Follow-up meeting with Baburam Bhattarai
January 31, 2008
Recently, I had the opportunity to conduct a follow-up interview with Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai at his home in Kathmandu. For a look at my first interview, as well as background material on Dr. Bhattarai, CLICK HERE
DUNHAM: In your most recent book, Monarchy vs. Democracy, you said that history will ultimately reveal what happened on June 1, 2001: “It is by now universally accepted in Nepal that Gyanendra, his criminally-inclined son, Paras, and the Royal Army chief Prajjwal Rana, were the ringleaders of the bloody palace coup d’etat…” Would you please explain in more detail how this conspiracy transpired?”
DR. BHATTARAI: That statement was made on the basis of political analysis rather than concrete evidence. On certain issues, particularly when it comes to issues such as the palace massacre and the murder of Birendra, where there was an atmosphere of top secrecy, it is difficult to unearth the real facts. But if you look at the circumstantial evidence, if you take history into account, if you look at the political corrections taking place, it’s just a matter of an intelligent guess that King Gyanendra and his son conspired to get rid of King Birendra and his family and to put himself on the throne. That is based on political analysis rather than available facts.
DUNHAM: Do you think that there will ever come a time when they are able to unearth the crucial evidence?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yeh, definitely. We are quite sure, after the monarchy is gone, after we create a republic, we will create a commission that will go into various details of the conspiracy and other aspects and, eventually, the truth will come out.
DUNHAM: When I spoke to you in May , I asked: “What about members of the army? Are there still significant numbers of secret monarchists within their ranks?” You answered: “…above the rank of major – colonel and general – there are still people with a privileged background who are linked with the Shah and Rana families.” Do you have any reason to believe that they are now secretly engaged in helping to instigate an organized takeover of the government? The rumor in town is that there may be a civil-led army takeover waiting in the wings. Is there reason to take this rumor seriously?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yeh, there are certainly groups interested in a so-called “democratic coup.” But we don’t think that that coup will take place. The only probability that we see: Among the ranks of officers who were loyal to the king, or maybe backed or instigated by foreign forces – these officers may try to create trouble. But we don’t believe that the entire army is prepared for a coup.
DUNHAM: So you don’t regard a civil-led army takeover as a real danger?
DR. BHATTARAI: As of now, we don’t think the army will attempt a takeover in Nepal. But some people may try to create trouble. They may try to incite some of the officers. But we believe that such an attempt would be crushed by the army.
DUNHAM: Do you have any reason to believe that there are high-ranking members of the Seven-Party Alliance, who would be inclined to favor such a civil-led takeover, who would be willing to conspire with certain army officers?
DR. BHATTARAI: Right now, we don’t think that there are, within the Seven-Party Alliance or the democratic forces, those who are conspiring with the army. We don’t think so. But some of the ex-royalists: Maybe they are enticed by that idea, but they would have to be backed by foreign forces. But given the geopolitical situation, unless there is a consensus among big powers to back a takeover, we don’t think it will happen.
DUNHAM: What about India? Is India helping Nepal to gain stability or is it working against the peace process?
DR. BHATTARAI: No, you see, India is not a monolith. There are many Indias in India – that is the way I would put it. There may be one section of India that is very conservative, that would not like to see revolution taking place in Nepal. Such conservative forces may try to back the monarchy and continue the status quo. But there is another India, which is growing very fast and which has a comparatively progressive outlook. This India would not like to see an unstable neighbor. An unstable Nepal won’t be in their favor. That India would support a democratic Nepal. As of right now, we think the main establishment of India would like to see stability, peace and democracy.
DUNHAM: So you don’t think there is any danger -- if the elections aren’t held, the political situation continues to destabilize, public morale drops further – that India might decide to move troops in?
DR. BHATTARAI: We don’t think so. If the Indians came in with armed forces into Nepal, that would create more problems for them. Direct intervention from India? We don’t think so.
DUNHAM: If that did happen, it would force China to reevaluate its foreign policy with Nepal, would it not?
DR. BHATTARAI: Of course. If India came into Nepal, China would see it as a threat to Tibet. More than that, the US and other forces would see a heightened strategic interest in Nepal -- they would feel threatened. They wouldn’t like military intervention from India. For that reason, we don’t think India would take that kind of action.
DUNHAM: A few days ago, I visited the Fourth Division Headquarters of the PLA [the Maoist People’s Liberation Army]. It was the only time, during my field trip through Terai, where I felt completely secure. But there were obvious problems within the cantonment. There was the issue of the government not handing over agreed upon salaries and stipends – the government was four months in arrears. There were also many health concerns, including psychosocial problems. I asked the Deputy Brigade Commander in charge of health-related issues, “What sort of psychosocial problems?” He answered, “When the political problems are solved, the psychosocial problems will be solved.” But surely that is rather simplistic. After living in conflict in the hills and jungles, there are more immediate challenges, like making the adjustment from mobility and action to confinement, particularly among healthy young men and women. Impatience among youth and a sense of entrapment can most definitely create psychosocial problems. Can you speak on this?
DR. BHATTARAI: Our PLA fought for complete democracy in Nepal –democracy, peace and socio-economic transformation. Our goal was to solve the problems of poverty, unemployment, backwardness and discrimination. As long as the political process goes ahead, our PLA cadres are ready to face any hardship. So what the commander told you is very true.
DUNHAM: What about the government being late in making payments to the cantonments?
DR. BHATTARAI: That’s one of the main issues. The government hasn’t implemented, according to the peace accord, their agreement to pay our fighters remuneration: to take care of their needs, and compensate those families of those killed in the war, have a commission to inquire into the disappearance cases, and all that. In general, these things have not been implemented. This is a big mistake of the interim government.
DUNHAM: Is this purposefully negligent, on the part of the interim government, or is it shear incompetence?
DR. BHATTARAI: It’s both. They are using delaying tactics so that they can create the atmosphere so that the PLA will just fall apart – PLA will start fleeing [the camps]. The other is negligence.
DUNHAM: Madesh continues to be the area of highest sensitivity in Nepal. There is no law and order in the southern plains. There is no security. The people are scared to death. Thousands fave fled to India rather than live with the insecurity. The people’s distrust of the Maoists is also quite evident in the Terai. How can the Maoists hope to win their trust? And how important is the Terai to the Maoist party?
DR. BHATTARAI: The Terai is not only important to the Maoists, it is important to the whole country, with almost half of the population living in the Terai. As long as there is disturbance in the Terai, there cannot be peace in Nepal. We are very concerned about the developments in Madesh. If you look at what has been going on down there for the last year, you will see that the problem was instigated to marginalize the Maoists.
DUNHAM: By whom?
DR. BHATTARAI: By some ex-landlords and some reactionary elements – both from inside and outside the country. They instigated criminal elements to try to marginalize we Maoists. But later, these instigators came to realize that the criminal gangs who were let loose had, in fact, created a much worse chaotic and anarchical situation. So now everyone is concerned. If the political parties realize the serious implications and if our neighbors, our Indian friends, realize the seriousness of problem, we can join hands and sort out this problem as soon as possible.
DUNHAM: Is India doing anything to step up security along the Nepali border?
DR. BHATTARAI: We don’t know because of the porous border. A lot of criminals are crossing the border – everybody knows that. But we do not know to what extent this is going on with the participation or negligence of the Indian government. But if the Indian government doesn’t cooperate, then it will be very difficult to control the situation in the south.
DUNHAM: Do you think India has control of Bihar? [The lawless northern Indian state bordering the Terai.]
DR. BHATTARAI: There is a problem in Bihar, but there is a political will and a general understanding among the people of Nepal and Bihar. That’s not the problem. But there are reactionaries elements who have created the trouble – who try to marginalize the revolutionary forces. This is the problem.
DUNHAM: When I was down in the Terai talking to the Madeshis, the Home Minister [Krishna Situala] seemed to be universally loathed. And also here in Kathmandu: I have yet to hear anything good about Situala. How does he manage to remain in office, if no one likes him?
DR. BHATTARAI: It’s not a question of one individual. We are in a transitional period. 250 years of a monarchal-feudal system is crumbling. A new democratic situation is just beginning to take place. It hasn’t yet stabilized. So the transitional problems have to be seen in that context. The home minister is not the problem; the whole antiquated system is the problem.
DUNHAM: But how do you reverse the situation in Madesh? How do you replace lawlessness with stability and law and order? No one seems to be sure when the elections will really take place. In the meantime, with patience running out, what can be done to make the situation better for the Madeshis?
DR. BHATTARAI: We have put forth good demands already and you know it. When these demands are fulfilled, and we go for elections as soon as possible, then the peace in Madesh can be restored. Otherwise, if things continue along the path that they are going, there will be further chaos in Terai and it will be very dangerous.
DUNHAM: I’ve heard there are between 18 and 22 insurgent groups now identified in Terai. In your opinion, how many of these groups are legitimate?
DR. BHATTARAI: Just a few. One or two small groups who splintered from us. They didn’t have any significant existence before. But after the peace accord [of 2006] these groups came forward, instigated by reactionary elements. Then later on, other criminal groups arose. We think these are monarchists and other reactionary elements in Madesh – as well as from across the border – they have instigated these groups. And most of them are criminal gangs. Just a few of them have political characteristics. Those who have political character can be brought into a dialogue. The others should be dealt with in a law-and-order manner.
DUNHAM: The ones who fall under the category “criminal elements”: How well organized are they?
DR. BHATTARAI: We’re talking about just a few people in each group. You won’t find even a dozen people in each group with just a few guns.
DUNHAM: Let’s talk about the substance of insurgency. Recently, you met with former US president Jimmy Carter on several occasions during this brief [November 2007] visit to Nepal. Subsequently, he stated that the US should strike the Maoists in Nepal from the American list of terrorist organizations. “Terrorism” is certainly a handy word to throw around if you want to provoke American citizens into a certain frame of mind. Could you explain to my American audience how your party differentiates between “terrorism” and “insurgency”?
DR. BHATTARAI: The main difference is that insurgency or revolutionary movement has a distinct well-defined political goal. This is something that terrorists don’t have. Secondly, even though both groups take up arms, an insurgency or revolutionary movement maintains well-organized cadres who only target the military – the armed people, not the unarmed people. On the other hand, terrorists kill indiscriminately, not caring if their targets are armed or unarmed.
DUNHAM: Given that definition, to what extent to you think the word “terrorism”, since 2001, has been exploited for various groups across the world to justify their actions?
DR. BHATTARAI: There is no question that the 9/11 event was a terrorist event. Unarmed people were attacked and killed. That incident was terrorism. But subsequently, the United States government collected a list of all the insurgent movements –legitimate political movements – and said that they were also terrorists. That is wrong. We have to differentiate between genuine revolutionary movements and mere terrorists.
DUNHAM: In my opinion, the mood in Nepal has shifted since I was last here in May 2007. The euphoria brought about by the 2006 uprising and peace accord has regressed into a kind of malaise of doubt that the constituent assembly will ever take place – at least, will not take place soon enough. How can the Maoist party help to revitalize that sense of unity that was so beneficial in moving things forward in April 2006? Especially when Pushpa Kamal Dahal [Maoist military leader] just last week categorically stated that elections were no longer even on the Maoist agenda?
DR. BHATTARAI: No, no, that’s not true. This whole issue of the elections was initially raised by the Maoists, so it is our duty to make the elections a reality. We want the constituent assembly to take place as soon as possible. What we are saying is: As long as the monarchy is there, as long as the disruptive activities of the monarchists are not curbed, it will not be possible to hold the elections. That is why we should first declare a republic and then go for the elections. It should also be remembered that a constituent assembly election is not an ordinary parliamentary election. The constituent assembly creates a new constitution. So in that constitution, all the deprived classes of people --- minorities, Janajatis, Madeshis, women, and other groups – they should have proper representation in the assembly. We are pleading for proportional representation. If these demands are fulfilled, the election can be held and should be held. This is our position. It is not that we don’t want elections. That is not true.
DUNHAM: OK, but getting back to the first part of the question: This lack of vitality that I sense in Nepal, how can the Maoists help to rebuild the enthusiasm that was so apparent in 2006?
DR. BHATTARAI: Yeh, you are right. When it became impossible to hold the June elections, that has created a problem. The general population has begun to doubt the political parties – their expectations of what the political parties could do has vanished and given rise to a sense of pessimism among the general masses. That’s why, right now, we are trying to figure out why the elections couldn’t be held before now. And our assessment is that, because of the disturbances created by the monarchal forces, the June elections could not be held. So if we can abolish the monarchy through the interim parliament, then we can take care of the monarchal forces, and then we can hold the elections as soon as possible. And once we proceed to the elections, this current pessimism of the masses will go away. All will be mobilized for election purposes. That will create a new situation – a new vitality within society.
DUNHAM: Suppose the elections don’t materialize? Last week, Chairman Prachanda said, at the seventh anniversary of the founding of the PLA, that if the current process does not work out, the Maoists and the PLA will spearhead another uprising. He also indicated that the time the uprising would last not 10 years, but 40 years. How can a poverty-stricken country, with very little infrastructure, sustain that kind of long-term conflict? And what would prevent outside forces – as we discussed earlier – prevent outside forces from intervening?
DR. BHATTARAI: We don’t want conflict. We don’t want war. For ten years the people’s war was dedicated to eliminating the monarchy and to abolish feudalism and to introduce real democracy into the society – to bring real socio-economic changes to our society. That’s why, eventually, we were able to enter the peace process. What our Chairman meant to say was: If the peace process doesn’t succeed, if the peace accord isn’t implemented sincerely, then we may be forced to go to war again. And this time, the conflict may go on for a longer period of time. That doesn’t mean that we are for war. We want the peace process to proceed.
DUNHAM: So Prachanda’s resolve for peace has not diminished?
DR. BHATTARAI: The main thing is we want revolutionary changes in society – whether that be through peaceful means or through armed struggle.
DUNHAM: I’d like to go a little philosophical for a moment. Generally speaking, Americans, particularly young Americans, are unfamiliar with Marxism. Perhaps they haven’t paid much attention to it because they regard it as something from the past. Define Marxism and explain how 21st century Marxism differs from 20th century Marxism?
DR. BHATTARAI: Marxism is the science of revolution. Society is never constrained. It is never static. If you look at the history of the 18th and 19th centuries, there were huge changes in Europe and America -- war, revolution, capitalism, industrialization, democracy – all of these things were introduced. But in the rest of the world -- especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America – feudalism, autocracy still prevailed. We study Marxism because Marxism is basically a science that deals with history – the 19th and 20th century particularly – we in Asia were innocent of what was going on in the rest of the world. A revolution that took place in a remote area far from Asia – we were unaware of that.
Today, the basic laws of Marxism remain the same. But it must be developed with the times. Today, we have to make revolution in a different way than it was made in the 20th century. Globalization. The world is now much more closely related from one country to the next. Because of tremendous surge of information available in the 21st century, the activities that occur in one part of the world make an impact on another part of the world. These days, while making a plan for a revolution, you will have to make a global plan as well. If you don’t have a global strategy, if you don’t understand the balance of global forces, you will have a difficult time establishing a revolution in your own country. In that sense, making revolution in the 21st century is more difficult than in the 20th century.
DUNHAM: Is the role that the international media plays in the 21st century part of the problem you are talking about?
DR. BHATTARAI: It’s the globalization of imperialism that makes it difficult. It used to be revolution could be organized in a particular country or region without too much concern for the rest of the world. Today, we are dominated by one big power – say America or Europe –the one big power can control the whole planet. In that sense, this imperialistic phenomenon has changed everything. So in order to make revolution today, your tactics also have to change.
DUNHAM: But what about the media? Would you characterize the media as having been fair when covering the Maoist struggle?
DR. BHATTARAI: We think of the media in class terms. There are two types of media. One media backs imperial interests – which makes it anti-revolutionary. The other type of media, which is for progressive change in society and for democracy in the world – that media is quite sympathetic to us. Everything is in class terms.