As a strike wave sweeps the country, the Maoist leadership agrees to banning strikes.
Since the Maoists emerged in the April 2008 Nepal elections as the largest party (though without an absolute majority) to lead the new coalition government, they have failed to heal existing divisions - in their own party, within the parliamentary political system and its ruling class - or within the intermingled social, caste and ethnic tensions across the wider society. In fact, all these divides have widened. And since November a strike wave has spread across the country.
Maoist 'People's Vanguard' versus striking workers
The ongoing strike wave is diverse(1); everyone from transport workers, labourers and poor villagers to doctors, teachers, students, journalists and other professionals are striking and blockading across the country. The demands are equally wide-ranging; wage rises to counter rising food and fuel prices, demands for better public services, local councils in remote rural areas demanding increased funding from central government, calls for land distribution to the rural poor. There are also many short local strikes and actions in protest at attacks, murders and intimidation by political factions; relatives of murdered victims demand compensation and investigation of the crimes. Some strikes are led by different unions (with their various political affiliations, including the Maoists), others actions are self-organised by participants. Therefore some will be a more genuine expression of self-organisation in pursuit of material need - while others may be called as political strikes to pursue, not workers interests, but only political advantages of one party faction over another.
And the conditions of life giving rise to the social unrest grow worse. Inflation of basic goods continues, the electricity infrastructure cannot meet anywhere near the demand of consumers; 16 hr interruptions to supply for "load-shedding" have become routine across the country and both domestic and business life is planned around them. (Some claim this is partly a result of the Maoist destruction of electricity sub-stations during the 10 year guerilla war and the subsequent decline in infrastructure projects.(2)) This frustrates employers and workers alike, limiting productivity for bosses and also lowering pay for workers who aren't paid for interruptions. The hungry bellies of the poor are rumbling with discontent, and even the professional middle classes are feeling pangs of frustration.
Faced with the unrest, Maoist Party leader and Nepalese Prime Minister Prachanda proposed to fellow politicians a ban on all public sector strikes, to which the seven major parties all agreed. In a recent press interview, just prior to the agreement, the Maoist governmental Finance Minister Dr Baburam Bhattarai tried to justify a ban;
Q: The business community's concerns are exactly what you stated. One, they say, the government's attitude to labour issues leaves a lot to be desired and that labour problems are getting worse. Second, there cannot be high growth until there is an adequate supply of power.
Bhattarai: I wouldn't say the situation is getting worse. Things were much worse in the past. But the people wanted very fast recovery; that hasn't happened. Things are improving but not to the desired level. Both the management and workers have a common interest now, for the development of the economy. They both fought against the feudalism, autocracy and monarchy. Now, to create a vibrant industrial economy, is in the interest of both the management and the workers. But this reality is not sinking in their minds. This government is playing its role in creating a healthy relationship between the two. There were some disputes, especially regarding the minimum wage issue. This has been solved. So what I appeal to the management is that they should provide the minimum wage. The workers shouldn't resort to bandas and strikes. If this understanding is honoured we'll have a healthy environment in the days to come.
Q: So the party wants to ensure that whenever there is a labour dispute, legal recourse should be taken?
Bhattarai: Yes. At least for some time, there should be no bandas and strikes in the industrial, health, education sectors, on the major highways, in the public utility sectors. The government is trying to build political consensus on this issue.
80% of Nepal's population is rural and amid the rocky mountain terrain there is a shortage of arable land (only about 20% can be cultivated) and a lack of infrastructure; unsurprisingly there is increasing seasonal and permanent migration to cities into casualised employment. But most of the country is too economically weak to develop much beyond a subsistence economy - and in the present global recession attracting significant foreign investment looks more remote than ever.
Nepal is in reality an underdeveloped capitalist economy with certain remaining feudal hangovers within social relationships. (These traditions are either declining or adapting to modern-day norms.) Abolition of monarchy and the pro-democracy movements in recent decades might be seen as part of an unfinished bourgeois revolution(3) - yet the Maoist leadership generally present their desire to move towards greater industrialisation as the beginning of a bourgeios-democratic revolution. The Maoists portray the present period as one in which Nepal is emerging from feudalism (as supposedly evidenced by the recent abolition of the monarchy; unlike, e.g, 'feudal' royalist Britain!) and so needs to build up a strong national industrial economy. The lack of a strong national entepreneurial bourgeoisie has hindered such a development in Nepal, and - like nationalist and leftist parties across the '3rd World' - the Maoists intend to play that developmental role themselves, in alliance with other 'progressive' bourgeios forces. The Maoist leadership are reported to be discussing with China the creation of Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in Nepal. SEZ's are industrial zones offering partial or complete tax exemption to foreign investors (and sometimes also to native capitalists) along with other financial benefits including stricter labour discipline. Having just passed the relevant legislation, their concern to impose stricter discipline on unruly workers is clearly linked to establishing SEZ's and a general desire to attract greater foreign investment;
KATHMANDU, Jan 22: After four years of finalizing the draft, the cabinet on Thursday endorsed Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act, paving way for the implementation of the SEZ projects in the country. [...]
...the Act treats SEZ as a land where other domestic laws related to labor and industries would not be applicable. It has mooted an autonomous SEZ Authority to oversee its operations.
The source stated that the ratification of the Act, which had so far lingered due to the differences over the tighter labor provisions, had became possible after the seven parties recently agreed not to launch strikes in the industries or disturb productions.
“The Act allows workers to unite and practice collective bargaining, but prohibits them from undertaking activities that affect production and normal operations of industries,” said the source. It also allows the entrepreneurs to hire workers on a contract basis. [Our emphasis.] http://myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=1357
Courted by rivals
Last year we observed;
Any future Maoist rule in Nepal, whether in local or central government is likely to try to model itself on the regimes of those Indian states run by local 'Communist' Parties - crude forms of municipal Stalinism with an increasingly market-oriented openness to foreign investors enticed by tax-free Economic Processing Zones. Much like those typically seen in other more developed Asian economies, but with even more 'competitive' wage levels. But that is so far wishful thinking for Nepal; one of the least developed economies with one of the least skilled workforces and a weak infrastructure - and consequently, so far, one of the least attractive investment options. http://libcom.org/news/nepal-terai-ethnic-strike-ends-concessions-01032008
Maoist leaders have expressed desires for closer economic co-operation with both its big brother neighbours. It is likely that in the long term, China intends to treat Nepal as an extended zone of its economic activity, somewhere with cheaper labour costs to outsource to, so as to offset rising labour costs in China. But, for the moment, the global recession limits the likelihood of such investments. Nepal's southern neighbour, India, is never happy to see closer relations between Nepal and its rival China, but it has its own economic leverage. India is downstream from the untapped hydro-electric potential locked in Nepal's great Himalayan water systems, has longed wanted to exploit it and can offer investment and expertise. China is investing in various infrastructure and transport links in poorer South Asian countries, but northern Nepal is hemmed in by the Himalayan peaks and so remains dependent on India for the continued flow of essential supplies across its southern border. It is a commonplace that Nepali politicians periodically use the anti-Indian nationalist card to distract from their problems and failings at home, as the Maoists are doing at present; but for all the nationalist rhetoric, they know any threat to an open border would be, at present, close to economic suicide. (This was illustrated when India expressed its dissatisfaction at Nepal buying arms from China by closing the border for several months in the 1980s - a move that progressively paralysed Nepal.)
The Nepalese and Indian armies have traditionally had a close relationship. The famous Ghorkas serve in both armies. The Indian army trains most Nepalese officers - there is such a close relationship that the Indian Army chief is honorary chief of the Nepali Army traditionally and vice-versa. The negotiations that are dragging on over how/if/when Nepal's Maoist ex-guerillas should be integrated into the Nepalese Army are therefore of some concern to India. The Maoists are attempting to gain greater control over the Army, causing serious unease in rival parties.
Old or new maoism for the Party?
A deep split in the Maoist Party has emerged; Prachanda and co.'s ruling elite are comfortably settled in their lucrative governmental positions(4) and appear to prefer to pursue a 'parliamentary road to [so-called] socialism'. Having ended the 10 year civil war after realising its limits as, at best, an indefinite stalemate between state and guerillas - and being forced to acknowledge that, in any case, powerful neighbours India and China would probably not sit idly by in the event of a bloody military coup likely to destabilise the wider region - the party leadership committed itself to parliamentary conquest and secured electoral victory.
Meanwhile, the lower level party cadre have gained little from the electoral road. Unlike in many other 'national liberation struggles', the Nepali Maoists did not decisively defeat other ruling class factions - instead, they achieved political power via a compromise with them. So many of the comfortable official posts are already filled; as one of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal has too few resources to expand its existing bureaucratic class or its entrepeneurial middle class sufficiently to absorb former guerilla personnel to their satisfaction. So, after ten years of war, what's on offer for those lower in the Party hierarchy seems scant reward for their efforts. Now a faction led by a senior Party leader Mohan Biadhya, popularly known as Kiran, are demanding an immediate progression towards 'full communism'; i.e., a one party state capitalist system in the style of traditional Maoism.
What's in a name? The PFDNR
These dissatisfied Party elements who want to 'march firmly onward to a communist state/People's Republic' are becoming more openly critical of the democratic gradualism of the Party leadership and their parliamentary roles. One recent manifestation has been the dispute over names; the pro-democratic faction wants to drop 'Maoist' from the party name and become simply the Nepal Communist Party. This is largely a gesture to the IMF and other foreign aid and investment providers, showing them that the NCP has put down the gun and embraced mainstream politics. But for the Party hardliners this is the most despicable renegade 'revisionism'. (Both sides are aware that such disputes and any resolution symbolically reflect the balance of power in the Party. Those who control the slogans, symbols, labels and icons remake the Party in their own image partly by the dissemination of images of the powerful; for the "vanguard party" they are an essential tool of hierarchical power. See "The Mao Cult"; http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/cult.html) Similarly, a long debate between the two factions at a recent Party conference over 'the way forward' included a clumsy compromise over the retitling of the the nation-state. As "blogdai", a cynically amused Nepali blogger, put it;
Those brilliant Maoists have been banging their heads together for six days to try and mend a catastrophic rift in their party. It seems most of the hard-liners want to announce an all Communist "People's Republic" immediately; while Prachanda wants to go a little slower so as not to throw the country back into chaos. After what blogdai can only assume to be an excruciating application of sheer brainpower, our boys in red have decided to call Nepal the "People's Federal Democratic National Republic." Just think of the expense in stationary this will incur! PFDNR Nepal.
The growth of political and economic gangsterism
The Young Communist League (YCL) is sometimes described as the disguised military arm of the Maoists, or, increasingly, as their paramilitary wing(5). In 2006, after the Maoists agreed to end their 10-year “People’s War,” they signed a peace pact with the government, thereby agreeing to confine their “People’s Liberation Army” (PLA) in designated cantonments under UN supervision. About 20,000 members of the Maoist PLA are living in forest camps as the government seeks to integrate them into the national Army. However, Nepal's military has said it doesn't want to accept the fighters immediately "because they are still politically motivated".
There is general disbelief at the small number of PLA fighters registered in the cantonments. It seems that the party transferred a substantial number of PLA personnel to the YCL so that they could move around freely, provide support to the party’s activities and continue their fundraising activities of extortion and protection rackets levied on businesses.
At present, the frustrated former soldiers have too much time on their hands, too little money and few prospects for advancement. This is a serious problem for the Maoist politicians and for the wider society. Their racketeering and extortion, intimidation and assassination of political rivals and critics destabilises the country, inhibits industrial production, retards the formal political process and encourages the growth of other paramilitary factions such as the UML 'Youth Force' and various ethnic/separatist groups.
Paramilitary or parliamentary?
The YCL has been both an asset and a burden to the Maoist leadership since the ceasefire. During tough negotiations with other parties, it has been useful for the Maoists to encourage a certain level of paramilitary activity by the YCL. It has served as a warning that, if the Maoists don't get what they want, the possibility of a return to guerilla war remains. It has also implied that if political concessions are not given, the Maoist leaders will look discredited in the eyes of their hotheaded youth and so risk losing control of them and/or be less concerned at reining them in. But now, as the two rival Party factions - hardliners and parliamentarians - face each other, who can command the loyalty of the YCL may become crucial. It seems likely that the hardliners may have the YCL on their side, the parliamentary road having delivered so little to the rank'n'file soldiers. Yet a hardline effort to immediately advance to a state of one-party rule would mean an attempted military coup; in effect, a probable return to an indefinitely stalemated guerilla war. So we could see a smaller Maoist guerilla faction taking again to the hills, while the Maoist politicians remain in Parliament. (The Maoist parliamentarians could retain their own paramilitary force and/or ally with other parliamentary groups.)
In response to growing post-election Maoist brutality, other political parties have formed youth groups. Youth cadre of the non-Maoist Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML)(6) - the third largest party in Parliament - have been abducted and murdered by the YCL; last week another was viciously attacked with machetes by YCL cadre. Now the UML Youth Force - itself accused of intimidation and involvement in extortion - is threatening its own 'People's War' against the Maoist-led government if the YCL are allowed to continue in their gangsterism. As one former UML leader put it, when expressing fears that the Youth Force may become as much of a problem as the YCL;
"If the ruling party itself keeps a paramilitary force then there is no reason why other parties won't also try to form their own," he said, adding "and if everybody starts to form their own paramilitary forces then the atmosphere in the country will be very dark. The Prime Minister should seriously think about this thing," Nepalnews reported. http://www.newkerala.com/topstory-fullnews-59575.html
This seems to be what is increasingly happening - "War is the continuation of politics by other means" - (Clausewitz).
Maoists have also intimidated journalists critical of their brutality and have admitted murdering at least one(7). Several newspapers have been targetted and temporarily shut down by Maoist trade unions and journalists attacked by Maoist goon squads; the union activity here being used for intimidating critics rather than pursuing workers' interests. The UML's Youth Force have also recently carried out a similar attack on a newspaper office.
In the southern Terai plains region an ethnic Madhesi movement (which includes ex-Maoists) continues to call for national independence for the territory and to compete with Maoists and other factions for paramilitary dominance of the area. A female journalist, Uma Singh, was killed in Terai last week; her murder may be a response to her writings against the dowry marriage-payment system that has such oppressive consequences for women in Nepal (8). But she was also critical of land seizures and extortion rackets in Terai carried out by a former Maoist cabinet minister (now sacked)(9), and her father and brother were 'disappeared' by the Maoists during the civil war. Some suspects have now been arrested, one a local Maoist leader.
Class, state or nation?
Back in 2006 during the popular pro-democracy protests that eventually toppled the King and preceded the Maoist ceasefire, we commented;
And the consequences for the development of any autonomous movement of self-organised class struggle beyond and against bourgeois democracy? The industrial working class is a minority in a predominantly peasant population. We make no hierarchies of one sector of the poor being more important or radical than the other; but the industrial workers have certain specific potential areas of struggle (transport, industry etc) that are unique to them and would be of crucial importance in any future movement. The rural and urban poor are dependent on an alliance with each other to affect any real change in their own mutual interests. So far they have only taken sides with one or other of the factions competing to rule over them. To go further than a more democratic management of continued poverty they will have to stop taking sides and start making sides. Despite the limits of the pro-democratic framework of recent events, many of the poor may have realised, through the flexing of their collective muscle, a sense of their own potential power to act more directly in their own class interests. Without wanting to be determinist, in the absence of an autonomous movement of the poor moving beyond demands for democracy, there will probably need to be a period of disillusionment with a new Kingless democracy system before any such autonomous movement will emerge.
Is the time ripe for such a movement, is it close and soon to emerge from the present confusion? The Maoists were, for many Nepalese, a hope for major change in the stagnating corruption of political life. But this illusion is evaporating. The options ahead look difficult for the ruling class and bleak for the poor - as the Parliamentary political process is impeded by distrust and the added decision-making problems of a coalition government; as parliamentary rivalries threaten to spill over into paramilitary war; as a split within the Maoists between gradualist democrats and one-party state capitalists looks more likely; as electricity infrastructure, food and fuel inflation hardships increase daily.
If the Maoist hardliners break away from the parliamentarians and take the YCL paramilitaries with them, this could easily spark a renewed civil war involving the national Army, various paramilitary wings of parliamentary parties (including Maoist oppositionists) and also smaller ethnic separatist groups.
Perhaps the one bright spark is the ongoing strike wave; maybe an independent social movement of rural and urban poor will emerge from the growing cynicism with the false promises of political solutions. Most Nepalis appear weary of war and many disillusioned with politics. But with these class struggles surrounded by a tangled web of intersecting ethnic, separatist, nationalist and political group tensions, and these divisions and rivalries becoming more brutal and militarised - the potential of an autonomous working class movement emerging look difficult, to say the least. And divided though the ruling class is, the one thing that unites them, from left to right, is the necessity to ban strikes. The politicians have already illustrated that - whatever the gloss put on it - they understand their conflict as an inter-class one to decide among themselves who will govern and exploit the poor, and by what methods.
1) http://www.nepalbandh.com/index.php - is a site that lists an updated chronology of 'bandhs' ([b-awN-dh] adj.: Bandh, a Nepali word literally meaning 'closed') - i.e. strikes and public protests in Nepal.
2) As one blogger in Nepal says; "The Maoists can not just shrug off from their share of responsibility to their bourgeois counterparts for accepting past mistakes. While the past Panchayat, Kangressi, & “hijda” UML governments were certainly corrupt to their bone-marrows, the Maoists should not forget that they were also running a parallel government for the past 15 years. During their People’s War, the Maoists claimed to control all Nepal’s territory except Kathmandu and not only obstructed new development projects but also destroyed the existing infrastructures – a revolutionary method of weakening the “feudal governments” by forcing people into the Dark Ages. The Maoists even used to warn people not to expect any construction projects, as they were uprooting the remnants of feudalism." http://drdivas.wordpress.com/
3) See our earlier analysis; http://libcom.org/news/article.php/nepal-maoists-protests-analysis-2006
4) See our earlier comments; http://libcom.org/news/nepal-a-nice-little-earner-maoist-ruling-class-lenins-footsteps-12052008
5) See our earlier comments on the YCL; http://libcom.org/news/democratic-stresses-nepal-its-regional-implications-21062007
6) Somewhat confusingly, the non-Maoist 'Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist' (UML) is a long-established parliamentary party, while the Maoist party - until recently the 'Nepal Communist Party (Maoist)' (NCP-M) - has just merged with/absorbed the smaller CPN-Ekata Kendra Mashal (EKM) and so become the United
CPN-Maoist. Though, as noted in the text above, the 'Maoist' may soon be dropped.
7) "In 2007, a year after signing the peace agreement and pledging not to attack the media, Maoists killed journalist Birendra Shah in southern Nepal. For almost a month, the former guerrillas denied having a hand in Shah’s disappearance. However, after continuous pressure by Nepal’s leading media organization, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, [the Maoists] accepted responsibility. The main suspects accused of actually carrying out the attack are still at large." http://www.isn.ethz.ch/isn/Current-Affairs/Security-Watch/Detail/?fecvnodeid=118628&groupot593=4888CAA0-B3DB-1461-98B9-E20E7B9C13D4&fecvid=33&ots591=4888CAA0-B3DB-1461-98B9-E20E7B9C13D4&lng=en&v33=118628&id=95232
8) Dowry is a financial obligation paid by the bride's family to the family of the bridegroom. (Less commonly, in some cultures payment can be in the opposite direction -referred to as "bride-price".) On dowry, see; http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?menu=c10400&no=319188&rel_no=1 and for speculation on the caste basis for dowry and bride-price traditions; http://www.hindubooks.org/sudheer_birodkar/hindu_history/practices1.html