It might be easy to believe, given the stories overheard in Kathmandu, that the Maoists were overly vicious and the instigators and perpetrators of violence. The expatriate clique tends to be jaundiced by well-to-do Nepalis with an obvious bias. The ruling class and their predecessors benefitted from the repressive system and therefore dominate as influential members of society and have the most dealings with expatriates, especially in the ‘aid’ paradigm and diplomatic arena as well as high social life. These elites have used their preferential status and state backing to attain fortunes and high position and thus, resist any kind of reformation for fear of loss of status and wealth.
Most foreign acquaintances, when they heard that I was to explore this territory, felt obliged to offer a “How could you?” All of them felt that the Maoists were clearly the bad guys and deserved no coverage. With apologies to these acquaintances, they often deal with a segment of society far removed from the overwhelming majority of Nepalese who are scraping by and just that. These foreigners live and work with the wealthy and most if not all have a privileged lifestyle available to but a very small slice of the population. The Maoists threaten the status quo, and foreigners, exposed to little else, despite often being liberal minded, allow their ears to be bent by partisan supremacists who tell them the playground is being overrun by low-level ruffians.
In fact, in every sector, Nepalis are adept at telling foreigners what they believe they want to hear, especially with an interest to livelihood (e.g., businessman, diplomat, restaurateur, hotelier, tour operator, guide). Most foreigners have been programed to believe and want to hear that the Maoists are delinquents. Nepalis are attentive to the sentiments of guests and will freely indulge this perception, especially if it leads to better business, a bigger tip, or just to be pleasing to guests. If foreign denizens themselves are asked, have they encountered a Maoist or know why the revolution was waged, most repeat what they get from Nepali associates and biased media houses and few have a willing answer of their own. Minimal examples are the latest sensational headline or ‘taxes’ that were extracted from trekkers and perhaps an anecdote of a gruesome murder.
‘Tolls’ were taken from some foreigners audacious enough to trek in Maoist controlled lands (although not uncommonly, opportunistic bandits masqueraded as Maoists), but no more so than the tourist monies taken by a government that lacks transparency and misuses funds! To complain about a fee extorted by one group and not another group with a recognized abysmal record is absurd. Moreover, if a person willingly wanders through the middle of a civil war on a tourist vacation, then they might consider themselves fortunate to only have had to pay a fee to guerrillas before returning home safe and sound to regale friends.
With regard to brutality, there is no excuse on either side. Amnesty International accuses both sides of “unlawful criminal deaths” among other savage abuses. Sadly, victims have no recourse whatsoever. That said, the police and armed forces operated with impunity under the direction of politically protected rulers trying to preserve undeserved hegemony. Viciousness by the Maoists was equaled if not surpassed by the state, which was responsible for the majority of the conflict’s deaths, many of them civilians. It was cruelty by police in the heavy handed Romeo operations (and later Kilo Sera II) that inflamed the war. Furthermore, it is certainly not an excuse, but there is not a main party in Nepal exempt from having exercised violence to some degree to attain status and other parties cannot claim superiority on this point.
Although state forces were better equipped and fed, the rebels were highly driven to overcome the appalling conditions of the mid-hills. The police and later army, acting on orders from a ruling class, followed a chain of command and not necessarily deep set convictions. Nearly all commanders were of the higher castes, with indigenous Nepalis in the lower ranks. Outmanned and outgunned, the insurgents had both their minds and hearts indoctrinated into the struggle. Without this advantage, it would have been impossible to coordinate logistically over a punishing series of remote hills and deep valleys with limited communication and completely lacking in weapons and supplies relative to foreign supported adversaries.
Since coming to the table in 2006 to bring down the 239 year-old monarch, the improbably elected Maoist party won 33% of the parliamentary seats in the spring of 2008 and a mandate to lead the fledgling republic. They entered a lion’s den of traditional politics and a few Maoist politicians have proven to be as megalomaniacal as leaders anywhere. Despite increasingly bad habits, they are trying to reform the system beyond casteism or elitism. Otherwise, it remains tainted by patronage, nepotism, prejudice and preferential treatment. Beyond that, interchange communism for any of the opiates of the masses for a similar mindset.
The Maoist philosophy is inscrutable and what they like to do with the young republic is puzzling. Their lofty rhetoric leads to naive ideas on how the marketplace operates and business principles in general and they often place unreasonable demands on the essential framework of a distressed economy: industries, companies, and business owners (as much as do overbearing bureaucrats) who might otherwise sympathize with a fight against social injustice. Although many business owners might have benefited from the distasteful favoritism of the past, at this point it is of no advantage to harass them. Business operators need less intervention to keep Nepal’s economy active.
Personally, I don’t endorse platitudes and reckon that most people worldwide don’t know Mao’s head from Mao’s ass. As crude as that sounds, what I mean to say is that people don’t know his teachings or political theories. Of the people who do, perhaps Nepal’s Maoist leaders know them best, which makes it curious that they used Mao’s discredited name in their struggle against apartheid.
Have distinctions based on caste and rank been eradicated? Nothing entrenched for so long changes so quickly, but impartialities based on social stratification have diminished and strides made but ethnic prejudice is as endemic in Nepal as elsewhere. At least nowadays, the lines of social ranking are less deep and the state has less of a grip on enforcing the wishes of a person of ‘higher ranking’. People have more rights, and the possibility to at least appeal to the police and justice system when previously the odds were stacked utterly against them. Before the conflict, hills people commonly report that they were not even allowed to look into the eyes of someone of higher social ranking, or use the same facilities such as vital water taps, or enter tea stalls, restaurants and least of all homes, let alone lodge a complaint against a ruler, no matter how justified, for fear of retaliation.
The Maoist had women elected to parliament from the so-called “untouchable” ethnic designation which was a first for Nepal and something other parties have a long way to go to match. The system is still stacked with unethical bureaucrats and the media is intent on tearing each and every politician down despite entrenched bureaucrats being the larger part of the problem. Bureaucrats are managed by politicians and even an honest and well-meaning leader cannot be everywhere at once.
Cadres of sly officials put on an acceptable performance when under scrutiny, to then make a mockery of the civil service (a more apt name might be self-service) when the supervisor is gone. That is, Nepali bureaucrats are clever enough with skullduggery to avoid a politician’s supervisory eye. With a strong sense of privilege, these entrenched officials hold enough power, status, and regulatory fluency that no one dares confront them. Nepal’s ten-year conflict partially addressed the issue. Some bureaucrats have since redoubled efforts to misappropriate state funds before it’s considered more than just an inbred formality that lubricates their phlegmatic machinations. Or, perhaps the situation is too deep-rooted to be reformed and the country is destined to wallow in administrative malfeasance. The one hope might be the prey, the good people Nepal, continue to stand against habitual venality.
A necessary part of cleaning up corruption is to replace the deeply rooted bureaucrats that infiltrate the system from top to bottom; a staggering task that is all but impossible as they hold a great deal of authority that cannot be penetrated, and they have the means to protect their positions.
Nowadays, when anything goes wrong, the facile trend is to link it to the Maoists. The Maoists are blamed one way or another for all the wrong that is happening. They would have to be very talented to have taken control of all the problems. Nevertheless, having entered the mainstream, they have become less inclined to dialectics. They have gained insight into a more comprehensive reality of world affairs beyond India and China and beyond choosing between communism or the wretched social hierarchies that Nepal knows too well. Maoism was chiefly a tool used to chip away at the walls of state-sponsored social and ethnic discrimination and administrative malfeasance.
They realize by now that foreign diplomats generally patronize power (and in the past foreigners were not just selectively supporting the right wing of Nepal but simply practicing real politick). The erstwhile dominant class still holds much negotiating power and fills the bureaucratic ranks. Many are trying to filibuster, believing that they can obstruct long enough to regain the reigns rather than give an inch to cooperate on tough issues facing the legislative body.
Since celebrations of the birth of the republic across the land in 2008, jubilation has turned into a four-year, post-partum hangover as the public waited in vain for a charter constitution and the final deadline, May 27th, 2012, come and gone. Up to then, agitation escalated with regional and nationwide shutdowns, primarily the blockade of roads, lifeblood of a landlocked nation. Businesses and schools were shuttered and kids were playing soccer and cricket in the abandoned streets while protest rallies were led by people furious at the political torpor and back channel dealings. The situation crept from controlled chaos towards something even less restrained and is now in a faltering limbo.
Frustration is centered on delays at re-drawing administrative zones, a task that has strayed into unabashed gerrymandering for political advantage. Nevertheless, politicians are obligated to restructure the state as part of a 2006 pact that ended the ten year Maoist rebellion. All parties signed off to it as well as to integration of ex-guerrillas into state forces, a herculean chore in itself and sine qua non for bidding a farewell to arms.
Parties on opposite sides continue to squabble ideologically and each side can be equally cogent and convincing, and all feel validated in their own stance based on ideology, status, class and often caste background and experience. Traditional rulers do not want state boundaries re-drawn which would lessen their centuries-long hegemony. So-called indigenous groups, long under-represented, are demanding chiefly the re-drawing of boundaries whether or not it is good for the nation as a whole. Meanwhile, the last four years have been spent currying favor for power swaps and trying to outmaneuver and obstruct rivals at any cost. Parties bolster their own corps while completely forgetting the nation as a whole and what might be best for her. These self-serving activities have thoroughly backfired while the good people of Nepal continue to agonize.
Nepal is the birth place of Buddha. Long ago he admonished relatives in a battle over water that became lethal. “How can water be more precious than blood?” he asked incredulously, and the incisive question there ended the toxic, deadly quarreling. If the parties and bureaucrats are willing to see themselves as Nepalis first and other designations a distant second, and if they are willing to be noble servants of the nation, only then will they cooperate inclusively to augur a future of peace, good will and prosperity that Nepal’s vast majority of kind-hearted people deserve, regardless of caste, ethnicity and creed.
“A peace is of the nature of a conquest; for then both parties nobly are subdued, and neither party loser.” — William Shakespeare
Go to the hills
The Guerrilla Trek offers a remarkable journey through the heartland of post-conflict territory. The route takes you through Myagdi, Rukum, and Rolpa, spectacular districts with low population density at the epicenter of Nepal’s ten year conflict (1996 to 2006) and homeland to many revolutionaries. At one time during this period, the region had an autonomous government in Banphikot, Rukum.
As a visitor, you can escape Kathmandu’s political quibblers and seek higher ground. The armed conflict is over and locals, former guerrillas and police in Rukum and Rolpa, the ones in the thick of the fight, will welcome you. They bore the brunt of the pain, and if they can get along now, why should others still hold a grudge? The people along these trails are clear evidence that Nepal is now an abiding place of peace. You are invited to experience the land and its inhabitants for yourself. Go and meet these people, interact with each other and exchange ways of life. The hardest part might be the rugged long-distance, vehicle transport to the trailhead.
While visiting this otherworldly area, another name may come to mind: The Shangrila Trek. Follow it and be transported to a timeless land; after which the more popular trekking regions might lose appeal in favor of more off beat travels in the undiscovered hills of Nepal, land of legendary hospitality.
Suva Yatra! (Have a wonderful journey!)