February 13, 1996, marked the symbolic beginning of the People's War of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M). On that day, activists and sympathizers gathered outside a government office that made loans to poor peasants and proceeded to confiscate and burn the loan papers. The insurgents later ransacked and occupied three police outposts, burned a foreign-owned bottling plant, and bombed a liquor factory. As the guerrilla campaign developed, the CPN-M attacked more police stations, captured more arms, and brought greater attention to their revolution. Beyond these military exploits, social relations also began to change in the countryside. In some places, peasants publicly criticized large landowners, women denounced male domination, and people who had read very little their entire lives began to read books given to them by party activists.

"Thousands and thousands of mass organizations were built up, and in new areas the party's influence spread and new organizations developed," said the CPN-M chairman, known as Prachanda. "The people were not only fighting with the police or reactionary, feudal agents, but they were also breaking the feudal chains of exploitation and oppression, and a whole cultural revolution was going on among the people." This statement cuts to the ideological heart of the movement, which is what, more than its mere opposition to the historically oppressive and elitist government, makes the CPN-M a fascinating and significant anachronism in the post-Cold War world.

The Birth of a Rebellion

There has been a tremendous amount of bloodshed since 1996; most observers estimate that at least 1,500 people have been killed in the war. According to the police, 35 of the country's 75 districts are "moderately to severely" affected by the rebellion. There are four districts in the mid-western area where the police and government have essentially no control.

The response of the Nepali government to the conflict has often been brutal because the Maoists are considered an internal security problem, not a political problem. Rather than simply a party of intellectuals as it was just four years ago, the CPN-M has now developed a popular base, and poses a serious threat to the Nepali government. In 1999, the government launched the "Kilo Sierra Two" operation in an attempt to crush the guerrillas militarily. During that operation, many peasants were killed, helicopters tracked down rebels in the countryside, and government agents raided some newspapers and censored or banned other publications. Yet the rebels survived and have even gained ground in the year following the operation.

Since then, the Nepali government has come under increasing scrutiny from the international community for human-rights abuses. Asiaweek reported that the reaction of the police to the CPN-M has taken the form of "summary round-ups and executions of suspects and a curious absence of wounded Maoists after clashes." For over a year following "Kilo Sierra Two," the government response to the guerrillas was in the hands of local police. "Previous operations such as the one code-named `Kilo Sierra Two' last year cost [the government local support," added The Nepali Times. "Even party politicians in Kathmandu are unwilling to stick their necks out in support."

But in October 2000, the guerrillas successfully attacked the Dunbaidistrict headquarters, defeating the police and stealing 35 million rupees from a bank. The minor crisis was enough for Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to mobilize the military in an attempt to control the rebels. This move was not supported by many opposition parties and even members of Koirala's own Nepali Congress Party (NCP), who felt that peace talks should proceed first. "As I look at the Maoist problem I link it essentially with the socioeconomic phenomenon," said Yadav Kant Silwal, the former foreign secretary, "I do not equate it with other security issues."

A Legacy of Grievances

Nepal has been dominated by a small ruling class for centuries. In 1950, over 100 years of rule by the oligarchic Rana clan ended and political turmoil ensued, culminating in the restoration of the pre-Rana absolute monarchy in 1960. The monarchy severely curtailed personal freedoms and outlawed opposition parties, causing some Nepalese to take up arms against the king. In 1990, a new constitution allowed for a parliamentary system, which limited the power of the monarchy.

After the reform of the government and the economic and social stagnation that followed, there has been increasing alienation between the people, particularly peasants, and the two main political parties. This new parliamentarian government has not lived up to the expectations of those Nepalese who fought for decades against the monarchy. The change has not proven very beneficial to the poor, who live in conditions no better than under the king, and the government has made negligible progress on the treatment of Nepali women. "Unfortunately, people's expectations were so high," explained NCP leader Sher Bahadur Deuba. "Politicians promised everything to win votes, but once in power they couldn't deliver."

Since 1990, two major parties have held power, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-- UML), and the Nepali Congress Party. Aside from the CPN-UML, there are several other Marxist parties that participate in Nepali elections. The roots of all of these Marxist groups, including the CPN-M, lie in the uprisings against the monarchy in the decades before 1990. The most important ideological influence on Nepal's powerful left wing was Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party.

Maoist ideology contends that some self-proclaimed communist groups are "revisionist," meaning they are capitalist at heart. Nepali Maoists sided with Mao and his Red Guards during China's Cultural Revolution, denouncing their more conservative opponents like Deng Xiaoping. When Deng came to power following Mao's death, Maoists claimed that China had become a nation of "state capitalism," by which they meant pseudo- communism. In Nepal today, even the mainstream CPN-UML carries the label "Marxist-Leninist," illustrating the impact of Maoism in China.

What differentiates the CPN-M from other Marxist-Leninist parties, however, is its combined "Marxist-- Leninist-Maoist" (M-L-M) ideology. The CPN-M established itself as an independent communist party by adopting the M-L-M ideology in 1986. From its founding until the beginning of the "People's War" in 1996, however, the CPN-M had consisted almost entirely of intellectuals. Many had been involved in student radicalism, and some had worked in the struggles of Nepali peasants and workers.

Most of the Nepali left consider themselves sympathetic to socialism, so the ideological emphasis of the CPN-- M is particularly on Maoism as a revolutionary ideal. The CPN-M contends that any Marxist party that participates in elections is revisionist, because such groups must accept the parliamentary constitution of 1990. There are also many practical distinctions between the CPN-M and the mainstream socialist groups. The CPN-UML, for example, has stated that while gender equality is a goal, Nepalis cannot simply overthrow thousands of years of cultural norms and traditions. The Maoists criticize this position and feel that complete gender equality should be an immediate demand of any revolutionary group.

Maoist communism is particularly suited to present-day Nepali ideological warfare because it emphasizes the rural struggle of peasants against landlords over the urban struggles of workers against bosses. The CPN-M has studied the "People's War" stratagems of Mao, and many of their tactics are similar: focusing on the countryside, arranging public gatherings where poor peasants criticize landlords, and defeating local police. The next step of the "People's War" strategy is the establishment of base areas, in which the rebels form the de facto authority, and society is arranged on a socialist model.

Nearly every successful armed uprising in the 20th century was based in the countryside. In the late 1960s and 1970s, for example, urban guerrillas appeared, inspired by the writings of Brazilian Carlos Marighella and the Tupamaros in Uruguay. Unlike the victorious rural revolutions in Cuba, China, Algeria, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, these city-based rebellions were crushed. Thus, Nepal's lack of industrialization, while contributing to its severe poverty, is also the rebels' primary advantage in guerrilla war. Nepal also lacks valuable natural resources, which makes the revolution less important to Western nations who might otherwise support the government.

The Maoists have evolved from an obscure group of intellectuals into a military and social force in the Nepali countryside. This growth is an indication of increasing popular support for the Maoist program.

Gender Revolution

In an interview with American reporter Li Onesto, a Nepali woman guerrilla explained why she joined the CPN-M: "Women get neglected compared to men, by parents, husbands, and other family members. Nepali women are suppressed by the feudalistic system, and some women go to India to become prostitutes. This oppression is the main reason why I was inspired to become a revolutionary." Many of the Maoist soldiers are women, and gender has become an important issue to the CPN-M. Every guerrilla squad must include at least two women, and Prachanda insists that the CPN-M intends to bring women into leadership positions. The national literacy rate is 40 percent for men and 14 percent for women, so the CPN-M has developed a "local education system" to teach women how to read and write.

The mainstream political parties have so far been unresponsive to women's issues. Prior to the last eleclions in 1999, both major parties promised that 10 percent of their candidates would be women, but by the time of the election women represented no more than seven percent of the candidates of either party. Following the elections, women made up 5.8 percent of the parliament, a minimal improvement over the 3.4 percent of the previous body.

The treatment of Nepali women has come under the scrutiny of the international community in the past few years. In May 1999, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) representative for Nepal said, "Systematic gender discrimination still pervades almost all facets of women's realities in Nepal today." For example, Nepali law dictates that daughters cannot inherit any property unless they remain unmarried until the age of 35; however, if they marry later, the property has to be returned to their brothers. Furthermore, abortions are illegal and carry a maximum sentence of two and a half years in prison, but government records actually show that women who undergo abortion are usually charged with infanticide, which means a sentence of ten years to life. In one well-publicized case, a 13-year-old rape victim was sentenced to 20 years in prison for having an abortion, while her rapist was arrested briefly but then released.

These severe social and legal restrictions on Nepali women are the major reason that Nepali women commit suicide more frequently than men. Currently, government and law enforcement officials are considering criminal charges for men who inflict the kind of psychological torture on their wives that causes them to commit suicide. Until the government comes to their aid, though, women will continue to be attracted to the CPN-M's uniquely egalitarian ideology.

Toppling Feudalism

More even than feminism, the CPN-M's appeal to the poor is a valuable asset. "Poverty is the breeding ground [for the rebellion]," says Deuba, a high-ranking member of the NCP. Nearly all of Nepal's poverty is concentrated in rural areas, especially in western Nepal, where the Maoist rebellion is strongest. Average life expectancy in Nepal is just 57 years, and over 42 percent of the population live in poverty. According to the UNDP, over one-half of the population is malnourished. For the rural poor, little education is available past elementary school, and women usually need to stay home to take care of their male family members. The poor lag behind in all levels of school enrollment. Health care is also inadequate for those who cannot pay, contributing to high mortality rates.

A feudal-style economy keeps the rural population destitute, according to Rural Reconstruction Nepal, an antipoverty NGO. Land distribution is skewed, with 50 percent of households owning only 6.6 percent of the cultivated land, and the top nine percent of landowners controlling 47 percent of the cultivated land. This distribution pushes most peasants in Nepal into poverty, because they do not have enough land to be self-sufficient. Peasants are often saddled with debt to local money lenders and government loan offices their whole lives, as there is little opportunity to earn enough income to pay back the debt. These money lenders usually charge excessively high interest rates, because peasants have no recourse when they are trying to feed their families, and government loan offices are not much more generous. Under conditions such as these, Maoism may flourish through its emphasis on peasants' plight.

Victory on the Horizon

The rebels' success is striking because they do not have the backing of any country in the world. They have admitted to some cooperation with Maoists in neighboring India, but this meager level of foreign support cannot reasonably account for the survival of the CPN-M as an entirely illegal, underground organization. Probably most important for the rebellion's military success is the absolute lack of training and weaponry on the part of the Nepalese police forces. Police typically are equipped with World War I-era rifles and knives, and often surrender their weapons and stations with little resistance. The Maoists themselves are similarly equipped but usually win battles with police because they have a numerical advantage and are more reluctant to surrender.

The next step in the Maoist strategy of guerrilla warfare is establishing base areas, where the guerrillas form de facto governments. Prachanda calls the situation at present a "power vacuum." Though they have defeated the government in regions of Western Nepal, the Maoists must wait until they have a strong national presence before they attempt to consolidate into base areas. At the same time, the Maoists have agreed to peace talks on the condition that the government investigate allegations of rape and murder at the hands of police and disclose where imprisoned Maoists are being held. Given the mobilization of the military against the rebels, it is unclear at this time whether peace talks are a genuine possibility.

In the past, talks have collapsed due to government infighting. Deuba headed the committee responsible for negotiations with the guerrillas in the summer of 2000. Koirala, however, was reluctant to give him a complete mandate for talks, fearing that Deuba would get credit for successful negotiations and would replace him as prime minister. NCP's political rival, the CPN-- UML, also tried to stall the negotiations, because it was afraid that the NCP would use successful negotiations as political leverage in the next elections.

In October 2000, Koirala refused to extend the mandate for Deuba's committee, and instead put his NCP ally, Deputy Prime Minister Ram Chandra Paudel, in charge of negotiations. Political capital, not peace, appeared to be the main concern of the government. The domestic newspaper headlines read, "Paudel Steals Limelight From Deuba," and Deuba vowed to carry out successful talks with the rebels, with or without Koirala's endorsement. Given the instability of the government and its propensity to degenerate into petty fighting, it seems unlikely that peace talks will achieve genuine peace. Although the guerrillas have not established demands for a cease-fire, issues of police brutality, women's rights, and land redistribution would be among their major demands. At the present time, it is difficult to imagine that the government will handle these serious issues effectively.

The Nepali conflict is certainly an anomaly in the post-Cold War world. The idea of masses of people raising the banner of Maoist revolution seems archaic, especially in the West, where the ascendancy of global capitalism has been secure for over a decade. In fact, Nepal is a semi-feudal country, as the guerrillas claim. There are extreme divisions between castes and classes, with the great majority of the population struggling to survive. Women are treated as second-class citizens and denied even the formal protection of Nepali law. Although there have been multiparty elections since 1990, surprisingly little has changed. In this context, the CPN-M represents an alternative that many Nepalese are considering. It is too early to say whether the guerrillas will be successful in their war against the government. Nevertheless, considering the typically short lives of armed rebellions, this one is a truly remarkable phenomenon.