There was a time when the rebellion of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) used to be compared to the predecessor insurgency of the Sendero Luminso (Shining Path) in Peru, and its leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Chairman ‘Prachanda’) to Abimael Guzman (Presidente ‘Gonzalo’). But times have changed.
Guzman’s ‘outing’ was when he was captured in a Lima safehouse in 1992 and publicly paraded about in a cage by then-President Alberto Fujimori. On 13 October this year, he was again sentenced to life in prison, following a year-long retrial. In the case of Dahal, on the other hand, on 16 June this year the home minister went to fetch him in a helicopter from a village redoubt in central Nepal, and brought him to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s residence in a flag-mounted vehicle. In a crowded and hastily organised conference under a naked light bulb, in the presence of the entire political leadership of Nepal, Dahal held forth for nearly an hour. It was an extemporaneous tour de force, a far cry from the rantings of Gonzalo from his Lima cage.
The 12-year rebellion in Peru started in 1980 and ultimately cost nearly 70,000 lives; the decade-long conflict in Nepal began in 1996 and notched up a little over 13,000 deaths. It was not until the Shining Path decided to stop killing campasinos in the altiplano and to take the war into Lima that the Peruvian state became particularly concerned. In the Nepali instance, the Maoists decided to pull back just before their spiral into anti-political mayhem began.
The turning point could be said to be the Maadi blast of 5 June 2005, in which a bomb blew up a crowded bus in the Maadi Valley of Chitwan District, killing 35 villagers. Nepal’s active media and civil society were suddenly able to turn the mirror on the Maoists, and a process of introspection seems to have begun in an organisation that still retained a political core amidst the militarised cadre. The Maobaadi response turned out to be quite the opposite from the bloodletting that continued in Peru even after the massacre of 69 peasants in the Andean village of Lucanamarca in 1983
Actually, the Nepali Maoists seem to have decided to alter the course of their revolution as far back as 2003, in order not to go the way of every other Maoist movement. To begin with, the Maobaadi movement had become big enough to credibly reach for national positioning; at the same time, continuing on with armed conflict would undo all that had been gained. The decision to go for “open competitive politics” was the result of an insurgency that had not lost its political core to mindless violence, though getting very close to it, one which realised that both internal and external factors would disallow the takeover of Kathmandu Valley by an armed insurgent force.
Internally, even though thoughtless scholarship had it that the Maoists controlled up to 80 percent of the national territory, the rebel leadership itself knew that their fighters and militia were merely filling a governmental vacuum. The fact is the rebels were unable to set up a compact zone or a base area; the best they could do over a decade-long war was to attack district headquarters at night, never able to keep them during the following day. Externally, the international community would never ‘allow’ a Maoist takeover of Kathmandu, and the Maoists were quick to realise the Indian determination on the matter.
It was when the Maoists essentially gave up their People’s War without actually saying so – claiming to be experimenting with communism in the 21st century, and learning from the mistakes of Stalin and Mao to b oot – that the political parties moved to engage with them. This is what led to the supercharged People’s Movement of April 2006, which brought the Maoists above-ground and into Kathmandu. By participating in the People’s Movement without the gun, the Maoists gained a modicum of respectability, something that their military adventures of a decade had failed to deliver.
Dismantling the war machine
Now the challenge begins. There is no doubt that the CPN (Maoist) leadership is genuine in its desire to abandon warfare and join open politics. That resolve is the saving grace of the present situation in Nepal, and is also what makes the country a unique place for experimentation with peacemaking. The challenge, though, is how efficiently and convincingly the leadership can bring the fighters, militia and cadre into the flow.
How will a military machine be converted into a political party? The difficulty lies in the fact that the Maoist rank-and-file have been drilled with revolutionary fervour and talk of takeover of the state by force of arms. They have lost comrades in battle, and been blocked off from other avenues of individual progress for having been handed the gun. In addition, there will be a large group, gathered during the rapid Maoist expansion in the late 1990s and early 2000s, whose political commitment is suspect, and who are obviously enjoying armed power and the livelihood gained from it.
The political transformation of the Maoists will require something more than ‘arms management’. This euphemism is used by all parties in Nepal, and means disarmament of the Maoists, while ensuring that the Nepal Army is kept within barracks. The military structures and thinking that have defined rebel behaviour will now be the most crucial to transform if the Maoists are to evolve into a peaceful political force. This transformation seems to be happening at a pace that could be faster, and indicates a danger for the ‘politicalisation’ of the CPN (Maoist).
There is an increasingly evident separation between what the Maoist leadership says and what their cadre do. While the level of armed violence is down drastically for a country that a year ago was seeing an average of seven deaths per day due to army and rebel action, the fact is that the threat of the Maoist gun is currently still very much in effect. There is continuing harassment of the population on the back of this armed threat, in the form of country-wide extortion, abductions, activities of ‘people’s courts’, and takeover of numerous state functions, including policing and collecting customs duties. The political parties, at the ground level, find it difficult to enter areas where Maoist diktat still runs deep.
Indeed, ground-level animosities in general remain very high, and Maoist activists are more often than not carrying out localised vendettas. A reservoir of resentment is building against the Maoists among locals for having for so long had to follow Maoist decrees backed by threats of violence. This lack of coordination between Dahal’s statesmanship at the top and Maoist coercion on the ground creates obstacles for the ‘politicalisation’ of the CPN (Maoist).
The Maoist cadre now seem to be engaged in a last-minute show of force and fundraising, at a time when the state does not exist in large parts of the country. This lack of governmental presence is due to the fact the Seven-Party Alliance government (SPA) is a confused entity, currently applying all of its available energy to the peace process while neglecting to govern and administer. The inability to energise and deploy the Nepal Police, in particular, has put the public at the mercy of the Maoist ground-level cadre in villages, towns and now cities, which has also fuelled copycat rebel groups and bandit units alike. The Maoist leadership must understand the need for an effective police force, for when the peasantry may rise up against their local commissars and activists, especially in areas where there has been a harsh and heavy hand over the years.
It is obviously time for the Maoist leadership to rope in their wayward movement, and bring it in line with the plans to join open politics – to jettison the militaristic ways for the political way. Doubtless they will have to confront many contradictions in the process – most importantly the need to cajole the cadre away from the love affair with political violence after having groomed them for it – but the rest of Nepali society is bound to show forbearance and understanding, as Dahal and his cohort engage in dialectic. Everybody, including the SPA politicians, wants lasting peace, for which there is a willingness to make space for the Maoists.
With India having withdrawn its objections to the involvement of the United Nations in monitoring the ceasefire and constituent-assembly elections, the stage is set for an internationally supervised ‘arms management’ process. The negotiations between the SPA and the CPN (Maoist), essentially between Koirala and Dahal, have proceeded in fits and starts, but the movement has been consistently forward. The sticking point at this time is the schedule under which the Maoists will lay down their arms, for they are already committed to the UN for placing their fighters in up to seven cantonments.
The Maoists are extremely keen to join the interim government, which would organise the constituent-assembly elections, optimistically slated for early June 2007. Since it is not conceivable that one of the parties in the resulting eight-party interim government would have its own independent army, the need to lay down arms is clear. While Prime Minister Koirala has insisted on complete disarmament before the Maoists could join the government, it is likely that the rebels will be allowed to join with a credibly scheduled process of disarmament after their fighters are firmly located within cantonments. Once the Maoists are in government, and have firmly put their lot in with the political process and the constituent-assembly elections, the hope is that they would be hemmed in enough to rope in their wayward cadre and provide relief to the general public.
Showing remorse is probably the most difficult thing for a revolutionary Maoist group to do. About the time that Abimael Guzman was being handed his sentence in mid-October, Pushpa Kamal Dahal visited the survivors and victimised families of the Maadi blast in Chitwan. He apologised. This was without doubt the proper way to move towards converting the CPN (Maoist) into a political force, and the rest of Nepali society can only hope for more of the same – a show of genuine transformation from the top, which would force the rank-and-file to follow. Already, Chairman Prachanda has done more than Presidente Gonzalo could ever have been expected to accomplish.