by Stuart Munckton. “This is not just a Maoist movement,” Green Left Weekly’s correspondent in Kathmandu, Ben Peterson, said on the struggle that has erupted in Nepal. “This is threatening to become a new people’s movement, like the one that swept away the monarchy.”
Peterson was commenting on the large number of daily demonstrations across the country to demand respect for the people’s will. They have come in the aftermath of the forced May 3 resignation of Prime Minister Prachanda and other members of the government belonging to the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M).
Peterson described the events as a “soft coup”.
The resignations were forced by the insubordination by the military high command, backed by the president and sections of the coalition government.
The UCPN-M, which had led the coalition government until its members walked out on May 3, had tried to use constitutional measures to sack the chief of the army, General Kul Bahadur Katwal.
The army high command had refused to obey instructions from the elected civilian government. The high command refused to implement key parts of the peace accords that, in 2006, ended the armed conflict with the Maoist-led People’s Liberation Army.
Sections of the high command in the Nepalese Army, infamous for its human rights abuses during the armed conflict, even spoke openly to the Times of India on April 24 about an aborted plot for a military coup against the elected government.
It is difficult to imagine a more blatant threat to democracy. If the military is not subordinated to an elected civilian government, but is allowed to defy it openly on central issues, then there is no democracy — merely military rule with a civilian government as window-dressing.
However, Nepalese President Ram Baran Yadav, from the conservative Nepalese Congress party (NC), issued a decree countering the UCPN-M decision to remove Katwal from his post. This is despite the fact that under the interim constitution the power of the president is largely ceremonial.
The result was the creation of two military heads: the Maoist-appointed head and Katwal, who, backed by the president, refused to recognize his sacking. [The Council of Ministers had appointed Lt. General Kul Bahadur Khadka, the former second-in-command, as Acting Army Chief.]
Coalition partners, such as the social democratic Communist Party of Nepal-United-Marxist-Leninist, despite internal divisions, failed to support the UCPN-M decision.
With little choice, the Maoists called a press conference announcing they were withdrawing from the government. The Maoists called for street protests to defend democracy.
Just over a year since the historic declaration of a republic, which brought people out into the streets in celebration, Nepal has been thrown into a fresh political crisis.
The monarchy was overthrown through a combination of the decade-long Maoist-led “people’s war” and the 2006 mass democratic uprising. A central demand of the Maoists was for elections to a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution to create a “New Nepal.”
The central role of the Maoists in the democracy movement, and the degree to which the poor identify with them, resulted in the Maoists winning nearly 1 million votes more than their nearest competitor.
Seeking the widest possible consensus, the Maoists established a broad coalition government. However, the UCPN-M’s proposals for a peaceful and democratic pro-poor transformation of Nepal that were endorsed at the ballot box have been frustrated by opposition within the parliament, the state and even the coalition government.
The cause of the crisis is the moves of the elite, based in the political and military establishment, that seek to frustrate the popular mandate for a New Nepal based on equality and social justice.
The Nepalese elite are backed by the government of neighbouring India and the United States — both of whom fear the example of radical, pro-poor change in the region.
India, in particular, played a big role in bringing the Maoist-led government down. The former king and leaders of NC and the CPN-UML all visited India under various pretexts in the weeks before the anti-Maoist coup.
For the poor majority, the program the UCPN-M seeks to implement includes an increase in workers’ rights, land reform for the peasants, equal rights in a federal structure for ethnic and national minorities, access to education and health care, and a plan for extensive pro-people economic development.
In the lead-up to the crisis, while the bureaucrats and opportunist politicians were moving to stab the UCPN-M and its poor supporters in the back, the Maoist deputies were out in the countryside talking to the poor to gather proposals for the new constitution.
For all concerned, the stakes are high.
The elite, and their foreign backers, are terrified of the consequences of implementing the 2006 peace accords. These require the integration of PLA fighters into the existing army to create a new, democratic armed forces.
This could mean the military would no longer be a weapon in the hands of the elite to violently repress the struggles of the poor.
The poor, however, have every reason to fear the continuation of the unreformed old army, which committed great crimes against the people.
The situation remains uncertain. The Maoists are refusing to take part in any government and are boycotting parliament until their demand for the sacking of Katwal is met.
It is likely to prove difficult for the opponents of the Maoists to form a coalition government to replace the one that has now collapsed.
The UCPN-M alone controls 40% of the seats in the assembly. Also, the main point of unity among the other parties is opposition to the Maoists. All this makes it difficult for a government to be formed without them.
However, the situation is not simply determined by parliamentary numbers. Rather, the greatest difficulty facing the elite is the genuinely popular support the Maoists enjoy.
Peterson explained that recent events have only increased support for the Maoists. He said ordinary people he had spoken to everywhere, regardless of party affiliation, are furious at the actions of the president and the opportunist behaviour of parties like the CPN-UML.
He said the overwhelming majority of Nepalese people believed the undemocratic actions that had occurred had been organized by foreign forces like the US and India. There is incredible anger at those political parties that have allowed themselves to be used by foreign powers.
‘The mood is angry’
The UCPN-M has called for protests in the streets until its demands have been met.
“The protests have been many and all over the place,” Peterson said. “They are organized by a whole range of different groups. Every different group has its own protest. The mood is angry.”
The protests ranged from involving hundreds to tens of thousands, he said. However, he emphasized that these protests occurred simultaneously — there could be dozens of protests in Kathmandu at any one time.
“Many of the people I have spoken to at the protests were not Maoists,” Peterson said.
As an example of the mood, he explained: “The other night I was at the bus park, and about 20 people just waiting around for a bus spontaneously started chanting against the president.”
The foreign media have attempted to play up protests by right-wing Nepalese Congress supporters. The Sydney Morning Herald even featured a photo of an NC supporters’ protest with the caption “People’s Power.”
However, Peterson said that before the Maoists left government, there were some tiny protests involving a few hundred people at most. Since then, no such protests had occurred.
In some cases the police have attacked protesters, including tear gassing a demonstration by the Maoist Young Communist League. Police repeatedly attack attempts by protesters, mostly Maoist women, to demonstrate in front of the president’s offices. Protests in that area have been banned, resulting in regular clashes.
However, the state has held off from trying full-scale repression.
So far, the Maoists have also held back from full-scale mobilizations. They are yet to organize a centralized, all-out demonstration that calls the greatest numbers onto the streets together.
However, as the likely futile negotiations by the anti-Maoist parties drags on, that could be about to change.
Peterson said on May 9 that, over the last day, things had felt quieter. But he likened this to the calm found in the eye of a storm: “The storm rages and then it is peaceful as it passes over you — until the rest of the storm follows through.
“Right now, Nepal is in the eye of the storm.”
Peterson emphasized the determination of the Nepalese people to defend the democracy they won through great sacrifice. The people, he insisted, would not turn back.