Maoist emerges to claim Nepal

By Luke Harding
Published May 29th 2003 in The Guardian




With his flat cap and black NHS-style spectacles, Baburam Bhattarai bears an uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Lenin. But sitting in his new office in Kathmandu, decorated with a large communist flag, he faced a problem Lenin


never suffered - being interrupted by a call on his mobile phone.  But as Mr Bhattarai was quick to explain, it is crucial that you apply Marxism creatively, rather than literally. "As Marx says, you don't have to interpret the world. The point is to change it," he said.




For the past week the world's attention has been focused on Nepal, with lavish celebrations to mark Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's conquest of Mount Everest 50 years ago today.




King Gyanendra is throwing a dinner tonight for Sir Edmund, 83. But the most important person in Kathmandu these days is neither the king nor the celebrated climber, but Mr Bhattarai, the formidable leader of Nepal's Maoist rebels.




For the past seven years Mr Bhattarai has masterminded a brutal campaign to transform Nepal into a revolutionary people's state.




He has nearly succeeded, with his Communist party of Nepal (Maoist) claiming to control almost 80% of the kingdom. Earlier this year the rebels and the government agreed a ceasefire, and the two sides are quietly conducting peace talks.




In one of the first interviews since he emerged from hiding six weeks ago, Mr Bhattarai told the Guardian that the Maoists now had the "upper hand" in their war. The only reason the rebels had not seized Kathmandu was that they were worried that this would provoke an American invasion, he said.




"They can't crush us. They can't defeat us militarily. We have tremendous mass support," Mr Bhattarai said. "But the US is the world's biggest terrorist. The US has been threatening us openly. We want to avoid that scenario."




Since the ceasefire Mr Bhattarai has emerged as the revolutionary group's main negotiator and its public face. He has conducted two rounds of meetings with Nepal's ministers, and has also acquired a modest office in central Kathmandu, staffed by polite young Maoists wearing baseball caps.




Last week Mr Bhattarai, a 49-year-old former architect, even held a book launch where he published his PhD thesis - a Marxist analysis of the kingdom's problems.




His office is a short drive from Nepal's main palace, where the crown prince, Dipendra, shot dead most of his family two years ago. The Maoists are demanding a new constitution - and have suggested it would be best if King Gyanendra abdicates.




"We want real democracy," Mr Bhattarai said yesterday. "The elitist and feudalist structure has to be changed."




The rebels are serious about their demands, some of which appear sensible, such as the redistribution of land, a minimum wage and free health care.  Others seem more menacing. They include a ban on "foreign culture" - which apparently means "X-rated cinema, videos and newspapers".




The movement models itself on other violent revolutionary outfits, including the Shining Path in Peru and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Since it began its war in 1996 some 7,000 people have died, including about 4,000 killed last year after King Gyanendra sent the army into the hills and villages of western Nepal to crush the insurrection.




Britain and America, meanwhile, have secretly provided the Nepalese government with military advice.




Yesterday Mr Bhattarai admitted that the Maoists had murdered hundreds of soldiers and policemen. But he said their deaths were justified. "It is a war. It is the law of war," he said. "But we don't like killing. We want to end it."




He claimed Nepal's army and police were to blame for most of the slaughter, and had killed hundreds of innocent people in "fake encounters".




Technically, Mr Bhattarai is the deputy leader of the Maoist faction of Nepal's Communist party. Its rebels' actual leader, the mysterious Com rade Prachanda, a 41-year-old former horticulture teacher, has remained underground.




Mr Bhattarai shrugged off the suggestion that his ideology was an anachronism. "Capitalism arrived in Britain in the 16th century. It has not solved Britain's problems over 500 years," he said. "I have seen beggars lying in the streets of London and Washington."




There is little doubt that his message has won genuine popular support among Nepal's downtrodden rural classes, from poor farmers, women, and those at the bottom of the caste heap. 


Successive governments have failed to get to grips with the kingdom's two main problems - poverty and corruption. Last autumn King Gyanendra sacked the prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, and appointed his own man. Since then the mainstream democratic parties have been agitating for a return to parliamentary democracy.




Given the inherently unstable nature of Nepalese politics, nobody is betting on how long the peace process will last.




Mr Bhattarai said the Maoists wanted multi-party democracy and proportional representation. But he was vague as to whether the rebels had completely given up on violence, or had dropped their demand for a people's state.




"If they dismantle their armed forces, the violence will end. If they don't it is up to them to face the consequences," he said menacingly of the government. "We want peace, but peace with change."




·Two people died and six were injured when a helicopter crashed near Mount Everest base camp yesterday, marring anniversary celebrations. The two dead


were from Nepal, an army officer said.


The Mi-17, owned by Simrik Airlines, was carrying eight people, including four crew, to the camp when it crashed. The cause of the accident was not known.