Maoism Around the Campfire

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Ami Vitale/Getty

Maoist insurgents in the Rukum district, Nepal.

After hours of driving through southern Nepal, the Maoist cantonment proves remarkably easy to find. Red pennants adorn trees and street lamps along miles of dirt road that winds through rice paddies and fields of yellow mustard, ending by a sprawl of ramshackle enclosures and wood huts. There's little sign of military menace as goats and pigs loll around on grass knolls — that's before we near the sandbags of an outer bunker where a young woman in fatigues, who appears to be of school-going age, turns her machine gun in our direction and fixes us with a steely gaze.

It may be in the middle of nowhere, but this Maoist guerrilla camp marks a fork in the road for the Himalayan nation. After a decade-long civil war that has claimed 13,000 lives and prompted mass protests in 2006 against the autocratic rule of King Gyanendra, the Maoists have been brought into the political mainstream, via a peace agreement that would turn the oft-romanticized Hindu kingdom into a secular republic representing the true social and ethnic diversity of Nepal's 27 million people. The self-styled People's Liberation Army agreed to retire to rural camps such as this one, to begin preparing their fighters for integration into a new National Army.

But progress has been stymied by politicians. The eight parties (including the Maoists) who formed an interim government have dithered and bickered over everything from the appointment of ambassadors to the composition of a Constitution Assembly. Elections to that body, originally scheduled for last June, have been postponed twice and may not take place at all.

The most recent poll date was scrapped when the Maoist leadership, now cozily ensconced in Kathmandu, grandstanded on a set of divisive demands — including the outright abolition of Nepal's 240-year-old monarchy — that they had previously agreed would be resolved only after elections. Many in Kathmandu see that move as reason to doubt the Maoists' commitment to democracy, although the other parties have now sought to accommodate that demand by agreeing that the monarchy will be abolished once a Constituent Assembly is elected. For their part, the Maoists, who proclaim themselves the true champions of democracy in Nepal, plead for patience as they move their "people's revolution" out of the jungle.

Chitwan's ex-guerrillas certainly appear eager to make the switch to civilian life. Neat gravel paths cross through manicured lawns; Bollywood songs blare from a thatch-roofed cabin. Yet conditions in this and the six other main Maoist cantonments are squalid — food and potable water are always in short supply, and the camp doctors grumble about a lack of medicines from the interim government. Trenches once dug for protection from helicopter gunships now serve as makeshift dormitories for many fighters and their families.

As night draws near, soldiers huddle in groups, batting away mosquitoes. The political impasse has not shaken their faith in the peace process. Most seem more interested in the victories of the camp's team in a recent intra-PLA women's volleyball tournament than in recalling their brutal triumphs during the insurgency. But when asked about why they joined the Maoists in the first place, they offer up a catalog of social and political ills plaguing Nepal. One describes the rigid caste prejudice that forever stunted his family's ambitions; a woman fighter rails against traditional patriarchies. Another soldier who comes from one of Nepal's indigenous ethnicities explains how the country still remains the fief of "hill people" around Kathmandu. The military brass of their erstwhile enemy, the Royal Nepal Army, hail from a few prominent families that have remained close to the monarchy for centuries.

Nepal's scars run much deeper than the wounds inflicted by the ten-year civil war in which both sides were guilty of forced recruitment, extortion and extrajudicial killings. Crippling rural poverty and decades of ethnic disenfranchisement are now also coming to a head: criminal elements and vigilante cadres of the Maoists run rampant in parts of the Nepali countryside, while the lowland region of the Tarai — whose ethnically Indian inhabitants comprise 40% of Nepal's population but remain politically marginalized — has been gripped for months by strikes and political violence.

Amid this turmoil as the peace process stagnates, fears are growing that royalist elements in the military may attempt a coup. The camp's Commander Biwidh, a slight man whose weathered face looks far older than his 34 years, is aware of this threat. "We do not want another war," he sighs, turning his head toward the setting sun. "But if the revolution must be fought again, it will be."