- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

MUSIKOT, Nepal — In the mountains of Nepal, a full-blown Maoist uprising is gaining ground.

It may sound a bit anachronistic, especially in a region of Asia that has embraced market economics and linked up with the outside world to export everything from Indian computer software to Bangladeshi textiles and Sri Lanka-made designer clothes.

Yet the doctrines of Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese communist leader who believed in empowering the peasantry, have found new life in the countryside of this Himalayan kingdom.

The nation of 24 million seems to offer laboratory conditions for a revolution: widespread poverty, a remote, undemocratic government perceived as corrupt, a conflict-riven royal family, and a feudal system run by a few rich landlords.

Since going from absolute monarchy to democracy in 1990, Nepal has had 14 governments. In May, another prime minister resigned in the face of protest rallies in Katmandu, the capital, against King Gyanendra for dismissing an elected government in 2002. The resignation eased the crisis, but the Maoist insurgency remains the same and peace continues to be a distant dream.

In addition to the violence, Nepal experienced a shattering and still somewhat mysterious tragedy in 2001, when the king, queen and seven relatives were fatally shot by Crown Prince Dipendra, who then turned the gun on himself.

In the past two years U.S. annual aid has nearly doubled, to $40 million, much of it to arm and train the Royal Nepalese Army. But after eight years of fighting that has claimed nearly 10,000 lives, the rebels have a strong presence in a fourth of the Iowa-size country, including a big chunk of the midwestern mountains.

An AP reporter and photographer who trekked into the rebel heartland and spent a week in its villages and the besieged district capital heard voices both for and against the fighters who call themselves Maobadi, or Maoists.

Some deplored the guerrillas’ intolerance of criticism and their attempts to impose communist ideology on the farmers. Teachers spoke of rebels entering their classrooms to lecture pupils. There were accounts of fighters dragging opponents from their homes and killing them.

“If there were free elections today and the Maoists came without their guns, they would lose by a big margin,” said Harka Bahadur Chetri, 41, a teacher who was stabbed repeatedly in front of his family for criticizing the rebels.

But people also say the rebels have done much for the villages under their control. They reportedly have banned polygamy, child marriage, alcohol and witchcraft. They have seized farms and redistributed the land among the poor and also mediate disputes among farmers and villagers.

In the village of Dupai, bright posters depicting Mao and the elusive rebel leader known as Prachanda were pasted on a wall by the school.

In Rukum district, about 250 miles from Katmandu, many rebel-built mountain trails and concrete bridges across streams were evident. So were canals dug and pipes brought in by the rebels to channel water to many villages.

“The poor farmers were getting poorer and exploited by the landlords who were getting richer and fatter every day,” said Bhim Bahadur Dhangi, 45.

A farmer, he joined the rebellion at its beginning eight years ago, and today he is rebel administrative chief of nine villages in the Arma area of Rukum. He believes the rebels can revolutionize agriculture, on which more than 80 percent of Nepalese depend.

“We have taken the farms from these landlords and distributed them to the people who actually work on them. We are teaching them how to get maximum production out of their farms,” he said.

Many farmers said they support the revolution simply to give their children a better life. They see technology coming to neighboring countries, and their government failing to do the same for them.

In Rukum district, one administrative chief is only 20 years old but rules 35 villages. He goes by the name Sangam, which means “meeting point” and was given to him by the rebels. He said he was elected district chief in a ballot conducted by the rebels.

However, all the candidates were believed to have links to the rebels; in the rebel heartland, there is no political opposition. “I joined the Maoist movement because I wanted to free our people,” Sangam said.

He said he became a fighter at 15 and took part in several raids, one of them two years ago in which 32 police officers were killed and 31 captured and freed after a month. Sangam was shot in the hands.

In another village, Pipal, a rebel official named Ganesh Man Pun outlined ambitious goals of building roads, bridges, hydroelectric plants and schools.

“Our aim is to have an autonomous people’s government where people seize the power for themselves,” said Mr. Pun.

He and his comrades were dancing and dining with villagers — a custom when rebels pass through.

Rukum, a district of beautiful mountains and valleys, is the rebels’ de facto capital. They patrol with guns and grenades as farmers tend their vegetable crops. The region’s official capital is Musikot, whose 6,000 people live behind a fence and, after nightfall, under curfew.

The 500 soldiers and 300 policemen garrisoned there rarely venture beyond the fence. “We have full security inside the district headquarters, but outside the fence we have a big security problem,” said Musikot’s chief administrator, Chet Prasad Upreti.

The town is besieged. The only way around rebel roadblocks is by air. Food stocks are diminishing.

“We have grains to last a few more days and after that we are all going to starve,” said Dil Ghimire, who runs a small hostel in Musikot.

The government tried airlifting grain, but the rebels burned down the storage shed.

Among the refugees living in Musikot is Nayan Singh Damai, 65. He said he was attacked en route to a political rally in 1998 and injured so severely that he lost a leg.

Doctors in Katmandu gave him an artificial leg, but the rebels would kill him if he tried to make the four-hour walk to his village, so his wife visits him twice a year, he said.

“My only offense was I had different political beliefs,” he said.

The rebels have their own courts, judges, tax system and schools. Teachers such as Mr. Chetri earn less than $160 a month, of which 5 percent goes to the rebels. Farmers and businessmen pay according to their assets.

The rebels say defendants facing their courts have the right to attorneys. These have no education in the law and are usually picked by the rebels. A seven-member jury of villagers must reach a unanimous verdict.

Defendants are tried in a courtyard, facing a judge at a desk and jurors seated on a mat.

“There will be a day when all of Nepal will follow this system,” said Rupesh Mainali, chief of the rebels’ law and justice department.

A woman who killed another woman brought home by her husband is given a seven-year sentence; a rapist is serving three years.

Their prison is a house seized by the rebels from a landlord who fled to the district capital. Their punishment includes working in farm fields or carrying supplies for the rebels.

The rebels’ political wing calls itself the Nepal Communist Party-Maoist, distinguishing itself from a Marxist-Leninist party that briefly ruled Nepal in 1994 and espouses democracy and constitutional monarchy.

Two rounds of peace talks have failed, and the fighting has escalated since the insurgents withdrew from a cease-fire in August after seven months.

They bowed out because the government refused their demand to elect a special assembly to decide whether Nepal should continue as a monarchy.

The rebels now say they will enter peace talks only if the United Nations mediates, and Home Minister Kamal Thapa insists that the rebels “have to first give up arms, cease violence and terror to create a conducive environment before we can have another cease-fire and peace talks.”

“There is no magic wand to resolve the conflict,” said Michael Malinowsky, the U.S. ambassador to Nepal.

“The goal is to bring them back to society and not to kill them. For the political solution, the constitutional forces like the king and the political parties have to work together against the violence.”

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