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Nepalese Maoists: Caught In Their Own Craftiness

Nepalese Maoists: Caught In Their Own Craftiness

By Sanjay Upadhya

The Nepalese Maoists’ mastery of creative ambiguity has helped catapult a ragtag band of ideologically motivated fighters into a formidable force. Now that art of artifice has come to haunt them.

Ever since King Gyanendra’s takeover of full executive powers on Feb. 1, rebel leaders have been imploring the mainstream parties to join hands against the monarchy. Maoist supremo Prachanda has been working overtime to prove his party’s commitment to a multiparty democratic republic.

In a statement Monday, he urged the seven-party anti-palace alliance to constitute a team to begin formal talks with his party. The alliance has responded cautiously, citing the rebels’ ‘betrayals’ in the past, and has urged the Maoists renounce violence first.

In the same statement, Prachanda said his organization was ready to hold talks with the United Nations to establish peace and democracy in Nepal. His comments came a day after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special adviser, Lakhdar Brahimi, began a five-day visit to the kingdom to help find a solution to the nine-year conflict.

Over the years, the Maoists have successfully employed evasion and equivocation to pit rival political forces against one another. Within parties, too, the rebels have exploited differences in order to expand their political space.

When the Maoists declared their “people’s war” in 1996, vowing to overthrow the monarchy, many in the mainstream saw the insurgency as a palace creation to defame democracy. The Maoists saw an advantage in being associated with the palace at a time when successive elected governments were becoming more brutal in cracking down on a spreading insurgency. The rebels, moreover, viewed such a perception as an effective way of dividing the two central players of Nepalese politics.

After King Birendra and almost a dozen other royals were killed in a palace shootout in 2001, the Maoists’ chief ideologue, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai acknowledged having established a working alliance with the late monarch. In a controversial newspaper article, Dr. Bhattarai wrote, “Despite our various differences of opinion, from Prithvi Narayan Shah to King Birendra the Shah monarchs' main contribution has been, struggling first against the English colonialists and then against the Indian expansionists, to help protect Nepali sovereignty and independence.” (Kantipur, June 6, 2001). He went on to add: “The Nepali people will evaluate highly the patriotic work done by kings from Prithvi Narayan to Birendra for many years to come.”

Clearly, the focus of Dr. Bhattarai’s exegesis was to undermine the new monarch when the institution was at its most vulnerable juncture in history. Maoist leaders began urging Nepalis to institutionalize the “embryonic republic”. That effort foundered on the Maoists’ inability to articulate why King Gyanendra, the sole surviving heir to the throne, should be viewed any differently from his predecessors.

Over the short term, the Maoists’ objective was to oust Girija Prasad Koirala from the premiership. The police, unable to contain the insurgency, had been suffering serious losses. Koirala had been unsuccessfully pressing King Birendra, the supreme commander-in-chief of the army, to order the better trained and equipped soldiers to go after the insurgents.

A month after the palace carnage, Koirala resigned, apparently having failed in his objective. Maoist leaders, who saw that as a victory, ruled out peace talks with any “Girija-type” leader. This was a thinly veiled ploy to ensure Sher Bahadur Deuba’s rise to power. Deuba, a former premier who had headed a government panel looking into ways of resolving the insurgency, had become the principal dissident in the Nepali Congress. Once in power, he declared a ceasefire and the rebels reciprocated.

The peace process ended four months later, when the rebels mounted coordinated attacks against army bases. Explaining the reasons for the failure of negotiations, Dr. Bhattarai later wrote: “Throughout the talks it was clear that Deuba was just a helpless dummy, while the actual player behind the scene was Gyanendra. (Though Girija Koirala [the previous Prime Minister] had his own agenda to sabotage the talks so that he could upstage Deuba in the Prime Ministerial chair).” (The Monthly Review, January 2002)

The failure of the peace process and the deployment of the army against the rebels came in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Deuba sought to project the military’s anti-insurgency campaign as part of the global war on terror. In early 2002, US Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Nepal and supported the government’s military campaign. During a meeting with U.S. President George Bush in the Oval Office later that year, Deuba won pledges of increased American military support.

When King Gyanendra dismissed Deuba later that year and took a more direct role in day-to-day affairs, the Maoists joined the mainstream parties in denouncing the monarch. Behind the scenes, they were preparing for fresh negotiations with the palace-appointed government. After the second ceasefire was declared in January 2003, Maoist leaders suggested there was a real chance for peace this time. The two intermediaries claimed that a breakthrough was possible this time precisely because the parties were not around to thwart things.

Indeed, the Maoists may have calculated that the palace, unable to sustain a two-front battle, would be anxious to cut a deal with the rebels. Dr. Bhattarai, who emerged out of hiding for the first time in seven years to head the Maoist negotiating team, virtually staked his claim to lead a new interim government. The U.S. State Department’s decision to add the Nepalese Maoists to its second tier of terrorist groups effectively foreclosed that possibility. By the time the peace process collapsed seven months later, Dr. Bhattarai began blaming the 235-year-old monarchy for most of Nepal’s problems. Quite a turnaround from the high marks he gave to the “patriotic work done by kings from Prithvi Narayan to Birendra” two years previously. Predictably, the Maoists’ criticism of the monarchy had lost much of its credibility.

The credibility crisis has extended to the Maoists’ stand on India. Until last year, Dr. Bhattarai was regularly unleashing diatribes against the evil designs of Indian expansionists on Nepal, especially its vast water resources. For several weeks after the royal takeover, Dr. Bhattarai, who even his worst critics admire as a prolific analyst, maintained a mysterious silence. There were reports that he might be under some kind of disciplinary action following a power struggle over the party’s stands on, among other things, the monarchy and India.

Then the details started coming in from the protagonists. Dr. Bhattarai had registered what he called "a note of dissent" challenging the decision of the party's central committee to impose its leadership on both the Maoist military and political wings. Moreover, he questioned the propriety of Prachanda's photo being put together Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao.

Prachanda’s response was equally caustic. Dr. Bhattarai's arguments, he said, “have proved that he is not concerned about the party and the revolution, all he cares about is his personal position”. In an explanatory note, the party accused Dr. Bhattarai of moving toward helping "imperialists, expansionists and feudal military fascists."

In a tape recording recovered by the army, Prachanda was heard implying that Dr. Bhattarai was an “Indian agent”. Dr. Bhattarai responded, in effect, by calling Prachanda a “palace lackey”. The fault lines gripping Nepal’s fractious communist movement for over half a century began overwhelming the Maoists.

Last month, news reports suggested that Indian intelligence agents facilitated talks between Dr. Bhattarai and top Nepalese and Indian politicians in New Delhi. Prachanda’s statement that he had authorized Dr. Bhattarai to hold extensive consultations briefly raised the possibility of his rehabilitation.

According to some reports, Dr. Bhattarai recently confided in his former mentor, Mohan Bikram Singh, that he felt his life was in danger from Prachanda supporters. Although the official Maoist newspaper quoted Dr. Bhattarai as rejecting those reports, speculation over what may be an irreparable schism within the movement persists.

Despite their sharp differences, Prachanda is vying with Dr. Bhattarai to persuade India and the mainstream parties that the Maoists consider the monarchy as their primary adversary. The mainstream parties, whose leaders and activists have been the primary targets of Maoist attacks in the rural hinterland over the years, are naturally wary of the rebels’ motives.

They have cautiously welcomed Prachanda’s latest statement. Mainstream leaders have been consistent in their demand that the Maoists lay down their arms before any anti-palace alliance could be considered. Moreover, they point out that the Maoists have not formally renounced their ultimate objective of establishing a one-party republic.

The rest of the world, too, has a hard time accepting Maoist protestations of good faith when fighters on the ground continue targeting civilians in violation of Prachanda’s repeated pledges. Moreover, he continues to describe the “People's War” as “a totally new 21st century war [also against] the evil of the imperialist world, the hypocrisy of so-called democracy that a superpower like the U.S. represents.” (TIMEAsia, April 25, 2005).

Now, even a peacemaker of Brahimi’s stature and experience would be weighed down by such doublespeak.


Sanjay Upadhya, a Nepalese journalist based in the United States, has been a Fulbright Scholar at New York University

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