The menace of Maoism is making a comeback
If you think Naxalite might be a rare mineral, think again. Maoist militants, including the Indian revolutionaries known as Naxalites, are on the march in south Asia and intensifying their guerrilla wars further afield.
In the past five years, terrorist attacks by Islamist fundamentalists and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have persuaded governments to focus almost exclusively on the threat of Islamist extremism. An unfortunate side-effect has been to underestimate the dangers of the Maoist movements that have gathered strength after a period of weakness in the 1990s.
The mountain kingdom of Nepal is on the verge of becoming a failed state and is already a haven for Maoist guerrillas, just as the failed state of Afghanistan became a refuge for fanatical Islamists in the 1990s.
After 10 years of war in which 13,000 people have died, Maoist rebels control much of Nepal. They successfully terrorised candidates and voters in this month's municipal elections and wrecked King Gyanendra's attempt to bolster his fading legitimacy. The Maoist leader Prachanda -- a nom de guerre meaning "the fierce one" -- emerged from the shadows to tell the BBC a people's court could order the king's execution.
Maoism is spreading among the 1.1bn people of neighbouring India as well. Naxalites -- named after a 1967 uprising in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari -- were once confined to remote rural areas, but guerrilla attacks are becoming more frequent. There is now a patchy but recognisably Maoist zone of influence running from Nepal through parts of the Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Orissa down to Andhra Pradesh.
In November, the Indian government sent six paramilitary battalions to Bihar to restore order after 1,000 Naxalite rebels attacked a jail and freed hundreds of inmates, including many of their comrades.
All the standard ingredients are therefore ready for further political instability in south Asia. Maoists, sometimes ideologically motivated and at other times indistinguishable from gangsters, already run protection rackets and profit from the Indian opium trade, just as the Taliban initially did in Afghanistan. Informal but officially tolerated village militias have been formed to combat the Maoists, a recipe for the multiplication of human rights abuses.
Photographs of captured teenage Indian Maoists, sulky and defiant in their oversized combat fatigues, are eerily reminiscent of Maoist Khmer Rouge fighters pictured in Cambodia in the 1970s. Cambodia, incidentally, is still run today by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander.
Further east, in the Philippines, the previously moribund Maoist New People's Army is also enjoying a revival, launching more attacks and exacting more "revolutionary taxes" from villagers and mobile telephone companies trying to build new transmission towers.
Maoist groups remain as vulnerable as ever to the factionalism that weakened them in the past. India is home to exotically named splinter groups, from the Communist Party of India (Maoist), which includes the old People's War Group, to the CPI (Marxist-Leninist) Naxalbari. In India, at least, Maoists no longer have the appeal they once did for the students and skilled workers who benefit from the country's economic revival and its links with the outside world.
Many of today's politicians including the leaders of the Chinese Communist party, therefore pay scant attention to the extreme ideology of Maoism -- which was never wholly believed even by its creator, the cynical Mao Zedong. Indian Maoists lump the Chinese together with the Americans as capitalist imperialists.
Governments, however, should not ignore the very real threat presented by Maoist militants. Maoists have shown themselves to be adaptable -- witness Prachanda's opportunistic alliance with conventional politicians in Nepal in his bid to overthrow the government -- and can rely on support from the millions of downtrodden and marginalised people who have yet to see any benefit from global capitalism.
It is no accident that Maoism is strongest in places with feudal traditions, skewed land ownership and wide gaps between the rich and the poor, including India, the Philippines and Latin America.
Given that many Chinese have staged angry protests against the seizure of their land by the authorities or by wealthy property developers, it is not unthinkable that there could one day be a revival of Maoism in China itself -- a development that would be both ironic and destabilising.
FT Syndication Service