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Story Publication logo June 1, 2010

Nepal: Inside Cantonment, Maoists Turn to Facebook



Nepal is in the midst of historic change, from the abolition of a centuries-old monarchy to the re...


Anup Kaphle, for the Pulitzer Center, Kathmandu, Nepal

When the power was back after almost 10 hours of outage at the People's Liberation Army cantonment in Jhyaltungdada, Comrade Khum Bahadur Lamsal wasted no time to turn on the computer and log onto his Facebook account. He had three notifications waiting for him - all responses to his last status update.

"Everyone talks about love and affection," Lamsal wrote. "Now shall we for once talk about the state of our country?"

Far from the Internet phenomenon in Kathmandu, Maoist combatants living inside UN-monitored camps have found a new way to kill time – Facebook. Most of the users are fairly new to the social-networking site, some who have only joined for a week. But whether it is a commander who has been on Facebook for three months or a combatant who recently joined the site, discussing the country's political deadlock and spreading communist principles are on top of their list.


A member of the People's Liberation Army stands guard at the checkpoint inside Jhyaltungdada cantonment in western Nepal.

Around 900 members of the People's Liberation Army live at the Jhyaltungdada cantonment in Nawalparasi, which sits on top of a hill about three kilometers from the nearest highway. Lamsal couldn't exactly tell how many computers they had access to but he said that the entire cantonment probably had around 60 computers, all of them with Internet access.

Most of these combatants say they spend about three to four hours a day on the social-networking site on an average. Although a majority on their list of friends include people within their own camps, some give Facebook credit for connecting them with other combatants who they have either met or fought along with in the decade-long insurgency.

Chetan Budhamagar fought for the Maoists for almost seven years, and he says because of Facebook he has been able to connect with lots of his friends who left his village during the war and are working in the Middle East.

"But my priority is to stay in touch with those who fought with us during the revolution, many of who are across in the nation in Young Communist League and other PLA cantonments," he said. "Since we cannot leave the camps without proper permission, this is the best way to share our thoughts."

Though the idea of using Facebook among Maoist leaders is not new, its increasing popularity inside the cantonments is fairly recent. After the Maoists signed a ceasefire in 2006, the Facebook profile of senior politburo leader Baburam Bhattarai became popular among Nepalis and the diaspora across the world. After he reached Facebook's alloted limit of 5,000 friends, he urged them to join his fan page.

Chetan Budhamagar checks his Facebook inside the divisional headquarters office in Jhyaltungdada.

Maoists inside these cantonments say the chairman of their party, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who goes by the nom de guerre Prachanda, is also on Facebook. But they are upset because there are dozens of fake accounts and fan pages of the Maoist chairman floating around, some of which call him a traitor.

"It is not right that someone can start a pseudo profile of our respected chairman and write awful things about him," complained Lamsal. When asked if he knew which was the real Facebook profile for Prachanda, he scrolled among the search options, stopped at one and said, "This one must be it. He has 4,133 friends here."

But not everything the Maoists do on Facebook is work. When I asked why Budhamagar's relationship status read "It's complicated," he grinned halfway and responded, "That was the best option I could choose from." Budhamagar's wife, who was also a former Maoist combatant, and his son, live in a house right outside the cantonment, maybe a two-minute walk from his own room.

Throughout the cantonments, it is no secret that the Maoist fighters are growing increasingly impatient as the government and the Maoist leadership have yet to come to agreement about the fate of some 19,602 PLA members. While many of those living in these camps are hopeful that they will find their place within the nation's security institutions, some fear that politicians in Kathmandu won't have their interest at heart.

And these are the exact sentiments that appear in form of status updates on Facebook – anger against the coalition government, criticism of Indian intervention in Nepali politics and occasionally a subtle warning that the consequences of not reaching a decision to organize these former Maoist combatants could be deadly.

But for now, they are waiting, and say that they are hoping not to have to carry their guns again.

Before the power went out again, Chetan Budhamagar changed his profile photo for the second time that day – he removed a red layer of background and replaced it with a blue one. "I subconsciously chose blue," said Budhamagar, "indicating that peace is what all of us are gunning for now."

Eager to make new friends and connect with the old ones, the Maoists are quick to add anyone Facebook suggests they should be friends with. Some of the younger members of the PLA said they have been interacting with many "tourists" who support their revolution. In a matter of two days, about a dozen of them added me on Facebook, asking to stay in touch and wanting to hear what the outside world thinks of them, and their ideology.

The night before I left the cantonment, I was sitting with Comrade Pawel, vice-commander of the 4th division PLA, and a couple of others in their office. "We will arrest you and put a hood over your head. Then you should update your status saying that the Maoists have kidnapped you," he said, followed by a high-pitched laugh. "It will be interesting to read the comments."


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