There are examples of revolutions through history that start as freedom struggles, but soon degenerate into religious, ethic or separatist wars. The nine-year-old Maoist 'People's War' could be headed the same way. The slew of ethnic and regional autonomous regions that the Maoists have launched in recent months makes this a legitimate concern.
According to its directive on autonomous regions released last year, the Maoists have, in addition to the central government, decided to set up seven ethnic and two regional autonomous regions (see map). Within these regions there are several tiers of district and town-village local government units with their own 'people's assemblies'.
However, it does not look like the selection procedures for who gets to be in these assemblies is going to be done under democratic principles of adult franchise. There are provisions to ensure that at every level of government there will be more nominated members than elected ones. For example, each village assembly will have 45 elected members from the wards and more than 55 will be nominated members from the Maoist army, the militia, marginalised and minority groups, intellectuals and businessmen.
The present series of announcements of autonomous regions started with the declaration of autonomy for the Magarant Region in Rolpa's Thawang on 9 January. Within two weeks, the Maoists had declared the Tamsaling Autonomous Region for the Tamangs, Bheri-Karnali Region, the Madhes Region, the Tharuwan Region, the Seti-Mahakali, Tambuwan and Kirant Autonomous Regions. They have left the declaration of the Newar Region in the capital for a later date.
There are several theories about why this sudden flurry of autonomous declarations. The most plausible seems to be a morale booster for the Maoists' own rank-and-file who are under considerable military pressure from the army's counterinsurgency operations and must be thinking there may be no end to the fighting.
Indeed, besides making declarations amidst large public gatherings, there hasn't been much by way of an administrative structure to maintain these autonomous regions. The declaration of regional political units of government could also be one way that the Maoists can convert the revenue they presently collect from extortion or forced donations into legitimate 'tax'. After all, the Maoists haven't really been doing much development even in the base areas that are under their control. In fact, the education and health care systems, rudimentary as they may be, are still being paid for by the 'old regime'.
In terms of security, it is hardly possible for the Maoists to ensure security for the people in their autonomous regions when they are not secure themselves and need to rely on safe havens across the border in India. The fact that the head of the Madhes Region, Matrika Yadav, was detained in India and extradited to Nepal last month proves this point.
In the war's present deadly stalemate, both sides are given to hyperbole. At the launch of the Magarant Region, its chairman Santosh Buda declared the airspace over his autonomous region "out of bounds" for the royal army. A few days later, King Gyanendra and the Chief of Army Staff, Pyar Jung Thapa, crisscrossed the midwest by air visiting the towns in Maoist strongholds. The government's writ may not go beyond the district headquarters, but there is really nothing to stop the army from flying in wherever it wants to, as it did in Kalikot to flush out Maoists from the airfield in Kotbara last month.
"You don't get an autonomous region by just announcing it, they are being immature about it," says former guerrilla and leftist leader, CP Mainali. Other intellectuals and political leaders have criticised the autonomous region announcements, saying it may fragment the country. Lawyer Sindhunath Pyakurel says: "It would have been better to push for true political devolution at the regional level." Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara has argued, a bit unconvincingly, that ethnic and regional autonomy will actually strengthen the country's unity.
Shyam Shrestha, editor of the leftist magazine Mulyankan, says: "It's not clear whether autonomy also means the right to secede. If it does, then it's not right." The Maoist have received the bitterest criticism for their Kirant Autonomous Region in the east where a chauvinistic politician, Gopal Khambu, was made the chief instead of the popular activist, Bhaktaraj Khandangba.
All this has made the political parties nervous about the Maoist's real intentions , despite Prachanda having tried to take a softer approach by his statement on 26 January in which he said his party could "accept multiparty competition..and the role of the United Nations mediation and monitoring in any means to peacefully gauge public opinion." And as usual, the Maoist leadership has been sending out contradictory messages. Soon after Prachanda's statement, the head of the Bheri-Karnali Region, Khadga Biswokarma, proclaimed that those who did not agree with the party line were banned from his newly autonomous region.
Mahara has tried to gloss things over, saying: "We are in a war situation. It won't always be like this." But, asks CP Mainali: "When protesters burn an effigy of the king, they are not shot at. Why should Ganesh Chiluwal be shot dead for burning the effigies of Baburam and Prachanda?"
The Maoist decision to go ahead with the autonomous region declarations appears to have been brought forward as a damage control measure to neutralise the group's public image as being ruthless, brutal and murderous. It could be intended to show that besides its military activities, the Maoists are also a political force with their own political agenda. "It may also be a show of political and military strength," explains Shyam Shrestha.
In the final analysis, the Maoists may also be finding it difficult to gain new recruits solely on political slogans of a class war. Maybe they need something more potent, like ethnic self-determination, to ignite populist passions. The Maoists are already being accused of using autonomy as an excuse to foment ethnic tensions.