The new Red Army

Barry Stoller bstoller at
Sun Jun 24 08:29:30 MDT 2001

Boston Globe. 24 June 2001. In Nepal, a new Red Army emerges. Excerpts.

JAJARKOT -- At a time when hard-core communism has all but disappeared
from its one-time bastions in Moscow and Beijing, a hardy band of
barefoot Maoist guerrillas in the hills of this Himalayan kingdom are
busy plotting global revolution.

Tucked away 185 miles west of the capital, Katmandu, in a hilltop
headquarters -- reachable only by hiking for days from the nearest
goat-pasture-cum-landing-strip --the ragtag but well-read rebels expound
their lofty goals, unconcerned that they are out of step with [how
procapitalists like to perceive] history.

It is a just a matter of time, said Baburam Bhattarai, the
Indian-educated intellectual godfather of the Maoists, in an oft-quoted
phrase, before "we will hoist the hammer-and-sickle red flag atop Mount

Virtually unnoticed by the outside world, this small group of
Johnny-come-latelies to class struggle is mounting a serious challenge
to Nepal's struggling young democracy. With scant outside support,
little training, and no shoes, a fighting force equipped mostly with
antique muskets and homemade grenades has exploited the government's
neglect of its rural population to establish a foothold in almost every
corner of a country that is one of the world's poorest.

In just five years, the armed struggle has spread to 68 of Nepal's 75
districts, embroiling two-thirds of the country's 24 million people. The
insurgency has taken an estimated 1,700 lives of police, suspected
rebels, and hapless civilians, though the rebels have not touched the
tourists, the leading source of foreign currency.

They have ambushed police stations, chased out village chiefs and
landlords, held elections, and set up their own governments. In seven of
75 districts, they have taken over; in two dozen others, they move at
will and hold public gatherings. Their strategists say that, like Mao
Zedong's guerillas, once they control the countryside, the capital will
fall, too.

In April, the insurgency took a savage turn. Rebels overran two police
posts, slaughtering more than 80 constables and shocking a nation that
has been largely opposed to using the army to crush the rebels.

The insurgency blossomed on fertile ground. A decade into Nepal's
experiment with democracy, living conditions have hardly changed in
rural areas, and the public is disillusioned with a system crippled by
corruption and political infighting.

With the country now in tumult following the June 1 massacre of the
royal family and Parliament paralyzed by the opposition, the Maoists in
the mountains are poised to make new gains.

Sitting cross-legged last week in a mud-and-log cabin on stilts guarded
by teenage boys with hunting rifles, Comrade Jiwan, the 36-year-old
primary school teacher-turned-party chief in the Maoist stronghold of
Jajarkot, said the fall of the Soviet Union and China's moves toward a
market economy are merely "small setbacks in the long-term goal."

"I'm not swimming against the tide," Jiwan said coolly, looking more
like a mild-mannered science teacher than a ruthless rebel leader in his
black-and-electric-blue tracksuit jacket and plaid pants. "We want to
bring the rest of the world that's against us to the right direction."

His 24-year-old aide-de-camp, Comrade Avash, added passionately, "It is
not our aim to establish a popular government only in Nepal, but to run
a global revolution."

Their success in Nepal -- despite a lack of support from their
ideological cousins across the border in China, the birthplace of Maoism
-- is rooted in disappointment over the failure of democracy to deliver
a better life. When the king instituted democracy in 1990, "people had a
lot of hope," Jiwan said. But, he said, landowners, usurers, and police
continued to exploit the poor until people could take it no more.

In February 1996, the Maoist branch of the Communist Party of Nepal, at
one time the third-largest party in Parliament, launched a "people's
war," striking simultaneously at police posts, banks, and other symbols
of state power in six districts. They found a ready supply of recruits
among the 100,000 rural youths who fail high school exams every year and
have no job or school to go to, said Chitra K. Tiwari, a Washington,
D.C.-based specialist on the insurgency.

The Maoists are now believed to muster 2,000 to 5,000 armed regulars,
backed by about 10,000 militia fighters. In a half-dozen districts, they
have forced police and civil servants to retreat into barricaded
headquarters; converted, silenced, or eliminated opponents; elected
leaders; and created "people's" courts and banks.

A half-day's hike through rocky hills and muddy rice paddies from
Jiwan's hideout, the embattled government official in charge of
developing this region sits trapped in his office, guarded by
sharpshooters in a decrepit palace on a peak. The government, he
admitted, controls less than 1 square mile of Jajarkot's 820, and has
been prevented by the rebels from implementing desperately needed road
and water projects.

The impoverished region was ripe for a Maoist takeover, said development
officer K. B. Rana, because the government failed to deliver the most
basic services. With the Maoists now running elections, collecting
taxes, and arming local militias, even meaningful government programs
cannot get off the ground.

In Jajarkot, annual per capita income is just half the $220 national
average, and the typical person gets 1.3 years of schooling, according
to United Nations figures. Thirty percent of the district's schools have
no buildings; classes are held on the grass or in a shack.

And no matter how well-intentioned a civil servant may be, he can never
claim the moral high ground against the rebels, Rana said. "The Maoists
are sacrificing their lives."

In the Maoist strongholds of Jajarkot, Rukum, and Salyan, villagers tell
miserable stories about life under Nepal's age-old feudal system,
confirming the rebels' charges that police sometimes raped village
women, that moneylenders charged outrageous interest rates, and that
corrupt local officials filed false court cases against their enemies.

A 19-year-old from a village that is two days' walk from Jajarkot
headquarters said that before the Maoist takeover, richer residents
exploited poorer ones in many ways, including charging 25 percent
interest on loans and tripling charges for late payments, often forcing
the poor to sell their cattle or houses. When Maoists began preaching
about people's rights, police targeted the houses that hosted them,
taking away all family members and often raping the women, he said.

The Maoists fought back with hunting rifles, warning landlords and
"capitalists" to move away, threatening police until they stopped
patroling, and burning down government offices. Six months ago, the
Maoists held elections in the village. Unopposed candidates, all
Maoists, were elected to the 13 posts.

They have undertaken no land collectivization or formal development
programs, but a team of volunteers helps all-female households with
their farming and pitches in when anyone builds a house.

They force teachers who used to shirk their duties to come to school
every day. They collect "taxes" by taking a percentage of the teachers'
government paychecks, a cut from the sale of livestock, and "donations"
from shopkeepers.

Compared with bloody insurgencies in Kashmir and Sri Lanka, where
casualties have numbered in the tens of thousands, the toll in Nepal has
been relatively low, in part, perhaps, because police are ill-equipped
and ill-trained to fight a guerrilla insurgency. The slain King Birendra
had resisted deploying the army, but after the vicious April attacks on
police stations, he was pressured to deploy soldiers alongside
development workers.

But twice as much money has been allocated for a new paramilitary police
force as for development, and one top official in Katmandu privately
called the operation "more search and destroy than hearts and minds."

Yet persuading people who live in rebel strongholds to rally behind a
distant government in Katmandu will not be easy.

A 25-year-old Jajarkot police constable was recently kidnapped by
Maoists and held for 11 days, forced to attend educational programs, and
urged to quit the police. The Maoist did not mistreat the policeman, but
they did not convert him either.  "If I rejoin the police, I'll be in
trouble," the young man said nervously, checking to make sure he wasn't
overheard. "But if I quit and go back to my village, the Maoists will
come and take me into their army. I still don't know what I'm going to


Barry Stoller

Proletarian news & Leninist debate

[photo attachment of CPN(M) on above site's version of this story.]

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