Nepal: 'The changes don't belong to a party, but to the poor'

Issue 

I recently spent a week talking to people in Rolpa, an especially underdeveloped hilly district in Nepal's mid-western region.

It was here the "People's War" against the centuries-old feudal monarchy was launched by the Maoists in 1996. This struggle changed almost every aspect of Nepal's politics and culture.

The People's War, and the 2006 mass popular uprising, brought down the monarchy. Peace agreements ended the armed struggle by the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA).

In elections last year to a constituent assembly, tasked with drafting a new constitution for a republican system, the Maoists won the most seats. The Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists (UCPN-M), with a platform for a "New Nepal" without underdevelopment or poverty, leads a coalition government.

Rolpa is incredibly impoverished. There has been no development in most people's lifetimes. This has changed recently, as many have gained access to better drinking water and electricity.

I was able to visit a new hospital in a PLA camp, which is open to the public. Although it has very basic facilities, it is better than people in the area have ever had. It is a PLA hospital, but it mostly treats the general public.

Because of the central role of Rolpa in the People's War, it was also the scene for some of the worst police and army repression and violence. I spoke to many people about their experience of the war and the situation now.

Changes

I met Nongna, a 26-year-old woman who was in Rolpa through the People's War. She is a new mother.

Rolpa now has many children, as the end of the war has created an atmosphere conducive to raising children.

Nonga said that during the war, "the Maoists would come and just ask for food and shelter. But when the army came, they would kill and torture people. This happened every day.

"For this reason I joined the Maoists.

"There were always problems with the police and the army. But I didn't just join because of that. The Maoists had visions for the future, for liberation."

Nonga said that in the UCPN-M, there was more equality between men and women: "Women are able to participate freely."

In Nepal, you can physically see the difference between women active with the Maoists and those who aren't. Maoist women stand straight and tall, and are much more confident. They look men in the eye and interact in village life confidently.

Women not active with the Maoists, or in areas where the Maoists are weaker, tend to be quieter and more reclusive.

In Tila village, I met 21-year-old Dilip Mahendra, who has lived in Rolpa all his life. He said there were "lots of changes. Electricity is here now, there is an old aged pension."

He was also hopeful about the planned youth employment scheme. Through this, the government aims to give tens of thousands of youths loans to set up tourist, agricultural and other small enterprises to kick-start development and reduce youth unemployment.

Mahendra is a member of the Young Communist League, a mass organisation of Maoist youth. He said: "The Maoists would come to my school and talk to the students. They urged all youth to unite to help develop the country. That's why I joined."

I also spoke with a Dalit man (Dalits, or so-called untouchables, are the lowest caste in Hindu society and severely discriminated against). He told me: "There have already been so many changes. Before the People's War we faced many problems and discrimination.

"We would be humiliated for being Dalits, but since the Maoist movement, things have changed. Attitudes are different."

His family supports the Maoists: "They are doing good things, they are bringing change."

While I interviewed him, locals from different castes were in his home, eating and drinking with him. This would have been impossible just a few years ago.

Other groups

Near a PLA base, a flag of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified-Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) was flying. The NCP-UML are a more moderate, social democratic party currently in coalition with the UCPN-M.

Allegations had been made by the CPN-UML and other opponents of the Maoists that other parties are not allowed operate in Maoist strongholds. However, I met open and vocal supporters of the NCP-UML.

The village was plastered with CPN-UML posters and stickers (the Maoists still won the recent by-election).

I find the allegations hard to believe, especially since the local CPN-UML activists deny them.

I spoke to NCP-UML supporter Kahldi Magar Pun, an old man who has lived in Ropla all his life. Asked if it was difficult to be a CPN-UML supporter during the war, he said he never experienced problems with the Maoists: "At that time there was no police or army in my village, and when the Maoists came they would just want to talk and have some food and shelter."

He said: "The Maoists have done well, facilities have improved. There are roads and electricity and we didn't have that before."

I met 53-year-old Swedah Dukesi on the side of the road waiting for a bus. He is from Rukkum district, just north of Ropla, which was also a Maoist stronghold in the war. He wore a red flag badge and said he supported the CPN-UML.

Asked about the war, he said: "It was a dangerous time. The Maoists would come into the village and ask for food and shelter, talk politics and leave. The army would come and beat us, and accuse us all of being Maoists.

"The army would kill people. The army and the police were far worse than the Maoists."

I met an old woman who ran a small store. A supporter of the CPN-UML, she didn't speak much when I tried to interview her. However, she told me: "The changes that have happened and are happening don't belong to any political party, they belong to the poor people.

"We are the ones who have made the sacrifices for change, and we are the ones who deserve it."

I spoke to Gaurav Sharma, a 26-year-old PLA captain from a peasant family in Rolpa. He told me he joined the Maoist movement at 15: "Because I was still young, I wasn't allowed to be a fighter at first.

"So I joined and became an actor and a dancer in one of the cultural troupes. It was good, I got to travel widely all across Nepal.

"Once I was older I joined the PLA.

"In the early days there was no PLA training, everyone just had to learn by doing. After a while, we got more experienced.

"As our movement grew, we also received training from people who were ex-soldiers in the British and Indian armies."

Sharma explained that PLA soldiers want to be integrated with the old Royal Nepalese Army into a new army, as the peace agreements stipulate. "The political parties all signed agreements, but now they are trying to go back on them.

"We want the agreements implemented. Nepal needs a new national army, so we can develop the nation.

"We have no problems with most people in the army and police. More than 50% are okay. But there are those in the police and army — the officers especially — who are against the PLA and want to destroy it.

"We don't want them in the new army."

'Terrorists'

One woman I met was 28-year-old Diti Thapa. She told me why she joined the Maoists: "One day the army came to my village. My family were not Maoists, we were not a political family. But the army accused us of being Maoists anyway.

"They abused us, then they took my brother, husband and father, and shot them. And then they raped me.

"Because of them I have mental problems. I am always crying."

Some say that these aren't political reasons for joining the movement, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Thapa experienced the true politics of the old Nepal. It was a bureaucratic order with no limit to the brutality it showed to its opponents.

It is also worth noting that the guns that killed her family were likely supplied by the US government. The soldiers that raped her were likely trained by the US.

The US government labelled the PLA "terrorists" during the People's War to justify support for the brutal repression by the monarchy and its military.

Because Thapa had the strength to resist this brutality, she was a "terrorist".

If fighting against that type of brutality — incomprehensible to any reasonable person — means siding with "terrorism", then I know where I stand.

[Ben Peterson is ameber of the socialist youth organisation, Resistance, currently living in Nepal. More comments from Rolpa locals can be found at his blog