SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Nepal’s April revolution

NEPAL’S UPRISING has encouraged oppressed masses and scared rulers worldwide. When one million people on the streets of Kathmandu (Saturday, 22 April) broke through the heavily armed police cordons, even king Gyanendra understood he had to retreat.

It was a struggle between "armed repression against the public protests which had assumed the proportions of a civil war, with the people on one side and the king with his armed forces on the other". (Indian news agency, Rediff) The new government, strongly influenced by India’s rulers, is now attempting to derail the movement by involving the Maoists in constitutional changes without threatening the interests of imperialism and capitalism.

The movement in April had many classical revolutionary features. A general strike originally called for 6-9 April was extended indefinitely, involving civil servants, bank, telecommunications, education and health service workers. "Porters, street vendors, taxi drivers, factory workers and small farmers have put their work aside to take part", reported Nepalese journalist, Anuj Mishra.

The general strike gave confidence to the masses of youth, poor and peasants to participate in demonstrations in Pokhara, Chitwan and other towns. When the answer from the regime was shoot-to-kill curfews and brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrations, "something snapped", The Times of India concluded in an editorial. It became "a popular insurrection" (Financial Times), with the aim of reaching the royal palace in Kathmandu and overthrowing the monarchy. Staff from the cabinet secretariat, "business associations… and even the families of security personnel… started supporting the movement". (International Crisis Group, ICC) In total, six million people participated. Five thousand were injured by state forces and 19 killed. This in a country with 27 million inhabitants, of whom 40% are 14 years old or younger and at least 80% live in the countryside.

The parties ending up in government – Congress, CPN-UML (Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist) and Congress (D) - played no role in leading the movement. These parties originate from the Panchayat autocracy of 1960-90 and became ‘democrats’ only after the ‘people’s power’ movement in 1990. From 1990 to 2005 they held various positions as the king’s government with "a well-earned reputation for corruption, incompetence and inability to agree among themselves". (Financial Times, 26 April) In 1994, the Maoists formed a separate party that left parliament in 1996 to start its rebellion.

Only in the last week in April, some party leaders, encouraged by India and other powers, were able to use the demonstrations in Kathmandu as platforms. They did not dare to accept the first offer of negotiations with the king because they were "not in direct communication with the crowd" (ICC). But when the king agreed, a few days later, to reopen parliament the parties declared victory and called off the protests.

The governments in Washington and Beijing supported the king’s coup in February 2005 as a step towards crushing the Maoists and achieving stability. Beijing even sent arms to support the king’s war effort (in return, Gyanendra closed the Tibetan resettlement office). The Indian government was faster in understanding the hopeless position of the king and moved for a deal between the Nepalese Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists, settled in November in New Delhi. The aim was to bring the Maoists into mainstream politics as a lesser evil compared to continued war or a revolution. The Indian government used relatives of the Nepalese royal family and leaders of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for its diplomacy, even if the government in New Delhi did not exclude the use of its army (‘peace troops’) as a last resort.

In April, the rulers in Beijing feared mass rallies on the border with Tibet while the US ambassador, James Moriarty, warned that the king might have to flee the country. Therefore, both powers encouraged the parties and told the king to step back, but not resign. Particularly, the US warns that the Maoists might dominate a new government.

Despite some tough talk, the Maoist leadership so far has cooperated with the government. A new ceasefire has been established and about 700 Maoists will be released from prison. On 13 May, the Maoist leader, Prachanda, stated that he would lead a team for discussions with the government. Both sides seem to agree about elections for a constituent assembly being their priority.

The Maoist leadership in Nepal has always been politically unclear, in itself a sign of Maoism. With 15,000 troops in their People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and up to 50,000 in reserve, they control 75% of rural Nepal. In these areas, their new authorities have abolished caste and feudal rules, and established farming and fishing collectives. Women take an active part in the PLA in contrast to the position of women in Nepalese society as a whole.

The Maoists offer, however, no socialist perspective. Prachanda says that they are fighting for ‘people’s democracy’. In recent years this has meant no anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist demands, but purely stressing the struggle against the autocratic king. As Maoists, they are prepared to form fronts and combine programme with anyone who claims to be against king Gyandra’s coup.

The Maoists were as surprised as the SPA by the revolutionary movement in April. Following the reopening of parliament, a Maoist leader explained "our main goals have been to form an interim government with the presence of our Maoist party". The Maoists want to "earn the trust of the international community", he continued, and pose no threat to US imperialism or the Indian government.

Prachanda himself repeated that the Maoists want to "bring Nepal into a new era of peaceful political competition". "It won’t be any problem for the PLA to merge into a new national army", he said. The Maoists have advocated UN supervision over such a merger.

Such a harmonic development is, however, excluded. Prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala (Congress) and his deputy, K P Sharma Oli (CPN-UML), will not have the same room for manoeuvre as that afforded by the democratic illusions which existed in 1990. Even the Maoists will face criticism for betrayal from their own supporters if the only outcome is a new constitution (with or without the monarchy), a new name for the Royal Nepalese Army, etc. Nepal is extremely poor, with a few feudal families – including the king – controlling the economy tourist and carpet industries, the economic mainstays strongly linked to the Indian economy. Two thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day, most of them in agriculture producing on a family subsistence level only. Less than 50% can read and write.

"The popular upsurge for change is unlikely to end", commented Druba Adhikary, head of the Nepal Press Institute. This, alongside the profound crisis in the country, could pressurise the government to go further than it intended, as well as lead to a new collapse of the talks with the Maoists. At present, however, the government and the Maoists have some prestige, but no programme to deliver what the masses need.

The only way to achieve serious land reform, and education and health services worthy of the name, is through a socialist and democratic revolutionary party and movement leading the struggle for nationalisation of the resources of the king, the feudal-capitalist class and imperialism. Democratic workers’ committees, including armed defence militias, should be formed in the cities, as well as peasants’ committees in the countryside, linked together through a revolutionary constituent assembly. Appeals from such a movement to workers in India, Kashmir, Pakistan and China would get enormous response and spread the struggle for socialism in Asia.

Per-Åke Westerlund


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