Civil War and the Labour Movement: What Chance for Peace?
last months have witnessed a serious deterioration of conditions in Nepal
compounded by a blockade imposed on Kathmandu and riots following the
murder of Nepali workers in Iraq.
A large number of enterprises linked to or owned by members of the Royal
family and with connections to multinational companies were threatened
with attack by forces aligned with the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist
(CPN-M). The Soaltee Crowne Plaza hotel, which has members in the IUF-affiliated
Nepal Tourism and Hotel Workers Union, had a number of small bombs
explode in its premises; thankfully, no one was injured, but the hotel,
along with other hotels and enterprises, was forced to close.
In all, eight luxury hotels and 47 enterprises covering 25,000 workers
were affected in a month-long shutdown of economic activity which ended
on 16 September following the release from gaol of two union leaders linked
to the CPN-M (Hindustan Times, 18 September 2004).
These circumstances are the latest outcomes fed by an eight year civil
war, principally fought between CPN-M and the state.
To understand why the CPN-M controls, depending on different sources,
between 50 and 80 percent of the countryside requires a serious look at
the social conditions of Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world.
In 1995, according to the World Bank, the year before the Maoists launched
a Peoples War campaign, 82.5% of the population lived
on less than US$2 a day (the global minimum recognised for basic survival).
Life expectancy at birth and literacy levels in 2002 were lower than all
the other South Asian countries. Nepals rate of child mortality
under 5 years, at 109 deaths per 1,000, is the fifth worst in the entire
Asian region (only Cambodia, Laos, Pakistan and Burma are worse). Serfdom
(that is, bonded forms of rural labour) was outlawed just four years ago.
More than 60% of households have less than six months supply of food from
their own farming. This is astounding considering that over 95% of the
population is engaged in farming.
What these conditions point to is a highly unequal society that developed
in the period up to the end of the absolute monarchy in 1990. With the
establishment of a constitutional monarchy following massive public mobilisations
demanding democracy, political parties attempted to govern the country.
Although political reforms began, the economy remained largely unchanged.
While politically Nepalese citizens gained civil rights (voting, freedom
of assembly, speech), the economic power vested in Nepals elite
This elite, principally composed of a small number of leading families
related to the monarchy and controlling the army, retained large land
holdings and ownership of the major manufacturing enterprises of the country.
Even in the one sector of the economy, tourism, which showed some success
in alleviating poverty, this elite still controlled the major components
of the industry.
This control was demonstrated by the hotel industry with the attack on
trade union rights following a year-long campaign for a 10% service charge
by hotel unions. In March 2001 the government, following pressure from
the Hotels Association of Nepal (an organisation dominated by the
Royal elite), legislated to include the hotel sector within the provisions
of the Essential Services Act, thus prohibiting hotel workers from striking
and denying fundamental trade union rights. Despite an International Labour
Organisation (ILO) ruling calling on Nepal to repeal these laws the government
has steadfastly refused.
The resistance of Nepals elite to land reform, a continual opposition
to genuine trade union rights in the enterprises it controlled and rampant
corruption all added to the sense of alienation of an increasingly marginalised
and impoverished general population.
If Nepals mainstream political parties could not alleviate the situation
it was not simply a matter of their failures or propensity to fight amongst
themselves (where in the world is this otherwise?), but the result of
the economic elites refusal to countenance any real change to their
privileges and power.
Thus, in a period of political and economic stagnation, Nepals Maoists,
after initially participating in the parliamentary process, went underground
in 1996, launching an armed campaign to overthrow the monarchy. The 2001
Royal massacre and suicide by Crown Prince Dipendra and the abrogation
of parliament placed even greater strain on the country. The Maoists saw
this, and used it as part of their propaganda, as proof of
the anti-democratic nature of the monarchy.
Moving to greater strength in the ensuing years, the Maoists agreed to
a cease-fire and talks in 2003. These talks stumbled on the question of
the monarchy and the confinement of Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) forces to
barracks. The final collapse of the cease-fire was precipitated by the
killing of 19 unarmed CPN-M members by a RNA officer in Doramba, eastern
Nepal, in August 2003 (Frontline, 11-24 September 2004).
CPN-M insists on a republic (party representatives have stated that the
armed struggle would cease upon the formation of a non-communist republic;
how true this may be is uncertain, see Business Standard, 19 August
2004). The monarchy insists on retaining its political and economic dominance.
The eight years of civil war have brought about a terrible decline in
civil and human rights in Nepal. According to Nepals independent
human rights organisation INSEC, over 10,000 people have died, two-thirds
at the hands of the state, one-third by the Maoists (see The Nepali
Times, 13-19 August 2004).
Violence committed by any side - whether Maoists or the government - is
totally unacceptable. It is Nepals civilians who bear the brunt
of the unjustifiable casualties and abuse resulting from this war. The
international trade union movement must condemn without equivocation the
violence perpetrated by all sides and the loss of democratic and trade
Yet, the great tragedy of Nepals situation is that the stubborn
resistance of the countrys elite to genuine reform opened the way
for an armed movement to win many converts.
A solution to Nepals problems now requires the elite to show uncharacteristic
humility and reform Nepals power structures. Peace and stability
in Nepal is possible, but to achieve these there must be recognition of
the causes of the present conflict and the barriers to their resolution.
Genuine peace efforts built on the restoration of multi-party democracy
and rights, the provision of safety to all people, a cease-fire and a
commitment by all to the negotiated resolution of Nepals inequalities,
in particular through proper land reform and food security, are what could
bring an end to the civil war.