High noon in Nepal — eyewitness to revolution

Issue 
May Day march, Kathmandu. Photo courtesy Kasama Project.

On May 1 in Kathmandu, between 500,000-1 million people took over the streets in a dramatic show of force by Nepal’s Maoists to demand a return to civilian rule and a democratic process of creating a new, pro-people constitution. With the government refusing popular demands for its resignation, an indefinite general strike has been called from May 2 in what the Maoists are calling a “final push” to resolve the struggle for power between the poor majority and Nepal’s elite.

Nepal’s centuries old feudal monarchy had been finally brought down by a combination of ten years of “people’s war”, begun by the Nepalese Maoists in 1996, and a mass uprising in 2006. In 2008, elections were held for a constituent assembly to refound the country. The Maoists, standing on a pro-poor platform, easily won the largest number of seats.

However, the heads of the Nepalese Army refused to recognise the authority of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M)-led government. When other major parties backed the officers, the Maoists left government. A new coalition was formed by parties supporting the status quo.

The UCPN-M declared the new government illegitimate and a violation of the people’s will, as expressed in the 2008 poll. The Maoists turned to the people, organising a series of mass meetings, strikes and huge demonstrations across the country to demand civil supremacy and democracy be restored.

The struggle between the old elite and the growing mass movement led by the UCPN-M, is about to come to a head, with the May 28 deadline for a new constitution. US revolutionary socialist, Jed Brandt, reports on the situation from Kathmandu, This is abridged from a longer article, which can be found along with other eye-witness reports at Jesbrandt.net.

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There are moments when Kathmandu does not feel like a city on the edge of revolution.

People go about all the normal business of life. Venders sell vegetables, nail-clippers and bootleg Bollywood DVDs from the dirt, cramping the already crowded streets. Municipal police loiter at the intersections while traffic ignores them.

Revolutions don’t happen outside of life, but from right up the middle, out of the people themselves.

Indefinite bandhs (strikes) are paralysing large parts of the country after the arrest of Maoist Young Communist League (YCL) members.

Government ministers cannot appear anywhere without Maoist pickets.

With no central authority, all sides are claiming the ground they stand on and preparing their base. It’s messy, confused and coming to a sharp point as the May 28 deadline for a new constitution draws near with no consensus in sight.

The weak government holding court in the constituent assembly cannot command a majority, not even of their own parties. Seventy assembly representatives of the status quo CPN-UML party signed a letter calling on their own leader to step down from the prime minister’s chair to make way for a Maoist national-unity government.

The PM refused, repeating demands the Maoists dissolve their popular organisations and return lands seized from large landowners by the impoverished people who actually farm them.

Bracing for May 1

The Maoists have rejected any extension on a new constitution as a stalling tactic and are turning to the people. They are mobilising all their forces for a decisive showdown in Kathmandu.

Posters appeared overnight announcing the Maoist call for workers and villagers to converge on Kathmandu for a “final conflict” on May 1, International Workers’ Day.

The Maoists are calling for a sustained mobilisation, with the hope an overwhelming showing can oust the government with a minimum of bloodshed and stay the hand of the Nepalese army.

Thousands of recruits are being trained by YCL cadre in districts throughout the country, drilling with bamboo sticks in place of rifles.

Nepalese army commanders are threatening to put these protests down with force. The Maoists are preparing to defend the people from attempts at counter-revolution.

National assemblies of radical students, artists, intellectuals, ethnic federations, women, unions and trade organisations, were convened widely throughout April.

The Maoists repeat that they will not return to the jungle, or replay a guerilla struggle.

They will not retreat. The conflict will be decided frontally in the cities.

Tipping point

Nepal has two mutually-exclusive power structures: one is the revolutionary movement led by the UCPN-M, which has a powerful mass base among the people, a disciplined political militia in the YCL and the Maoist-led People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

The other is the apparatus of Nepal’s state — held-over from the monarchy, unreconstructed, backed by the rifles of the Nepalese army and the heavy weight of feudal tradition.

Land seizures by impoverished farmers co-exist with large plantations. Old judges still dispense verdicts to the highest bidder, while revolutionary courts operate in the villages.

King Gyanendra lost his crown, but retains vast tracts of land, a near monopoly on tobacco and a business empire.

Large-scale infrastructure remains largely under foreign ownership, but only operate when, and how, the Maoist-allied unions let them.

In short, the semi-feudal, semi-colonial system of Nepal is in place, but the organised workers and Maoist-led villagers hold a veto.

In Nepal, with the lowest life expectancy in Asia, people were taught that the poor would always be poor.

There would always be kings, lords, myriad deities and foreign patrons to look over them. Caste dictated behavior and expectations for most, justifying dull cruelty and vast human waste.

But things do change.

After the long struggle to bring down the king, people who never thought social change possible now believe they can end their poverty.

The Maoists changed the concept of politics from appeal-if-you-dare to revolution from the ground up.

Not everyone is happy. It is easy to find haughty conservatives that think any hope for the poor comes at their expense — and want to see the Maoists crushed.

Nepal’s embattled elites still have an army — the former, unreconstructed, Royal Nepal Army. The officer corps is steeped in caste ideology and disdain for the common people, supplied with modern weapons, and Indian and US advisers.

The PLA is training and waiting within United Nations-supervised military bases scattered across the countryside. The YCL is training new militias throughout the country.

The Nepalese army is confined to its barracks, concentrated in and around Kathmandu.

Dual power has produced a highly unstable stalemate between a revolutionary people and a weakened regime — a paper tiger with real claws.

The moment of decision is fast approaching.

Democracy

Over the past 20 years, passion has grown to see the people decide Nepal’s future, to have some form of popular democracy.

One of the fruits of that sustained struggle was the constituent assembly — through which elected representatives of the grassroots were supposed to craft a constitution as a framework for a new society.

It featured both direct election and sectoral representation to ensure that women, minorities and workers had direct representation.

The Maoists were willing to negotiate on almost every demand except for a constituent assembly. It’s a profound idea of an empowered assembly drawn from every corner for the purpose of remaking government and society.

This unprecedented assembly has been gridlocked since it convened. On one side, the old political parties want an Indian-style parliamentary system that is quite compatible with rural feudalism and caste oppression.

The Maoists, however, speak of a radical new people’s democracy where those excluded from politics will now set the terms.

The Maoists have used the assembly to flesh out their plans for a New Nepal. They drafted and popularised constitutional provisions for a future people’s republic — including land reform, complete state restructuring, equality for women, autonomy for oppressed minorities and an end to Nepal’s subordination to India.

Ambitious plans to redirect government investment in basic infrastructure like roads, sanitation and vastly expanded public education were scuttled when the Nepalese army refused to recognise civilian control after the Maoist victory.

The Maoists, the assembly’s largest party, left government.

The same callous ruling classes, who ignored the bitter poverty of people for decades, now claim to be Nepal’s only “democratic” alternative.

Yet everyone knows it was the Maoists who fought, braved torture and sacrificed many lives for constitutional elections — and won a popular mandate in that vote.

Accelerating

The Maoists are refusing to wait any longer.

Hundreds of thousands have been mobilised in peaceful mass marches in recent months. Such marches have been a vehicle for intensive mass organising and a gauge of growing partisan strength.

The logistics of moving people through the streets to each of the main government offices is practice for their seizure.

In short, the marches can be understood as dress rehearsals for a revolution.

On April 6, the Maoists held rallies in all of Nepal’s 75 districts demanding the unelected prime minister resign to make way for a new Maoist-led government. Further rallies are scheduled leading up to May 1.

Nepali revolutionaries are refusing to overextend their hand and act before the masses are conscious and willing of the need to act. Deputy PLA commander Prabhakar explained: “We will not take any action against this government. People at large will decide the fate of this government.”

The Maoists have been working hard to make the final seizure of power an act of the people, not a self-isolating putsch by the communists alone.

On April 15, YCL commander Sonam was arrested in Kathmandu on weapons charges. Thousands of people mobilised within the hour for a torchlight march to the jail. Sonam was released.

Backed by the defence ministry, commanders of the 96,000-strong Nepal Army began new recruitment this week in direct violation of prior agreements.

UCPN-M leader Ashok calls this a “conspiracy to invite civil war”.

For all its complexity, dual power in Nepal rests on two armies. The middle ground is disintegrating under the pressure.

Splits are appearing within all kinds of political forces — including the moderate leftist CPN-UML and reportedly among the army rank-and-file.

The UCPN-M says it is seeking to make its case “directly to the soldiers”.

Bishnu Pukar, a human rights activist and former leader of the revolutionary teacher’s union, said: “If the army acts against democracy, the people won't stand for it.”

Pukar was arrested twice in the fight for a new Nepal by the military. “Too many lives have been lost. There will be general rebellion.”

The Maoists are forcing a question of ultimate power that the people of Nepal will have to decide. Look to May 1 and the days that follow.

Footage of the May Day demonstration in Kathmandu below (seem more video footage here.

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