Nepal: Revolution at the Top of the World
Li Onesto Looks at Eight Years of People's War
Revolutionary Worker#1230, February 22, 2004
When I was in Nepal in 1999, the Communist
Party of Nepal (Maoist) had been leading an agrarian-based
armed struggle against the Nepalese government for only three
years. The guerrilla forces were still mostly armed with primitive
weapons and an occasional modern rifle seized from the police.
They were carrying out relatively small actions--raiding isolated
police posts and attacking hated landlords and corrupt politicians.
Such actions sometimes led to the seizure and redistribution
of land and were popular among many impoverished peasants
who saw their oppressors run out of the villages and who benefited
from the social, economic and political transformations made
in the areas under Maoist control.
The fighting units at that time were squads
of 7-9 guerrillas and platoons with 24-30 fighters. In the
Maoist stronghold of Rukum, I visited a camp of "special forces"
which had been formed to carry out larger actions during the
boycott of the elections. This was part of an attempt at the
time to form company-size units of about 100 guerrillas. By
2002 the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which had just been
formally declared, had several permanent companies, and in
some cases was fighting in units of brigade strength--several
At the time of my trip, the Maoists were
also in the beginning stages of establishing political authority
and organization in the villages. The party had divided the
areas where they were active into three zones. (1) "Guerrilla
Zones" where there was a police presence and fighting and
armed resistance was taking place; (2) "Propaganda Zones"
in urban areas where the regime's power remains strong and
the main aim is to prepare the ground for eventual insurrection--and
the main forms of work are political education, mass activities,
and building support for the struggle in the countryside,
including among the middle classes; and (3) "Main Zones" where
they were in the process of establishing "base areas" that
would serve as embryos of "red political power."
Less than three years later, by the end of
2002, the People's War had made impressive advances, expanding
the areas under its control, as well as developing new institutions
of "people's power." The government structure of VDCs (Village
Development Committees) had broken down in much of the countryside.
Elected VDC chairmen had either left the area or quit their
posts and were working with the Maoists. And politically,
the government had little if any presence and authority in
the countryside. The Maoists had established base areas not
just in the Western Region, the stronghold of their revolution,
but also in the Eastern and Central Regions. They stated that
in the Western Region, 10 million people--out of Nepal's total
population of 23 million--lived in areas under their control.
Reports in mainstream newspapers and intelligence reports
admitted that the Maoists were active in most of Nepal's 75
How did the Maoists make such impressive
military and political gains in only three years?
In developing the fighting capacity of its
guerrillas, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) applied
the principles of Mao Tsetung's military strategy--tactically
pitting "ten against one" and strategically "one against ten."
For example, they intensified their military assaults on weak
links of the government, mainly the less fortified police
posts. They recognized that on a nationwide level the revolutionary
forces were (and would remain) outnumbered by government forces--and
so, in an overall strategic sense, faced "one against ten."
But tactically, and in particular battles, they saw it was
possible to concentrate an overwhelming superior force to
wipe out concentrations of government forces-- with an orientation
of "ten against one." To achieve this, larger and larger units
of PLA forces were developed, first by bringing together three
platoons (about 30 guerrillas) to make companies (of 100 guerrillas)
and later three companies to make brigades. At the end of
November 2001, when the Maoists terminated a four-month ceasefire,
they launched an action that involved one battalion, two additional
companies and some platoons--a total of 1,335 from the PLA
and 700 militia.
The CPN (Maoist) consciously applied Mao's
strategy of protracted warfare. For example, when the government
tried to provoke the Maoists into a situation of a "fight
to the finish," the PLA avoided all-out battles and instead
took the approach of waging guerrilla warfare, luring the
government forces deep into "red areas," encircling them and
striking big blows at their weakest links. In these red areas,
broad popular support has provided the Maoists with intelligence
and reconnaissance and local militias play an important political
and military role. As military units of the People's Army
have grown and the level of warfare advanced, smaller units
and guerrilla actions have continued to play an important
In this way, the guerrillas were able to
successfully carry out military actions, even with primitive
weapons and relatively small fighting units, and the police
were increasingly put on the defensive and eventually forced
to stay holed up in their barracks most of the time. By the
end of 2002, government forces didn't control much outside
of the district headquarters and some parts of the Terai,
along the southern border with India.
The concept of establishing base areas and
new political power has been part of the program of the CPN
(Maoist) from the very beginning of the war and is seen by
them as a crucial component of their overall strategy.
As the police, officials and landlords were
driven out of the countryside, a new situation developed in
which the authority and institutions that had ruled over and
oppressed the people ceased to exist. The Maoists stepped
into this vacuum and set up a "new people's power." In 1999,
the guerrillas were just beginning to do this, organizing
local committees to run village life and "people's courts"
to settle disputes, distribute land, grant divorces, punish
rapists, etc. These were the beginning steps toward establishing
functional base areas.
The ability to consolidate such initial political
advances into real base areas was directly related to the
military advances being made. That is, the more the military
struggle was able to "liberate" territory and actually carve
out areas where the police and other government forces dared
not enter--the more the Maoists were able to consolidate their
political authority in a more ongoing, even if still relatively
In all of the guerrilla zones I visited in
Rolpa and Rukum, the Maoists had clearly established support
and were able to walk around in the villages in full uniform.
But travel through much of these areas at that time still
required that the guerrillas wear civilian clothes and travel
in the dark of night. And it was still the case that the police
were able to come in and out of these areas, making it very
dangerous for the guerrillas to stay in a village for more
than one or two nights at a time.
In early 1999 the CPN (Maoists) were still
in the process of carrying out their "Fourth Plan" of beginning
to establish base areas. Two years later, they had strong
base areas in the western districts and were accelerating
the expansion and consolidation of base areas in other parts
of the country. In the districts of Rukum, Rolpa, Jajarkot
and Sallyan in the Western Region of the country, "United
Revolutionary People's Committees" were openly exercising
power and functioning as the main organs of administration.
"People's committees" were acting as the embryo of new local
governments, running administrative, economic, social, cultural,
education and development departments and responsible for
local militias, "people's courts" and "people's jails."
All these military and political advances
by the Maoists were quite significant. But after five years
of fighting, by the beginning of 2001, they had not yet directly
confronted the main forces of the government-- the Royal Nepal
Revolution and Counterinsurgency
As it became clear that the police forces
could not stop the guerrillas, sections of the Nepalese ruling
class and foreign powers, including the U.S. and India, exerted
pressure on the King to mobilize the army against the Maoists.
Under Nepal's Constitution the King effectively
controls the Royal Nepal Army (RNA). But King Birendra was
reluctant to unleash the RNA against the guerrillas, which
only intensified the infighting within Nepal's ruling class--both
between the palace and the parliamentary forces, and within
the parliament itself.
This was the situation leading up to the
shocking events of June 1, 2001, when the King, Queen and
most of the royal family were massacred at a Friday night
dinner at the Royal Palace.
Few believed the official story that the
King's son went on a berserk shooting spree because his mother
didn't like his girlfriend. The King's brother, Gyanendra
--who would prove to be much more willing to mobilize the
RNA--was conveniently on vacation the night of the murders
and took the throne in a haze of suspicion.
Prime Minister Girija Koirala was then forced
to resign after a guerrilla action in which a number of police
were taken prisoner and RNA units nearby failed to come to
their rescue--highlighting the fact that the army was being
restrained. Gyanendra chose a new prime minister, Sher Bahadur
Deuba, who called for negotiations with the Maoists. In July
the CPN (Maoist) agreed to a ceasefire and several rounds
of talks--in which they put forward their demands for the
abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic;
the formation of an interim government; and a popularly elected
constituent assembly to draw up a new constitution.
During this ceasefire, both sides carried
out intense preparations for the resumption of fighting. The
government stepped up efforts to acquire modern weapons and
foreign aid while the Maoists used the break in fighting to
mobilize wider support and train their forces to carry out
more sophisticated military actions. Toward the end of 2001,
the Maoists announced the formation of the "People's Liberation
Army" and the United People's Revolutionary Council, which
would now govern areas under Maoist control.
On November 21, 2001, Prachanda, the head
of the CPN (Maoist), issued a statement saying there was no
reason for further talks since the government had rejected
the main demands of the party. Two days later the ceasefire
was dramatically ended when the guerrillas carried out actions
in more than 20 of the country's 75 district headquarters.
King Gyanendra declared a State of Emergency
and suspended many constitutional rights--ushering in months
of repression with widespread arrests and, in the countryside,
the killing of thousands of suspected "Maoist sympathizers."
Censorship of the press was harsh and widespread. Newspapers
openly sympathetic to the Maoists were forced to close, their
editors and writers arrested. The Maoist newspaper Janadesh
was raided and shut down and its editor Krishna Sen was jailed
and later murdered in custody. The government also went after
mainstream newspapers that wrote anything about the Maoists
the government didn't like. Editors and writers were interrogated
for simply printing quotes from Maoist leaders. In August
2002, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists reported that
over 130 journalists had been arrested since the State of
Emergency was declared in November 2001.
The resumption of fighting between the PLA
and the government came less than two months after the September
11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York. And the new
U.S. "war on terrorism" created a convenient rationale for
the Nepalese regime to enlist greater international support
for its fight against the guerrillas. The Nepalese government
joined India in putting the "terrorist" label on the CPN (Maoist)
and went on a concerted campaign to get support from other
In February of 2002, U.S. Secretary of State
Colin Powell went to Nepal and met with the King, Prime Minister,
and top military generals. Commenting on this visit, the Kathmandu
Post got at something real when it said, "Call it the
`September 11 syndrome,' but the fallout from America's global
war against terrorism has helped to line up important international
constituents behind Mr. Deuba's [Nepal's Prime Minister] own
war against terrorism."
The U.S. and the UK led the way in stepping
up political and military support for the embattled Gyanendra
government. Soon after Powell's trip, the British Chief of
Defense Staff, General Michael Boyee, also visited Nepal to
meet with army personnel and the King and toured RNA bases
in the Western and Eastern Regions. In May, Prime Minister
Deuba went to the U.S. to meet with President Bush and then
flew to London to ask for help there too.
Britain provided $40 million and the U.S.
came up with $22 million in aid. The U.S. also sent a dozen
military experts who surveyed different parts of Nepal in
order to map out operational plans for the RNA. In June 2002,
the British government hosted an international meeting to
discuss how to help the Nepalese regime. Mike O'Brien, the
Under Secretary of State for the foreign and Commonwealth
Office left no doubt about the position of the British government
when he said, "It is imperative that we help the government
of Nepal in its struggle against terrorism. We cannot allow
the terrorists to win. Nepal must not be allowed to become
a failed state." In October O'Brien convened a follow-up meeting
India also moved to shore up the Nepalese
regime--providing truckloads of military hardware and helicopters,
moving its own troops closer to the border and clamping down
on Nepalese living in India. Indian authorities arrested Nepalese
journalists and "suspected Maoists" and extradited them to
Nepal without trial. They arrested wounded Maoists from Nepal
who were being treated at private hospitals in India and handed
them over to the Nepalese police.
The Nepali government offered cash rewards
of NRs 100,000 to 5,000,000 (U.S. $13,000-64,000) to anyone
turning in top Maoist leaders, dead or alive. And in response
to a request from the Nepalese government, the International
Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) issued "Red Corner
Notices" (RCN) against top Maoist leaders--authorizing arrest
warrants in all 179 Interpol member countries.
The State of Emergency was formally ended
after seven months, but widespread arrests and killings by
government forces continued. In the year after the State of
Emergency was declared, the police and RNA killed more than
Then, with the ruling class still fractured
over how to deal with this escalating situation, the King
made a drastic move. On October 4, 2002, Gyanendra grabbed
all executive power, dismissed the Deuba government, and indefinitely
postponed the national elections originally scheduled for
This extreme fissure in the ruling class
and the complete breakdown of the parliamentary structure
was the situation leading up to the second round of negotiations
with the Maoists which began at the end of January 2003.
The CPN (Maoist) analyzed that it could enter
into negotiations from a position of strength due to the military
and political advances it had made. On the other hand, the
government recognized they could not win through military
means alone and hoped that negotiations might provide some
maneuvering room to disarm and destroy the Maoists.
Several major leaders of the Party who had
been underground for years emerged to negotiate with the government.
At the same time, the Maoists utilized the ceasefire conditions
to hold huge public rallies in Kathmandu and throughout the
country. Top Maoist leaders like Barburam Bhattarai set up
an office in Kathmandu, made themselves available to the press,
and gave public speeches urging people to support the revolution's
King Gyanendra continued to exercise absolute
control, appointing a Prime Minister from the pro- monarchist
RPP (Rashtriya Prajatantra Party). Meanwhile, the Nepali Congress,
which had been the ruling party, and all the other parliamentary
parties were completely cut out of the government and the
negotiations. The five main political parties called for a
boycott of the government and held a series of street demonstrations
against the King. Hundreds were arrested, including senior
leaders of the Nepali Congress and the parliamentary-based
Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist).
This made for a very complex situation, as
both of these parties had been part of the government before
the King dissolved the parliament and in various ways had
been directly involved in the counterinsurgency campaign during
the 2001-2002 State of Emergency. This sharp division within
the ruling class only helped the Maoists--who took the opportunity
of the ceasefire to meet separately with leaders of the parliamentary
Throughout this round of negotiations the
U.S. provided military aid and training to the RNA-- delivering
5,000 M-16 rifles with the promise of 8,000 more. Development
grants for projects termed "insurgency relevant" were increased
from $24 million to $38 million. And the U.S. pushed through
a five-year "anti-terrorist" agreement with Nepal -- in which
the U.S. will provide arms and training to counterinsurgency
forces. As if to make a point, even after the Nepalese government
retracted the "terrorist" label it had placed on the Maoists
as part of the conditions of the ceasefire, the U.S. added
the CPN (Maoist) to its State Department "terrorist watch
In six months, there were two sessions of
talks between the Maoists and negotiators for the King. Then
on August 17, 2003, as a third meeting was taking place, RNA
soldiers murdered 19 Maoists in a village in the eastern district
of Ramechhap. According to Amnesty International, security
forces opened fire on a house where people were meeting--one
Maoist was killed and the other 18 were taken away and later
lined up and executed one by one.
Soon after this, Party leader Prachanda issued
a statement denouncing the "cold-blooded killings" and the
government's refusal to seriously discuss the Maoists' main
demands. (Negotiators for the King had declared they would
never accept the end of the monarchy through a constituent
assembly and the establishment of a republic, and demanded
that the PLA hand over their guns.) The next day, August 28,
the Maoists ended the ceasefire with several military actions
around the country.
Within days the U.S. and UK moved to more
directly intervene. The American and British ambassadors went
to the home of Nepali Congress leader Girija Koirala and asked
him to unite with the monarchy and the government to fight
the Maoists, arguing that opposition to the King only strengthened
the Maoists. The U.S. and UK ambassadors also visited the
head of the CPN(UML) to deliver a similar message.
February 13, 2004 marks the 8th anniversary
of the start of the People's War in Nepal. In only eight years
the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has accomplished a lot.
They have gone from primitive fighting squads to a People's
Liberation Army capable of mobilizing hundreds of guerrillas
and militia forces in battle against the Royal Nepal Army.
They have gone from areas of strong support concentrated in
the Western Region to base areas throughout the country where
new revolutionary forms of government are administering daily
As the People's War has continued to advance,
the Nepalese ruling class has been fraught with deep and seemingly
irreconcilable divisions. The deep economic and social inequalities
of Nepalese society continue to fuel the Maoist revolution.
The parliamentary parties are widely seen as corrupt and ineffective.
The King's move in October 2002 to dismiss the parliament
and usurp power eliminated any pretense of a democratic system--leading
to even deeper splits within Nepal's ruling class and further
cynicism among the people. The Royal Nepal Army has been bolstered
with thousands of additional soldiers, training from the U.S.,
new modern weapons and helicopters--but has still been unable
to prevent the Maoists from gaining control of most of the
countryside. At the beginning of 2004, the Maoists announced
that they have control of 80 percent of the rural areas--putting
them in a favorable position to seize nationwide power.
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