From guerrilla war to government: Now part of the governing coalition, Nepal's Maoists still face tough challenges.

Author:Devkota, Khimlal

Nepal held national, provincial and local elections in 2017, all under the terms of the constitution promulgated two years earlier. That constitution and those elections are tangible results of the ten-year civil war that gripped the Himalayan country from 1996 to 2006 and the lengthy peace process that followed.

The elections established a guaranteed 40 per cent representation for women at the municipal level and 33 per cent at the provincial and national levels, making Nepal the South Asian country with the best representation of women in elected government. Other previously marginalized and underrepresented groups were also elected to the national and provincial parliaments through quotas.

Nepal is emerging from a history of feudalism and conflict to stand as a remarkable example of inclusive democracy - at least in terms of its political structures. Now, the test for Nepal's lawmakers will be to make sure that these successes result in real gains for the people of a country often overlooked between its giant neighbours, India and China.

Why did the Maoists revolt?

In 1996 Nepal's Maoist party (of which I was a member) launched what became a protracted war calling for Nepal's radical socioeconomic and political transformation. This armed movement directly challenged Nepal's relatively new multiparty democracy, restored in 1990 after decades of absolute rule by the monarchy.

When the Maoists started their rebellion, there was considerable international concern, particularly among Western liberal democracies. This concern was prompted by comparisons to other Maoist movements, bringing to mind the guerrilla war waged by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru, the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge during their brief but bloody rule in Cambodia (1975-78), and the excesses of Mao Zedong's government in China. More generally, the appearance of a new Communist movement in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall was an ideological challenge to the new global order. These concerns were shared by Nepal's elite, who benefited from maintaining the existing order. To place Nepal's Maoist movement in context, it is useful to take a brief look at the country's recent history.

Nepal has had a relatively peaceful history. In the decades before the emergence of the Maoist movement, there had been a few armed political groups, but no organized large-scale armed movement. In contrast to other countries, including in its southern neighbour India, diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious communities had generally coexisted.

This could be because of the extreme geography and climate that dominate large parts of Nepal; the Himalayan and Annapurna mountains stretch from east to west, giving way to (relatively!) smaller mountains and foothills that in turn roll into the Terai, or flatlands, in the southern reaches of the country. Like Canada's northern communities, Nepal's mountain peoples need to support one another regardless of their differences to survive and thrive. Despite enormous diversity - the country boasts around 103 ethnic groups speaking over 100 languages - there is hardly any mention of serious communal tension or violence in Nepal's modern history. The peaceable nature of Nepali society has been a national trait valued by most Nepalis.

Members of what was to become the Maoist movement were part of that society, but we resorted to arms in response to Nepal's terrible socioeconomic and political conditions. The restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, following a popular uprising that ended 40 years of more or less absolute monarchical rule, had offered great hope, but it was soon clear that as long as the feudal structures overseen by the King remained intact, multiparty democracy would not bring the changes that were so desperately needed.

For more than 200 years, since King Prithvi Narayan Shah consolidated the physical boundaries of the modern state of Nepal in the mid-18th century, life for ordinary Nepalis changed little. The few reforms that took place were inadequate to meet the challenges of the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

For too long Nepal had lagged behind. A small group of families fought for power in Kathmandu while local kings and princes used traditions and religion to extract what wealth they could from a population excluded from education and often, thanks to the landscape, cut off from the world. A brief democratic moment arrived after the Second World War, when the quasi-royal Rana family was overthrown, but the traditional royal family, the Shahs, took advantage of the democrats' weakness and regained control.

The Shahs came under pressure in the late 1980s. The 1990 constitution was the result of a compromise between the King and the parliamentary parties following a popular uprising that coincided with a global wave of democratization. That "People's Movement" promised a lot but delivered little. The Royal Nepal Army (RNA) remained under the King's direct control. Untouchability, as part of a rigid caste system, continued to be practised in large parts of the country. Marginalized groups, especially women, were tortured and killed on the basis of superstition. Slavery persisted. The King was the protector of the religious institutions preserving these values; many continued to worship the King as an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu. The palace and a handful of wealthy families close to the royal family continued to control the country...

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