The snow fell as we crossed the winding ridge-top Satobhato Pass above the Liwang Valley, capital of the decade-long Maoist movement, below.
It was late afternoon and, for the first time in Nepal, I was in a car driving in a mild snow storm. The winter, X-mas-like scene softened the surroundings, particularly the steep protruding hillocks surrounded by barbed wire where remote, tawny military outposts looked down above us. There was a haunting sense of Mordor in the isolated, almost world's end landscape as the sky began to darken and the journey seemed close to an end.
As we wound down the hill Liwang came into view, a snuggly-settled, modest-sized district center. It has been all-day eight hour drive through Dang and Pyuthan districts from the main East-West highway.
Yet, for all of the self-proclaimed "Maoist Capital of Nepal" the place appeared quite benign, quiet actually with the normal accoutrements of a government outpost in place, the local police chowks as we entered the town, the CDO (chief district officer) office & residence on the edge of town and the usual assembly of laggard, insouciant dogs lingering around the bus park hoping for a free meal.
The only modest sign of the Maoist revival were the hammer & sickle flags flying over the basketball court. There weren't even many posters of Comrade Prachanda, 'the Fierce One', glued to the concrete & muddy walls around the town that are plastered relentlessly everywhere around Kathmandu and Patan. In some ways, it seemed more like a Maoist ghost town than the center of a resurgent communist showplace. The Potemkin village, it seems, had been packed up, rhetoric and all, and shifted, literally, lock, stock & barrel to Kathmandu where the pickings are better, it seems.
Yet, these appearances were also deceiving, as so much appears to be these days in Nepal. Although there were no high-profile, visible signs of the Maoist presence in Liwang, their so-called capital city, the influence in the district appears to be quite pervasive and hardened after ten years of force and struggle.
Behind the softer national image being cultivated in Kathmandu, the local Rolpa leaders we met here in Liwang, both civil society and political party, were united in their common concern that although the structure of the Maoist local governance had begun to be dismantled (as instructed by Prachanda as part of the peace agreement), their party people were still out in the villages carrying on as they had often beforehand, through threat and intimidation.
They had been told by the local Maoist party cadre that "the war is not over, we're just stopping for awhile". Local leaders we spoke with said that some of the PLA soldiers who had been in the district before are still there -- just w/o their uniforms or visible weapons.
The Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) that had been signed on Nov. 21st, we were told, had not yet been internalized by the Maoist cadre, nor been widely understood by most of the people living out in these remote villages. In truth, there had been little public dissemination of this key national peace document by the government, the political parties, the human rights activists or the international development community. It had been signed in Kathmandu and mostly left on the table in Kathmandu...
These local Rolpalis explained to us that of the 51 Village Development Committees in the district, the police are only permitted in 7-8. In the rest, the Maoist simply tell them that it's dangerous for them b/c the villagers don't want them there. Of course, if it's the people themselves or the Maoist militia or cadre, no one can legitimately say. All they can say, and did, is that in the present circumstances, although it is getting slowly better compared to full-on conflict of past years, there are not the necessary conditions for a 'free and fair' election. Nor do they think that this environment can be created before the June 2007 deadline that's been set by the Maoist and Seven Political Party leadership nationally.
Not now. Not soon. Not easily. was the message. But, they shrugged their collective shoulders and said, "Would our senior and distant national party leaders listen to us??"
One person said clearly said that "if the Maoist don't publicly also agree to postpone the planned Constituent Assembly elections, then a return to conflict was a very real possibility." The government couldn't decide this w/o the Maoist publicly agreeing. Otherwise, as the Music Man sang decades ago, there would be trouble in River City...
Not, as you can see, quite encouraging. In fact, in some ways, rather disturbing, especially since none of the major parties or leaders has yet acknowledged that a bad election in June would be worse than a postponed election. But there are only three+ months before this tryst with destiny for the Nepali people to elect their representatives to a Constituent Assembly to write a new supposedly people's oriented, New Nepal constitution.
Not much time in any country. Particularly not much time in a country used to the slow lane, like Nepal, with a mental, cultural and physical landscape that overwhelms as much as it sanctifies the natural world around us.
Clearly, there are a few surprises ahead, not just out here in the isolated Maoist hamlet of Liwang, Rolpa, but for all of the long-awaited and often promised New Nepal.