Nepali Times
A ghostly philosophy".

In the last three months, thousands of words have appeared in the international press about Nepal. After the 1 June massacre, the focus is now the "people's war." NT has been following these stories as they appear and as a service to our readers, we are excerpting sections from a long essay in American Outside magazine's September 2001 issue. The Last Days of the Mountain Kingdom is, in large part, an account of a journey to Rolpa made earlier this year by writer Patrick Symmes and photographer Seamus Murphy. Following is an excerpt:

here are three rules of travel in the Maoist heartland. Sitting in the safe house, we are briefed by the leader of the ragtag squadron, a 42-year-old former school principal who speaks fine English. He goes by the nom de guerre of Sanktimon, after the hero of a cartoon on Indian television. Sanktimon means "strong man," but it's not for his muscles. "It is because I am strong in ideology," offers Sanktimon with a wide grin. He explains the route we will follow and then the rules: (1) No taking pictures without permission. (2) No going to the bathroom without a guard. (3) You must give a speech.

Within hours our photographer Seamus Murphy will disregard the first rule completely; the second one proves deeply problematic; the third rule is one I immediately reject.

We gloss over these disagreements and seal the deal with an exchange of lal salaams, a revolutionary slogan that means "red salute" and is always accompanied by a clenched fist. We quickly march off in single file, crossing more paddies and then head­ing up through a beech forest onto a switch-backing surface that becomes, eventually, the steepest surface I have ever climbed. Hours later we reach a razor-thin, foggy ridgeline at 5,000 feet. The slopes are stacked with terraces even here, the paddies no wider than a single ox. Nepal's population has tripled since the ]940s, and the relentless search for arable land has increased deforestation and erosion massively while still not producing enough to eat. Exclusive­ly agricultural, western Nepal is nonetheless a net importer of food. Hungry, impover­ished peasants are easy recruits to the Maoist cause, with its promise of a govern­ment by, for, and of the small farmers.

Sometime after dark, the sky explodes with rain and we tumble into a puny ham­let where dozens of guerrillas wait in huts. These are real Red Army troops, main force soldiers in neat camouflage uniforms. They carry Lee-Enfield .303 rifles, relics from World War II but state of the art compared to the flintlocks carried by our patrol.

In a dark, smoky room we eat with the sol­diers, wolfing down rice and lentils with our fingers. Comrade Strong Man won't answer questions about the movement, its ideology, or his own position within the group-"I am just someone," he says, dismissing my ques­tions. The only foreign correspondent they've seen before, he says, was a dyed-in-the-wool communist from The Revolu­tionary Worker, the weekly newspaper from Chicago, and Strong Man assumes we are here to cheer the revolution on. He is thrilled to host fellow travellers and promises to find two spoons for "the gentlemen comrades" by the next meal. Out here, spoons are still in the future, and metal of any kind is so rare that even ploughshares are made of wood. In the soft light of the cooking fire, surrounded by men clutching ancient weapons, we seem to be regressing toward the Bronze Age.

We sleep packed elbow-to-ass amid a dozen snoring guerrillas. At 2am, I am jolted awake by a shower of blows. The guerrilla on my left is twitching in the grip of a nightmare. I lie on the stone floor, staring at the ceiling until 5am, and then we are hiking again.

In meeting the Maoists, we've achieved exactly what most visitors to Nepal have been hoping to avoid. Although few foreigners have heard much about the guerillas-thanks to a suppressed local news media and a see-no-evil tourism industry-the two groups are already beginning to meet on the remote mountain paths that they share. Some trekking groups have bumped into Red Army patrols, who have pressed them to "donate" binoculars and sleeping bags to the revolution, but in most incidents the guerrillas and hikers have passed without speaking.

The real squeeze is happening back in Kathmandu. In March of last year, many foreign-owned businesses were approached by guerrilla representatives demanding money. Speaking on background, to protect his business, the head of one major American trekking company explained it as "a choice between operating here or holding to your ethical standards.' Like several other foreign outfttters, he paid $1,400 to ensure that the Maoists left his clients alone.

We summit one of Rolpa's infinite peaks, and suddenly we're bolting down on the site of the rally [we hoped we were being taken to]. It is a broad, rounded spur the size of several soccer fields, reaching out over a deep valley. We hike down, pass beneath another Martyrs Arch and find a half-dozen huts and a long schoolhouse-the hamlet of Babhang. A battery-powered public address system is lashed to poles, and a packed-earth platform with chairs awaits the speakers. After only a few minutes, there is the sound of chanting in the distance.

They come in village by village, spilling down into the rally with unfeigned hoopla. Sixty from one hamlet, 30 from another, 40 from a third, a stream of desperately poor, excited people waving their fists in the air. The men wear bland homespun skirts or worn-out tracksuits; the women dress in saris of royal blue, emerald green, earthen reds, and otherwordly purples. Within minutes, a second column begins to stream over a high peak in the distance. As they spot the rally site, men discharge their blunderbusses in thundering blasts that echo back and forth in the hills. A third column appears, snaking steadily up from the valley floor, hundreds more carrying banners and blasting off their own guns in reply.

The largest guerrilla rally I've read about featured 700 people; within an hour there are a thousand here, and then twice that, delegations from 52 villages across Rolpa,. They march in crude military lockstep, barefoot or in blown-out sandals, and arrive chanting call-and-response slogans ("Communist Party of Nepal, LONG LIFE!" and "Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, LONG LIFE!"). Perhaps 200 Red Army soldiers wait, stonefaced. They've got Enfields-like the canvas sneakers on.their feet, captured from the notional police-and wear counterfeit Lowe Alpine backpacks. Comrade Strong Man appears from time to time to shout, "Here are the masses! The masses are coming!"

Village bands arrive, tooting on horns and hanging drums. A group of black-clad boys dances into the rally, bells jangling on their ankles, and girls from the remotest peaks, who walked three days to get here, giggle and cover their faces at the sight. Every few minutes another black-powder gun detonates, launching a huge doughnut of smoke into the sky.

By noon there are 4,000 people, and still they pour in. A village militia arrives from some other century, clutching bows and carrying quivers of neatly fletched arrows, chanting, "No to feudalism!" Next is an entire girls' soccer team armed with blue tracksuits and muskets. Student groups traipse in with neat flags, and associations of untouchables, and women's groups chanting, "Murder and rape must stop!" The Maoists can sound progressive: They vow not only to fight police corruption, but to punish spousal abuse and hunt down rapists, while recruiting women guerrillas and political cadres. Likewise, they challenge the ancient caste system, which is nothing but racism, and the untouchables are among their most eager recruits.

In midafternoon, with 10,000 peasants packed onto the spur, the propaganda starts. The main event is the declaration of the shadow government in Rolpa and several adjacent districts, and the new leaders of the revolution's first official government are invited to step forward. There are 19 of them, a cross-section of the movement itself-a few tough Magar peasants from Rolpa, much like the attendees at the rally, but also an ambitious student leader from Kathmandu, and several older professional communist politicians. Comrade Strong Man turns out to be Rolpa's new representa­tive of "the intellectuals." Invoking the name of the almighty Prachanda, he delivers a 30-minute speech about the teachings of the leader they follow but never see; after him the new vice-chairman gives a speech, and after him the district's new top man, Chairman Santosh Buddha, gives an amazingly dull, hourlong talk. A typical politician, Buddha is lofty and affected, and seems to have practised looking thoughtful in a mirror. Despite the sunshine, he preens about in a gret Gore-Tex coat, the only one at the rally. Seamus and I call Chair­men Gore-Tex behind his back.

By first light there is not a single person left on the field. I wander over the barren saddle of the mountains, wondering if the 10,000 chanting peasants were a dream, but the proof is on the ground, the dust still imprinted with the shapes of their missing bodies.

The guerrillas' philosophy too is ghostly. So far we've had a propaganda massage without getting to ask any questions our­selves. Finally, at 10am, with cold clouds blowing in, I am summoned to the school­house, where the entire gang is assembled for a press conference. Gore-Tax, Strong Man, some Maoist schoolteachers, and sev­eral vice-flunkies are lined up
on benches.

I sit on my bench, scuff my feet in the dirt, and finally ask the question I should have asked the crowd yesterday: How many people must die? The guerrillas like to cite the Shining Path as their fellow travellers in the Maoist cause. I point out that 30,000 people have died in Peru, without a Red victory. If that many people die in Nepal, will the revolution still be justified?

Yes, they all nod immediately. The true face of the revolution at last. "To protect a whole thing," a schoolteacher says," a part can be damaged. It is the rule of nature."

Comrade Strong Man elaborates: "A big part of the people here believe it is not necessary to solve Nepal's problems with violence." He brushes aside this natural reluctance. "We clear their mind of this idea," he says. "The people's war is necessary."

They dismiss offers of peace talks from the government, tricks designed to fool the people, weaken the country, and deliver it to the control of India. Ominously, Gore-Tex vows a "protracted war in rural areas," and "armed... urban rebellion," the first hint of a guerrilla war in Kathmandu.

They descend quickly into jargon. They are for dialectical materialism and against reactionary power. Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution, in which mobs beat "class enemies" through the streets, was good, and will be imitated as soon as they come to power. Colonialism, feudalism, imperialism, capitalism, and revisionism are all bad. Peasants are good and politi­cians are bad. On this animal farm, four legs are good and two legs are bad.

Their policy about foreign tourists is clear: The more, the better.

"Not any foreign person is to be disturbed," Gore-Tex announces, as Strong Man nods. They actually invite trekkers to visit their areas-with permission- because they believe Westerners will be seduced by Maoism and spread the revolution to Europe and America. It's a Red Tourism offensive. "We will inspire them to flourish the same movement in their country!" Strong Man boasts.

Strong Man presents me with several pages ripped from his notebook. This document begins with an error-riddled manifesto-"the CPN (Moist) is guided the ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maosim against the reactionary power of Nepal which is preserved by Indian expansionis and world imperialist"-and continues with an executive summary of the press conference, which bears no relation to any of the questions I asked.

How do you face the Royal Army?

We will face it with the power of the people.

How do you forward the production?

We forward it with the help of people.

How do you bring about indigenous society?

We bring it according to Lenin's ideology.

How do you forward Negotiation with the government?

We are fighting total war.

As we talk, an early tendril of the monsoon season blows in, a thick, blasting rain of tropical density and high-altitude chill. We exchange endless good-byes in the dripping hut, while guards are found to escort us out of the base area.

In a sopping-wet ceremony, Gore-Tex drops more flowers around our necks and rubs more tikka on our foreheads. He gives all of us, including the Nepali journalists, sealed airmail envelopes. I naively assume that these contain a letter, or a certificate, or some propaganda, and stuff mine into my pocket, ready to get moving. As I walk out the door, I notice that the Chairman's Gore-Tex coat has soaked through completely. It's as fake as he is.

At some point in here I drag the crumbling, soggy envelope from my pants pocket, slide a finger down the seal, and discover that it contains money. Not a letter, not a certificate, not a propaganda flyer, but a bribe. About $5 worth of rupees. Now I'm as dirty as everyone else in Nepal.

Another day of brutal road travel and a prop plane back to Kathmandu. In the terminal, I spot a plastic box for donations to the Red Cross and I shove the remaining rupees, the Maoist bribe money that we didn't spend on Fantas, through the acrylic slot.

It is likely that the Maoists will be undone by their own quest for ideological purity, by their faith in a violence that, as they themselves admit, is not supported by the Nepali people. The more the Maoists expand, the quicker the people will learn that opposing a corrupt government is not the same as supporting a fanatical insurgency. Nepal can still evade the dark garden of Maoist dreams, but the exceptional kingdom is already losing its distance from the world, becoming instead a troubled, unexceptional place.

In the last days of old Nepal it is lovely to walk the strike-bound street of Kathmandu or roll about town in rickshas, pausing to watch aimless bands of students and communists march listlessly through the city, lifting their fists, occasionally tossing a brick. There's something wonderfully feeble about the scene. Perhaps the Maoists' grim ferocity will yet founder in the traditional incompetence of Nepali politics. There is always the hope of farce, rather than tragedy.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)