Skip to comments.Trekkers' paradise is Nepalis' hell
Posted on 01/31/2004 7:49:58 PM PST by Tailgunner Joe
KATHMANDU - There are a number of ways to break a person's legs. Maoist guerrillas in Nepal often use rocks. They lay the person down and smash the thighbones and shins. There is no need to describe the pain felt by the victim. Or the devastating effect crippling a person has in a mountainous country where walking is often the only way to get around. Breaking legs is a primitive but effective way of sowing terror into the population.
How then do these Nepalese communists treat well-off "decadent" Westerners trekking in Nepal's mountain trails? In a strange irony, these insurgents don't kidnap and torture such prime targets, or demand ransom, as in the Philippines, nor do they break their legs. Instead, they offer foreign visitors virtually VIP treatment, though usually for a small mandatory fee.
Comrade Prachanda, the enigmatic Nepalese Maoist leader, claims that he loves the Nepalese people. Yet his "people's army" has a strange way of showing it.
It could only happen in the world's "greatest trekking paradise", a country rich in idyllic mountains, but dirt poor for the majority of the population. Since 49-year-old Comrade Prachanda, whose real name is Puspa Kamal Dahal, began the communist insurgency aimed at replacing the monarchy with "true people's democracy" in 1996, the conflict has claimed over 8,000 lives and threatens to turn the poor Himalayan country into a basket case. In Kathmandu, the capital, politicians bicker and students agitate, while King Gyanendra resolutely hangs on to power, having dissolved parliament and assumed ruling powers on October 4, 2002.
It is often in the hills and mountains, the tourists' trekking playground, where the crisis is most acute. It is here that Prachanda's Maoists on the one hand and the Nepalese army and police on the other excel at torture and killing.
Yet, as one Kathmandu restaurant owner put it, "Despite the troubles, the tourists keep coming." While the number of arrivals has dropped to about 270,000, down about 50 percent since 1996, and foreign embassies offer travel advisories warning foreigners to be careful, tourists and climbers still flock by the planeload to the land of Mount Everest.
It is surreal. Privileged foreigners visiting Nepal live in one world, the Nepalese people live in another.
On the winding mountainous trail from Tolka to Chomrong on the route up to the Annapurna base camp, foreign trekkers occasionally run into the foot soldiers of Prachanda's Maoist insurgency, as well as in other trekking areas. Sheila, a trekker from England, recalled the encounter she and her friends had with two Maoists near Chomrong. "They were small boys and looked worried and embarrassed when they asked us for a trekking 'fee'," she said. "We guessed there were men with guns in the surrounding forest, so we paid the 200 rupee fee [about US$4.5]. And we got a receipt."
A few trekkers miss out and don't see sight or sound of the Maoists. Others do worse than Sheila and her friends. Rolph, a trekker from Holland, recalled his party being stopped by a large group of armed Maoists who asked them for 4,000 rupees each. The trekkers bargained it down to 2,000 rupees. Climbers who were about to climb Mount Makalu were forced to pay 10,000 rupees each in 2002. In the same year, eight trekkers in the Everest region were evacuated by the authorities to prevent their holiday from being ruined by gunfire. Soldiers and Maoists were battling it out nearby. The trekkers were airlifted by army helicopter from Lukla airport's small landing strip in the high mountains to Kathmandu, a thrill of a ride.
There have been a few foulups. Some cases have been reported in which trekkers were beaten because they refused to pay the men and women with guns. Foreign embassy advisories suggest not to resist the call for a "donation". And a British army officer strolling in the hills recruiting Gurkha soldiers for the British army was abducted in 2003, then released, with profuse public apologies offered by Maoist leader Prachanda. The British officer claimed he was "well-treated" by his captors.
For foreign tourists, a meeting with Maoists is usually a "big adventure". This is something to tell the folks about back home. Trekkers boast of being given a "People's Liberation Army of Nepal" receipt - a note offering thanks for the "donation to fight feudalism, imperialism, expansionism and all types of reactionaries". After all, the "encounters" are usually polite and the "donation" is a small price to pay for the pleasure of trekking in this mountain paradise.
But for Kal Bahadur Budha, Nepal was no paradise. Budha was born and raised in Humla in the impoverished west of the country, the Maoist heartland. In 2003, the 27-year-old farmer was kidnapped by Maoists and taken to another villager after he failed to persuade his brother to quit the police force, following pressure from the insurgents. Villagers were reportedly forced to watch as he dug a ditch. According to press reports citing the captive audience, when he refused to lie in the ditch, the Maoists chopped off his legs and buried him alive. In another incident reported by the press, 79-year-old Prabahang Kedem had his head slowly cut off by rebels with a kukri knife in front of his family, his last words a curse on his young assailants. Eyewitnesses claim that after his head was severed, his body was hacked into pieces. His crime? Refusing to pay a donation to the Maoists.
Prachanda's war didn't start off this way. When the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) rose out of the splintering of the communist party movement in 1995 following the end of absolute monarchy and the beginning of parliamentary democracy in 1990, the emphasis in the countryside was on "winning hearts and minds". This was not hard. Nepal lives under a pall of feudalism, casteism, corruption and a chasm between the small percentage of the rich and the masses, the poor. As one foreign aid worker put it, life for the poor is "short, brutish and ugly", especially in the hidden valleys where people suffer "years of drudgery, backbreaking labor, dirt, cold, disease and bites, and the rule of the club or gun". As much as 75 percent of the population live in the countryside, many close to or below the poverty line, often at the beck and call of landlords and the elite. Prachanda's Maoists have reason to be angry with the landlords, the police and the politicians.
The Maoists, under Prachanda and the party's intellectual and ideology chief, Baburam Bhattarai, were itching for more direct action following the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist's (CPN-UML) poor showing in elections in 1990. Building on an already existing strata of support among the poor and disenfranchised people in the country's most backward region, the west, Prachanda and Bhattarai began their "people's war" in 1996, a movement initially dismissed in Kathmandu as "insignificant".
This was the era of "father-like" Maoist village meetings where political lectures on equality and the failings of Nepal's feudal and corrupt elite were lapped up. Many young people willingly flocked to the Maoist ranks. This was the Maoism as seen in China in the 1930s under the guidance of the communist guerrilla leader Mao Zedong, a visionary helping and winning over the people.
But then more and more voices from the Nepalese hills spoke of youngsters being forced at gun or knifepoint to join. As the army and police stamped down hard, the level of brutality ratcheted up on both sides. Stories from human rights groups surfaced of villagers being forced by the Maoists to act as cannon fodder in attacks on police and army targets. Many are reported to have lost their lives in suicidal attacks.
Evidence of Maoist brutality grew. Over the past three years, many of the Maoist village meetings have ended up resembling the "struggle sessions" of the Chinese Cultural Revolution 1966-76 or the "killing fields" of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. According to local sources, the victims were suspected transgressors to the "cause" - small landowners, richer villagers, teachers - or those who refused or were too poor to pay the "tax" demanded.
The "trick" to sowing fear into the population appears to be to gather together the villagers to watch. In some cases, the victim's family members were forced to inflict the punishment, an eerie echo of the excesses when Chinese Red Guards forced children to kill their parents. Young male and female Maoists appear to be the main players in this "purification". In one case two years ago, a teacher became the taught when he was stabbed and hung in front of his school pupils.
Nepalese journalist Puskar Gautam says the brutality may partly be the result of the fighters being out of the direct control of the leaders and that in the massive recruiting, the correct political ideology was not properly instilled. Other commentators see the nod of Prachanda behind the violence. There is discipline in the brutality. Thieves, drinkers or gamblers, if caught, might lose a hand or foot, according to reports. They are the fortunate. For the unfortunate numbering in the hundreds, there is torture, beatings and eventual murder. People have been thrown off cliffs or tied down with rocks, then thrown into the river. Others have been burnt, beheaded, crucified or disemboweled. This "friendly and hospitable" trekkers' heaven can change in a flash into Dante's hell.
International human rights groups point fingers at both sides in the conflict. Apart from "the disappeared", those civilians who were said to have been taken into custody by the authorities, but whose whereabouts are now unknown, the survivors paint a picture of savagery. Hospitals and clinics document the injuries inflicted by Maoist's rocks, bullets and kukri knives and the effects of beatings, torture and rape carried out by the security forces. Patients with broken legs are common. Some never walk again.
It is not just the rich and middle class who are "terrified" by the Maoists, or "Maobadi", as they are known in Nepali. The poor fear both Maoists and security forces, having to say yes to both, according to local observers. Little wonder that thousands have fled the countryside for the city of Kathmandu, into India, or into badly paid menial servitude in the Middle East. For many youngsters, it's a choice of fight for the Maoists or flee.
Terror and tourism
For foreign tourists flying into Kathmandu airport, it is hard to get a handle on the situation. Travel agents say there is a "little trouble" but it is "nothing to worry about". On most days in the tourist season, Thamel, the capital's tourist ghetto, is bustling with mostly Western travelers in search of adventure, pizza and pie, or good hash. The talk is of great trekking trails and Maoist encounters.
Only when a bomb goes off or a bandh, a strike, is called by Prachanda's Maoists does the Hindu kingdom's capital take on the persona of a city at war. Soldiers and police hunker down with their rifles behind sandbags on street corners, the normally clogged streets taking on the appearance of a ghost town.
It is not just the Maoists who bring normal life to a halt. Students, teachers and others upset with the king, fed up with the corruption, fed up with the bickering political parties, and fed up with the killing, often take to the streets to air their discontent. Shouts are raised. Stones are thrown. Bullets or tear-gas canisters are fired. And more casualties fill the hospital emergency wards.
For the tourists who find themselves confined to their hotels and guesthouses at such times, the astute read books describing the regicide of 2001. A good choice is Massacre at the Palace: The Doomed Royal Dynasty of Nepal by Jonathan Gregson. In it the author documents how on June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra ran amuck when his father, King Birendra, refused to allow him to marry his sweetheart. The drunken prince grabbed a shotgun and an M-16 assault rifle and sprayed his family with gunfire before turning a gun on himself. The king and queen died, as did seven other members of the royal family. This wasn't the end of the monarchy. Prince Gyanendra, viewed by many as the black sheep of the family, took over as king.
This bloody event, and the arrival of a new monarch, King Gyanendra, added to the growing chaos in the country. Now, with millions of dollars' worth of United States military aid being given to the government, and with US military advisors to combat what is now post-September 11 called the "terrorist" threat, the scene is being set for more confrontation.
Nepal is at war with itself as it struggles to enter the 21st century. If Comrade Prachanda has his way, he will take the country back to "year zero". In a rare interview in 1999 with Li Onesto, a journalist from the leftist Revolutionary Worker publication, Prachanda talked of the inspiration Nepal's communist movement gained from Mao's communist victory in China in 1949 and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He said he followed Mao's path in developing a mass class struggle in the countryside. "We came to understand Mao's vision that the backward rural areas will be the real basin of the revolution," he said.
In this interview, the elusive Prachanda paraphrased Mao's thoughts on war, saying: "People usually think that war is very destructive, war is very bad, it kills people ... But people do not understand that war is a great process of construction. War has a very big cleansing effect."
Yet the level of brutality and destruction pursued by Prachanda's forces appears to eclipse that of the young Mao. In addition to the human artery cutting and bone breaking, Nepal's limited infrastructure has been targeted. Blowing up bridges is understandable. But the breaking of irrigation channels, the destruction of electricity solar panels, and the burning or closing of schools in a country with a 55 percent literacy rate and a fragile agricultural economy makes little sense, according to local people.
This is "Prachanda's Path", as the Maoist leadership now calls it. It bears the handiwork of Maoist intellectual Bhattarai, but it owes a major part of its thrust and inspiration to the Shining Path, the Maoist insurgents in Peru, and their leader Abimael Guzman's vision. Journalists' reports indicate Peruvian advisors from Sendero Luminoso trained Prachanda's fighters in the earlier stages of the war, though much of the support appears to come from sympathetic leftist rebel groups in India, where the Nepalese rebel leaders spend much of their time. As Prachanda is reported to have said: "There was international involvement right from the beginning."
In the 1980s, Peru's Shining Path was the international flag-bearer of Maoism. Guzman's brutal insurgency, and the Peruvian government's response, led to over 27,000 deaths in just over a decade and to the kidnapping of tourists. But with Guzman captured and sentenced to life in 1992, Prachanda appears to now be promoted as the new Mao. As Prachanda reportedly said: "A new wave of world revolution is beginning, because imperialism is facing a great crisis," adding, "our people's war may be a spark, a spark for a prairie fire." Prachanda's Path is also being promoted in effect as "Prachanda's Thoughts", just as Mao ended up putting over his message in his little red book, The Thoughts of Mao Zedong.
Yet in China, Maoism is dead, the body of its leader Mao lying in his mausoleum in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The "worship" of Mao is just a cult, devoid of ideology, just as the international commercialization of Argentina's communist folk hero Che Guevara is just a T-shirt image with no body. Those Chinese people who are old enough prefer to put behind them the bitter memories of Mao's Chinese Cultural Revolution, an orgy of madness and killing that followed the leader's abortive attempts to "revolutionize" agriculture and industry. Mao generated millions of tons of useless scrap iron, millions of deaths from starvation, and countless deaths and trauma due to his Red Guards' frenzy. Bar a few leftist hardliners, China's leadership, rightly or wrongly, has embraced capitalism and the mantra of the late reformist communist party leader Deng Xiaopeng that "to get rich is glorious". Beijing now thumbs its nose at Prachanda. Chinese border guards eject Nepalese Maoist guerrillas if they trespass over the mountainous border into the Tibetan Autonomous Region and China's leaders back the Nepal government line against the Maoist guerrillas.
Prachanda is trying to succeed where others have failed. As was made clear in his interview with journalist Onesto, he rails against "revisionism", the backtracking of communist leaders who lose sight of the ideals of communism and "desert the revolution". Communism is dying around the world not because the basic ideology or philosophy is unachievable or wrong. It has collapsed because of the failings of its leaders, the worst examples being Russia's Joseph Stalin, Cambodia's Pol Pot and, ironically, China's Mao.
Yet failings of these leaders cannot be put down to the Nepalese leader's hated "revisionism". For him, Mao remains a hero. These revolutionaries failed because of their ego, fanaticism, virtual madness. Today, Prachanda is the leader of one of the most prominent, yet small, communist movements in the world still doggedly hanging on to a vision of a proletarian Utopia. But Prachanda may ultimately have to pay the price of excess. The Maoist grip is slipping.
He and Bhattarai have unleashed a level of brutality that is traumatizing the Nepalese people and destroying the minds of many of the younger generation, people say. Talk on the streets in Kathmandu is that Prachanda's "people's war" is out of control. Stop the killing, stop the fear, is the call.
For Prachanda, squeezing the genie back into the bottle would be tough. Amid the chaos of Nepal's politics, the political parties have called for the Maoist leader to put down the gun and for his communist splinter party to reenter the democratic arena. Yet his fighters would feel betrayed by a softening of the Maoist line, says one observer. As Nepal's capital is beset by political shadow plays, intrigue and back-stabbing, the tension is rising and rumors circle, including one in which the king is said to be trying to cut a deal with the Maoists to undercut the other political parties.
For the tourists, the intrigue will pass them by. Nepal remains for them a great place for temples and lofty mountains. They can rest easy. The kid gloves treatment of these foreign guests by Prachanda's Maoists, claims journalist Gautam, is because these communists are concerned about their "international" image and their place in the vanguard of the international Maoist struggle.
But Nepalese may wonder why "people's leader" Prachanda does not treat the Nepalese people with such care.
Scripture from the mouth of the Left's idol.
The mantra of Liberalism. It failed because there was not enough money thrown at the problem. If money is no object, then it fails because the wrong people were in charge or because it wasn't implemented in the right way.
I loved that line!
I loved that line!
Could it be a case of ideological blindness? He says: Communism is dying around the world not because the basic ideology or philosophy is unachievable or wrong.
Bwahahahahaha. Except this isn't really funny. Why not? Look here. [hawaii.edu]
Look, here is Criminal Number 18F's patented disproof of Marxism in a nutshell:
The only sensible conclusion is that communism is barking mad as economic policy and positively a menace as social policy. Communism is the most evil and repulsive, and by a factor of five to ten the deadliest, intellectual malady to threaten the survival of the race. The greatest good for the greatest number, therefore, requires the identification and elimination of communists worldwide.
Who's with me?
Criminal Number 18F