Democratic stresses in Nepal and its regional implications

Nepali protesters

A brief look at some aspects of the political situation in Nepal today and its wider regional context.

The rapidly expanding economies of some parts of Asia have not been accompanied by a uniformly greater integration into Western structures of political administration. South Asia is experiencing a crisis of its democratic institutions; leftists, islamicists and nationalists compete with ruling powers for conquest of the state and domination of workers and peasants. In Sri Lanka the Tamil Tigers continue their bloody independence struggle; in Pakistan opposition groups organise street protests, including armed clashes, against the President; in Bangladesh the Parliament and political activity is indefinitely suspended as the military leads an 'anti-corruption' crusade. The major powers in the region are concerned about this destabilisation. India, China and the Western powers are worried that political instability is fertile ground for the growth of Maoist guerilla groups and also militant Islamic formations. Much of the remoter areas of the region are ideal terrain for opposition groups to establish para-military bases. In weak democratic states - i.e. weak in terms of cultural rootedness and in terms of convincing perceived benefits delivered by democracy to the mass of poor constituents - oppositional forces are able to exploit these weaknesses of function and delivery in the democratic process.

Nepal functions as a buffer zone between India and China, the two major powers of the South Asia region. The continued unrest and instability in the country is of concern to both it's big brother neighbours - competition for influence on political developments is considered important by all interested parties, the US, UN and EU included, for the long-term stability of the region.

The wild card of the YCL

Since the maoist insurgency in Nepal ended last year and their leader Prachanda led the party elite into Parliament the negotiations over the future role (if any) of the monarchy, a new constitution and the holding of elections have dragged on. After a decade of fighting, the maobadi troops, some of whom grew up as child soldiers in the army, found themselves with too much time on their hands. So the youthful ex-guerillas have been reorganised by the maoist leaders into the "Young Communist League". The YCL has caused some embarrassment for the maoist parliamentarians; since the official UN-supervised 'disarmament', extortion and its brutal enforcement have continued in the areas they dominate. This has damaged the popularity of the maoist Party (CPN(M)) - 'peacetime' is turning out to be not so peaceful for local businessmen who are beaten for resisting demands for greater 'donations', journalists attacked for reporting these actions and residents obliged to continue paying taxes to the YCL cadre. Maoist leader Prachanda has had to make a public apology for the excesses of the YCL heavies. So the Parliamentary leadership have now attempted to remodel the YCL as a public service organisation, "nabbing smugglers and the leakers of a national school exam paper, cleaning up garbage, clearing out the touts that plague Kathmandu airport, and directing traffic."

The YCL's current activities are based presumably on a number of factors;
1) Since the end of the guerilla war the young soldiers are at a loose end, many stuck in temporary camps awaiting implementation of demobilisation programs; so boredom and insecurity about their future encourage extortion and petty banditry as a possible long-term career.
2) There are rumours of internal conflicts and factions forming within the maoist camp - we can assume the Parliamentary faction, enjoying the lavish comforts of urban MPs, are considered by some hill and plains guerillas to have gone soft and reformist. While the MPs have secure political careers ahead, the rank'n'file troops face uncertainties and limited options.
3) The Parliamentary faction use the YCL as a reminder to other parties that they still have the means to return to armed struggle if they are not given the political concessions they want (as political wings always use their armed wings as a bargaining factor). They reinforce the idea that the maoist leadership must be kept 'on-side' in order to be encouraged to exert control over the YCL.

Perhaps the Maobadi leadership are trying to use the YCL in a somewaht similar way as Mao used the Red Guards during the 1960s Chinese Cultural Revolution . After years in the political wilderness following the disaster of his 'Great Leap Forward' programme (which led to millions of deaths from famine) Mao sought to regain control of the state and ruling Party. From his only remaining base of power - the Army - Mao encouraged the formation of student Red Guard units to attack his rivals in the state apparatus. Massive agitations were conducted across the country, with large Red Guard student detachments moving across the country and disrupting economic and social life for several years. But the Neplalese Maobadi leaders should also remember that Mao temporarily lost control of some Red Guard factions - some took his early calls for a 'commune state' based on the Paris Commune model too literately and 'ultra-democratic' and 'anarcho-syndicalist' 'errors' and 'deviations' had to be be ruthlessly 'corrected' by the standing army under the direction of Mao. (Some disillusioned ex-Red Guards later went into exile in Hong Kong and wrote interesting critiques of their experiences.1)

Much has been made recently by some Maoist supporters of the 'servant of the people' role of the troops in the maoist-controlled areas. While it may be true they have, for example, recently stopped some sandalwood smugglers operating, it has also been claimed that the smuggling has long been allowed in maobadi areas and taxes levied accordingly by the guerillas. Similarly a profitable trade in the Yarsagumba herb (cordyceps sinensis), reputed to be a 'natural viagra', is said to have been controlled for several years by the guerillas in the remote areas of the plant's habitat. Local peasant collectors pay a tax by weight to the maobadi.

The maobadi say they have abolished the child sex trade in the areas they dominate. This is probably true - but that doesn't prove that the other statist forces condoned it (though certain elements may have done unofficially). It only means that any power group with the long-term concentration of security forces that guerilla troops have in an area are able to control socio-economic activity to a greater degree than under normal state policing (which is generally minimal in remoter areas of Nepal). So it's not necessarily prooof of the higher moral stance of the guerrillas. And one has to take into account another form of child abuse practiced by the maoists - the press ganging/abduction of children into their army. Add to that the traditional sexual puritanism of maoism, as evidenced by the severe repression of gays and the guerilla leadership's claim that homosexuality is only a capitalist deviation that would not exist under communism.2

A visitor to Nepal reports that the maoists have instigated 'forced "strikes" whereby they told workers to strike or face their military justice (similar tactics in India have led to starvation of villagers who have no other work due to the Maoists seeking to raise working conditions but when they're unable to do so still refusing to call off the coercive strike... causing migrations). Moreover rival party members (stalinists) have been murdered in the Maoist occupied zones.'

This para-state role as tax collector and overseer of local capital accumulation has sustained the guerilla army through 10 years of war. Some who were recruited (or sometimes abducted) as child soldiers have known no other life and the legacy of the long 'revolutionary struggle' leave the majority of them with few options other than continued petty banditry and extortion or return to a civilian life of low-wage work in town or country. Should they be under any illusions as to how radical a restructuring of economic and social relations they have fought and died for, their leaders are clear that it's business as usual and the new political bosses will be much the same as the old;

We are not against foreign capital, says Prachanda
Maoist chairman Prachanda and senior Maoist leader Dr Baburam Bhattarai at the 41st annual general meeting of the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industries (FNCCI) in Kathmandu Monday, June 04, 07. The FNCCI general meeting kicked off on Sunday.

Maoist chairman Prachanda has said that his party is not against foreign capital and foreign investment.

Addressing the programme organised by Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI) on the occasion of its 41st AGM, Prachanda said, "There are concerted efforts to portray our party as being anti-foreign investment and anti-foreign capital. This is not true. We want to develop national capital and national industries. But we are not against foreign investment."

Prachanda accused that feudal and reactionary elements were trying to portray Maoists as being against nation's economy.

"We are not against foreign capital but we are against foreign hegemony," he said, adding that his party's refusal to receive commissions and its attempt to refuse to accept all kinds of conditions imposed by donors had ruffled the feathers of such elements.

He also said that his party does not stand against private property. "Some accuse us of trying to distribute poverty. But we want to distribute prosperity," he claimed., Jun 04 07

But the YCL may be a long-term problem for the Nepalese state; some guerillas may be integrated into the Nepalese Army, as planned, but others may prefer to take their chances as hill bandits. Some may even develop a critique of a sell-out by the Maoist leadership as they see them settle into their privileged lifestyle of Parliamentary careers.

On the southern plains

The YCL has also played a central role in the ethnic conflicts in the Terai region of the southern plains. Here the Madhesi's are demanding a greater representation in the national Parliament and there are rumours of intentions to pursue an independent Madhesi state. India foreign policy is involved in this political situation; they have alternately aided the maoist guerillas, then turned against them.

In earlier times, the Maoist leadership waging a war against the Nepali government was led to a believe that Delhi was acting for their benefit. Once the Maoists decided to join mainstream politics and become a part of Parliament as well as the government, Indian diplomats found it expedient to entice one or two breakaway Maoist factions and extend them support, on the basis of which they have launched a separatist movement in the southern plains called Terai. One of the leaders at the forefront of this "Madhesi" movement, Upendra Yadav, is a Maoist renegade who in 2004 was arrested on Indian territory with two of his comrades.

New Delhi quietly handed over the two to Nepali authorities but set Yadav free while he was still in Indian territory. There is a widely held perception that Yadav, who physically resembles the people of the nearby (to Nepal) Indian state of Bihar, is being used to sustain a hate campaign against Nepalis of "hills" origin. [...] [Put rather crudely perhaps, the Nepalis of the plains often have a closer resemblance to Indians - while those of the hill regions often resemble more the Chinese.]

Yet New Delhi was instrumental in making them a party to a 12-point agreement with the Nepali Congress-led front of seven political parties. One agreement led to another, and eventually the Maoists fully joined the constitutional process, finally becoming a part of the interim government on April 1 this year.

But now India sees them as a deadly menace, a sort of Frankenstein's monster. But the stinging question is: Who supported them so that they could be where they are now? AsiaTimes, 6 Jun 07

The Indian and US diplomats were central to arranging the integration of the maoists into the Nepalese Parliament as a means of stabilising the region. But now the threat of a maoist-dominated Nepal (depending on how well they do in elections) has its own dangers; the native Nepali political elite do not seem very skilled at containing the political ambitions of the maoists. One theory is that while India seeks to maintain Nepal as a buffer zone against China, they also seek to make an independent 'Madheshland' state on the Terai plains - a buffer within a buffer against possible maoist encroachment on their borders that could encourage stronger links with India's own peasant leftist Naxalite guerilla movements. A dangerous game, as a divided Nepal in turmoil could cause many other problems for India.

The Madhesi political movement has had several bloody clashes with the YCL in the past year, with 65 dead. The maoist attempts to repress the Madhesi movement, target activists, prevent rallies etc have been unsuccessful. As described above, there is a strong ethnic and caste element to the conflict; despite being supposed champions of the poor, the maoist leadership is (like leaderships of most peasant leftist movements) highly educated and in Nepal mainly from the high Brahman caste of the northern hill region (though the majority in the hill areas are obviously lower caste). In contrast the Terai plains are peopled by lower caste Madhesis who are under-represented in Parliament. The Nepali caste system and ethnic tensions have not traditionally been a cause of such violence as they have in India, but it's present influence on politics is obviously to some extent expression of a longer underlying resentment. Some commentators believe that India is capitalising on this by encouraging the unrest in the hope of engineering its breakaway Madhesi buffer state. But as always the relationship with China is uppermost;

"In a broader context, Indian is jittery over possible Chinese inroads into Nepal through the Maoists; here the interests of New Delhi and Washington converge. That the United States and India consult on Nepal has been made public by their officials on numerous occasions. In response to a US Congress committee query on March 22, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conceded that "our closest international partner in working on affairs in Nepal is India"." Asia Times, 6 Jun 07

Like all the other diplomatic players in the region, China blows opportunistically hot and cold in its relationship with the maoist leadership - the Chinese provided anti-guerilla military aid to the Nepalese King only shortly before he was forced to relinquish power a year ago; and Beijing always refused to recognise the Maobadi insurgents as true Maoists. Yet Nepali Maoist leaders have made several visits recently to Beijing as guests of the ruling elite. This closer relationship worries India and the US.

With elections to the Constituent Assembly postponed from June until November-December, interested parties will be concerned that Nepal does not fall into an indefinite suspension of democratic process as has occurred in Bangladesh. Even though it's widely believed that western powers encouraged the present situation in Bangladesh as a means to resolve the political stalemate, it is in itself an admission of instability and what geo-political analysts call 'failing state' vulnerability. The 'export of democracy' is not proceeding as planned in South Asia at present.

  • 1. See 'Red Guard - from schoolboy to "Little General" in Mao's China' by Ken Ling; Macdonald, London, 1972 and 'Red Guard - the political biography of Dai Hsiao-Ai' by GA Bennett & RN Montaperto; George Allen & Unwin, London, 1971.
  • 2. And all this is acceptable to win support even from some 'anarchists', sometimes justified because there aren't any more formal radical forces in Nepal - ignoring the fact that any more radical elements would quickly face repression from maoist guerillas. Even independent trade unionists have been killed or driven out of maoist-controlled areas. Supporting some of the more liberal NGO's would be more 'radical' than siding with the sexual feudalism of the maobadi. This 3rd worldism is just dumb opportunist and/or naive leftism pure and simple.