NEPAL: Building a new road in Rolpa

November 17, 1993

Benjamin Ball, Kathmandu

Since King Gyanendra seized direct power in February 2005, the Nepalese security forces have arrested hundreds of political leaders, trade unionists, student activists, journalists, and human rights defenders.

More journalists are currently incarcerated in Nepal, often without trial, than anywhere else in the world. So it is not surprising that the Maoist-led insurgency in Nepal, which on February 13 celebrated its 10th year, has attracted such little international attention, and the information — or disinformation — that has sieved through to the mainstream media is framed within the diatribe of terrorism.

Nepal's civil war is frequently depicted as a struggle between hardline insurgents and a legitimate state power, but, as Baburam Bhattarai, a top leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), observed in his 2005 book Monarchy Vs. Democracy: The Epic Fight in Nepal, "the real fight in Nepal is not between 'democracy' and 'terrorism', but between completion of the democratic revolution and restoration of monarchical autocracy".

The celebrated constitution that ushered in a parliamentary system in 1990 was effectively a rubber stamp for continued royal domination. Drafted by a committee nominated by the king, rather than an elected constituent assembly, the king retained command of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), and reserved the right to dissolve parliament, a measure that has since been taken.

The parliamentary process was from the outset a quagmire of chaos and corruption, with 14 governments in 16 years, none of them able to effect change. It was in this context that the CPN(M) broke away from the Communist Party of Nepal (Mashal), and declared its intention to lead the Nepalese people to take up an armed struggle.

Since then the armed struggle has created a parallel, revolutionary state, with its own army of more than 10,000 men and women equipped with thousands of captured weapons, and its own law and culture. This new state, which is divided into autonomous republics governed by ethnic minorities, is in a life-and-death struggle with the old state of the Nepalese monarchy and its class allies.

The CPN(M)'s liberated base areas now extend over 80% of the national territory, including most rural areas which are home to 85% of the Nepalese people.

Last November, I travelled to the Autonomous Republic of Margarat in the district of Rolpa, to work with the local people and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on the construction of a road through the region. While there I spoke with local peasants, PLA soldiers, members of mass organisations and party cadre, and was able to witness first hand not only what is being destroyed in Nepal, but also — and more importantly — what is being constructed in its place.

The road will traverse 91 kilometres of mountainous terrain to open trade between several small villages that hitherto have been connected by a foot-track. Nepal only has 8000km of roads suitable for motor vehicles. Consequently, distances are measured in the number of hours or days it takes to walk, and the majority of Nepalese are cut off from health facilities, schools, and national trade, despite astronomical amounts of foreign aid that peaked in 2001 to around one-third of the national budget.

By the time of my visit, 80,000 people had been mobilised to volunteer their labour on the road project, and, without machinery, they had enthusiastically dug and carved 35% of the road's total length.

Party cadre point out that such remarkable progress has been made possible by the political awakening of millions of people. "The masses are the base for the people's war", I am told. "Unless they are politically conscious and actively participating in the revolutionary process, our program will fail."

More than two million women participate in the All-Nepal Women's Association (Revolutionary), which is spearheading many of the drastic changes that are taking place in Nepalese society, mobilising women and men alike around the issues of women's liberation.

Historically, women have had no land or voting rights, may live for up to 13 years less than the average Nepalese man, and have been trafficked to India as prized prostitutes from ages as young as 10. It is estimated that up to 300,000 Nepalese women and girls currently work abroad as prostitutes.

The Maoists' popular support is founded on their proven ability to lead the people in making radical, practical and much needed changes. Historically, the land has not provided enough food for subsistence, and men have had to migrate seasonally or indefinitely to cities in search of work.

Land reform on the basis of "land to the tiller", the implementation of new agricultural techniques and the creation of people's communes has made agriculture sustainable, and "cottage industries" such as cloth and bag making have sprouted from the extra time created through distribution of labour.

The diffuse presence of solar panels has brought green-power to homes. People can now charge torches and radios, to listen to one of the party's seven radio stations that broadcast programs in many of Nepal's 100-odd ethnic languages.

The official language, Nepalese, is spoken and enforced by the upper caste Hindu elite, who prohibit the use of minority languages in any official capacity, including education. Literacy rates are less than 50% nationally; much less in rural areas and among women. This is being tackled in the liberated areas by the creation of "model schools" that teach mother languages, as well as Nepalese and English, within a curriculum based on the needs of the people, as well as the establishment of adult literacy classes.

A key component in this development is the PLA. Soldiers must seed, plough, dig, sing, dance, teach, learn, and, of course, fight. "Our weapon is our ideology", I was told. "We are a thinking army." Their remarkable success in the past ten years has certainly not been through military clout: they began with two rifles, only one of them worked. Forty percent of PLA soldiers are women, 80% are party members, and all of them are volunteers.

In practice, a "thinking army" means that everybody knows whom they are fighting for, and why. They are fighting for the people, and so, they are fighting for themselves.

The CPN(M) defends the right of the working people to use revolutionary violence, so long as lasting peace cannot be reached through political means. What they are fighting for is the abolition of the monarchy, the election of a constituent assembly, the creation of a republic with a multi-party democracy, and the institutionalised right to dissent.

On the occasions that the Maoists have entered into negotiations with the monarchy, it has refused to accede to these democratic demands and instead insisted on limited amendments to the flawed 1990 constitution.

Last November 21, the seven major parliamentary parties aligned themselves with the CPN(M)'s forces on the basis of a 12-point common program, which aims to reinstate parliamentary democracy under a new constitution.

While making formal criticisms of King Gyanendra's suppression of basic liberties, the Western powers continue to support his regime — claiming that the monarchy is a source of "stability" in Nepal. King Gyanendra's regime receives millions of dollars of military support every year from the US, India, Britain and China.

It is commonly stated that 13,000 people have been killed in the civil war, but it is rarely clarified that of these deaths, 10,000 have been at the hands of the RNA and police. Many people are killed in fake "encounters" in which dozens of "Maoists" are killed, but no weapons are captured.

The CPN(M) vows to abide by the Geneva conventions out of "revolutionary principle", however human rights groups have voiced concerns over some Maoist tactics. These must be monitored, however, in practice. The CPN(M) is not exclusivist on ethnic or religious terms, not anti-education or anti- development.

[Benjamin Ball is an Australian free-lance journalist.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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