its militants went underground in the 1950s during the struggle for democracy, but whenever in power the party always proved to be conservative, serving the better off and defending privatisation. As a reaction to that, communism became popular.

There are some 20 parties claiming to be communist. The first to play an important role after the popular revolt of 1990 was the CPN-UML, which turned out to be very centrist. Despite its rivalry with the Nepali Congress Party, the two remain close on key issues. The recent WikiLeaks publication of cables from the US ambassador to Nepal showed that he had close ties with CPN-UML leaders ; some, notably Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, were sending reports to the US (2). Communists claiming to be “Maoist” have portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin as well as Stalin and Mao on their banners and business cards but their political stance hardly differs from that of European social democrats. There is no question of nationalisation, a controlled economy or regulation, they prefer the “three Ps”, public-private partnerships.

These parties have internal currents, if not factions, often linked to a personality. The Maoists are split : on one side, Baburam Bhattarai, the current prime minister, who is a former party ideologue allied to the historic party leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda). On the other, the party’s vice chairman Mohan Baidya (Kiran) and his friends, who call Bhattarai and his allies “opportunists” or “traitors”, although they always join forces in discussions and voting in the assembly.

Bahadur, an activist since he was 14, was the political commissar of Nuwakot district during the war, and was imprisoned in India in 2004-05. He knows the road to a “new democracy” will be a long one : “The secular republic was a great achievement, but citizens still face the same poverty, the same problems. To deal with that we must first complete the peace process by integrating the former combatants and adopting a democratic constitution. The trouble is there are no declared opponents ; they all work behind the scenes.”

The conflict was a low-key civil war that killed more than 13,000 in 10 years, nearly two-thirds from government forces (3). In 2006, 19,500 combatants from the People’s Liberation Army were grouped together in camps under UN control. Since then the integration of rebels into the Nepalese army has been the main sticking point in politics. That led to the surprise resignation of the Maoist prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal after he failed to sack the army chief, General Rookmangud Katawal, who opposed integration despite the UN’s support for it. The president of the republic, Ram Baran Yadav, went over his prime minister’s head with the support of the other parties, leading to the collapse of the Maoist government, which then attempted to pressure the government through widescale street protests, but failed.

“Succeeding in the peace process is the only solution,” said Dhruba Raj Adhikari, the former chief of a rebel battalion. He lives in a small house in the suburbs, behind the Pepsi plant, one of the few factories in Nepal. His wife, Sunita Regmi, is also a former rebel. She lost her left leg in the fighting, in which her first husband died : “I don’t regret having taken part in the war. Personally, I lost a great deal, but at least our sacrifice has given something to the country.” But, Adhikari warned : “If we forget all those who fought for change, change cannot not continue.”

The parties agree

An agreement was reached between the four main parties (4) on 1 November 2011 providing for the integration of 6,500 soldiers into a special army division with a 35% contingent of Maoists that would protect infrastructure projects, forests and rescue services. Out of the 16,500 combatants in the camps in December 2011, more than 9,000 have agreed to be integrated. Very few have accepted training, but nearly 7,400 have opted for voluntary retirement with severance pay of between $6,600 and $10,600 (the minimum wage is $83 a month). Compensation has been earmarked for victims and a truth and reconciliation commission will look into disappearances.

The paramilitary Maoist youth structures (the Young Communist League) will at last be dismantled and land confiscated during the conflict will be restored. The Nepali Congress Party has acted as the self-appointed defender of landowners, and named 6,000 families affected by the land issue. In January the government set a limit to restitution by agreeing to recognise all the land transactions ratified by the guerrillas in the regions they controlled.

By accepting a “last” six-month extension of the mandate for the Constituent Assembly, the Supreme Court has started a countdown for adopting the constitution. The deadline is the end of May and the major parties have already agreed on most of the minor issues, but are still debating the boundaries of the federal units and the method for electing the executive.

Arjun Narsingha, a Nepali Congress Party figurehead, has discussed these issues amicably with Dinanath Sharma, spokesman for the Maoists and the new education minister. “We don’t want a presidential system, or federal constituencies based on ethnic criteria,” said Narsingha. Sharma said “We want the president to be elected by the people and an end to indecision and parliamentary instability. It’s also time to recognise the aspirations of the many peoples of Nepal to manage their own affairs. We should have the means to eradicate poverty and corruption, and give more rights to women and the lower castes.”

A compromise could be found in a mixed system with a directly elected president or prime minister whose powers would be curbed by strong parliamentary prerogatives. The federalism demanded by the Maoists and agreed to by all, in principle, is risky. “We want our own Sherpa state, with respect for minorities,” said Kripa Sur, the outgoing president of the Nepal Sherpa Association, people from the high valleys who are fewer than 0.5% of the population. If each minority group demands an independent state in a country with 92 languages, Nepal will fall apart.

Yet the devolution of powers to the village communities could improve the management of public resources. Decentralisation should also help end high-caste dominance over society. However, a balance between sufficiently coherent regions has yet to be found in a country where most of the wealth is concentrated in the capital and the fertile Terai plains, which are home to 50% of Nepali. The committee on state restructuring and distribution of state power has a project that divided Nepal into 11 regions, recognising a dominant ethnic group in each. But three committee members suggested just six regions on a purely geographic basis. The assembly will have to decide.

Poorest country in Asia

With a lower per capita income than Bangladesh or Afghanistan, Nepal is the poorest country in Asia (5). In human development terms, the UN ranks it among the very poorest African states, 157th out of 193. Even if poverty seems less overtly shocking here than a decade ago, the little wealth is poorly distributed, and in 2010, 25% were below the poverty line of $240 a year (6). There is a severe lack of access to clean drinking water, toilets, qualified teachers and doctors.

Every year 250,000 young people emigrate. At least three million work in India or the Middle East, an often badly treated workforce (7). According to official statistics, remittances from Nepali emigrants account for 20% of national income (8) and the real figure is probably higher. That is ahead of tourism, which attracts more than 500,000 people a year. The mountains are the main natural resource, yet their vast hydroelectric potential is virtually untouched.

The lack of investment in such a potentially profitable sector highlights the flight of savings, misappropriation of funds and shaky legal system for investors and donors. The troubles of the past few years have accustomed people to violence. The UN observes : “No person has yet been prosecuted in civilian courts for serious human rights abuses committed during or after the conflict and other emblematic cases of human rights violations” (9). But the most pernicious factor is the government’s historic powerlessness, identified by the International Crisis Group : “ The state … endures — and has survived the conflict surprisingly unscathed, and unreformed. This is partly because its own raison d’être is not serving citizens so much as servicing the needs of patronage networks and keeping budgets flowing and corruption going” (10). Even a little power will accrue wealth for a family and its courtiers. According to Transparency International’s 2011 report, Nepal is the most corrupt country in Asia after Afghanistan.

The absence of state explains how the high Bahun (Brahmin) and Chhetri (Kshatriya) castes continue to dominate, despite emancipation measures. According to academic Michelle Kergoat, “Quite apart from the problem posed by the monopolistic and relatively impermeable nature of that elite, high caste culture and practices are not really compatible with a democracy, but they do have an impact on Nepalese society and its development potential” (11).

The traditional parties’ inaction explains why the popularity of the Maoists extends beyond their supporters in the poor countryside. It is enhanced by their image of integrity. They hope to translate this into a clear election majority once the constitution has been adopted, even though real social progress is modest (a minimum wage and subsidies for basic necessities).

“ I’m full of hope for the future,” said Jyoti Adhikari, who runs the Annapurna Hotel and the Eco Trek agency. That a young entrepreneur like Adhikari, outgoing president of the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal, is betting on the “revolutionaries” to unblock society, shows just how far the Maoists have come. They are still officially listed as a terrorist organisation by the US (12). They are open to compromise, but now they need to prove they will not go the usual way of Nepal’s governments.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.

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