Asian Food Worker Frontpage
Nepal’s Civil War and the Labour Movement: What Chance for Peace?
The 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 “People’s 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. Nepal’s 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 Nepal’s elite concentrated.

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 Nepal’s 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 Nepal’s 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 elite’s refusal to countenance any real change to their privileges and power.

Thus, in a period of political and economic stagnation, Nepal’s 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 Nepal’s 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 Nepal’s 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 union rights.

Yet, the great tragedy of Nepal’s situation is that the stubborn resistance of the country’s elite to genuine reform opened the way for an armed movement to win many converts.

A solution to Nepal’s problems now requires the elite to show uncharacteristic humility and reform Nepal’s 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 Nepal’s inequalities, in particular through proper land reform and food security, are what could bring an end to the civil war.