Nepal on the brink

Issue: 110

Yuri Prasad

For the last ten years the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal has been in the grip of a civil war, with the king and his Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) on one side, and the Communist Party of Nepal—Maoist (CPN-M) and their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the other. Nepal is bordered by China to the north and India to the south, east and west. At its centre is a large fertile valley which contains the cities of Kathmandu, the capital, Patan and Bhaktapur.

Although they are the political and economic centre of the country, at most 15 percent of Nepal’s population live in the valley and the urban centres combined. Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a largely rural economy. Unemployment is continually around the 50 percent mark, and the dominant agriculture sector is characterised by a system of feudal landlords and lack of investment.

An uprising in 1990 forced the then king, Birendra, to grant a constitutional democracy, the country’s first democratically elected government since 1960. But despite the fact that the left, including the mainstream Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), had a strong placing in the governments that followed, life for the majority of the population remained as grim as ever. There was no significant redistribution of land, no large-scale economic investment, and no improvement in Nepal’s dire social infrastructure. The palace acted as constraining force upon the elected governments.

In Nepalese society frustration with the lack of change was growing. In 1996, when the CPN-M—commonly referred to as the Maoists—initiated their ‘People’s War’ strategy, few seemed to take the threat too seriously. After all, the CPN-M were one of the smaller left wing factions in Nepal, and their cadre were largely urban intellectuals rather than guerrillas with a background in jungle warfare. Nobody dismisses the Maoists today. Estimates vary, but most commentators suggest that the Maoists control upwards of 80 percent of Nepal, and they command a well trained and increasingly well armed military force.

The Maoists’ aim was to create was to create what they call ‘Naulo janbad’ or ‘New People’s Democracy’, which would break the hold of feudalism and complete the bourgeois revolution. The force required to make such a break would have the working class and the peasantry playing the leading role, but the resulting state would not be one in which the working class and the peasantry were solely in command:

The fundamental character of the New Democratic or People’s Democratic republican state shall be the people’s democratic dictatorship with the participation of _all_ the progressive classes including the national bourgeoisie and oppressed nations/nationalities based on a worker-peasant alliance under the leadership of the proletariat.1

The Maoists calculated that it would not be possible to complete the transformation of Nepal by a parliamentary democracy since the king and the landlords, who are understandably keen to maintain the status quo, would resist such change with violence. After all, the brief experiment in democracy in 1959-60 ended abruptly when the king ruled that the parliament’s desire for limited land reform was a step too far and dismissed the government. In order for truly democratic elections to be held, the power of the vested interests would have to be broken. In the process of taking up armed struggle against the state, the Maoists would politicise the peasantry and a revolution would be born. In Mao’s words, ‘Political power would flow out of the barrel of a gun.’
The objectives of the first stage of the People’s War were to unite with the peasantry, to take up arms against the landlords and their allies, and to form ‘base areas’. The first attacks targeted landlords who were known to have terrorised the peasantry, police stations, agricultural banks (where all paperwork that related to loans was burned), distilleries and Kathmandu’s Pepsi Cola plant. The base areas that were being formed constituted districts where the Nepalese state no longer had a regular presence and was unable to enforce its writ.

After five years of struggle, the base areas strategy had succeed in depriving the Nepalese state of control of much of the countryside, while both the CPN-M and the People’s Liberation Army had grown enormously. But while the state was losing control, it was still able to act as a major threat to the future success of the People’s War. Periodic crackdowns by the RNA led to the capture and imprisonment of key Maoist leaders, and by using military helicopters the army was able to constantly harass the Maoists and the peasants, even in the base areas—thereby preventing many longer term agricultural and social infrastructure projects. Draconian laws were used to mount mass arrests. According to Amnesty International, Nepal has the highest number of disappearances while in state custody anywhere in the world.2

Representatives of the government, landlords and banks were not the only targets of the People’s War. Political opponents in the CPN(UML) and the Nepalese Congress Party were frequent victims of kidnap and assassination, which were often justified as actions against ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘informers’. Human Rights Watch is among many non-governmental organisations that accuse the Maoists of mounting indiscriminate attacks resulting in civilian casualties, coercing people into the PLA, and using child soldiers. These are all charges that the Maoists strongly contest. Nevertheless, these tactics have been features in many other wars fought by left wing guerrillas.

Recognising that they had hit something of an impasse, the Maoists decided to make a strategic change. The original Chinese version of the People’s War envisaged an armed struggle that would take many years, but it was looking increasingly unlikely that even decades of struggle in the countryside would be enough to break the Nepalese state. And without taking state power there would be a permanent state of war in the countryside. It was becoming necessary to consider ways of responding to the attacks on the base areas, and the repeated offensives by the RNA. The answer was to threaten the state on its home ground by placing more emphasis on organising insurrection in the urban areas. The policy became known as the Prachandapath, after Chairman Prachanda, the newly elected head of the CPN-M.

In the meantime, the monarchy had experienced a crisis of its own. In June 2001 there was a drunken massacre at the palace. Eton-educated King Birendra and four other members of the royal family were killed while sitting for dinner. The murderer was found to be Crown Prince Dipendra—who was well known for his fascination with automatic weapons. One of the few survivors was Prince Gyanendra, who was later crowned king.

In the same year the Maoists agreed to a short-lived ceasefire, and decided to use their legal united front organisations to develop tactics appropriate to the city—planning a programme of non-violent demonstrations and general strikes against the king, protests against caste and religious discrimination, and student strikes against high tuition fees. However, despite their ability to bring Kathmandu and much of the rest of the country to a series of temporary halts, the urban environment was much tougher terrain for the Maoists. The mainstream left parties had a much bigger presence and could not easily be ‘picked off’. According to the Maoists’ second in command, Baburam Bhattarai, the ‘vacillation of a large section of the urban and rural middle classes towards revolutionary change’ caused a rethink on the ‘last push’ into Kathmandu.3

By the end of 2001 the government had declared a state of emergency and escalated the conflict in the countryside, the ceasefire was over, and talks between the Maoists and the government had completely broken down. The government, backed by a flow of new international money to the RNA, thought that the time was ripe to launch a series of attacks against the base areas. It was supposed to be the beginning of the end for the Maoists, but the offensive failed dramatically and the government emerged from the post-ceasefire conflict in a weakened state. The Maoists, by contrast, secured and extended their base areas in the countryside.

For the next three years this pattern of renewed government offensive, followed by claims of decisive victory, Maoist counter-offensive, and reports of tens of RNA losses, was repeated and interrupted only by a series of short-lived ceasefires. Each new government assault, while disrupting the base areas and plans for their expansion, could not fatally destabilise the Maoist control of the countryside. In February 2005 the king, displeased by his government’s failure to deal the decisive blow to the Maoists, announced that he had dissolved the constituent assembly and declared himself to be an absolute monarch. From now on he would personally direct the fight against the Maoists. The king was to have even less success than his previous governments. Some estimates of how much of the country was controlled by the Maoists started to rise from about 75 percent to 85 percent.

However, the Maoists were forced to publicly acknowledge that they could not take and hold the urban areas with a military strategy alone.4 They began to talk less of their aim of a ‘people’s democratic republican state’ and more of a constitutional democracy, which they would work alongside other forces to achieve. CPN-M spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara spelt this out in an interview with the Financial Times in May 2005:

If we are to forge an alliance with the other parties we have to be flexible. We envisage a two-step revolution—first a multi-party democratic republic. If it was a genuine democracy, then we would work for the peaceful transformation of the state.5

In November 2005 the Maoists made a 12-point agreement with the seven main constitutional parties to fight for a new constituent assembly and replace direct rule by the king. This could represent a point at which the Maoists trade their gains in the countryside for control of the committee that would draw up a new constitution for Nepal. The agreement sent shockwaves through the palace and its backers. James Moriarty, the US ambassador to Nepal, warned that the agreement was ‘fraught with danger’:

The Maoists would be armed; the parties would be unarmed… This stark scenario leaves the parties and the people defenceless against ideological ‘partners’ long used to settling arguments with a gun.6

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the king’s military strategy was failing—despite the fact that the US had backed the RNA with $20 billion of military hardware: ‘If the king and his government opt for greater repression, their attempts will ultimately fail and Nepal will suffer greater misery and bloodshed’.7

In a desperate battle for legitimacy, the palace organised local elections to take place in early February 2006. They were a complete disaster, with turnout less than 30 percent across the country, and 55 percent of seats uncontested due to a lack of candidates. Parties that declared themselves to be boycotting the election had captured 90 percent of the seats in the previous contest. On the eve of the elections the Nepalese state even resorted to imprisoning candidates in order to prevent them from withdrawing their names from the ballot.

Meanwhile Chairman Prachanda went on a media offensive. He attempted to reassure his nervous political partners that he rejected the government systems of both Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, saying that he would be content with a constitutional monarchy in which all parties that are ‘opposed to feudalism and foreign imperialist forces’ could participate freely:

In the 21st century we cannot have a state like those of the 20th century… [We are looking at] the kind of state that is possible in the 21st century, how to give people the maximum possible rights; how to organise competition; and how to guarantee that this competition does not lead to oppression and suppression… People think that our commitment to the multi-party competition is purely a tactic and that we are trying to cheat someone. But in reality we have taken the experience of an entire century, discussed it, analysed it in our party, and we’ve come to a conclusion that the development of democracy is necessary in the 21st century.8

The governments of India and China have been watching events unfold in Nepal with increasing nervousness. India has a number of strategic interests in Nepal, one of which is water. The Himalayan kingdom is the source for many of India’s rivers, including the Ganges. Chronically short of energy for its expanding economy, India is particularly keen to act upon the potential of hydroelectric in the kingdom—something it cannot do while the civil war rages on. But India is also concerned about the effect a Maoist victory would have domestically. In the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Andra Pradesh the Indian state has been fighting a long-running battle with its own Maoist guerillas, the Naxalites. Any boost to the Naxalites would come at the expense of support for the mainstream Communist parties who are at present in coalition with the Congress Party government.

Some commentators believe that China also has much to fear from a Maoist victory. They suggest that Nepal will become a base for anti-Chinese radicalism in Tibet and boost pro-democracy forces in Lhasa. Under orders from the king, Nepal shut down the Dalai Lama’s cultural office in Kathmandu recently, and in return received 18 truckloads of arms and ammunition from the Chinese state. Ambassador Moriarty is clear: ‘If we have a Maoist state here exporting revolution, everyone in the neighbourhood is going to face difficult decisions’.9

It would appear that the king has played all his cards and that a return to some form of constitutional democracy is likely—and that the Maoists may be be in the driving seat. However, becoming a key component of a new government would seem to fall far short of the Maoist initial aim of Naulo janbad, and instead the CPN-M could merely become a radical social democratic party. Any assessment of this will have to ask questions. Would a coalition government be prepared to grant the kind of radical land reform that the Maoists have demanded? Would the new state tolerate the continued existence of autonomous areas across much of Nepal? And would the armed forces of the RNA be answerable to a government that included the leaders of the People’s War? The continued existence of an army that was loyal to a force other than the state, a constitutional monarch for example, would cause a crisis and force the Maoists to maintain the People’s Liberation Army. Then there is the question of the king himself. It seems unlikely that he would cease to act as the representative of feudal power in the countryside. In short, the vested interests may still be able to exert themselves. The prospect of a continuation of the civil war is a very real one.

However, it is also possible that the old state will simply collapse in crisis, rather like Somoza’s Nicaragua in 1979. The Maoists could then find themselves holding state power—possibly in coalition with the other main parties. Nepal, already desperately poor, will face massive pressure from the US, China and India combined. Any attempt to create a radical redistributive government will face external opposition. One response of a new regime to attempts to isolate it would be to extract ever more surplus from workers and the peasantry in an attempt to hold on to power. This would be a tragedy for all those who had expected that the Maoist victory would be the start of a new era in which they would start to reap the benefits of a modern state.

Another very different response would be to use the prestige of having overthrown a corrupt dictatorship, while redistributing land to peasants, in order to appeal to the millions of poor people in the countries that surround Nepal. Standing up to the power of the landlords and bosses is an idea that has built massive popular movements in India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh in years gone by. The Nepalese Maoists could become a beacon for literally billions of people who struggle every day just to put food in their families’ mouths.


1: Common Minimum Policy and Programme of the United Revolutionary People’s Council, Nepal, Article 1. See [italics are my emphasis].

2: Report on seminar on Peace, Democracy and Human Rights in Nepal. See

3: ‘Maoists Eye Multiparty Democracy in Nepal’, _Washington Post_, 30 July 2005.

4: Prachanda interview, BBC News. See

5: Isabel Hilton, ‘The King and Mao’, _Financial Times_, 14 May 2005.

6: Associated Press, 15 February 2006.

7: As above.

8: Prachanda interview, BBC News, as above.

9: _Financial Times_, 3 January 2006.