Maoists in Limbo

Nepal's former insurgents now pass the time in camps scattered throughout the countryside. But are they integrating into society -- or just biding their time until the next round of fighting?

JHYALTUNGDADA, Nepal -- Until four years ago, Jhyaltungdada was nothing more than a dense forest with sal and sissoo trees, with maybe a dozen houses spread across the hill, about a mile apart. Villagers hesitated to walk down to the river to fetch drinking water -- they claimed that mountain tigers and jackals roamed around after sunset.

Today a winding single-lane gravel road runs to the top of this remote hill in western Nepal, through the village, ending at a helipad. The villagers have electricity and access to water at their doorsteps -- all thanks to about 900 Maoist combatants who moved here after the rebels signed a peace agreement with the government in 2006. Months after their arrival, this small village was connected to a major highway, linking it to the capital city of Katmandu.

The armed revolution was launched in 1996 by a handful of rebels who studied and admired Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong's works and wanted to implement them in this Himalayan country. Their goal was to abolish the country's monarchy and establish a regime run by the peasant class. With more than half the population living in poverty, the Maoists quickly developed a following by vowing to provide economic and political equality to large swaths of the country's marginalized communities. The insurgency took the country by storm for a decade, killing about 12,500 people and leading to the abolition of the country's 240-year-old monarchy in May 2008.

Four years ago, the Maoists signed a peace agreement with the government. Under the conditions of the deal, the rebels' arms and ammunition were placed in cantonments monitored by the United Nations, while the fighters, later known as the People's Liberation Army, were assigned to camps throughout the country like the one at Jhyaltungdada. Although the United Nations is technically supervising these places, the Maoists are confined to the camps only on paper. At Jhyaltungdada, the rebels roam around freely, some often traveling to Katmandu to meet senior Maoist leadership.

Both the United Nations and the interim government realized that it would be dangerous to keep the rebels en masse, unemployed and unpaid, in these camps. To remedy this problem, the peace agreement calls for the government to pay the former Maoist fighters a salary of about $67 a month and provide them with $1 per diem for food. But while they wait inside the walls that the government built for them, the former rebels are growing stronger and more ideologically committed, and they boast that they are mentally and physically prepared to once again pick up their guns and head to the hills.

The Maoists here live in small huts mostly made of wood and cement -- the higher-ranking commanders have brick walls with black enamel painted along the edges. In a village that thrives on agriculture, these former rebels are the only people who do not have to work for their living. Just beyond the last sentry post, elderly villagers are busy stacking hay to feed the livestock, and women are prepping their farms to plant turmeric this fall. Inside the Fourth Division headquarters of the People's Liberation Army, the rebels train in martial arts, play volleyball, and spend afternoons at the only canteen in the village, where they eat noodles with dried buffalo meat and drink their beverage of choice, Red Bull.

"We love it because it is called Red Bull," said Basudev Ghimire, the division's vice commander, who sports a thick moustache and a large belly, as he guzzled an entire can in one gulp. "It's a color we associate with revolution, and it gives us a lot of energy."

Energy, along with impatience. As the Himalayan country pushes its deadline to come up with a new constitution into next year, nearly 20,000 combatants are restlessly waiting in seven major and 21 satellite cantonments spread throughout the country, hoping to be integrated into the national security forces, which they fought to a bloody stalemate four years ago. The fate of the new republic largely depends on how the government and the Maoists decide to handle their foot soldiers.

While the political circus continues in Katmandu, the rebels at Jhyaltungdada are finding ways to make their government-assisted living productive. They wake before dawn and change into navy-blue tracksuits to exercise for several hours. A battalion or two wears full-fledged military fatigues, though some individuals sport flip-flops because there are not enough combat boots to go around -- and exercise for several hours. Ghimire takes a "morning walk" with a half dozen of his administrative staff members, one of whom always holds an old black Nokia cell phone with a makeshift antenna to listen to the radio.

With no jobs and no need to earn a living, rebels resort to a basic routine -- eat, exercise, surf the Internet, play soccer, and sleep. Breakfast typically consists of a lukewarm soup of chickpeas and potatoes, with a slight hint of coriander. Over the meal, rebels occasionally discuss the latest developments in Katmandu politics. It is not hard to see that anger simmers below the mundane routine: Rebels curse political leaders from other parties as "thieves," "robbers," and "donkeys." One of the battalion leaders called the prime minister a "son of a prostitute."

But the rebels have also found time to dabble in interests that are a world apart from their former life as rural insurgents. One of their favorite pastimes during the day is finding new friends on Facebook, using computer workstations newly purchased by their leadership from a nearby city. Inside the administrative building in Jhyaltungdada, rebels crop and resize their head shots for their Facebook profiles.

Two of the rebels even had the State Department's diversity green card lottery application open on their browsers. When asked whether they thought the United States would give them permanent residency, given their involvement in an armed insurrection, Khum Bahadur, a fighter who lost a leg after getting shot during the war, showed optimism. "America gives everyone a second chance," he said. "Why not us?"

But even among the most broad-minded of these rebels, their revolutionary ideology is stronger than their love for the Internet or fascination with a Western lifestyle. The Maoists with Facebook profiles also sing the praises of communism and revolution. Inside the camps, indoctrination runs deep: Under the shade of the thick trees, young men hold long discussions about war, Marxism, Leninism, and Maoism. Some boast about the ambushes they led against the national army during the height of the insurgency. Here in the village, where the only English words one can see are on the labels of Coca-Cola bottles and Red Bull cans, these former guerrillas, many of whom dropped out of high school to join the insurgency, discuss Carl von Clausewitz's On War and Sun Tzu's The Art of War. When asked whether they read anything besides communist and military theory, a 24-year-old veteran of the revolution was quick to respond. "I've read Barack Obama's book, the one about audacity."

Although the government has hoped to rehabilitate the rebels by mixing them with the larger society, the Maoists are instead utilizing that opportunity to regroup, strategize, and emerge stronger and united. The former guerrillas also have reinforced their belief that progress comes from the barrel of a gun. Barsha Man Pun, a senior leader in the Maoist politburo, who at one time commanded the entire People's Liberation Army, argued that the West's disapproval of their revolution is hypocritical. "George Washington picked up a gun. The British beheaded their kings, and the Russians killed their czars," Pun said. "If we can achieve modernism by minimum change like that, we are lucky."

The Maoists admit that there are times when they feel like they have been betrayed by the government -- free to roam, but nowhere to go. But even among the grumpy Maoists, there are some who see the benefit of living on a hilltop for free, allowed to train all day and night. "Where have you ever heard of the government feeding its enemies and letting them hone their anger?" said comrade Shiva, a young rebel who wants to join the Maoist politburo one day.

There is a growing sense of discontent among the rebels, born out of the belief that their mission is still incomplete. Abolishing the monarchy was an important achievement, but core issues like redistribution of land, secularizing the national military, and establishing a socialist regime remain unaccomplished.

Villagers here love the Maoists. During a tour of the camp and the village immediately outside the sentry post with a young rebel, a farmer offered him mangoes from his orchard, a serving of fermented millet alcohol, and even a rooster, which he politely declined. The Maoists started their revolution from rural areas such as this, and their core base of support remains intact to this day. The villagers are raising goats and chickens for the Maoists, so that a feast waits right outside their doorstep during major holidays. Every day is a holiday in the camps, one Maoist told me matter-of-factly.

Before meeting any of the Maoists' demands, including their possible integration into the national security forces, major political leaders have asked them to first put an end to their paramilitary structure -- a message the Maoists have ignored. Last month, they installed fresh wooden poles on their outdoor volleyball court. The same month, one of the commanders went to a nearby city to buy three more computer workstations so that more people have Internet access inside the camps.

In June, Nepalese Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal announced his resignation after coming under Maoist pressure. But leading political parties, including the Maoists, have not been able to come to a consensus on who will lead the new government.

Ripples from the deadlock can be felt all the way to New Delhi: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently sent a special envoy to speak with Nepalese politicians in an attempt to create a consensus among political parties. Although there isn't any concrete evidence linking these rebels to the Maoist insurgency raging in India, New Delhi fears that Maoist gains in Nepal could embolden its own domestic insurgency and also move Nepal closer to India's rival, China. For these reasons, some have seen India's recent meddling as a conspiracy to keep the former guerrillas out of government.

As the political stalemate gets worse, the Maoists have toughened their rhetoric; some have even hinted that failure to integrate them into security forces could lead to another revolution. "We can't always live inside these camps like herds of goat," said Vice Commander Sharma. "We were forced to pick up arms once, and we certainly won't hesitate to do it again."

After all, their guns sit within massive containers inside the United Nations compound in the camp. The commander says he has the keys, and, conveniently enough, the guard standing in front of the containers with a rusty rifle wears a green camouflage hat with a big red star stitched in the center.

Anup Kaphle


The King of Iraq

As U.S. troops leave the country, one man stands to benefit above all: Moqtada al-Sadr.

It would be hard to imagine a more unlikely meeting. Late in July, the tempestuous Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr traveled to Damascus from Iran, where he's been living in exile for the past three years. The trip looked at first to be a routine photo-op for Sadr and Syrian President Bashar Assad. That is, until Sadr met with Ayad Allawi, a top contender for the prime minister post in Iraq and one of the cleric's sworn enemies. Their mutual enmity dates back to a showdown in the holy city of Najaf in the summer of 2004. Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters had taken over the city and were using the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shiites, as a base of operations. Allawi, who was interim prime minister at the time, gave American and Iraqi troops the green light to take them out, killing dozens of Mahdi militiamen in the process.

So it was no small thing for the two to meet in person. And they didn't just talk; they were laughing and hamming it up as if they were the best of friends. The photos and video footage from that meeting are some of the only public examples of Sadr smiling (the more common profile is a scowling Sadr, wrapped in a white martyr's shroud, pounding a pulpit). Sadr had good reason to be happy: He now holds the fate of his one-time enemy in his hands.

Sadr -- feared by some, reviled by others and revered by a broad swath of Iraq's urban poor -- is now a kingmaker in Iraqi politics. It's a role that Sadr, the scion of a prominent clerical family, has been building toward since 2003. Immediately after the U.S. invasion, thousands of his supporters packed the dusty streets of Baghdad's Saddam City neighborhood (later renamed Sadr City) for Friday prayers week after week. Sadr rallied their ranks around his parliamentary list in the 2005 elections, making a strong showing, and then used his political clout to help push Nouri al-Maliki into the prime minister slot in 2006. But the friendship didn't last: Sadr bitterly split from Maliki when the latter allowed American troops to attack his militia members. Depending on whom you ask, Sadr either sensed he was next to be targeted and fled to Iran or was convinced of that fact by Iranian officials, who urged Sadr to leave for his own safety. Now, as U.S. troops withdraw and negotiations are underway in Baghdad to form a new government, Sadr may be planning his return. If he does, he will no doubt face jubilant crowds once again.

Sadr's political comeback was the result of careful and deliberate planning. More than a year before the elections in March, Sadr and his top aides set up an election strategy committee they dubbed the "machine." The goal was to game the electoral system as best as they could. A team of seven pored over the election law, dissected district maps, and built an extensive database of voters in every province. In the end, Sadr's Free Movement party won 39 seats in parliament, giving his followers a decisive vote within the National Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite bloc of which they are part. And that's exactly why Allawi shuttled to Damascus for the meeting: He needs Sadr if he hopes to become prime minister.

It would be easy to write off Sadr's electoral success as a fluke. But the reality is that the cleric's brand of religious nationalism, coupled with his carefully cultivated image as the defender of the Shiite community, has struck a deep chord with tens of thousands of Iraqis. Moreover, he's got the one thing that his rivals don't: "street cred." Sadr can, rightfully, claim that his movement is one of the few on the Iraqi political scene that's homegrown. Compare this to the Sadrists' top rivals in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI). For years, they've tried to fight the image that they were brought in on American tanks and are beholden to both Washington and Tehran,  even changing their name because the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq sounded too Iranian. They tried appropriating the image of Iraq's most senior cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to woo more supporters (there are still posters up around Baghdad showing the late ISCI leaders Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Hakim and Abdul Aziz Hakim beside Sistani). Nothing worked. ISCI got wiped out at the polls in March and also had a pretty dismal showing during provincial elections last year.

The Sadrists, by contrast, aren't going anywhere -- which puts Washington, among others, in a bind. Sadr's supporters are more than just a political party. The cleric is clearly following the Hezbollah model, creating a populist political movement backed by a battle-hardened militia. The language Sadr uses when discussing the U.S. presence in Iraq -- resistance, occupation, martyrdom -- could easily have been taken from a speech by Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. All this has discouraged U.S. officials from holding talks with Sadr -- something they've never done since 2003. It's not exactly like Sadr has gone out of his way to open up a dialogue, either. In fact, Sadr and many of his top aides have made it clear that the Mahdi Army won't disarm as long as there are American troops on Iraqi soil.

So what does Sadr want? One issue that has come up again and again in the negotiations to form the government is detainees. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Sadr estimated that there are as many as 2,000 detainees linked to his movement, most swept up in U.S. operations in 2007 and 2008, whom he would like to see released. The cleric has claimed that he doesn't want to mix the issue of detainees with the negotiations to form the government, but representatives from major political blocs who have held talks with the Sadrists dispute that claim, noting that Sadr has blasted Maliki for holding the prisoners and withheld his support. No doubt whichever candidate Sadr ultimately backs for the premiership will have to make major concessions on the detainees. He may also have to promise to lay off the Mahdi Army.

But the detainees are only a short-term bargaining chip. What Sadr is after is power itself -- and if his past record is any indication, he won't be shy about using it. There are any number of issues he could block or help push through parliament. Sadr has previously butted heads with Kurdish groups about the final status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that the Kurds claim as their capital. He is a proponent of putting oil revenues under central government control, a position at odds with the Kurds as well as some rival Shiite groups, such as ISCI. Women's rights groups have already voiced strong concerns that the Sadrists could block their attempts to reform laws that cover property ownership, divorce, and child custody. Some even fear that Mahdi fighters will again target women's rights activists, as they did in Basra in 2007 and 2008.

Sadr's ambitions don't cover Iraq's domestic agenda alone. His high-profile trips to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere indicate that he wants to be seen as a prominent regional player. He would like to promote his Mahdi Army as a member of the so-called "axis of resistance" made up by Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which have made their names by confronting the United States and Israel.

For now, Sadr is undoubtedly pleased by his opportunity to have a key vote in who becomes the next prime minister. And it's hard to miss the irony from a man who has built his image on being among the people. He's not casting that vote from Baghdad, where he could rally millions of supporters, but from a comfortable perch hundreds of miles away in neighboring Iran.