The workshops of Kathmandu’s broken-down trolley system are not far from the airport. The roar of jet engines flying low on approach contrasts with the strange silence of the idle repair barns.
Working men play cards beside the rusting hulks of street cars, partially dismantled, piles of machine parts laid along the zinc-sheet walls waiting for resurrection. Some street cars were torched during bandhs shutdowns. None have left the shop in years.
The only bustle is around the union office. Workers were fixing up the central room, while a few dozen machinists sat clustered in the building’s shade, eating lentils and rice. Electrical load-shedding blackouts have crippled the electrical system constantly for three years now, so the trolleys can’t leave their barn. Now the yards provide their sporadic electricity output to charge up battery-converted tuk-tuks – a fleet of three-wheel minivans that are now the scrappy backbone of the city’s chaotic mass transportation.
At the yard gates, and on pasted across each of the workshops are Maoist posters calling for total mobilization on May First. The only words in English read “Workers of the World Unite!”
“The trolley needs constant electricity,” the shop steward told me. “They don’t fix the government. They can’t fix the load-shedding. The politicians do not change. They do not care that nothing works.”
He was excited when I mentioned I had worked for a transportation union in the United States.
“Are they Maoist” he asked.
“Not exactly,” I laughed. “That’s not how our unions work in America. They only bargain for wages.”
He looked confused. When I mentioned their 2005 strike that shut New York City down for a couple days, he grew animated.
“We will strike until the government falls. You will see.”
Workers and students set the stage
After I flagged a cab to go to a northern industrial district, my taxi driver showed me his Maoist union card. He was curious why I had been visiting the transport union. He mentioned that cabbies, too, were preparing for the shutdowns.
In the twenty-minute trip through the center of the city, a half dozen sound trucks passed us, all blaring rousing music with men and women exhorting attendance for the rallies and throwing leaflets from the windows like confetti.
“Our union told us to prepare for a final struggle,” the cabbie told me. “We don’t know what to expect. But it is time for the government to change.”
He told me in his limited English how he had expected things to change through the Constituent Assembly, but it delivered nothing. “Prime Minister [M.K. Nepal] doesn’t see us. He will see us when everything stops.”
Increasingly I have noticed posters being ripped down and a kind of flag wars: One day a street will be lined with red flags, then all will have been taken down in the morning and replaced by the evening.
I talked to workers at the gates of a large compound that hosts a dozen assorted assembly-and-fabrication plants – plus a factory farm for chickens. Workers told me they have stockpiled rice for a prolonged shut-down.
Several asked about the communist movement in America. I answered, “It’s going well in India.” That got a laugh.
Their shops were running full-steam to deliver last-minute orders before all hell breaks loose. Only media, hotels and restaurants that serve tourists will be exempt from the strike. Vegetable stands on the street are having their entire stock purchased to feel the thousands of villagers from across the country already arrived in the city. Buses are coming in, from the west and the east, the aisles filled with men and women, and as many as can fit riding in the “butterfly seat” on top.
Revolutionary students already shut down 8,000 private schools, ostensibly over fee increases. But as the 500,000 expected villagers arrive in the city, a dozen boarding schools have already been occupied by the Maoists for make-shift housing. Lean-to tents are filling up the center of the city where the action is set to go down.
Wars and rumors of war
Yesterday, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) called for an indefinite general strike starting May 2, should the current Prime Minister not step aside in the face of the May First mass mobilization.Sector by sector, business as usual is coming to a halt.
While rumors shoot around the city, the mood is uncertain. Only the Maoists have a resolution in mind, and only they are bringing the population into action. Their morale appears high, and they are busy.
The Maoists are raising money from workers, asking for ten days’ salary on a sliding scale and hitting businesses up for larger amounts. Unlike previous drives, part of the pitch for large donations is that this is their “final request.”
Families from the whole country are being urged to send at least one person to Kathmandu. The parliamentary parties allege coercion, but there have been no reports of violence against those who choose not to attend.
Most Nepali people live on farms in the countryside, and their entry to the city is causing visible consternation among the middle and upper classes. More than once I’ve been met with blank stares when I asked “What is the problem with country people coming to the city?”
The privileged have never accepted the Maoists’ 2008 national election victory. They are livid that the Maoists are bringing masses into a process they think should remain a matter of a few big men negotiating who gets what. To the elite, the very presence of Nepal’s masses in the city is a threat. Their attitude may help explain why Nepal is in the middle of a revolution.
Flanked by leaders of the various wings of his Maoist party, party chairman Prachanda insisted at an April 26 press conference that this forces are not planning a seizure of the state now, but still mobilizing mass pressure to push forward the process of inventing a constitution framework for a “New Nepal.”
“If the other side resorts to violent tactics, there will be violence,” said Prachanda, who could assume the Prime Minister’s office if the Maoists lead a new coalition government. “Massive pressure and intervention of the people is essential to safeguard national independence and people’s supremacy for peace and constitution making.”
Prachanda denied that the widely reporting mass training for May First is military in nature, or that the Maoists intent a direct assault on the state. He claims that training with kukhuris, the Nepali traditional war machete, is only happening in a few areas. That said, this isn’t the message the Maoists are telling their own base, who are coming to the city for what is termed a “final conflict”. Two years have passed with the government stalling the constitution to institutionalize a New Nepal – and the clock has run out.
Goverment leans on the army, U.S. ‘advice’
This obviously disturbs the sitting government, who are turning to foreign powers and the unreconstructed army for their last line of defense. American diplomats and military officials are meeting daily with Prime Minister M.K. Nepal.
“If the Maoists eventually go berserk and proceed with their objective of state capture, are we in a position to stop them?” PM Nepal reportedly asked the assembled chiefs of the Army, police and intelligence services. Yes, the Maoists could be defeated and the people contained if necessary, the chiefs reportedly answered.The Nepal Army’s commander has confirmed that troops will leave the barracks in the event the Armed Police can’t contain the protests. The Maoists insist they have no plans for violence, but they aren’t showing up with begging cups in hand.
According to a report in the Kathmandu Post, People’s Liberation Army Commander Pasang has ordered all Maoist soldiers on leave to return to the cantonments that have served as their bases during the constituent assembly and to remain on “high alert.” A sub-commander of the PLA was arrested en route to Kathmandu, allegedly in possession of a grenade. Police also stopped at least one van with stacks of bamboo sticks. An arsenal, this is not. Other leaders, including the Maoists intellectual architect Baburam Bhattarai insist they do no plan violence, and that that the government is inciting hysteria. In this mix of over-lapping plans and uncertainties – anything could happen.
Time will tell.
Virtually without popular support, Prime Minister Nepal has said he would step aside — however only provided that the Maoists renounce their own radical program, cancel the May First mobilization, dismantle their growing militias and return estates occupied by the farmers to their original absentee landlords. The Prime Minister has been dueling with his own party’s representatives in the constituent assembly, a majority of whom have already pressed for his resignation in favor of a Maoist-led national unity government. He has also whined that he will not give way to Prachanda, personally, in what appears a transparent attempt to spark rivalries among the Maoist leaders.
Nepal’s ceremonial President Yadav held a dinner last night with leaders of all the parties seated in the Constituent Assembly, which itself was surrounded by protesters all day demanding ethnic autonomy for the Newar people who are the largest group in the Kathmandu Valley. The Maoists boycotted the dinner, saying Yadav does not have the authority to convene any gathering as he is not a legitimate head of state. Should a coup be attempted, Yadav would likely be the “leader” fronted by a military junta.
It seems the Maoists are giving their answer out in the grassroots — fresh land seizures are reported in several districts, often targeting feudal political leaders from the pro-Indian Congress party and the old King’s monarchist parties. .
The Maoists want to avoid a direct confrontation with the Nepal Army. Despite the swirl of rumors, the plan appears to be for a people-power social strike to force the government out.
Their demands are for the parliamentary parties to step aside, and allow the Maoists to draft what they call a “people’s federal democratic constitution.” Should the unreformed state, in the form of the Nepal Army take the streets, however — all bets are off.
The Maoists hope to exploit the real divisions between the monarchist, upper-caste high command and the thousands of soldiers and lower-level officers whose allegiance is quite uncertain. The Maoists are targeting the political class, while trying to keep the main force of the Nepal Army off balance.
“The commanders don’t trust the soldiers, and many officers won’t follow orders to fire on masses of Nepali people,” a young former political officer in the People’s Liberation Army confided to me. “The army can’t be deployed. It will break apart.”
That said, military helicopters have now begun regularly clattering over Kathmandu, something I haven’t previously seen in the two months I’ve been here.
Insurrection and compromise seem equally possible. No possibility is off the table.The army is jittery. Attempts to bully the crowd will likely be met with determined resistance.
Leaders of the status-quo parties, UML and Nepal Congress, have rejected Maoist demands for a last-minute deal. They are in a panic over popular mobilizations and have good reason to fear being sidelined if the Maoists re-enter the government. Lacking a popular base, the parliamentary parties are clinging to their government posts — as if it was their last line of defense against revolution.
“If the UCPN-Maoist transforms itself into a civilian party, we are open to discuss any alternative to this government and pave the way for a formation of a national unity government,” a chief adviser to the prime minister told The Himalayan Times.
In other words, the Maoists are being told that if they drop their plans for agrarian revolution, return those properties already seized by peasants and disband the YCL and People’s Liberation Army, they can quickly become the most powerful of the parliamentary parties. All they have to do is give up their cause, and the armed force that has kept the Army at bay.
The door is open for them to join, even lead, the old state on its terms. The Maoists demand the restructuring of the entire state through the constitutional process all parties agreed to in 2006. The Maoists are an unstoppable force, the government (and old state) an immovable object.
Maoists have initiative, people are the wild card
When hundreds of thousands assemble in Kathmandu on May First, no matter what positions are staked out in negotiations – new terms may be set on the ground. The same questions are raised from many quarters: Will the army move against the people? Are the Maoists serious about waging a decisive confrontation? What will Nepal look like when these coming months are over?
We will soon know.
Download this piece as a PDF