Nepal: Revolution at the Top of the World

Li Onesto Looks at Eight Years of People's War

Revolutionary Worker#1230, February 22, 2004, posted at

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 hundred soldiers.

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 districts.

Guerrilla Strategy

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 role.

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 tenuous, way.

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 Army.

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 countries.

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 in Kathmandu.

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 5,000 people

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 November.

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 demands.

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 parties.

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 list."

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 village life.

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.