“BURN THE crown,” chanted demonstrators during the two-week long general strike which has brought the mountainous country of Nepal to a halt, deepening the political crisis. Telecoms and transport workers have gone on strike and many shops and businesses in the capital Kathmandu and in regional towns have been closed in response to a seven party alliance call to end the dictatorial rule of King Gyanendra.
By Dave Carr, CWIThe beleaguered monarch assumed absolute power in February 2005 after dismissing his prime minister and cabinet. He had blamed the government for failing to crush the Maoist insurgency in the countryside. However, this rural civil war has intensified in recent months. During the current urban protests five people have been killed by police and over 3,000 protesters arrested.
Some 13,000 people have been killed in a vicious ten-year war in which the Maoists and state forces have resorted to assassinations and kidnappings.
The current movement to restore Nepal’s parliamentary democracy appears to be a re-run of events in 1990. Then, King Birendra faced a ‘movement to restore democracy’ which brought together an uneasy coalition of left-leaning parties and the main capitalist Nepali Congress Party.
Over 50 people were gunned down by police and hundreds were arrested. Eventually the King conceded to the movement’s demands and agreed to elections, lifted the ban on political parties and released hundreds of political prisoners.
Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries. On the United Nations development programme’s human-development index, Nepal comes 140th out of 177 countries. Its 25 million people have an average income a head of just $240. One-third live below the poverty level. This grinding poverty, entrenched in a discriminatory and oppressive caste system, has fuelled the growth in support for the Maoists.
As in other neo-colonial countries state enterprises have been privatised. Foreign aid accounts for half of Nepal’s investment. Agriculture remains the principal industry employing 76% of the population and providing 40% of the country’s output.
Tourism – a big foreign exchange earner – has declined since its peak year of 1999 because of the civil war. The country is largely kept afloat by remittances sent back by Nepalese workers living abroad.
King Gyanendra has found himself out of step with his principal backers – the US, Britain and India – who have stopped arms shipments to the Hindu monarchy and urged a reconciliation with the political parties. Japan too – a large foreign aid donor – has cut back its assistance. And China has now ended its support.
Fundamental social change
The aim of imperialism is to restore a ‘constitutional monarchy’ and get the main parties to oppose the Maoists. All of the parties accept the market system and capitalism. So too do the Maoists who are tail-ending the alliance.
They proclaim their rural war as simply an adjunct to the struggle for parliamentary democracy, even though the seven party alliance distances itself from them.
Far from threatening capitalism with a ‘people’s revolution’ the Maoists programme is a timid reform programme calling an end to racial, sexual and caste discrimination; land reform; drinking water, roads and electricity for all villages; the promotion of cottage industries.
They advance a classic reformist ‘two-stage’ theory of social change which inevitably fails to progress beyond its ‘first stage’ of support for a ‘progressive bourgeois democracy’ to a ‘second stage’ of socialist revolution.
Nonetheless, without fundamental social change the rural civil war will continue. The army concedes it cannot win militarily. It has about 78,000 soldiers, and is recruiting a further 7,000. It estimates that the Maoists have 5,000-6,000 armed fighters, with a further 15,000-20,000 in militias, equipped with homemade weapons. Its operations are financed from levying taxes in the areas which it controls, including taxing tourists.
The key to changing society even in a predominantly agrarian country like Nepal is the revolutionary role of the working class in the towns and cities. Its ‘social weight’, which has been demonstrated in the recent protests, shows it can stop production and transport leaving the ruling regime impotent.
However, a revolutionary party is needed with a clear socialist programme about how to take the struggle forward.