Saturday, June 03, 2006

How now, Red Mao?

Show of Shirts
Kathmandu, Nepal

No, damnit...I didn't get it together to post the Maoist Rally photos from yesterday. Not yet. But I have a good reason (some kind of food poisoning). Tomorrow, I promise!

It was a day of firsts. The first show of public strength from the previously underground Maoist guerillas (and not a gun in sight). The first time the general public had ever trod upon the previously forbidden Tundikhel Parade Ground (there were so many people they broke through the fencing and spilled onto the grounds previously reserved for royalty and military).

AND, last and certainly least, it was my first time throwing up in the lobby of a five-star hotel (the Annapurna on Durbar Marg)! Well, I did manage to make it to the toilet (cupping my hand over my mouth) before spewing, but I think their marble floors got a splash of my bile.

MaoStock 2006
The Maoists' "Vishal JanSabha" (big people's meeting) was a remarkably mellow event (Mao-stock?). 200,000 people and no violence, unless you count the broken tree. A few dozen stupid young men climbed up into the branches of a Bodhi tree in order to get a better view, and finally the enormous branches gave way with a sickening crack, just a dozen feet from where I stood. (No one was hurt, except of course, the beautiful old tree which was literally split in half.)

Even the blue-camoed Nepali Police (formerly the Royal Guard) seemed very chilled out, lolling on the medians, all but snoozing on their riot shields. The weather was equally cooperative, providing a soothing cloud cover and a sprinkle of rain.

Red-shirted folks of all ages, many waving the hammer and sickle Red flag (remember that? wow, it's been a while. Almost makes you nostalgic) and other red-and-white banners of affiliated Communist groups, marched through the streets surrounding Tundikhel Parade Ground. In their varied facial features and ethnic dress, one could see the many different regions of Nepal. They were very orderly, very disciplined and if they were being co-erced to participate, did shout slogans very convincingly.

"We will burn the Crown and run the country,"

"Take the King from the Palace, and put him in a pig-sty"


"Long Live the Nepali Maoists Party; Death to bad king and bad government."

Hari, Niraula, Dinesh and other Nepali friends said that while the red-shirted brigades were volunteers and party members, most of the civilians came out of curiosity more than dedicated support. "Till now, the Maoists have been 'bhumi ghat,'" said Hari. "You know bhumi-ghat?"

Bhumi means the earth; a ghat is a set of steps leading downwards, usually to a riverside.

"Underground!" I said. Hari nodded. "So the people are wondering, who are these Maoists we hear about?"

Others who had been piled onto the buses from far-flung rural areas, were probably all too familiar with the People's Army. Hari said "Today, all bus fares to Kathmandu are free. The bus companies are supporting them." I wondered if their support was entirely voluntary. How could the peasants - because that's what they are, the working poor of rural Nepal - afford to spend even 2 days in the big city? The average country person cannot afford to take even one day off of work; many farmers live outside the cash economy. Dinesh said there were relief centres set up all over town and outlying areas, shelters where they would spend the night and be fed before returning to their villages. Again, I wondered where this money was coming from, as the Maoists are known to extort "donations" from foreign trekkers and local businesses - perhaps local food suppliers had also "donated," willingly or otherwise, the raw materials and shelter to feed the followers.

In other words, this was not a spontaneous people's uprising of the lumpen proletariat, but a carefully stage-managed and organized mass photo-op. And a very cohesive one. Five thousand red-shirted volunteers directed traffic, manned first aid stations and distributed pure drinking water for the participants and spectators.

People were piled onto every conceivable surface including the roofs of nearby buildings, fence railings, the pedestrian "flyover" bridges, vans, flatbed carriers and tall water tanker trucks (where Hari and I perched to get a better view). Though the enclosed parade grounds and amphitheatre were packed to the gills, I could see that many of the old political statues had been draped in red flags; a bronze equestrian national hero was carrying the Hammer and Sickle banner.

For some, especially the teenagers, it seemed to be just a big national shindig. Besides, why not come to the rally - most businesses were closed for the day and public transport wasn't running, anyway!

Lost in Translation
At 1.30 pm, Hari had to go to work, actually his second job. He now moonlights in order to bring in more money for his wife (a schoolteacher) and two-year-old son. So I lost my translator and had to make my way through man-on-the-street interviews looking for those who "looked like" they spoke English (you can actually do this with a fair degree of accuracy - they tend to be younger, wearing mod clothes with a college style).

The men and women on the street I spoke to expressed cautious optimism about the Maoists. They still seem a bit giddy from the newfound freedom and tumultuous events of the past 2 months. When asked "do you support the Maoists?" most said things like social worker Niraula: "Not 100 percent...maybe 80 per cent. But we want change, we want democracy. We want to see what they have to offer." No one expressed an interest in return to monarchy, and the Seven Party Alliance doesn't seem to have much credibility. At best, they are seen as the lesser of evils. The SPA (some of whom were known to be corrupt career politicians when previously in power) have a long way to go before they could pull off an impressive demo like this one. From what I have read, they did have a demo a few weeks ago and the turnout was about half this size.

The general public just seem to be willing to give anything a try - anything new and different. Willingness, or a sense of fatalism inevitability? No one seemed to question the coming ascendancy of the Maoists. Whether this was truly acceptance or resignation is another question.

Over and over, I was told by onlookers, "We want peace. We want only peace."

It didn't bode well, though, that few wanted to be named and many were afraid of having their photos taken. Several party members asked Hari if I (conspicuous white lady with a camera) was a human rights worker. He answered, "No, she is just a guest at our hotel who is curious." True enough, but I had to wonder what they had to fear from even a hypothetical human rights worker?

The electric anticipation gave way to a bit of disappointment as it became evident that the Main Mao Man, Prachanda, Soul Brother #1, was not going to appear in person. Nor was Dr Baburam Bhattarai, Soul Brother #2. We did get an appearance and speech by Krishna Bahadur Mahara, another key party member, as well as numerous cultural performances by various groups from the many regions of Nepal. Most surprising to me was the participation of Tibetan folk dancers and lamas with long-horns and yellow ritual hats. You would think the Tibetans, of all people, would intensely distrust the Communists!

Not if or when, but how now
Long story short: The Maoists may not have the hearts and minds of the Nepali public as completely as they claim, but they are a very real force, are very organized and are ready - they claim - to enter mainstream politics and merge their People's army with that of the Nepali government. It is no longer a question of if or when, but how and to what extent. It was around these questions that the day's speeches revolved.

Since I had no translator and was unable to understand the speeches in Nepali, here is an excellent account of the day and commentary on the speeches by a Kathmandu native, fellow blogger Zade 16.

It seems to be a given, to laypersons I spoke with, that the Maoists will dominate the new Parliament. The Maoists are now calling for the dissolution of the current one - the Parliament reinstated by the King last month - as, they claim, any body appointed by the King is no longer valid.

The collective energy began to dwindle around 4pm. Some of the less committed spectators began to wander away down side streets, to enjoy the rest of their enforced holiday. I spotted a trim young man with glasses, camera and United We Blog t-shirt. It turned out to be Dinesh Wagle of United We Blog Nepal. We had been emailing for the past 5 months and I was hoping to catch up with him on this visit. Dinesh was photographing his friend James, an independent American journalist who's lived in Nepal for 30 years.

James, an independent American writer who's lived in Nepal for 30 years, was trying to pull down a Prachanda poster as a souvenir.

"I really want the red t-shirt," I said.

"Nope, they won't let go of the t-shirt OR the headband - I already tried!" James shook his head. American minds think alike.

Gut Feelings
At that moment, I had a biological attack, and had to run for it. Some kind of mystery bug had me puking up all the water and soda I had ingested during the hot day's activities. I spent today recuperating and hope to get the photos posted by tomorrow.


Shinu Mathew said...

It looks like Nepal is heading more iron-fist ruling. If the public doesn't trust SPA, then it surely the turn of Maoists. And the world knows how commies rule. Just look to China, Hungary, Pland, Venesuela. They rule with their fist.
I was disappointed to learn that Prachanda didn't show-up. Still fearing for his life?
It's been noticed that lately you had many viral 7 bacterial attacks. Take good care of you siren. Do a good check-up and avoid street food & water as much as possible. Carry a a bottle of mineral water whenever possible.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Thanks, Shinu. Frankly, I am mystified at the willingness of the people to trust the Maoists even a little bit. Despite the M's claim that they want to participate in a democracy, to my knowledge, there has never been, so far in history, a Maoist government that included or operated as anything like a democracy.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...


Gary in Philippines writes:
Good stuff. Oddly enough I had food poisoning two days ago--too many oysters at the sea.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...


Stirling in Pennsylvania writes:
Wow, Caroline - you are so intrepid. I can't believe you're still there in the thick of it all. I would bet you end up staying in Asia for the rest of your life ....

By the way - I finally got the notification from worldsurface that I'd won the February travel journal - got a t-shirt and a Footprints guide. Whohoo!

Take it easy - see you next year maybe! Probably we'll be visiting in July in Dharamshala.