Nepal's Maoists: Their Aims, Structure and Strategy
In less than ten years, the Maoist insurgency has transformed Nepal. The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has spread armed conflict across the country and reshaped its political environment irrevocably. But their political aims are still questioned, and not enough is known about their structure and strategy. This background report seeks to fill in many of the gaps, based on close study of their writings and actions and a wide range of interviews, in order to provide policymakers in Nepal and the international community with information and insights needed to approach a peace process realistically.
The Maoists are at heart a political party. They have developed military capacity but it is subordinated to political control. They use terror tactics and coercion but they are not simply terrorists. They maintain links to other communist revolutionary groups on the subcontinent but they are neither Khmer Rouge clones nor is their campaign part of any global terrorism.
Maoist strategy is of a protracted people's war, both political and military -- the two cannot be separated. They have a long-term vision, and they have patience. They can be extremely astute politically (their September 2005 unilateral ceasefire announcement) but can also make grave miscalculations in terms of their own long-term objectives (their mishandling of leadership differences in early 2005).
The Maoists are not likely to collapse because of internal disputes. There are undoubtedly tensions within the top leadership and challenges of command and control but these do not add up to fatal weaknesses. The state's security-driven agenda under a succession of governments lacking legitimacy has only further strengthened their position.
The insurgents are pragmatic and tactically flexible. They are aware they will not win an outright military victory and have realised that an instant transition to socialism is impossible. They are willing to compromise to some degree and are keen to engage with domestic and international political forces.
The Maoists have employed force for political ends since the start of their armed campaign in 1996. They have used torture, execution and other forms of violence including terror and extortion. But they have also been more restrained than many insurgent groups: they have limited civilian casualties and generally avoided indiscriminate attacks. They have left the economy functional, if weakened, and have never targeted foreign nationals.
The Maoists are sensitive to domestic and international opinion. However, despite their philosophy of people's war they are not dependent on popular support. The seriousness of their engagement in any peace process will depend on their perceptions of risks and opportunities. The international community may play an important role in shaping these.
Senior Maoist leaders may well be motivated by a genuine desire for social and economic transformation. Their pursuit of domestic transformation takes precedence over their professed commitment to global revolution. They are more interested in controlling development efforts across Nepal and consolidating their grip on local populations' daily lives.
That the Maoists must be dealt with realistically is something Nepal's mainstream politicians have long understood. Having been on the receiving end of many of the rebels' most brutal assaults, they harbour no illusions about Maoist respect for political dissent. But at the same time they see the possibility of using both carrot and stick to persuade the Maoists to engage with them politically with the aim of getting agreement on a common program that would address certain of their demands that have won widespread support.
The Maoists themselves have acted pragmatically throughout much of the conflict. They have always kept in mind the need to hold the door open for future rehabilitation and reconciliation and have maintained a dialogue with mainstream forces partly to this end. They have also adopted a moderate policy towards international development efforts and have long called for international facilitation of a peace process.
Behaviour towards the newly established United Nations human rights mission will be a crucial test of Maoist attitudes and capacities. If they can prove that they are ready for peace and capable of implementing a negotiated settlement, the political mainstream will be ready to deal with them. Judging by widespread popular relief following their September 2005 declaration of a unilateral three-month ceasefire, Nepal's people would back a reasonable compromise that delivers peace.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 27 October 2005