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In Nepal, Maoism gathers strength

Today's poll may produce a shaky government that knows the guerrillasare more in tune with people.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 3, 1999


This sleepy isolated little country has long seemed a storybook place, a passage to the far pavilions of the majestic Himalayas - a nation of smiling and compliant sherpas and placid chanting Buddhists that helped intrepid Westerners who sought a Shangri-La of the mountains, and of the mind.

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The sweet story continued in 1990 when Nepal became a democracy. Dissidents who were moved by Chinese students at Tiananmen Square and by the fall of the Berlin Wall, forced their king - whose passions were volleyball and helicopters - to institute a multiparty system of free elections and free speech.

But today, as Nepalese go to the polls to choose their fifth government in five years, there is real trouble in the young democratic paradise.

A five-year old Maoist insurgency, a "people's war" in Western Nepal, has quietly been capturing the hearts and minds of villagers and intellectuals, and has been growing more rapidly than anyone imagined.

So potent is the Maoist rhetoric of revolution, with its echoes of the Shining Path in Peru in the 1980s, that even if the insurgency fails, it may change the entire complexion of the country in just a few years, experts say.

New element of violence

Indeed, Maoists' threats of violence during the elections, which they are boycotting, has forced the election commission to hold votes on two days - today, and May 17 - to maintain control. Though now underground in Kathmandu, the Maoists can shut down this capital city with labor strikes whenever they please. The Maoists' ongoing killings of police and select politicians are introducing a new dynamic of fear to the peaceful Nepalese, even while the movement has gained popular appeal.

"The way they [Maoists] have gained support is tremendous. No one believed it. They were underestimated for two years," says Gopal Siwakoti Chintan, a human rights lawyer in Kathmandu who consults for the United Nations. "Now they have political activity in 30 to 40 districts. They are out of control. The military now says it. The ruling party says it. Everyone says it."

The election pits the ruling Congress Party - a party reflecting the aspirations of the small middle class and ruling Hindu elite - against two Marxist parties, the Unified Marxist Leninists and the splinter group, Marxist Leninists, whose policies include the redistribution of land, and who represent a large underclass of tribal and ethnic groups, untouchables, peasants, and the poor.

The strong man in Congress is Prime Minister Ziriza Prasad Koirala. The rallying figure for the Marxists, the man who unified them, was the former prime minister, Manmohan Adhikari, who died last week in the midst of the campaign.

Since the early '90s, power in Nepal has shifted back and forth between the socialists and the Marxists. (The Marxists split last year over personal grudges and tactics.) Taking a cue from the Maoists, they all have been trying to "outradicalize" each other in the current election in a bid for votes.