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The roots of Maoist insurgencyDecember 31, 2000
A few weeks ago I was staying with some old friends at their home just outside the valley. It is an ordinary Nepali home like millions of others throughout the rural areas with traditional mud floors and tiny wooden windows. I was sitting on the veranda enjoying my lunch when a stranger arrived and took a meal alongside me. Little was said between him and my host but she fed him nonetheless. I asked who he was but there was some reluctance to explain his presence.
"He's a Maoist", my host eventually whispered, "it's the only way we can help them".
He was dressed like any other Nepali youth of about 20. There was absolutely nothing to distinguish him except perhaps for his expression. It was almost empty but something in his eyes told me that suffering had hardened this young man.
After a little general conversation I asked him why he was living like this. Why had he joined the Maoists?
"I was persuaded" he answered.
"I told an acquaintance in a bahti one evening that I would shoot myself at the age of 30 if my life had not improved by then. He told me that rather than wasting my life away I should do something to try and change the whole system if I ever reached that stage. But the more I listened to him, the more I thought to join right away rather than waiting for things to get even worse. My life was draining away."
Ramkumar was a younger son and there was not enough family land in his village to divide with his brothers. So, like millions of others before him, he had travelled to Kathmandu at the age of 13 in search of work and some hope of a living. He eventually found a job in a famous Thamel restaurant where he cleaned floors and waited at tables for 4 years. Working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, he was paid just 2,000 rupees a month without security or even holidays to visit his family. I wondered how many Western customers paying virtually European prices for their meals ever realized that their waiter was being paid just 8 rupees an hour, about one fiftieth of the salary he would receive in the West. "I couldn't survive on that", he told me. "I shared one room with two others but it was still costing more than half my salary and there weren't even any cooking facilities. I could never save any money to buy anything other than the most essential items. I couldn't even afford to buy myself a beer or send my mother a single rupee. Because of my failure I was too ashamed to go home even if I had had the bus fare. I saw Westerners and rich Nepalis eating and drinking their full every day in front of me but I could only dream of eating like that. I saw them wasting food like they had money to burn but I didn't even have the time to eat the leftovers. And unless a customer put a tip directly in my hand, the management would simply add it to their profits. What future was there for me? If I complained about the pay I would be thrown out immediately and all of us would loose our room because no one had any money to spare to cover my contribution. So I wanted to kill myself just to end it all."
"But what did the Maoists offer you?" I asked.
"Food, shelter and a chance to fight for a better future - that's all. I couldn't save enough for the bus fare to India and I didn't have the chance of meeting any Western women to escape through marriage. So what was the alternative? It was better than shooting myself anyway."
And did he think the Maoists would change things for the better?
"They promise to end all this corruption going on everywhere. That's the main problem in Nepal today. And if they don't, then we'll shoot them as well. You see we've got nothing to lose anymore."
Not so long ago Maoist insurgency seemed a rural problem, distanced from the centre of government by dozens valleys of crossed only with rugged footpaths. Today armed cadres are poised at the very edge of the valley less than two hours from SinghaDurbar. Thousands of ordinary families support their network in the hills whilst more than 10,000 active party members operate within the capital in every walk of life. Students, bank clerks, hotel managers, waiters and even professors stand shoulder to shoulder in an underground organization that offers no compromise in the struggle for worker's rights. They wear no uniform and carry no insignia. Once a member, any act of betrayal to the party carries the most severe penalties but this carries no fear for people such as Ramkumar. This is an all or nothing campaign and many hundreds have already paid with their lives. Nepal is in crisis and no amount of government optimism can alter the fact that ward by ward, district by district, the very notion of democracy is rapidly ebbing from the nation.
The great question of the day must be how to deal with such discontent. Plainly the government has failed to contain it. The entire nation is alive with stories of corruption at every level of administration. Even the monarchy is in danger of collapsing for now some are openly calling for the king to be swept aside. And yet the only answer by the government is to employ arbitrary force as if discontent and suffering can be eradicated through the summary execution of activists by armed squads of special police forces. Something more has to be done if Nepal is to be saved from massive civil unrest. And that will be the focus of my articles over the next few weeks.
With my best wishes to you all,