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Maoist Rebels Win Majority in Nepalese Assembly

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Maoist rebels in Nepal say an end to monarchy is near, following their surprise victory in last week’s national elections. The Communist Party of Nepal is expected to come out with more than half the seats in the constituent assembly when final results are released. Maoist officials say one of their first orders of business will be to abolish the monarchy and declare a republic. We speak with New York-based journalist Kashish Das Shrestha, and we go to Nepal to speak with anthropologist Mary Des Chenes. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Maoist rebels in Nepal say an end to monarchy is near, following their surprise victory in last week’s national elections. The Communist Party of Nepal is expected to come out with more than half the seats in the Constituent Assembly when final results are released. Maoist officials say one of their first orders of business will be to abolish the monarchy and declare a republic. The elections came out of a 2006 peace deal that saw the Maoists end their uprising against King Gyanendra. Gyanendra had been forced to give up his absolute powers following a groundswell of protest against his rule.

To talk about what this election could mean for Nepal, I’m joined by two guests. In the firehouse studio in New York, Kashish Das Shrestha is a freelance journalist, photographer, producer, host of the podcast In Conversation on And joining me on the line from Nepal is Mary Des Chenes. She’s an anthropologist and human rights activist who has worked in Nepal over twenty years. She is the editor of the Kathmandu-based journal Studies in Nepali History and Society.

Why don’t we start with you, Mary Des Chenes, in Kathmandu? Tell us what is happening there now.

MARY DES CHENES: Hello, Amy. What’s happening in Nepal right now is great relief and a tremendous amount of happiness on the street. This vote has come clearly not just from the Maoist cadres and devoted supporters, but it comes from across the country, every region, less in one region only. And it comes from across classes and across parties. The two main parties that have dominated electoral politics, which was reinstituted in 1990, have suffered historic defeat, meaning that their own voters have gone over to the Maoists and have said with one extraordinarily clear voice that we want very fundamental change, a very crucial economic change. And that’s a great challenge that now faces — one of the great challenges that now face the Maoists, as they are now two votes away from taking a majority in the first past post side of the election, with quite a few constituencies to go. And it’s looking like the other side of the proportional election side — proportional representation side of the election will definitely give them a majority in the constituent assembly.

AMY GOODMAN: Kashish Das Shrestha in the studio in New York, how surprising was this victory, the Maoist victory?

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA: Well, everybody was actually taken quite a bit by surprise, except with the Maoists themselves actually, I think, because, you know, nobody really predicted the Maoists to have such an overwhelming turnout for themselves at the polls. Everybody thought — the international community, the local media, all the analysts assumed that, you know, this election would be a way to keep the Maoists engaged in the democratic process; you know, the UML would probably come out on the first place, and Nepali Congress would probably show up second, and the Maoists would come somewhere in the third place. And, you know, basically that was the general analysis that we had, even until the day of elections.

And then, you know, polls closed, and Thursday evening, Friday morning, we started counting the polls, and the results indicate that the Maoists are in the lead. And now, I guess, everybody is just waiting to see how this turns out. But everybody was indeed taken by quite a surprise, not just the local journalists, that, you know, there’s been a lot of conversation in Kathmandu that the media elite in the Valley got it wrong, but it’s just not — not just in Kathmandu. I think everywhere people just got it wrong of how the Maoists turned out.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe who the Maoists are?

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA: The Maoists — actually, they’ve been engaged in politics for several decades now. They were underground for ten years before launching their Maoist armed struggle in 1996. And since then, they’ve been underground, too. As you mentioned earlier in the program, it’s only been two years that they’ve come out of the jungles and joined the peace process, and actually it’s been a year since they joined the government. April 2007 was when they officially joined the interim parliament in Nepal and took up five portfolios in the cabinet. But, you know, there is a good chunk of the politbureau members — they’re all politicians, of course, but they also have a pretty strong People’s Liberation Army, which people have very vivid memories of in the countryside and in Kathmandu.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they build their support?

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA: The Maoists have — you know, to their credit, they were the first — they were the first vocal group to aggressively pursue the idea of a Republic Nepal, the end of the monarchy, and they have worked favorably towards the marginalized community groups in Nepal. And that’s one of the reasons that they’ve had such a strong showing in the polls this election, the fact that they were — you know, they were fighting to end monarchy and to give the marginalized communities in Nepal a voice.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the leader of the Maoist rebels?

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA: Prachanda — the leader of the Maoists, Prachanda, “the fierce one,” as he’s always quoted in the press, is — well, you know, he’s always been — he’s been underground, too, and he was sort of the mysterious leader of the party, but the last two years has given the Nepali people a chance to see him. And there’s various ways people look at him, but I think Baburam Bhattarai, the second-in-command of the Maoist party, is sort of more in the attention right now, because there’s a lot of talk that he might in fact be appointed the next prime minister of Nepal. And just recently, there was an interview of him published in, and he goes in great length, actually, to talk about the kind of economic changes and reforms that they plan to make in the country and some of the ideas that they have for Nepal.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his history, his rise to power?

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA: Prachanda’s rise to power or Baburam’s?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes — no, the leader of the Maoist rebels.

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA: Prachanda has — well, you know, he’s always been a hardcore leftist, but he comes from a poor family background also. He comes from rural Nepal. But I haven’t really studied him very well, so I wouldn’t be able to give you the kind of details that you might be hoping for.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask Mary Des Chenes in Kathmandu how he rose to power. Who were his influences? Mary Des Chenes? Yes, can you talk about his influences and how he rose to power over time, Mary Des Chenes?

MARY DES CHENES: Yes. Let me start just by correcting one point. The Maoists were in the parliament up to the 1993, ’94 elections, just two years before they started the armed struggle. They had been underground, as had, well, pretty much all parties prior to 1990. But they had come into electoral politics, and they were the third largest force in the parliament. An army operation was taken on against them during the elections of ’93, ’94. And it’s after that that they left the parliamentary process.

They were at that time not called the CPN-Maoists; they were part the CPN Unity Centre, and this is where Prachanda’s influences come from. There are two or three lines of influence inside the Communist movement of Nepal: very broadly speaking, influence from China and influence, in terms of ideology, from China and from the Soviet model and also importantly from the Naxalite movement in India. Prachanda comes out of the side of that — of the Communist party that has pretty much followed their version of Mao’s [inaudible] politics, which you can gather from them calling themselves the CPN-Maoists. He was part of CPN Unity Centre and came out of that side of the Communist movement. The CPN-UML, United Marxist-Leninist, which has been in the parliament through these eighteen years and is here discussed as the reformist left, it’s the main stream that has come out of the Soviet-influenced line of the Communist movement here, broadly speaking.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the US’s designation of the Maoists as a specially designated terrorist organization?

MARY DES CHENES: Yes. Jimmy Carter was here himself, along with people from the Carter Center, as one of the international monitors in the election, one of the groups monitoring. And one of the things he said very clearly in his press conference at the end of that, in declaring this event an extraordinarily free and fair election, was that it is time for the United States to rescind that designation. We have the curious situation, I would say, now, in which the Maoists have done — they have left armed struggle two years ago at this point. They have exercised, as they point out, one of the most democratic forums known to democratic politics, in urging and then now carrying out a constituent assembly election, and now they’ve massively won a tremendous mandate in that election. So either the Bush administration would need to say something like that, kind of real exercise of democratic process is a terrorist act, or it needs to take them off of the terrorist list.

The serious consequences of being on that list are many. It makes it very difficult for foreign governments to deal with the government here. That has already been an issue, as Maoists joined in the government here and are part of the current interim government setup, whereas now they look to take probably — certainly a larger part in that government.

I should stress that in the public statements immediately after, and continuing now as it’s become clear that they’re taking a majority, they’re absolutely emphasizing that they want to continue with the joint alliance that has governed — is governing the country at present. The constituent assembly is set to sit for two years. So we have at least two more years of transitional government to go here. And it’s a very tricky moment. And they have very maturely and generously, given the tremendous mandate that they’re getting, emphasized that the seven-party alliance that has been the structure under which the government is running is something they want to continue.

The UML, unfortunately — this is the United Marxist-Leninist party — has specifically withdrawn from the government as of today. One hopes that they’ll come back, and it’s an unfortunate development. And it’s yet to be seen how serious that is, whether that’s really an active form of non-cooperation, which is certainly a concern here. If the Maoists do take a majority, both the — from the right wing over to the center here, will the other political groups cooperate? And, of course, the question of what international forces are going to do. We have many, many examples around the world of when revolutionary groups take power, even through the ballot box, of either overt or covert forms of trying to derail their political processes. So that’s a concern here very certainly, something Maoists are trying to deal with in a very responsible way.

AMY GOODMAN: Asia Times is reporting the Maoist victory in Nepal could pose a threat to the Indian establishment, encouraging and galvanizing revolutionary movements in India. Mary Des Chenes, your response to that?

MARY DES CHENES: Well, there are certainly groups of analysts who come out of the military tradition in India who will be saying that, and the BJP and the whole — the rightwing Hindus, organized political rightwing Hindu groups in India, who very much want to retain the monarchy here, will also be pushing that kind of line.

From the left side, you will also see people thinking that this is going to encourage movements that are struggling for people’s rights at a very basic level, the majority poor of the subcontinent. And we should remember that both India and Nepal and Bangladesh are majority incredibly impoverished countries, not because they don’t have resources, but because of the maldistribution of resources and tremendous inequalities. And, of course, there are movements all over all of these countries struggling against that.

So, looked at from the side of people’s movements of many kinds — they’re not all revolutionary movements — this election has been taken — this election result has been taken as a great encouragement. Looked at from the side of elite politics that want to have democratic processes more in name than in practice, it looks like a threat.

AMY GOODMAN: Kashish Das Shrestha, the confusion that Stephen Hadley, the National Security Adviser, had —-

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA: Between Tibet and Nepal.

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA: —- between Nepal and Tibet this weekend on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, repeatedly confusing the two.

KASHISH DAS SHRESTHA: I thought it was just — it was really funny and, you know, of course, in this day and age so easy for it to get picked up on the comedy shows and on YouTube, but he kept on mistaking Nepal for Tibet throughout his conversation, and now it’s all over the blog wire and everything.

But I just want to get back to this point about India. The External Affairs Minister from India, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, he has spoken to Prachanda recently and has extended the willingness of India to work with the government that is now going to be set up in Nepal.

And just to quickly go back on the terrorist list designation, I spoke to somebody at the country desk — at the country desk for Nepal at the US State Department, and he said that the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal, Maoists, has actually in fact been taken off the foreign terrorist organization list, which is maintained by the State Department. But they’re still on the special designated terrorist list which is apparently maintained by the Treasury Department.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kashish Das Shrestha, thank you very much for being with us, freelance journalist, photographer, producer and host of the podcast In Conversation, which can be found at And in Nepal, joining us from Kathmandu, Mary Des Chenes, anthropologist and human rights activist, working in Nepal for more than two decades, editor of the Kathmandu-based journal Studies in Nepali History and Society.

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