An American writes his experience of having close encounter with the Nepali Maoist comrades in a remote village
Maoist graffiti in a village in Myagdi district Left: “Up with Republic of Nepal: CPN Maoist.” Right: “Down with Killer Gyanendra.: CPN Maoist”/ “Whoever deletes this slogan will die.”
By Neil Horning in Pokhara (West Nepal)
There is a psychological effect WWII veterans often describe to their therapists. When they were at war everything felt real. Their following life is a mere shadow of that time. Events in their normal lives blend together, but they remember every thing from the war as if it had happened the day before. This effect is also caused by Nepal. I have no idea what I did for the past year. You can test me, I really don’t remember. But I can describe everything that happened to me for the two months I was in this country last year as if the intervening year hadn’t happened. It is still really quite incredible what this country does to someone. It is hard to describe. When you get back home people ask “how was Nepal?” The answer is invariably “It was amazing, it changed my life.” The tricky part is when they follow up with “How?” Well, that’s a hard question to answer, even to oneself. In order to get an answer I’ve been going over my notes from last year.
Yes I know I said I remember everything like it was yesterday, but Psychological effects aside, it’s nice to have a notebook. I’m making sure all those things I remember like yesterday are still in there. It certainly makes it easier to see what’s changed. That’s what I’ll be doing in this article. Last year I trekked, volunteered, and then went back and interviewed the Maoists in Myagdi district. I plan to go back there this week and see what has changed. Hopefully, I’ll find out if what they told me is true. But before I do that I’ll go over what they said then and what it feels like to be back in Nepal now.
First off, the ride from the airport didn’t hit me like an 80 pound doka full of gravel this time. I was busy arguing with the cab driver about which hotel I wasn’t going to rather then bracing for impact every three seconds, or gazing at an 8 year old digging a ditch. The little ally on Z Street, Thamel, which I used to hit my head on, has been replaced with a much roomier ally. It’s easier to find too. It’s right next to a Prachanda poster. Prachanda poster! That’s right, Prachanda is everywhere! Last year I was afraid to say the word Prachanda among mixed company. Now his poster is on the wall in three places outside my guest house, walking down the street I saw lines of 10 of them. Notably absent is the huge sneering poster of the king down by the palace. I remember looking at that thing last year around the kings’ birthday. The street was full of people holding the same image on their own little placards. I remember wanting to snatch one of the posters from someone and rip it up. I don’t know why, really. Maybe it was because I knew I could be arrested for it. I’ve been noticing some people have the same impulse toward the Prachanda posters. Half of them I see are defaced in one way or another. I don’t think I’ll have the urge myself until I could be arrested for it.
On the way to Pokhara there were no checkpoints. Once last year the same trip lasted 12 hours instead of six, simply because of the checkpoint at the valley entrance. Not only that, whenever we got to a checkpoint I felt really small staying on the bus while all the locals had to get off and walk through it.
Maoist graffiti in a village in Myagdi district: Let us counter the Ghibrang massacre with our weapons! (CPN M)
In general it seems that people are more optimistic about the future. I have yet to hear someone end a conversational topic with “what can we do?” That’s a nice change, however subtle. Both times I have come here it has been just after a rather tumultuous period. The first time it was after the coup by the king, the second after Janaandolan II. Both times the news reports I was reading made it look like I would be entering a state of anarchy. And both times daily life when I got here has been absolutely calm. There was no observable “climate of terror” in either the cities or the Maoist controlled areas when I was here a year ago. But it does seem like people are much more willing to talk about their political opinions now, and conversations don’t suddenly end when the wrong topic is mentioned.
That isn’t to say that people were not opinionated last year. One of the memories scorched into my brain was from a drunken man in a bar on Lakeside. “I was in the army four years ago” he slurred. “Now I am bouncer for Paradiso.” I was writing at the time so I jotted our whole conversation in my notebook.
I was a guard down by the palace.
You know Gyanendra?
Gyanendra is terrorist
Birendra was good man, he was real kin.
You know Paras, Paras is terrorist, he killed Birendra and his son.
I resign from army. Now I’m a bouncer in Paradiso.
It was a one sided conversation. I went out to the same bar this year to watch the world cup and grab a beer with the owner of the hotel I’m staying at. It’s called Busy Bee. He talked about how the all of lakeside in Pokhara was shut down last month. He said there were two restaurants open and no taxis, and that there were always people in the streets and he was out there with them. He got hit with lathies twice and teargas as well. Just walking down the street now, it is difficult to imagine that images like this are in the recent memory of everyone I see. The area looks exactly the same as it did last year, though there are a few more people in the bars watching the world cup. And these bars are no longer shut at a ridiculous hour by the police. Speaking of the police, they have gone through a major shift. I checked with the patrons of Busy Bee just to be sure I wasn’t imagining the change. They used to swagger around like they owned everything. Now the swagger has turned into a shuffle, and they look around nervously while playing with their sticks.
Maoist graffiti in a village in Myagdi district
After returning home on Friday my Hotel owner friend motioned me excitedly over to his Television. There he was. The most enigmatic, secretive, infamous man in the country, and the cause of every other headline in the Nepalese press for the last decade was finally speaking directly to the public. Last time I was here there was only one photo of the man. Not a flattering one at that. Now he is here in the flesh. It’s almost as if he’s already a fixture in the country. When I first arrived I saw the interview he gave. About half the locals in the bar were interested for a time, but most were more captivated by their backgammon game. By looking at the crowd, I would have thought he had a weekly show. The owner translated some of the press conference to me. “During the interim constitution the king is a normal person, He will have to leave the palace!” He beamed. It was hard not to feel his optimism.
It is, I can tell, an optimistic time. The business owners in areas like lakeside anticipate a massive rebound next season. Last year the optimistic ones were the Maoists. “If peacefully give us competition public election. I can sure win,” Was something Bijay wrote in my notebook last year. Two pages later I wrote this:
As is evident, I met the Maoists. After asking around for them continuously yesterday, I spent the night at [some place] lodge. When I got up in the morning (7:30) the Maoists were waiting to meet me in the dining room. One looked about 25 and was named Bijay. The other looked about 33 and was named Sunil. They were both quite polite, and seemed enthusiastic to tell me what they had to say.
Bijay did almost all of the talking and consulted with Sunil every once in a while. It seemed as if Sunil was more experienced and Bijay spoke better English. Bijay was a member of the Maoist student union. Sunil was a magarat member. It was hard to ascertain exactly what their roles were. They said they were in town in order to find the district commander. They said if they could they would bring him back so I could talk to him. We talked from about 7:30 to 12:15. I tape recorded part of the conversation and took notes for the rest. I also submitted some written questions to him so that he could give written responses. Hopefully, if they come back with the commander I will be able to find a translator…
I went down to [another place] to take photo’s… When I got back the Maoists had written me a note. The lodge owner gave it to me. It was extremely friendly. It ends with:
Be Happy 🙂 !” (The smiley face was included but right side up)
The note that Bijay gave me promised to return within a few days to get the district commander. About 5 minutes after writing the above entry I was surprised to find Bijay had delivered much faster then expected. I wrote this on my experience.
“Ok so I interviewed the commander with a translator that was in the lodge. I had a hard time thinking of the right questions to ask but I think I did alright. There is a commissar in here, and a couple of militia. The rest of the militia are patrolling around the town… It was just amazing to see all these militia arrive…they were all dressed in green jumpsuits. 2 were women and were not in jumpsuits. One had a baby she was carrying in a basket. I don’t know the relation of these women and I don’t know if I want to ask. They seemed to be a fairly light hearted bunch.”
I found out later that the woman with the baby was the district commander’s wife. She was the most beautiful woman I have seen in the country, though I didn’t mention it at the time. The commanders’ name was Beru, and he had been in the party for 8 years. Though his interview is from a year ago, I believe much of it is relevant to the current political situation. I’ll print those parts here. I’m paraphrasing the interview of course, as he didn’t speak English. I have a tape of the first few minutes, and have used second opinions to modify my original translation.
Q: How many people do you have in this district?
We have 700 activists. 50% have guns and 50% are political.
This fluctuates because all people can become militia.
Q: How much public support do you have in Myagdi. What percentage?
95% of the land is Maoist. We can go wherever we want and the government cannot.
We have 40 V.D.C type areas. Only three are left for the government. Those are in the district headquarters.
If some one is from out of the district they won’t talk to them. 80% of the people are helping us but if they are asked a question from a stranger they say they don’t know anything.
Q: Have informants been killed in the district.
Six people have been killed by informants in the district, but the informants escaped.
Q: What about Prachanda’s announcement that you will no longer take physical action against unarmed people?
I know about it. For the first time from now on we won’t kill civilians.
Q: What will you do to informants?
We will arrest them and keep in prison. It will be like a court. We will present the Maoist side. Then civilians say what they want. We listen to the civilians. However, if the civilians say we should kill them then we will.
Q: What do you think of human rights groups like Amnesty International
Amnesty international is just in the center. They don’t really know what’s going on.
Q: You don’t care what they say?
It definitely makes a difference what Amnesty International says. Prachanda listens to them. Some times they investigate and it’s a real mistake that we made. But sometimes they just repeat what the government says.
Q: Will the argument between Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai be a problem?
There is no more problem, Baburam went to India for international support and gave statements. Now the two are united again.
Q: Do you need international support?
We don’t need support from other governments to win because we started this our selves. Baburam Bhattarai did not go to India for aid but to clear up roomers.
Q: What will happen if India invades as a result of what you are doing?
Just for now this is a war to change the Nation. We are not expecting any take over. If they do invade we will fight with those countries. If we win, we will extend the war all over world.
As you know, in China there was communism. Now there isn’t. After winning this war with the gun we will need social change, so it will be a continuous political war.
Q: Speaking of that, what social changes have you made in this district?
There is not a complete change but it’s in the changing process. Whenever the Maoists make a change the government tries to catch up.
Q: For instance when abortion was made legal?
Most of the positive change in the government is directly or indirectly a result of the Maoists. Legal abortion is a good step. But some times abortion is just a result of the man pressuring.
Q: What are some specific social changes you have made?
We have worked against corruption, and now the government has a committee to control it. The people now get the right price for the work they have done. There is also a change in the political knowledge of people.
Q: What about women?
Women in the beginning were like slaves. Before, the boys could make any demand for dowry, but now it is small. Poor families don’t have to borrow money to get their daughter married anymore.
Before all the wealth of parents went to sons, but now wealth goes to daughters as well. It should be similar property for daughter and son.
Q: How many fighters in this district are women?
There are equal numbers. It is fifty-fifty. Maybe even more women then men. Some are in politics. Some are in the militia, and some in army.
Q: How much of the leadership is comprised of women.
From the center there is a quota of 40% women in leadership.
Q: What are the minimum ages of the militia and the army?
18 and over for both. 45 years is the max age.
(Note: At least one of the militia with him said he was 17. They all looked 15-20)
Q: How long till you win?
We must win in a political way, but if we have to by fighting its not so far off. We hope to have Control soon.
The Next day while I was preparing to head home I ran into Biru and Bijay holding a political meeting with the local villagers. There were about 20 to 30 adults setting on a porch listening to speeches given with a backpack microphone and sound system. Most of the Militia members from the day before were keeping watch on either side of the trekking rout leading through the village. One of them was playing with a group of children nearby. After Bijay handed off the microphone to Biru he headed over to talk, and I asked him to help me interview the militia member.
Q: Who is this?
Q: how old is he?
He is nineteen
Q: how long has he been in the militia?
Q: Why did he join the militia?
The Maoist party is very good. Their political image is very good. It is for poor people, not for rich people. I want to do well for Nepal.
Q: Has he seen the enemy?
Q: What happened?
He hid, and threw a grenade, then the army fired, then some minutes passed and the kings’ army left.
Q: Are all of these children playing with him part of the program?
No, they aren’t. But the children just came to play with us. They are just playing with the militia. They are not afraid. If the army comes the children go away in their house. Lots of newspapers say “in the village people are afraid.” In Nepal the village people are poor and not afraid but in the city they are rich. People who work are poor, people who don’t, are rich.
Q: Who is that teenage girl over there?
Their older sister and mother are in the program.
Q: Can I take your photo?
(The girl ran away embarrassed)
Q: What are you teaching in the program?
About how the Maoists are good and the 7 parties are bad. We said there is fighting now so we cannot develop here yet. In Rolpa people are educated more. In Rolpa we make soap, and bags and shoes, but not here, we have to educate people first.
You came to Nepal to learn about us, thank you. We speak English, but not well. I tried to give a good message, because we have public support. In fighting maybe we can die, it is a problem. We are not fighting for ourselves we are fighting for the public. In two to three years when we fight all the people will help us because we go to the villages and give political education.
If the 7 party attacks the kings’ army…..
[Bijay started writing directly in my notebook, I have quoted verbatim]
who is in the village they supported us because we are fighting for poor people. Our public are happy because we are going to change Nepal. 7 party is not good for public because 7 party said in the 8 years before, please give us Vote/election we develop here quickly but seven party don’t do any develop in the village. only they went to high level. They did corruption, money is there pocket. So all our public are cleaver now. They said we support Maoist. But rich man doesn’t support us because it is for poor people war. I hope that you go to America you say your neighbors Maoist is good for people…
Our political is good and aim is good. I hope that in America poor people also voilence against the Bush. Because a lot of people are poor in America.
At last thank you so much for learning about Nepal also CPN (M) I want to receive your book about Maoist.”
While Bijay was writing this a porter came up and started blurting slogans in English. “Fight for the motherland with Maoist!” He proclaimed. Then, “I support the Maoist” and finally, “For the people to the people, by the people.”
That last slogan seemed very familiar to me. It was like I was in grade school again, listening to tales of patriots fighting for the independence of the 13 colonies. I rummaged through my bag and produced a copy of the Declaration of Independence I had been teaching to Nepalese school children. My last memory of Bijay is handing the Declaration of Independence to him and shaking hands while another Maoist took a photo.
So, that was last year. It was Amazing. It changed my life. It’s great to be back. From what they told me, as far back as a year ago, the Maoists planned to fight a “continuous political war.” It seems they have already laid the groundwork for villagers to distrust the SPA when the Constituent Assembly rolls around next year. This will be effective if the Maoist claims of social change are more than propaganda. In Myagdi district they claimed they couldn’t help people much because there was war. It is a year later, and now there is peace. If the Maoists meant what they said, they will be changing many people’s lives. Will this be a change for the better? Now we shall see.
Neil Horning is an American currently living in Nepal. He interviewed the District commander of Myagdi and other Maoists in June of 2005 and holds a BA in International Relations from San Francisco State University. Here is his previous article on UWB. Neil is in Myagdi now.