Prachanda in New York: Ahilan Kadirgamar


Maoist leader and the first Prime Minster of Republican Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, more commonly known as Prachanda, was in New York these last few days.  I heard him speak at the Asia Society and at the New School for Social Research, where he fielded questions from the audience.  The webcast of Prachanda’s address to the UN is here.

Prachanda opened his speech at the Asia Society, by saying it is like a sweet dream to be in New York. That three years ago, he could not even dream he would be here, that Nepal would make such a transformation.  The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which Prachanda is the Chairman of, is still listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and his arrival in the belly of beast was certainly a moment to capture for the large number of students, activists and journalists who attended his town hall type meeting at the New School.

I want to think a little about the politics of that arrival or the politics of travel to the United States.  And in thinking about Prachanda and the northern end of South Asia, I cannot help but think about the other ‘P’ in the southern end, Prabhakaran and the LTTE.  Many will recall that the LTTE (which is also listed as terrorist organization by the United States) at the height of the peace process withdrew from talks in April 2003, stating as their objection, not being allowed to travel to Washington for the Donor Conference.  Not only did the LTTE withdraw from the peace process, it used as an excuse its anger towards the United States and the international community, to resume a campaign of political killings in the months following its withdrawal, targeting mainly Tamil dissidents in the North and East.  The Sri Lankan State and the international community, watched for the most part in silence as it was, after all, only Tamil on Tamil violence.  This silence was despite or perhaps because of the international monitoring of the ceasefire.  But the LTTE’s travels to Europe and Asia continued, they had high level meetings with officials and participated in “peace talks” through 2006.  Until 2003 the LTTE’s Eastern Commander Karuna was the chief attraction among the Tamil diaspora meetings that these delegations addressed, until of course he split from the LTTE in 2004 when he became the biggest traitor for the LTTE.  And Karuna, like Prabhakaran, also ordered the torture and killings of Tamil dissidents.  Thus the politics of travel to the West is as much about legitimacy by the international order as it is about their politics of consolidation on the ground.

I bring up Prachanda and Prabhakaran to contrast the differences of their current moments, Prachanda in New York and Prabhakaran in a bunker in Mullaitivu.  However, any parallel about their armed struggle and the “war on terror” politics that they had to face whether it be from the US or their respective states, is quickly overshadowed by the political extremes they belong to.  Prachanda’s Maoist politics and his call for multi-party democracy versus Prabhakaran’s fascist claim of sole-representation should clearly drive that point.  Prachanda has attempted a historic transformation veering away from the orthodox Marxist-Leninist-Maoist position, the consequences of which are also an end to the massive social destruction that armed struggles exact.  Prabhakaran’s suicidal militarist politics continues to ravage the North and East of Sri Lanka entailing tremendous civilian suffering.  The difference between them is indeed one of politics and political transformation.

However, day after day, I find this point about the difference in politics so much harder to engage, particularly with many who claim to belong to the Left.  For sections of this crude Left, the LTTE is a liberation organization that should be supported, and I hear this more in the hegemonic centres of the world whether it be the US or India.  It is a logic that runs parallel to imperial and state ideology, that hegemonic view that collapses the Maoists and the LTTE into “terrorists”.  The parallel logic of the crude Left is something like this – my state is my enemy, and my enemy’s friend’s (another say, South Asian state) enemy (any armed group) is my friend.  This linear view of political solidarity in fact undermines any serious solidarity, not to mention the injustice towards the victims of armed groups; in the case of Sri Lanka say the Northern Muslims who were ethnic cleansed by the LTTE or the many Leftist Tamil dissidents who were eliminated by the LTTE.  And for those who don’t know the history of Tamil militancy, there was a strand of Maoism among groups like the NLFT who with a much deeper politics grappled with questions of class, caste and nation – Tamil voices which today would have been critical in challenging the militarist and Sinhala Buddhist nationalist politics of the Rajapakse Regime at a time of war.  But those groups and voices were decimated by the LTTE in its march towards sole representation.

I bring up the differences of politics, because I am not a romantic admirer of the Maoists in Nepal.  I am a distant observer thinking about the question of solidarity with activists in Nepal, after three short visits over the last three years.  I am neither an “expert” nor do I wish to become an “expert” on Nepal; rather I believe there is a fine line between intellectual solidarity and intellectual mercenaries (particularly in an age of development and conflict resolution “experts”).  Here in these notes, even as I grapple with questions of solidarity, I will try to write sympathetically having heard Prachanda in person.

The talks by Prachanda were a call for international support for economic development in Nepal.  He clearly came with a brief for the international community; he outlined the successes with the peace process, the challenges of constitution building and emphasized the importance of socio-economic development for Nepali society.  And in that call for international support, he did not mince his words, he called for foreign investment including from the US to tap the natural resources of Nepal, for “mega-development” projects such as in hydro electricity, the need to develop the tourist industry, building out of other infrastructures, “public-private partnerships” in business; all to the benefit of eradicating poverty.  His talks at times sounded like a marketing pitch for Nepal’s development with a modernist vision.  It would be as if the Left never changes in their call for modernization and development.

And there was more, he went onto say that not only are they for democracy, but also for the “rule of law”, eradication of corruption, protection of universal human rights, and the need for an inclusive and sustainable peace.  It is a plea that the “international community” would find hard to resist.  In fact, it sounded more like the brief itself was written by someone from the UN or the World Bank.

However, there can be a more generous reading.  The survival of his party perhaps, and the survival of their peace process itself as seen by Prachanda, will be in jeopardy without the infusion of aid, and the rhetoric and language aside, what they need first is legitimacy and resources from the “international community”.  Indeed, if I understood Nepali, his rhetoric when he spoke to the Nepali audience may have been very different.  But it is this tension between his rhetoric in English which is fashioned by the new international discourse and the traps of that international discourse that I am concerned about.  If we give Prachanda the benefit of the doubt, that in opposition to his ideological grounding (the concepts of imperialism, class warfare etc) his use of the rhetoric of international norms and development are an act of subversion, what does that mean and how will it play out in the future, both in the near and medium term?  Furthermore, is it an act of subversion by Prachanda or is it an act of tutelage by the West?  Will the donors and the international actors be drawn into one of the most interesting revolutions in the beginning of the twenty first century as Prachanda put it, or would the Maoists be trapped by the dominant discourse of the international order in the post-Cold War era?  After all, that discourse is not merely about rhetoric, but rather about power that comes with mechanisms of control.  Would the “ideological” grounding of the Maoists to borrow Prachanda’s words be able to withstand the pressures of the new international discourse?

In thinking about the workings of the international order, the interesting thing about the LTTE’s tours of Europe and Asia and their engagement with the “international community” is that they could not sustain the doublespeak.  Even the antics of their spin master and political advisor Anton Balasingham or the overstretched diplomacy of the naïve Norwegian mediator Erik Solheim could not bridge, for long, the gap between the international order and the LTTE’s actions.  The reality of international engagement got the better of the LTTE.  Indeed one important reason for the LTTE’s resumption of the war was to find a way out of what they considered to be the international peace trap.  The LTTE was subsequently listed as a terrorist organization by the EU and the Canada in 2006.  This is all to say that the international discourse of peace and development and the workings of the international order do have a strong logic and force.

Prachanda started to shift from his brief during the question and answer sessions at both events.  The question of Tibetan activists repressed in Nepal, the question of Nepal’s relationship to China and India, the question of possibilities of alignment to oppose imperialism with alliances in Latin America, the question of past violations of human rights and the character of the Maoist’s Young Communist League (YCL), all featured prominently during the question and answer sessions.  In response to Nepal’s relationship with China he said, we have to distinguish between diplomatic relations and ideological differences, and that the territory of Nepal will not be used against either of its big neighbours.  Furthermore, that they are not going to make any united front outside Nepal, and that work towards a united front will only be within Nepal.  That they will address past violations through a truth commission and that the YCL, which he said was a militia in the past is now going through the difficult process of transition into a political organization.

The key challenge he reiterated was the socio-economic transformation to bring the bulk of Nepali people and the younger population in particular out of poverty.  And for that, the peace process must reach its logical conclusion.  Prachanda’s UN General Assembly address framed the question of poverty into a global issue of the position of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and that trade concessions and other forms of support are critical for Nepal.  Prachanda was euphoric about the Constituent Assembly, which he said for the first time in Nepal has broad representation for Janjatis, Dalits, Madheshis and women.  In fact, he claimed that women are about a third of the Constituent Assembly.  On the constitutional front, the challenge is mainly about agreement on what kind of federalism, and that most other constitutional matters have more or less been agreed upon.

At the Asia Society event, seated next to me was a young Nepali woman who had grown up in the US.  At the beginning of the event, she told me that, “Prachanda has been my hero since I was in grade seven, most Nepalis I know hate him and they think I am also a Maoist, but it was my dream to see him speak.”  But on the comment about women’s representation in the Constituent Assembly, she said, “look at the Nepali delegation they are all men, perhaps someone’s wife is there, few things have changed so far.”

That point reminds me of Marx’s ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, that amazing work about the 1848 revolution in France and its demise in the course of the next three years ending in the dictatorship of Louis Bonaparte.  Marx makes the distinction between the Regime of Louis Bonaparte and the State, as well as a distinction between the State and the National Assembly that came into being after the revolution.  Will the regime change in Nepal lead to a transformation of the State?  Marx addressed the question of such transformation of the State and I will quote Marx here at length here:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.  …

Every common interest was straightaway severed from society, counter-posed to it as a higher general interest, snatched from the self-activity of society’s members and made an object of governmental activity from the bridge, the school-house and the communal property of a village community to the railways, the national wealth and the national university of France. The parliamentary republic, finally, in its struggle against the revolution, found itself compelled to strengthen, along with the repressive measures, the resources and centralization of governmental power.  All the revolutions perfected this machine instead of smashing it.  The parties that contended in turn for domination regarded the possession of this huge state edifice as the principal spoils of the victor.  …

And yet the state is not suspended in mid-air.  Bonaparte represents a class, and the most numerous class of French society at that, the small peasants.”

This is the challenge for Prachanda, as he manoeuvres in a democratic terrain fraught with mines; between a new democracy, a new Bonapartism and a new international order.  Prachanda in passing reference towards the legacy of Marx, Lenin and Mao, claimed that they have studied the conditions of Nepal in the twenty-first century, and chose this path of multi-party competitive democracy and a competitive economy, through in depth reflections and discussions within the party five years into the Peoples War in 2001.  Furthermore, that their main priority is transformation in the socio-economic realm from feudalism to capitalism.  The struggle perhaps at the village level is crucial for the Maoists.  They can experiment with a democracy different from the legacy of party machines and unleash the potential of the “self-activity of society’s members” as Marx puts it.  But this would have to be in parallel to the Maoists’ attempt to restructure the State as they “make their own history”.  Both of which will be constrained by the Maoists’ own organizational and political limitations, as well as the forces waiting to undermine the Maoists from within and outside Nepal.

There were interesting reference to Lenin and Stalin; that Prachanda was developing his ideological position from Lenin and that Stalin had made major mistakes.  But I will not dwell on those here.  At one point, Prachanda on his own brought up the question of other Maoist parties in the region.  When he visited Delhi after becoming the Prime Minister, he had said, he repeated, “we can not dictate to other Maoists, but we hope they will learn by our example.”  Prachanda’s priority clearly is the people of Nepal and the transformation of Nepal and not the world outside, whether it is the international powers or the radical movements.  But lest Chairman Prachanda forget, the people of the world are also waiting and watching, the fate of this different democracy in the making.

(Ahilan Kadirgamar is an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum.)

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