By The Spark reporters
In 2009, Ben Peterson, a young Australian member of Socialist Alliance, spent four and a half months in Nepal, spending much of his time there with the Maoist revolutionaries and speaking to them about the revolutionary process taking place there. He had been reading everything he could find on the Nepali revolution while still in Australia but, frustrated by the lack of accurate information in the media, decided to go to Nepal to see and experience the revolution for himself.
This March Ben made a speaking tour of New Zealand in a visit organised by the Workers Party and Socialist Worker, with support from the Alliance in Christchurch and the International Socialist Organisation in Dunedin. The tour was organised to promote awareness of the revolutionary process in Nepal, especially as the revolution moves towards a critical phase there. We interviewed Ben at the beginning of the NZ speaking tour.
The Spark: What inspired you to go Nepal?
Ben: I had been studying about the situation in Nepal for some time but was frustrated by the lack of reliable info on Nepal so headed up there to see for myself what was happening.
The Spark: How long did you stay and which parts did you visit?
Ben: I stayed in total for 4 1/2 months. I saw a fairly broad cross section of the country. I spent a lot of time in Kathmandu but went to the Western Hills and Rolpa, as well as the Southern plains, the Terai area.
The Spark: What are the major political issues in Nepal?
Ben: At the moment the major issue is how to build a new Nepal after overthrowing the monarchy. The fundamental question has become building a new state and developing new structures. There are things such as poverty and land reform that are major issues, but the building of a new state is the essential question, as that relates to how the government will respond to these questions, and in whose interests.
The Spark: We understand you stayed with Maoist party people; as a westerner how were you treated and how did you find that experience?
Ben: Staying with the Maoists, as a Red Westerner, it was great. There’s a real hunger for solidarity and international links. They definitely see themselves as internationalists. They are generally good cooks too, so it was good!
The Spark: What was the most challenging part of the trip/exposure for you personally?
- Getting sick all the time, so not being able to see as much as I would have liked to have seen.
- The language barrier was frustrating, I couldn’t have as in depth discussions as I wanted.
- It was their revolution, as much as I was there and trying to play a part, it wasn’t mine, it was the Nepalis’.
The Spark: How did you find the student movement in Nepal?
Ben: Interesting because it is different at different schools. At the bigger public institutions the Maoists are very strong. At some of the smaller private institutions the bourgeois parties are stronger. It reflects the class nature of Nepal, and the poor until recently have had limited opportunities for education. The Youth Movement is amazing (and radical students are part of it). For instance they play roles in community development, in keeping a community clean. Or if there is domestic violence people turn to the Youth Movement to look after the woman. Education, organizing people collectively, helping peasants with redistributed land, they are consistently championing the cause of the poor.
The Spark: Why are you doing a speaking tour in New Zealand?
Ben: I had some pretty amazing experiences in Nepal and if I can play a role in popularizing and getting information out that is my way of supporting what is happening in Nepal. I hope I can spread that message around.
The Spark: Do you feel that events in Nepal are under-reported in western countries?
Ben: Under-reporting is less of an issue than poorly reporting. When there is reportage in the Western media it is just a repeat of what the Nepali elite are saying. It’s never representative of what is happening on the ground, an example being in the lead up to the elections the media kept reporting that the Maoists would lose. And most of the commentary was about ‘how would the Maoists cope with their inevitable defeat’. That turned out to be the opposite of the reality. That shows how completely out of touch they are. The media just serves the agenda of the Kathmandu elite.
The Spark: What about the Maoists, do they have an alternative media network themselves?
Ben: Absolutely. They’ve got a daily national paper, a weekly paper, plus countless radio stations and local newspapers and a couple of magazines and journals. They even have a TV station.
They built their own media during the people’s war. Some of the stuff they’d publish out of caves, carrying printing presses into the countryside. They’d hear the military were coming and they’d strap it to their backs and march for days to a new safe area. They had a real emphasis on building their alternative media. Alternative radio stations; they’d go to the top of a hill, string a wire up a tree, dig a hole, put the equipment in that and sit in the hole and broadcast.
The Spark: Did you have any contact with the union movement in Nepal?
Ben: Yes, in different sorts of ways. You can’t stay in a hotel in Nepal, or travel on a bus without meeting union activists. The restaurant workers in all the tourist areas are unionized. They are all Maoist unions. I did get to meet some of the leaders. They are all extremely busy because there is so much going on. There are always stories about strikes going on, or plantations being occupied by workers.
The Spark: How did the Maoists develop their union strength in Kathmandu so quickly as they have only been able to work openly there since 2006?
Ben: Militancy. Going in winning wages and conditions, involving people, being democratic unions and avoiding bureaucracy. It became known that when you join a Maoist union you win big increases by taking part in struggles. People flocked in droves to join. I was told that it was something like 10% increase, on average, that the Maoist unions were winning. So naturally people were flocking to those unions – success breeds success.
The Spark: You were there on May Day 2009, how was that?
Ben: Amazing to see so many people come out, from mechanics to chefs, to clerks or nurses. All sorts. To see people from every trade represented. Hundreds of thousands strong, that was pretty special. It was all organized by the Maoists.
The Spark: Did other political parties organize May Day rallies?
Ben: Yes, but they were tiny. I heard that the UML rally had just a couple of hundred people at the rally they organized.
The Spark: It sounds like the Maoists have made progress in getting rid of the monarchy, and bringing in democratic processes. But have things changed for women there, where they have for centuries been second class citizens?
Ben: Absolutely. It’s immediately noticeable in the villages that some women carry themselves with confidence, and actively are involved in village life, while others aren’t. The former will without fail be revolutionaries. The revolutionary movement has made a constant and conscious effort to attract and fight for women, and it’s very noticeable.
The Spark: By the end of May the new constitution should be written. How is it going?
Ben: There is a lot of general agreement, and it seems to be progressing well. Such as what the country will be called, the national anthem. But there is a lot of stuff that the Maoists want that hasn’t been agreed on. I can foresee the NC stalling. The Maoists are building protests; if the current government fails to have a constitution by May 2010 they will mobilize protests and take the question to the people.
The blog Ben maintained during his time in Nepal can be viewed here: http://maobadiwatch.blogspot.com