Maoists organized a massive rally and mass meeting in Pokhara a few days ago and Neil Horning attended with his camera. Here is his report:
When I told my classes I was taking a day off to go to Prachanda’s speech on March 8th. They asked “Why? You can’t understand what he says.” I didn’t really have an answer, other than it would be pretty silly to call myself a Maoist expert and not go. Needless to say, I now feel justified in attending. Much has been made about some of Prachanda’s controversial statements, but I haven’t seen much else covered. For those who want to know what actually happens at these events, the following is my account of the day. On the corner of Halanchowk, lakeside, the Hoteliers Union was getting ready. They had a band playing traditional horns.
While taking photos at the intersection, I made the last minute decision to try for a press pass from the Maoists, and I had to run for a while to catch the bus. It must have looked pretty ridiculous. When I got to the office I was incredibly lucky to have Com. Karan show up just as they were asking for my credentials. Apparently he wasn’t unhappy about the interview we had done two weeks previously, as he made sure I got a press pass without too much trouble.
The streets on the way to the event were decorated with multiple red gates. Some of them did not have enough red cloth to cover the supports, so the Maoists had asked locals for foliage in order to cover up the supports.
Some of the tree owners had complained to me the previous day about the Maoists asking for such things. I asked them if the Maoists had asked first, or if they had threatened. They said that the Maoists didn’t threaten but it was unwise to cause problems with them. This is becoming a constant theme. The Maoists are probably being honest when they claim that donations are voluntary. What they don’t realize (or at least don’t admit) is how many people give them support because of intimidation without that intimidation being overtly communicated. I am sometimes reminded of a “Protection” racquet. In the movies the thugs that come by don’t say “Give us money or we’ll break your thumbs.” They say “Otherwise who knows what can happen? You never know when someone could get hoyt.”
While police managed the traffic in town and directly outside, all visible security at the event was provided by Young Communist League (YCL) volunteers. Nearly all of them were armed with a crude lathi, but none of them were armed with anything more. The YCL was distinguishable by their white t-shirts emblazoned with Prachanda’s image and the YCL logo, as well as their red visors. The red visor was quite a practical consideration on the part of the organizers, and I wished I had one for most of the day.
There were about 3 different first aid stations managed by a Maoist medical group I had not known about. They had a flag depicting a stethoscope with a white star. The man in charge of the particular desk shown was Remesh Parajuli. He said the organization was called Creative Research and Social Service, and he was its president. According to him, they conduct parasite research on the basis of a school service organization in the western region. They have a focus on preventive medicine, and recently they had been going to schools, testing the student’s stool samples for parasites, and informing them of preventative hygienic habits. They were going to do this in Pame, a local town on the other side of the lake, the following day. Those familiar with the history of Maoist china may be reminded of the barefoot doctors program here. It will be interesting to see if more of these programs develop in the future.
At noon, when the presentation was scheduled to begin, there were only about 2,000 people clustered around the stage, but the YCL volunteers were lined up in a grid. Marches from various organizations or localities streamed in for the next couple of hours, filling in the grid.
These marches filled the Mahendra highway extending in both directions from Pokhara stadium.
Soon there were what looked to be between 50 and 100 thousand people in the assembly area outside the stadium.
The YCL were not only providing security, they were also lined up in ranks near the beginning of the presentation.
These YCL were obviously not amateurs. They looked about the same age as the PLA, and when they were given calls from the stage they all stomped in unison as if they were well drilled. They did this as Prachanda arrived near the side of the stage in his SUV motorcade. Shortly afterward a chorus came on stage to sing the Internationale, and everyone on stage stood up and raised their fist in a “Lal Salam” for the duration.
When I entered the reserved media area the Maoist media liaison introduced me to B.B. Bista, who was writing for a local Nepali language paper, and asked him to translate for me for the rest of the day. He told me who the different leaders who spoke were and gave me the gist of what they were saying. Com. Anil, commander of the western region said a few words first. “We have a new purpose, and a new ideology. We are going to change Nepal for the better.”
Hitrej Paudel, Gandaki Region In Charge, was next. He emphasized that Prachanda was born in Kaski district and that Babaram Bhatarai was also born in the western region. He said the program was very important because Prachanda was going to tell everybody what they would do in the future. He ended by proclaiming “We are guided by Marxism Leninism Maoism, we are fighting to be free, and we are going to make a new Nepal.”
Immediately dancers clad in fatigues and various cultural garb swarmed the stage waving red flags and singing, “We have come with a message of peace. We want to move forward in a peaceful way.”
At this point, what was apparently a Maoist affiliated martial arts team took the place of the YCL ranks. It was announced from stage “We want the masses to play sports. We don’t need weapons to protect the people. We can use our body too.”
The Martial Arts team then set up various objects to break, some of which would have questionable safety standards in the U.S. Large clay urns filled with confetti were held aloft by one member sitting on another’s shoulders. These were broken with jumping spin kicks. Wooden posts were propped against the shoulders of comrades lying face down, in order to be broken with shins. They also broke stacks of cinderblocks with their forearms, broke a bundle of florescent lights with a back flip, and burst a full beer bottle with a bare foot.
Next up was a long procession across stage of ethnicities from the western region doing traditional dances. I only recognized that there were Gurung from multiple regions as well as Tamang and Magar represented. One precession had flamboyant costumes with black and yellow striped canes, and they were sporting banners that said “We kill the enemies of the Nation.”
Some sang a song with the lyrics:
We need a new government.
We are ready to sacrifice for a new government.
We are suffering from bad government.
Only the CPN (Maoist) can give us a new government
If we all work together we can reach our destination
During a lull I decided to go outside the press area and see what others attending the rally had to say.
After climbing to the top of an embankment to get a panoramic view, I talked to an older man from Lamagau in Tanahun district; 40km from Pokhara. When asked why he was there, he said, “Just to see Prachanda.” He wasn’t particularly interested in the rest of them. A woman who happened to be from the same area said she was there to see the Maoists as a whole. She had marched with one of the groups.
A second girl named Ashmita said she was a student who came from school in Pokhara to see the rally. At first she said that she had just come to see them; that she was just curious. But, after a short time, she confessed to supporting them. A third girl interviewed had a camouflage handkerchief on her head. She said she liked the Maoists when asked if she supported them. However, when asked what she liked about them, she said “I like the dancing.” She didn’t want to say if there was anything she didn’t like about them. The man with the red visor who kept following us around may have had something to do with that.
The most interesting person was in a group of 3 old guys. He was from Parbat District, about 60 km away, and he was 82 years old. “I used to live in Pokhara, and I was back in my village before I came to the rally. The trip was awful. I was throwing up all the way, and I never want to move again. I want to die here” he joked. “What the Maoists are saying is good, so I’m happy, and I’m waiting to see their good work. I want to see if they will do it or if they will say one thing and do another like the other parties.”
There was no indication any of these people hade been forced to attend. However, a student of mine had a relative staying with her that said the Maoists told her she “must come” (otherwise, who knows what could happen). It was clear that a large portion, if not the majority, of the crowd were from rural areas.
On the way back to the stage the receptionist from the Pokhara Maoist office near Shrijanachowk stopped by. Not having been able to talk to her with a translator before, I asked her what it was about the Maoists that attracted her to them. “They are helping people, supporting people, and capturing goons who are hurting people.”
Behind the stage, an 11 year old dancer dutifully refused an interview. “I am a small boy, and I have to talk with my senior before interviews.” He confidently declared, before strutting off.
A female YCL volunteer had perhaps not been coached as well. She said that she had been in the YCL for three years. That’s interesting, because according to my friend in UNHCHR the YCL was a defunct organization that has been revived recently. It’s likely this girl was a militia member for most of those three years. Although, when asked what she did before the YCL, she said she was a student. She also started talking about why she joined the YCL. “Many women were suffering from the old government, so we are fighting for freedom.” Just then a male member came over and cut us off. He suggested we interview someone higher up.
Another flag waving group singing “long live Prachanda Path” preceded Baburam Bhattarai. Most notable about Bhattarai’s speech was that he never looked down. It was all memorized, and at a relentless tempo. Notable quotes:
“We are brave and intellectual. We are intellectual and brave.”
“Our leadership is the best leadership of south Asia.”
While he was speaking the journalist next to me went up on stage and took a photo of him with her cell phone camera. No longer self conscious about my own camera, I realized I could go up on stage as well.
Prachanda, Anil, and Hitrej Paudel took just a second too long to look awake.
Following a break for more dancers, Prachanda took the podium, flanked by two armed guards. For some reason B.B. Bista was taking notes in English, so I copied them with his consent:
-We are facing a tough situation. We did our best.
-Political parties are like animals. We are not slaves
-We have a clear vision to build a new Nepal
-We fought against terrorism
-I’m telling you honestly [regarding the registered weapons numbers] we can’t change the truth.
-I request all not to forget about our golden past. The king threw out the political parties. We gave them space, and a chance to change politics. Why do they want to forget history?
-We are doing all this for peace.
-We have a golden history and we have a beautiful future. No one can forget this truth.
-We did good work. But, bad people are trying to cheat us.
-I’m willing to give my life, but I will never give them a chance to cheat us.
-The old government is worthless. We must make do for ourselves. We must not give them a chance to kill our people. We are brave Nepalese. We are not cowards. We need to protect people’s rights.
-The CPN Maoist is the power of people. We speak the voice of the voiceless people.
-Bush has no vision. America is playing the role of destruction. We love American people, but we hate American Foreign Policy.
-What is our New Nepal. How will our New Nepal be? We have everything we need to utilize our resources. We have Nepal’s beauty. We can change our country from poor into rich within 5 to10 years. We can do it!
-We are hard working. We are happy with our family.
-We realize the people’s aspiration. We have bright vision. I know you want to go home, and we do too. That is why we are doing our work in the night. Don’t worry we will not go to the jungle.
-You must understand. We want peace. They want to see us go to the Jungle. America wants to see us in the forest. We want to stay in the heart of the people.
-Bad people [Americans] try to teach us to be good. What madness!
-Our war is more difficult now than in the past.
-Yesterday G.P. Koirala was good, but tomorrow I don’t know.
-They are trying to kill us. The King and his group are trying to kill Americans and they want to accuse us.
-We know their plan. We know killer Gyanendra and Paras.
-We want to throw the king out.
-Please listen to me. I’m speaking from my inner heart. I can’t lie to people. If you curse the Maoists, then the king will love you.
-but don’t worry, the king will go to America soon. No, Saudi Arabia.
-We will return peoples property. Please don’t die with the King. Someday Nepal will be a prosperous country.
Obviously, there is something lost in the translation. The crowd was not ecstatic, but they responded well, and the speech was surprisingly humorous. For a few lines a good chunk of the press section burst into applause — something I wasn’t particularly expecting. The lines accusing the King of plotting to kill Americans and promising to return confiscated property were the ones repeated in the paper the following morning.
Prachanda’s retreat from the podium was instantly followed with a first-rate dance routine. It was a PLA cultural squad, including central cultural squad leaders Rita and Pralat, dancing with Khukuris. Most cultural squad dances can look like amateurish affairs; with dancers out of sync and martial arts moves awkwardly incorporated. This certainly was not one of those.
The crowd that gathered around the stage to see the dance was led in one last chant, and then Prachanda along with all the central leaders were whisked away in their SUV motorcade, with the YCL and the crowd waiving passionate goodbyes.