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Mao in the mountains

Nov 2nd 2000 | KATMANDU

From The Economist print edition

MANY things have dented Nepal’s image as a tranquil Himalayan Shangri La in recent years. None more so than a shadowy insurgency by self-described Maoists that has left around 1,500 people dead since it began in 1996. But after nearly five years of violence, and many failed attempts to crush the rebels by force, the Nepali government has finally started talking to people it considers to be terrorists.

A first informal contact between the deputy prime minister, Ram Chandra Poudel, and a leading Maoist, Rabindra Shrestha, took place amid great secrecy late last week. More meetings could take place soon, if the rebels’ demand for the release of jailed comrades is met.

The problem is that there appears to be no common ground between the two sides. Judging from their public statements, the rebels want the moon, or at least Chairman Mao’s version of it. An end to the monarchy, the breaking of close ties with neighbouring India, a "people’s republic" with collective farming and peasant
ownership of land are just some of the demands made in the past. The government wants to start with a Maoist ceasefire, and perhaps hopes to bring the insurgents into the multi-party democratic mainstream.

The trouble is that the Maoists have been there before, and didn’t like it. Communist parties in Nepal have long been well-represented in parliament, and have even led coalition governments. Maoists won a few seats in 1994, but a splintered left-wing vote denied them any real influence. They launched their "people’s war against a corrupt, bourgeois system" two years later.

So far, there have been no confirmed direct attacks on foreign tourists or aid workers—both crucial to Nepal’s economy. Few believe that the Maoists, who boast of links to Peru’s Shining Path, can actually conquer the entire country. But they have fought on through various heavy-handed police actions that have been roundly criticised by local and international human-rights groups. An attack in late September on a remote western town was their best organised and most audacious to date. About 1,000 gunmen (and women, the Maoists preach equal opportunity) launched a midnight raid on the town. After several hours of intense gunfire, 14 policemen were dead and hundreds of thousands of dollars had been looted from local banks.

The greatest fear is not that the "red flag will fly from the top of Everest", as one Maoist pamphlet grandiosely puts it, but that scattered violence will frighten off Nepal’s aid workers and tourists. That would devastate an already shaky economy, plagued by poverty and official corruption. The Nepali people may not yet share the Maoists’ view of the future, but they are not exactly happy with their government’s version of liberal democracy either.

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