For centuries, the tiny mountain kingdom of Nepal was best known for the world's tallest mountain, Everest, and most skilled mountaineers, the ethnic Sherpas. Now, it is home to the world's most radical revolutionaries: the Maoists.
Call it an Asian variation of Peru's Shining Path.
The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has waged a six-year "people's war" to take land from the rich and give it to the poor, pulling public support away from the elected government and, indeed, from democracy itself.
After a tumultuous decade under both a monarchy and a Constitution that guarantees parliamentary democracy, rural Nepalis in particular see the Maoists as Robin Hoods who will bring them a more equitable share of resources in Nepal, one of the poorest nations in the world. The war has cost more than 1,600 lives - including hundreds of policemen - and given the Maoists control of up to one-third of Nepal's territory.
The Maoists conduct their revolution from hidden bases in remote areas. For instance, in Sindupalchok district, just two hours drive east of Kathmandu plus a 2-1/2 hour hike into the mountains, Maoists have routed the local police and set up their own security force. They have established cooperative banks and provided temporary "people's courts" to handle cases of burglary or land disputes. And based on their recent speeches at a brazen day-long mass rally, the Maoists have plans for much, much more.
"We are fighting the last war in the world," said Comrade Pratap, Maoist commissar of Sindupalchok district, speaking to 5,000 people, some of whom have traveled hours to reach Mankha village. The enemy of this war is not so much the Nepali government, or even its constitutional monarch, he says: The enemy is none other than American imperialism. "Not only will the tyrants of Nepal be defeated, but also the tyrants of the world..., because they are always against the people. We have the right ideas on our side."
While Nepal's Maoists still have a long way to go before they control all of Nepal, let alone "engulfing American imperialism," the insurgency has forced Nepal's neighbors, India and China, to sit up and take notice. To the south, India worries that it could give both inspiration and training to rebels in its own states of Bihar and Andra Pradesh. To the north, China - birthplace of Maoist thought - has said it would prefer not to have a Maoist nation at its border. But in Nepal itself, there is little consensus about what to do.
"The surprising thing is that in Nepal, nobody seems to be worried," says Gen. Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian general and South Asian security analyst in New Delhi. "But these Maoists have taken over a third of the country. They have a parallel government. They collect taxes. Does that convert to a popular vote if an election were held today, or is it the weight of the gun on their shoulders? Nobody knows, and what is strange, nobody seems to care."
A spate of killings last month may have finally changed all that. After Maoists attacked two police posts, killing more than 70 police officers, the popular King Birendra gave approval for the ruling Nepali Congress Party's (NC) plan to establish a paramilitary force to fight the insurgents. At present, Nepal has a police force, armed only with bamboo sticks, and an army, which specifically fights external enemies.
The general public is looking for stronger leadership. Human rights experts say one reason for public disillusionment is the government's brutal, but ineffective, response to the Maoist threat. There have been public protests against elected Prime Minister Girija Koirala and calls for him to step down, due to alleged corruption.
In a nationwide poll for the Nepali Times, more than 60 percent of respondents said democracy was in danger, and more than 80 percent said it was the political parties themselves, and not the Maoists, who were to blame. Asked who they would vote for if elections were held today, the largest group - 30 percent - answered "don't know." The ruling NC, by contrast, secured 17 percent support. Maoists earned a mere 1.75 percent, although their support was higher in rural areas.
Those undecided voters could fall into the hands of Maoists, says Nepali Times editor Kunda Dixit. "Things are going so bad, with the economy, with unemployment, support could go strongly to the Maoists this time around."
For its part, the ruling NC blames the violence on the Maoists, and says it has nearly run out of options. The biggest problem, says party spokesman Arjun Narsingha, is that Nepal's main opposition parties seem more interested in bringing down the government than in working together for the common good. In the past two weeks, the main opposition party, the Communist Party of Nepal - United Marxist-Leninists (just one of a half-dozen communist parties) has halted all activities in parliament, and even organized teams of protesters to prevent the prime minister from reaching his office. Street protests in Kathmandu, also organized by the opposition parties, have turned violent, with half a dozen cars burned downtown.
For average villagers like Yoganarayan Koirala, the only thing that matters is that peace in his village has been restored, and now development can begin.
"Before the Maoists came..., there was looting and beating by the bad people of the village, and the police did nothing to stop it," says Mr. Koirala, a farmer from Mankha. "After a year and a half of Maoist government, it is safe. Now I am expecting of them to provide a good livelihood for everyone, equally, and also health facilities and education for our children."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor