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Eyewitness report: Nepal, May 1-4 -- The people besiege a government

[For more coverage of the struggle in Nepal, please click HERE.]

Story and photos by Jed Brandt

May 3, 2010 -- jedbrandt.net -- From here in Kathmandu the monarchy ruled this diverse mountain nation for 200 years. This is where the national elite live, with its political parties, banks and walled compounds. But the streets now belong to the people, and it is this "people's power" movement that they fear.

Kathmandu is chaotic on a normal day, but for May 1 the Maoists mobilised at least 500,000 people to the steets with both discipline and revelry. The Janandolan III, or popular uprising, they promised is here.

The Kalinki gathering

We positioned ourselves by one of the 18 gathering points for the May 1 events. Each of the gathered marches then moved through the streets to Martyrs' Field in the Kathmandu city centre.

By 10 am on the morning of May 1, thousands of restaurant and hotel workers assembled around us at Kalinki. As contingents came in from every direction to the central intersection, cries of "Lal salaam!" (Red salute!) rose to meet the latest arrival.

The sight of city workers and students meeting country farmers was heart warming. And it is in marked contrast to the bigoted hostility and fear the elites express toward the working classes.

In Nepal, the hammer and sickle is a living symbol of who this movement is: the sickle is for the farmers, the hammer for the workers. They are set together on the red flag of proletarian revolution.

Young Communist League cadre in their matching tracksuits set up perimeters protecting the march route – They hold hands in lines along the road and down the side streets leading in, facing off with lines of riot cops in black body armour.

Inside the crowd, recently trained protesters formed circles within circles, like an onion, to keep the protests orderly and remain prepared in case of the violent repression that the prime minister has so openly threatened.

Motorcycles provided communication between units. At the head of the march, a man in sunglasses and a flak jacket kept a cell phone to his ear. Messengers are constantly coming and going.

Human rights observers in blue uniforms stood off to the side chatting with teams of medics dressed in white. Among the Maoists, neighbourhood associations all have their own colour coordination and many of the country people come wearing the bright saris and wraps that are their traditional dress. It is the first time since I arrived in Nepal that I’ve seen the famous ethnic diversity of this country gathered in one place – and there is an undeniable fraternal spirit in the air.

Rivers of protesters flowed by each other in swirls and cross-currents.

A manifestation of the people

Right near us in Kalinki is the bus station where young men, women and teenagers have been arriving in the past two days from Nepal's western districts. All of Nepal has been sending its youth to the capital – in high hopes and in deepest seriousness.

Maoist hopes for an overwhelming turnout has been achieved. They asked for "one member from every family to attend" and from the numbers alone, they have come close.

The crowds of revolutionary protesters are living in occupied universities, private schools, shopping malls and construction sites. Many of these marchers are country people -- seeing the capital city for the first time. A few points remain under the direct power of the state -- the halls of government and the formidable barracks of the Nepal army. Organised, with discipline, this movement intends to bring down the current, unelected prime minister and begin to reshape the state.

The Maoists have promised that their massive display in this city would be non-violent, and so far it has been. For weeks, the isolated government warned that Maoist armed violence was imminent. The accusations, made without sources or evidence, came masquerading as news. This is a country with two opposing armies, but the government was still unable to arrest more than a few Maoist cadre for weapons, mostly kukhuri knives, plus one grenade.

All the hysterical reports reveal the fears of a government that is facing a human siege from a powerful popular movement.

In fact, the only weapons I have seen are in the hands of the government's Armed Police, the militarised force that faced the Maoists during the previous civil war. Nepal army soldiers were mainly visible on their barracks roofs, in their green fatigues, watching the crowd.

So far the police presence has been light. Platoons of Armed Police are stationed at strategic buildings and mingle with the crowds of protesters. During two days of high tension protest that preceded May 1, there have been no major incidents of violence.

Three Nepal amy soldiers were seized by the Maoists for spying on the crowd, displayed before reporters and then turned over to the police.

Armed Police rousted some encampments early in the mobilisation, and kept squatters out of a few campuses. Since the Maoist forces arrived in earnest, police backed off. Now, whole sections of the city are housing people.

`Revolution is good'

"Tribuvan University was named for a king", said Bharat, a literature student in the national university told me while groups of village women filed into his school. "Now we are debating whether to call it Republic University or People's University.”

He told me 18 campuses are now occupied, with shopping centres, private homes and construction sites gathering the rest.

"The system isn't right. Our weak infrastructure is the symptom of a broken political system", he said. "We do not agitate to destroy. Revolution is good. Revolutionary students do not allow police to enter the schools, and we will welcome everyone until the government falls."

Prime Minister MK Nepal said street protests would "not sustain long" and that the strategy of "state capture through street protests would be a suicidal step for the Maoists".

MK Nepal is meeting daily with his Indian and US military advisors – so that when the Maoists charge that he serves the Indian establishment there is more than a little truth to it. He constantly demands that these protests be called off – which does not appear likely. He has warned the army and police would be deployed in force if the post-May Day general strike turned violent. "The duty of all security agencies and government employees is to enforce law and order."

The Maoists gave their answer. "It is a great mistake on their part to think that they could take us under control through the deployment of troops", the main Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)’s leader Prachanda warned the sitting government. He claimed openly that many among the security apparatus support the coming of democracy to Nepal, and reiterated his call for them to join in for the change the people are plainly demanding.

The Maoists have described the struggle that starts May 1 a "decisive conflict" to bring a radical, democratic constitution and depose the current government to restructure the state. Gajural, general secretary of the UCPN (M), recently reiterated that, "The protests are not meant to capture state power, but to change the incumbent government."

Maoist leader Badal termed this people's power movement a proletarian revolt. "We are gearing for the final push. Prepare to dig graves for the feudals."

Over and over the Maoists have pledged that they will not initiate violence. But they are also not naive. Their People's Liberation Army (PLA) is on alert in UN-supervised cantonments. And the the UCPN (M) senior leadership has disappeared from view – which is obviously a wise precaution against a government decapitation strike.

Should the government’s army use lethal violence against the people, everyone in Nepal expects the confrontations to be armed on both sides. So for anyone wanting a peaceful solution – the hundreds of thousands now in the street offer the best chance, perhaps even the last chance.

Convergence on Martyrs' Field

Eighteen marches converged at Martyrs' Field by midday. People simply overflowed the huge park, and then overflowed the surrounding streets. The city was packed for kilometres in all directions, with speakers echoing the speeches from the centre stage. Prachanda, Dr Baburam Bhattarai, Kiran and other Maoist leaders from cultural and military fronts all shared the stage. Cameras were mounted on booms to capture the speeches. The international press has been noticeably absent.

"I searched the crowd for people who were pressured or forced to attend", said a reporter for an English-language daily associated with the Congress party. "Not only couldn't I find any one who didn't want to be here, but many complained there wasn't enough room on buses for everyone back home to attend. The people are here to make history."

Singers and dancers enacted scenarios with meaning for the coming days. In one act, women dancers in green silk fatigues recreated this May 1 march on stage, with flags waving and proud faces. Then, ominously, troupes of male dancers in dressed in Nepal army green and Armed Police blue pulled out batons and knives. They attacked the dancers. Waves of people fell back before the onslaught, some were rescued by comrades; some fell dramatically to the floor. Suddenly the stage was overtaken by a rousing surge of people, including PLA fighters, who together pushed the army and police into the wings. When a group of dancers representing soldiers returned to the stage, they were holding the national Nepali flag as an offering and concession. They handed the flag over to dancers representing the PLA and they all held the flag high together and the crowd roared.

This city is alive. The Maoists may not have termed this uprising an "insurrection", but the living city is under their control, with government buildings simply surrounded by protesters. Dancing and singing are everywhere. Troubadours, poets and agitators move from one cluster to another. When one song ends, another singing crowd turns the corner.

No last-minute midnight deal

By the evening of May 1, the streets were still full. Groups of protesters were traveling past each other on route to their sleeping quarters.

As I gathered my thoughts to report on this day, a young photojournalist from one of Nepal's daily papers called to tell me negotiators may have reached an agreement on a new constitution. I rushed to the Radisson Hotel where the Maoists were meeting with capitalist Congress party and the pro-government Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) leaders. After the overwhelming Maoist show of popular support, many expected the prime minister to resign.

Among the dozen reporters milling around the hotel entrance, word was that an agreement of some kind had been reached. It was Dr Baburam Bhattarai, the Maoists' intellectual architect, who appeared first to a blitz of camera flashes and questions.

"This government should first resign and pave the way for a national unity government", Bhattarai said. "They were not prepared to make this agreement. So we will move forward with the general strike."

Some of the reporters heckled him – it was those employed by TV networks associated with rival parties. Bhattarai paid them little mind, and left quickly. With the failure of negotiations, the senior Maoist leaders pulled out of public sight, and the general strike is now in full effect – with no planned end. The Maoists are open for new discussion, but no signs point to retreat.

The general strike

At 7 am on May 2, marchers were already in the street. They occupied every major intersection in the city. All stores were closed and shuttered. Protesters made way for emergency vehicles, press, diplomatic cars and water trucks servicing the crowd. The clamour of traffic was gone. The air (for once!) was clear. The only sounds were human, groups in conversation, the rise and fall of chanting groups moving in every direction.

Clustered in groups of 50 to a few hundred, protesters filed out of occupied campuses, shopping centres and open fields converted into first-aid centres and communal kitchens. Dancers performed for circles of protesters and poets moved like troubadours from corner to corner.

Near Singa Durbar, the government administration centre, hundreds of riot cops behind steel barricades and coils of barbed wire faced off with the front edge of the protestors. They blocked the drive leading from the prime minister’s walled compound in Baluwatar.

Files of protesters moved in and out, then practiced running surges back and forth before the police lines, marshals kept the lines tight. Hundreds of people sat in groups, passing newspapers around for news, clustering in meetings and sharing water from trucks festooned with red flags. Then along the side, a hundred or a thousand would charge at full speed with flags waving, then stop on a dime, and run back the other way and do it again.

When an ambulance turned onto the blocked street, Lekhanath Neupane, a philosopher and leader of the Maoist-aligned All Nepal National Independent Students' Union (Revolutionary) directed the blockade to make way even while they waved their arms in frustration. Everyone stood up to let the ambulance pass, then closed in immediately behind it, chanting and maintaining the blockade.

"Today is a peaceful demonstration only", Neupane said. "We will not stop lifelines for the people. Our process is rising to the heights day to day."

The blockade has been constant from dawn to dusk, when smoke started rising several streets down. Pyres were torched at a dozen locations near the city centre in symbolic funeral of the current government and in theatrical climax to the day's action.

"We will not start violence", said one student whose slight build gave no clue to the years he spent in the People's Liberation Army during the People's War. "After five or seven days... we will see. Nobody is going home until we win. This is our country. These are our countrymen."

He was pensive, reminding me of the battles he had seen before and the cost of the fight. Some the Maoists won, hundreds of others were dead. His brother was among the first martyrs in the war, a school teacher turned soldier, killed by police in 1996. Many other friends have already fallen.

Much of the crowd is young enough that they were not combatants during the armed conflict. They are excited and eager to prove themselves.

"This is prime minister Nepal. We just killed him and burn him. He is doing wrong for our country", said a young man with a shaved head and an accent of African-American English he had picked up at school in Los Angeles. He told me his name was KTM Gangsta and that he was a rapper and a rebel.

"We want a new culture, a new government. We don't bow down to no man. We want to rule ourselves. Freedom means the rule of people and we don't give a shit about big talk and big speeches. We will take bullets if we have to."

"We have three points!", another young man interjected, visibly frustrated with the off-message enthusiasm of KTM Gangsta. Dewash Gautam said, "People's power, youth power and the crisis in capitalism are pushing this movement."

Speaking with the direct cadence of a trained cadre, he said that among educated young people the support for the Maoists was 40%, but among the illiterate people it was 90%. "It is the great mass of people who will help us to win this time. If we lose now, we will need 100 years to rebuild the communist movement in Nepal. This is the last fight."

He inquired if I was familiar with Rage Against the Machine, a band he liked.

"We are not here to rage alone but to build something new", he said as the fire died down.

Organised enforcement

The protests have no centre. The Maoists have left stores open from 6 to 8 pm for food shopping, medicines and essential supplies. Some restaurants are open in the tourist areas and newspaper stands keep the papers outside the shop with the shutters down.

Groups of the Maoist Young Communist League cadre broke off from a torch march at dusk to enforce the strike closure on non-essential stores. A crew of 20 young men ran past me to some shops to pull the shutters down on stores that were open. When they aggressively surrounded a defiant restaurant proprietor, pounding on his windows, the YCL squad leader approached to mediate. The doors were closed.

The general strike is national, with protest programs in six cities: Pokhara, Durang, Dipaiel, Janakpur and Nepaljung; Kathmandu is the centre, and the centre cannot hold.

* * *

May 3, 2010 -- At dusk, police fired tear gas at marchers near Gongabu bus terminal, and live ammunition into the air to push back the crowds. No one was seriously injured, nor was anyone too shaken at the scene.

People are determined and won't be scared off. Rallies throughout the city.

It's on.

Nepal general strike Day 3: Ring Road red revolution

By Jed Brandt

May 4, 2010 -- The ring road that circles Kathmandu was surrounded today in rings of protesters. Twenty-eight kilometres long in two rows, sometimes four. WIth 18 marches of roughly 20,000+ each.

At dusk, the Maoist leaders Prachanda, Bhattarai and Kiran drove down the road.

Again, overwhelming. Have to go.

[Jed Brandt is a US reporter writing from Nepal. His reports and photographs appear on jedbrandt.net, where this article first appeared. He is a participant of the Kasama Project. These articles have been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with Jed Brandt's permission.]

Comments

CPN (UML) leaders ask PM to resign

http://krishnasenonline.org/main/news.php?pname=Theredstar&id=132&cata_name=Politics

Kathmandu, May 2, 2010 -- Sixty disgruntled leaders of the ruling party Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) -- UML -- have asked the prime minister to resign and pave the way for national consensus. Leaders including senior vice-chairman Bamdev Gautam handed over a memorandum to Khanal this morning to put pressure on party leadership to make way for the formation of new national government in order to clear the present deadlock.

The memorandum has been signed by party's central committee members Sahana Pradhan, Kiran Gurung, Rajendra Shrestha, Prashuram Meghi Gurung, Radha Gyawali, Ram Prit Paswan and other prominent leaders. They have said that PM continue to remain in the prime minister's post is not only absurd but damaging for the country and the party too. [ThePM MK Nepal is a member of the UML.]

The memo further reads, "We strongly advise Prime Minister comrade Madhav Kumar Nepal to immediately resign from his post and pave the way for national consensus." They further said that the prime minister's address to the nation on Saturday has further worsened the political crisis and escalate the conflict in the country.

Meanwhile UML chairman Jhalanath Khanal has said that the procedural flaws despite being true to the party's aspiration. Talking with the journalist in the afternoon he said,  “There is no difference in the spirit of memorandum and the party’s aspiration. The issues could also be tabled through meeting. I don’t feel that such procedure should have been adopted.”

Nepali Times: Maoists withdraw strike

Friday, May 7th, 2010 (Nepali Times)

The Maoists have withdrawn their indefinite strike following intense international pressure, on the evening that Nepal’s professional organisations and businesses staged a mammoth peace rally in Kathmandu and as resistance spread across the country.

The announcement was made after the party’s standing committee meeting on Friday at 9:15, and was announced as breaking news on all TV channels. Cheers were heard going up in neighbourhoods around the capital.

The Maoists have said they have only “postponed” the Tesro Jana Andolan and thanked the “janata” for their support and solidarity.

“Our protest will now take a different nature and we reserve the right to resume the indefinite strike at a later date,”  Pushpa Kamal Dahal told the media. He announced demonstrations on Saturday noon in metros around the country. On Sunday there is a program to encircle Singha Darbar “until the current puppet government steps down”.

It is not yet clear what was the final straw that made the Maoists withdraw the strike, but reports on television of Maoist YCL attacking peace rallies across the country probably convinced the leadership that the strike may be going out of control. There were also indications that the anti-strike citizen’s demonstrations were to spread across the country.

The flurry of diplomatic meetings between Dahal and the diplomatic community on Thursday and Friday may have also contributed. The standing committee met soon after Dahal met ambassadors from Denmark, Switzerland, the United States and India. The Norwegian ambassador had initiated a mediation effort of his own in his residence in Bhaisepati on Thursday evening.

It is also not yet clear what the Maoists will get in return, although there are reports that a “package deal” on integration, constitution and power sharing will be announced Sunday.

Ball In Ruling Parties' Court: Prachanda

http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=18372
 

KATHMANDU, May 8:  A day after the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) called off its six-day general strike, the party´s chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, said the ball is now in the court of the ruling parties and his party would watch their move and take its decisions accordingly.

“We will not negotiate with the ruling parties out of submission. We will see how you (ruling parties) react to the nation and the people, and make the next move accordingly. Now the ball is in the ruling parties´ court,” Dahal said while addressing a rally at the Khulamunch, Saturday.

He also said his party has only changed the nature of its protest -- not withdrawn it, and that the strike was just a rehearsal. "The six-day strike is just a rehearsal. We put off the agitation for the time being to make further preparations and give a respite to the people."

He said the general strike should be construed as preparations for a revolt if the ruling parties do not become ready for consensus and address the Maoist demands. “If a national government is not formed and the constitution not drafted as we have envisioned, we will stage the real show before May 28,” said Dahal. He demanded that the ruling parties immediately take a decision in favor of peace, constitution and the nation.

Journalists, writers humiliated rural folk

Dahal also accused journalists and writers of humiliating the rural folks who have descended on the Valley to participate in what they call Janaandolan-3.

“The shabbily dressed, poor, and hungry rustics who came to Kathmandu were humiliated by the so-called learned. These neat and clean intellectuals will now have to decide whether they want peace or war” he said. “Nepali people have maintained a diary on who wrote what,” he added.

He said when these people came to Kathmandu to participate in the April uprising in 2006, they were not termed “outsiders”, but when they came to Kathmandu for republicanism, federalism and secularism this time round, they had been called outsiders. The Maoists have brought in thousands of people from across the country, especially from districts surrounding the Valley, to heat up the streets.

Dahal was especially angry with middle class Kathmanduties who did not participate in the Maoist demonstrations.

The Maoist chairman also accused the government of deploying “vigilantes” who attacked his party cadres with pistols and khukuris, and the media of disseminating propaganda that locals retaliated against the Maoists for enforcing the strike.

“What could be greater dishonesty than that? History will show the consequences of the hooliganism. People will not spare them,” he said. He also said the peace rally on Friday was infiltrated by vigilantes to incite violence.

“That´s why we requested organizers to postpone the program,” he said. “If that was purely a peace rally why did some march chanting slogans demanding Prachanda´s execution,” he said. He argued that the war is now between those who want to institutionalize rebublicanism, federalism and secularism and those who are against these concepts.

Two reasons for withdrawing strike

The former rebel leader said his party withdrew the general strike for two reasons: Out of its understanding as the largest political party for the sentiments of the people, and the conspiracy to pit people against people. According to him, the party has not retreated, but changed the form of protest. “This mass movement, which we have termed Jajaandolan-3, will not be called off until we reach our goal,” he said. Dahal also urged his cadres not to lose patience and deviate from the path.

 

   
   

This news item is printed from myrepublica.com - a sister publication of Republica national daily.
© Nepal Republic Media Pvt. Ltd. Kathmandu Nepal.

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