Nepal: Maoist-Khmer Rouge Comparisons
Nepal: Maoist-Khmer Rouge Comparisons May Be Helpful
By Madan P. Khanal
The chief spokesman for Nepal’s Maoist insurgents has stressed that collaboration between the mainstream parties -- protesting against King Gyanendra’s Feb. 1 takeover of full executive powers -- and the rebel organization would be the only way of pulling the country out of its worsening spiral of death and destruction.
Talking to BBC Nepali Service on Tuesday, Krishna Bahadur Mahara reiterated that his party was ready to talk with “democratic forces within the country and any of the international forces” to achieve that goal.
On the surface, Mahara’s obvious intention was to forestall the possibility of an alliance between King Gyanendra’s regime and the parliamentary parties. There is speculation in Kathmandu that the king may appoint a leader of one of the agitating parties to head a government of national unity. The Maoists, after all, have not forgotten that the mainstream parties, in power until 2002, were the ones that began unleashing the full force of the state against the rebellion.
Mahara’s comments came a day after Maoist supremo Prachanda described senior alliance leader Girija Prasad Koirala’s call to hold dialogue with the Maoists as “very positive.” Prachanda, for his part, urged the alliance to appoint an authorized team to hold talks with his party on “all political issues.”
The statement prompted a cautious welcome from alliance leaders, who view the royal takeover as the beginning of a systematic effort to reduce their relevance. They, however, insist that collaboration with the Maoists could be possible only after the rebels renounced the use of violence in pursuit their political objectives.
Asked to respond to that demand, Mahara tried to justify his tactics as a “just violence.” That sweeping verdict must await the test of history, perhaps a complete Maoist victory over the state to be vindicated in the way Mahara would prefer. That, however, is an unlikely prospect. Mahara did acknowledge a vital point in the interview. Collaboration between the Maoists and the parliamentary parties had become possible also because the parties had assessed and evaluated their past.
Mahara’s call for a Maoist-mainstream alliance is all the more significant because he was one of nine members representing the United People’s Front (UPF) -- the forerunners to the current insurgents -- elected to Nepal’s first parliament after the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990.
The UPF called the parties’ compromise with the palace – that ended a three-decade ban on political activity -- as a sell-out and pressed with its agenda to abolish the monarchy. The front nevertheless decided to join the parliamentary process to expose its “bourgeoisie” character and prove that it was incapable of solving the nation’s problems.
Following a split in the UPF, Mahara and some of his allies joined another radical group to form the Nepal Communist Party (Maoists) and launched a “people’s war” in 1996. The other UPF faction, while still wedded to a republican agenda, remained in the parliamentary process. Nine years later, Mahara has conceded the urgency of unity between parliamentary parties and the Maoists to resolve Nepal’s problems of poverty and underdevelopment.
Now, the obvious question arises. Does Mahara acknowledge that his decision to break from the parliamentary process was a mistake? Did Nepal need 12,000 deaths and countless billions in devastation for him to recognize the error? What would have happened had the Maoists continued with the parliamentary process? If they truly represented the people’s hopes and aspirations, they could have enlarged their presence in the legislature. When remnants of the partyless system could go on to win up to 19 of the 205 seats in parliament, the Maoists’ potential could not have been circumscribed. But, then, there is little use in dwelling in the past.
The Maoists resent comparisons with the Khmer Rouge. That perhaps is the worst part of having one experiment outside of China in the quest to establish a Maoist utopia. Nepalese Maoist leaders, like their Cambodian equivalents, are well educated and mostly come from relatively better off families. The great majority of fighters, however, come from poor rural families, many forcibly conscripted.
The Nepalese Maoists welded a radical ideology with anti-colonialist resentments prevailing in the subcontinent. Their complaints against old-style Nepalese communists’ subservience to Indian communist parties helped them advance a powerful agenda against “Indian expansionism” that appealed to a substantial section of Nepalis embittered by perceptions and realities of domination by their giant southern neighbor. There inability to articulate with a basic degree of consistency, however, went on to question their credibility.
Indeed, the horrors committed by the Nepalese Maoists over the last nine years pale in comparison to those perpetrated by the Cambodian group. The Khmer Rouge regime is remembered mainly for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million people, through execution, starvation and forced labor. In terms of the number of people killed as a proportion of the population of the country it ruled and time in power, the Khmer Rouge was probably the most lethal regime of the 20th century.
Furthermore, it would be inherently unfair to compare an organization still involved in revolutionary struggle with one that went on to seize power and ultimately abuse it against the very people it claimed to speak for. What is equally true, though, is that the Nepalese Maoists have already exhibited many of the brutal characteristics of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Their systematic destruction of development infrastructure like bridges and communication towers, murder of innocent noncombatant, extortion, suppression of opposing viewpoints, closure of schools and colleges, and contempt for religious and cultural traditions, among other things, in a vain quest to create a new Nepal provide horrific pointers.
However, there may be some value in drawing comparisons with the Khmer Rouge, especially in that the Nepalese Maoists should know what not to do. Indeed, Mahara is among the more pragmatic leaders of the movement. During the brief peace process of 2003, the manner in which he went about reassuring the business community and international representatives of the policies and programs of a future Maoist government was admirable.
A Maoist return to the parliamentary process would certainly help achieve the true reconciliation Nepalis so urgently need. Mahara is too smart not to realize the stakes involved here. In terms of rank and responsibilities, Prachanda and Dr. Baburam Bhattarai are the equivalents of Pol Pot and Noun Chea. But the leader of the Nepalese Maoists and the group’s chief ideologue are locked in a bitter power struggle even before getting anywhere close to attaining their revolutionary objectives.
Each formal denial in official Maoist media of a deepening rift in the ranks is followed by a robust exchange of specific charges by the rival camps. Prachanda’s pledges to the international community that his fighters would not target innocent civilians are violated with chilling regularity.
While the two men fight out their battles, Mahara could emerge as Nepal’s Khieu Samphan or Iang Sary, men who helped facilitate Cambodian reconciliation by eventually reconciling with the political mainstream in their different ways.
Mahara’s latest appeal comes in the midst of United Nations special representative Lakhdar Brahimi’s peace mission to Nepal. Cambodia remains one of the shining examples of the United Nations’ peace-building activities. Indeed, Nepalis may have to delve deeper down the Maoist hierarchy to find an equivalent to Hun Sen, the one-time Khmer Rouge member who won U.N-sponsored elections in 1993 and continues to head the Cambodian government. Or perhaps not.