More than a decade after the collapse of Soviet and East European communism, and a quarter-century after China ended Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, the mere existence of a Maoist communist movement should be a strange, and chilling, anachronism.
Yet in Nepal, Maoists not only exist, but have been gradually seizing control over more and more of the mountainous nation of roughly 25 million people, while killing hundreds of government troops.
Late last August, on a journalistic assignment to see the most successful communist movement since the "death" of communism, I traveled to southeast Nepal and walked hours through the jungle into a revolutionary stronghold in the Sindhuli district. Sindhuli was then the 15th of Nepal's 75 districts to fall to the Maoists, who were a shadowy but constant presence elsewhere in the country.
The Maoists were set to celebrate their victory in Sindhuli and, as I walked deeper into the area, guided by a young Nepali journalist who supported the Maoists, families were streaming in from all over the region to attend the festivities. My journey began to feel like a pilgrimage. Along the way, local peasants fed us for free, scooping rice and lentils onto shiny green leaves. We passed through victory gates made of bent saplings adorned with flowers and waded waist-deep to cross a river before emerging onto a grassy plain, which quickly filled up with roughly 10,000 people. I spotted a platoon of the Nepali Maoists' People's Army: about 60 young people in fatigues carrying ancient rifles. Children, humming with excitement, trailed after the soldiers as if they were rock stars.
At the far end of the grass was a schoolhouse, with a porch that would serve as a dais and a dilapidated megaphone for a sound system. The dais was decorated with paper streamers, confetti and watercolor portraits of the movement's heroes: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels with their bushy beards; the bald, goateed Vladimir Lenin; the stern, mustachioed Joseph Stalin; and the pudgy, almost kindly countenance of Mao.
"Stalin?" I asked my guide, shocked to see the former Soviet dictator included in the pantheon. "Don't your friends know that he murdered 20 million people?" "Our leaders say Stalin was 75 percent good and 25 percent bad," came the answer. "They know he wasn't completely good."
In the Western world, which says it cares about both democracy and terrorism, Nepal's fight is one worth noticing. Half a year has passed since my visit to the Maoists, and Nepal, a country best known for its gentle people, awesome natural beauty and unique religious traditions, is mired even deeper in a bloody civil war that has taken 2,600 lives since 1996 and threatens to destroy a decade-long experiment with democracy. Six weeks ago, on Feb. 17, thousands of members of the People's Army crept down from the mountains at midnight and surrounded an army garrison in western Nepal. By morning, 137 soldiers had been slaughtered. A few days later, in Nepal's east, the Maoists struck again, killing 30 policemen. The army has fought back hard this past month, regaining control of some district headquarters, slaughtering hundreds of Maoists, and driving the rebels into the rough interior of the country.
The Maoists have targeted civilians, too. In January, according to Amnesty International, they abducted an acting school headmaster, tied him to a tree and shot him to death apparently because of his affiliation with a ruling party association and his refusal to give "donations" to the Maoists. He was one of 28 teachers killed by the insurgents.
People aren't the only casualties of the battle. Democratic institutions also have suffered. Since the government declared a state of emergency in November, police in the capital, Katmandu, have arrested an estimated 4,000 journalists, students, teachers and political activists. Subodh Pyakarel, general secretary of a respected Nepali human rights organization, says that many of those arrested have been tortured. Nonetheless, the rebels continue to exert an impressive degree of control over the population -- even in Katmandu. During February and March, the Maoists called a series of strikes, including a general strike that paralyzed the city for three days.
What's astonishing about the Maoist revolution in Nepal is that it exists at all. Like seeing a movie monster rise after his apparent death, watching Maoist rebels gain ground anywhere in the 21st century, much less in an open country that hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists a year, defies belief. Twelve years ago, Nepal became a multi-party democracy, ending years of monarchic dictatorship. Why have the Maoists become a major threat just as democracy has begun to flourish?
From the outside, the crisis in the Nepalese royal family would seem to bear much of the blame. Last June 1, Crown Prince Dipendra, drunk and enraged over his parents' intervention in his choice of bride, was said to have killed his father, the king; his mother, the queen; and seven other members of the royal family before committing suicide. The vast majority of Nepalese I met did not believe the official story of the royal massacre. Though eyewitnesses said Dipendra did it, many Nepalese are convinced that his uncle, the new king, Gyanendra, planned the massacre.
But the massacre alone isn't to blame for the loss of faith in the government. The Maoist rise has been slow and steady since the "people's war" began. What I discovered from talking to average Nepalese was that the rebels' success emanated from their ability to harness the invisible strength of the weak and powerless -- a very large group in one of the world's poorest countries. Eighty-five percent of Nepal earns its living from agriculture, but about one-third of Nepal's farmers are sharecroppers, who barely survive while working their landlords' farm. Many other Nepalese own plots of land too small to support their families. Millions of Nepali men must travel to India to work, leaving their families to fend for themselves. Life expectancy is 57, but low-caste and landless Nepalese on average live nearly a decade less. Nepal is the only country in the world where women have a lower life expectancy than men -- which is due, at least in part, to the fact that a high percentage of women die during childbirth.
Tragically, multi-party democracy, which was greeted with exuberant hope by Nepalese in 1990, failed to address the consequences of poverty. Political infighting and corruption are partly to blame.
The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund often made economic conditions worse for poor Nepalese. Heeding advice from the bank and the IMF, the Nepali government cut state subsidies, including those that helped farmers buy fertilizer and seeds. The country's education and health systems were privatized to the point that most Nepalese, even if they work 14-hour days, cannot afford to send their children to school or take them to the doctor when they are sick. Meanwhile, the World Bank supported huge hydroelectric and other massive infrastructure projects that brought windfalls to international companies and corrupt Nepali officials, while utility costs for the average Nepali continued to rise.
In the face of this poverty and corruption, the Maoists have been playing the role of Robin Hood. Tenant farmers told me that they had been freed from the grip of their landlords after a few well-placed Maoist threats. Maoists have swooped down on agriculture banks and recaptured the land deeds that had been put up for collateral by poor farmers who had taken development loans that they couldn't repay. The Maoists set up people's courts where disputes were tried without fees or bribes. Women used the people's courts to successfully prosecute cases of wife beating and rape. Women also convinced the Maoists to ban alcohol to prevent their husbands from squandering money or getting drunk. Agents who enticed village girls to India and then sold them as prostitutes in Bombay -- which happens to about 5,000 young Nepalese women a year -- were caught and punished. Previously they often escaped by giving a cut of their profits to officials. "In my village, people have stopped going to the police and the courts with problems," more than one Nepali told me. "Now they go to the Maoists."
The People's Army itself, which is about one-third female, is another effective public relations tool for the rebels set on winning hearts and minds. "You hear about our fighting," one rebel soldier told me, "but when we come to a village, and hear someone is sick, we harvest their rice for them or fix their roof." The day I traveled to Sindhuli, police boarded a bus on my route and discovered six grenade-bearing Maoists. When they tried to arrest them, the entire village -- 800 people -- surrounded the police, forcing the Maoists' release.
The popularity of the Maoists makes their revolutionary theories that much more disturbing. They seemed to have learned nothing from recent history. Comrade Prachanda, the nom de guerre of the top Maoist leader in Nepal, praised Mao in a 1998 interview for saying that one half of the world's population might have to be destroyed so that a totally classless society could be born. "It's not that Mao was irresponsible for saying that," he said. "It was the spirit of making a new world. It was the spirit of transforming the world."
Most of the poor to whom the Maoists have given a measure of misplaced hope don't know anything about Maoist ideology -- its disdain for religion, for example, or its history of cataclysmic purges. They only know that multi-party democracy has so far been synonymous with an abandonment of the kind of social solidarity on which their lives depend, and that the Maoists have raised that tattered flag.
The Maoist revolution in Nepal may seem like an insignificant conflict in a faraway place. But it has something to teach us. Two billion of the world's people live in conditions roughly analogous to those of most Nepalese. Many of these people are also experiencing unbearable hardships at least partly associated with economic policies imported from the West. Western democracy's victory over communist totalitarianism was only a respite. Struggles still loom -- whether with communism, fundamentalism or ideologies that haven't yet been named. A democracy that goes to sleep on the job of ensuring the welfare of its people -- including its poorest citizens -- will breed strange monsters.