People's War in Nepal: Reaching New Heights in the Himalayas

by Li Onesto

Revolutionary Worker #1238, May 1, 2004, posted at

When the People's War in Nepal started in 1996, the fighters led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) were armed with only sticks, sickles, khukuri knives and a couple of guns. Three years later, when I traveled through the guerrilla zone, the Maoists still really didn't have any modern weapons. Most of the fighters I met had really old- fashioned single-shot rifles and relied mainly on homemade hand grenades and khukuris. I heard many stories about raids carried out in the first few years of fighting--attacks against local police posts and money lenders, corrupt officials and landlords. The guerrillas would always proudly report on how many weapons they had captured--"six rifles, one pistol and 300 bullets," or "eight rifles, one revolver and 780 bullets." I remember thinking at the time--how are they going to be able to fight and win with so few and such primitive weapons?

Today, after eight years of fighting, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has modern weapons, including GPMGs, LMGs, SMGs, SLRs, and rocket launchers.

When the Maoists initiated armed struggle in 1996 they had no people's army, no trained fighting forces and no experience in military warfare. They started off with only small "fighting groups." After six months the first squad was formed and after several months there were 32 squads (of seven to nine guerrillas). When I interviewed the Central Committee member in charge of the Maoist strongholds in the Rolpa, Rukum and Jajarkot districts, he told me, "Sometimes the squads had to retreat when the police came into a village where the squad lived. But when the police left, the squads returned and the village would be back in the political and military control of the People's Army. There were many ambushes of police, going from smaller to larger actions and also many raids of police posts and mining of roads where police were traveling. Some were successful, some not, due to lack of experience. We were learning warfare through waging warfare."

Again, these were impressive beginnings but still on a very small scale. The Maoists had squads and platoons (with 24-30 fighters) but had not yet formed any company-size units (of about 100 guerrillas).

By 2002 the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had several permanent companies, and in some cases was fighting in units of brigade strength--several hundred soldiers. Today the PLA has expanded to the level of two divisions, seven brigades, 19 battalions, several companies, platoons, sections and tens of thousands of militia. And they are able to mobilize thousands of fighters in a single battle.

When I was in Nepal, the Maoists were also only in the beginning stages of establishing political authority and organization in the villages. In the countryside there were "guerrilla zones" where fighting was going on. But the guerrillas had only just begun a campaign to establish "base areas" that would serve as embryos of "red political power."

Less than three years later, by the end of 2002, 10 million people in the Western Region--out of Nepal's total population of 24 million--lived in areas under Maoist control. And "United Revolutionary People's Committees" were exercising power, mobilizing the masses to administer production, the supply of basic necessities, education, sanitation, communications, transportation and the establishment of a judicial system.

Why and how has the People's War in Nepal been able to make such impressive military and political gains?

First of all, this is a real war of the people that has mobilized and gained the support of millions. Peasants want land. Women want an end to their deep oppression. National minorities want an end to discrimination and the brutal caste system. Youth and students want a future other than poverty and malnutrition. The people want an end to foreign domination. The Maoists have given concrete expression to all these aspirations--and provided the people with the necessary military and political leadership to fight for such a future.

In developing their fighting capacity, the PLA applied the principles of Mao Tsetung's military strategy-- tactically pitting "ten against one" and strategically "one against ten." 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." So, for example, they intensified their military assaults on weak links of the government, mainly the less fortified police posts.

The guerrillas consciously carried out Mao's strategy of protracted warfare--avoiding all-out battles and instead taking the approach of waging guerrilla warfare, luring government forces deep into "red areas," encircling them and striking big blows at their weakest links. Broad popular support provided the Maoists with intelligence and reconnaissance, and local militias played an important political and military role. In this way, the PLA was able to carry out successful 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.

From the very beginning, establishing base areas and new political power has been a crucial component of the overall strategy of the Maoists.

As police, officials and landlords were driven out of the countryside, the authority and institutions that had ruled over and oppressed the people ceased to exist--making it possible for the Maoists to set up a "new people's power." The more the guerrillas were able to "liberate" territory through military struggle, the more they were able to consolidate political authority in a more ongoing, even if still relatively tenuous, way.

Today the Maoists control 80 percent of the countryside in Nepal. And in the base areas the Party is leading the masses to exercise "red power"--to destroy the old oppressive system and its infrastructure of exploitation and oppression, and build a new economic base, new revolutionary forms of government, a new culture and new relations between people. In early 2004, several Autonomous People's Governments were formed--giving concrete expression to the Party's policy of granting autonomous rule and the right to self-determination among oppressed nationalities and regions.

These tremendous advances of the People's War have been made in spite of a brutal counterinsurgency. The Royal Nepal Army has carried out search-and-destroy campaigns in the countryside--killing, torturing and arresting anyone suspected of being a guerrilla or "Maoist sympathizer." A massive disinformation and censorship campaign has closed down revolutionary newspapers, jailed journalists, and spread lies and slanders about the Maoists. Nepal's ruling class has been in constant crisis, fraught with deep divisions and in-fighting, over how to deal with the growing insurgency. And in October 2002, King Gyanendra, in what amounted to a palace coup, removed the Prime Minister, assumed executive power, and dissolved the parliament.

Meanwhile, the U.S. global "war on terrorism" has provided new freedom for foreign intervention and support for the counter-revolution in Nepal. The Nepalese government has officially branded the Maoists "terrorists" and the U.S. State Department has put the CPN (Maoist) on one of its lists of `terrorist' organizations. The U.S. has given the RNA military training and advisers, at least $22 million in military aid and more than 5,000 M-16 rifles. Britain has provided $40 million and played a leading role in getting other countries to give political, financial and military support to the Nepalese regime. India has provided truckloads of military hardware and helicopters and is hunting down and arresting leaders of the CPN (Maoist) in India.

The U.S. is attempting to label as "terrorists" any movement that dares to challenge their domination--or rises up against a regime they support. Meanwhile, the system has worked hard to get people to embrace facile verdicts on people's wars--which in essence condemn the masses for daring to fight against their oppression. And there have been attacks and threats aimed at forces outside Nepal which politically support the People's War. U.S. State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher recently stated: "We have designated the Maoists under an Executive Order, blocking any Maoist assets in the United States or held by U.S. persons, wherever located, and bars U.S. citizens from most transactions or dealings with the Maoists." ( Kathmandu Post , April 24, 2004)

In such a situation it is important to distinguish between the unjust violence of the oppressors and the just violence of the oppressed. And people need to seriously discuss and understand the right of the people of the world to make revolution.

There are many who are inspired by the revolution in Nepal and oppose the counterinsurgency being carried out by the U.S.-backed Nepalese regime. But even those who do not support or have questions about the People's War in Nepal should oppose U.S. intervention--and cannot allow attacks on those who do.

If the U.S. is allowed to attack real liberation struggles and call them "terrorist". If those who politically support people's wars are attacked and called "supporters of terrorists". If those who say we need revolution are targeted and persecuted. If the government succeeds in distancing the most radical elements from other activists. If red-baiting tactics succeed in dividing the movement... this will affect all the people and put an even deeper blanket of repression on all progressive organizations, movements, thinking, and actions.

Is another world possible? Can humanity ever get rid of the inequalities between countries, nationalities, men and women, and different religions? Is there a path for the planet other than McWorld globalization and the jihad of religious fundamentalism?

Defenders of capitalism may answer this question by declaring that "communism is dead" and that the path of Maoist people's war is passé. But the fact is, in the Himalayas, new heights are being reached towards the goal of building a new society free of all forms of oppression and inequality.