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Mao's Doctrine Attractive To Poor and Powerless In Nepal

With his flat cap and black-rimmed glasses, Baburam Bhattarai, the intellectual leader of the Nepalese Communist Party’s Maoist wing, seems to emulate young Vladimir Lenin, one of the original communist ideologues. Mr. Bhuttarai is a Brahmin, which is to say a member of the Nepalese educated and privileged elite. But his followers are mostly members of the lowest caste – the so-called Dalits, or the “untouchables.” Bishnu Poudel, professor of international affairs at Potomac College and chairman of the National Advisory Council on South Asian Affairs says Nepalese Maoists are offering a vision of a more equitable society, which is most appealing to poor and disenfranchised people.

“This movement started because of the dissatisfaction of people who were outside the mainstream of governance, people who were disempowered not only for a short period of time, but for a long period of time,” says Professor Poudel.

Some analysts cite poverty as the main factor in the emergence of Maoism in Nepal. Close to half of the country’s 25 million people live on less than a dollar a day and more than 80 percent on less than two dollars a day. But hopes were raised for a better world when former King Birendra renounced absolute power and established a constitutional monarchy in 1990. T. Kumar of Amnesty International in Washington says the 1990 reforms established a multi-party democracy in which the poor could have a say.

“Maoists were in the political process. They were in the Parliament until 1995, but a small party. Then they walked out saying that nothing is happening and took up arms. They are professing what Mao said: land reform, equality for women, equality among caste -- you know, there is a caste system in Nepal.”

Mr. Kumar says by 1996, Maoists gained enough power to launch insurgency, which is now threatening to bring down the monarchy. After the 2001 massacre of King Birendra of Nepal and all his family, the new king, Gyanendra, began to crack down on Maoists by using military force, but terrorized many innocent people in the process. Many were arrested under the 2002 Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Act, which gave the security forces the power to arrest without warrant and detain suspects in police custody for up to 90 days. T. Kumar of Amnesty International says a growing number of people began to disappear. By 2002, 250 people were reported missing and close to 400 in 2003 alone.

"For two years in a row, Nepal had the highest number of disappearances in the whole world. It’s a small country, but imagine disappearances number one in the whole world for two years in a row; the torture, rape, detention without trial, arbitrary arrest by the military. The military is also using vigilante groups – local groups that have been trained to kill people and brutalize people."

Mr. Kumar says weak institutions, corruption, and lack of accountability of the police and judiciary have helped perpetuate a climate of impunity. But Maoists resort to similar tactics. Kamala Sarup is a U-S based Nepalese journalists and peace activist for Nepal says, “Maoists are trying to paralyze our country, stop supplies from coming to the big cities. They stop day-to-day life. More than 13-thousand village development committees have been destroyed about a dozen district level government offices have been damaged, over seven thousand schools and many factories have closed down. Transport and communication facilities have been destroyed and several multi-national companies have been attacked.”

Ms Sarup adds thousands of people in mid-western and far-western regions of Nepal are facing starvation. The toll of the escalating destruction and violence is staggering for such a small country.

“For the last ten years more than 13,000 of the Nepalese people lost their lives. It is estimated that nearly a million people have become refugees in Nepal now,” says Kamala Sarup.

The United States lists Nepalese Maoists as a terrorist organization. It is encouraging the king to restore the multi-party system, which would give the Nepalese government greater legitimacy in dealing with terrorists. The United States and many other countries have suspended military aid to Nepal until the situation improves. Some analysts note there can be no peace without talks with the Maoists. Kamala Sarup says Nepalese people are desperate for peace even if it takes negotiating with terrorists.

This story was braodcast as part of VOA's Focus program. To hear more Focus stories please click here.