Bob Gersony: The Khmer Rouge-like takeover of Nepal

Review of Robert D Kaplan’s The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the US Government’s Greatest Humanitarian, Random House publisher, New York, 2021

Review by Anil Sigdel, 02/16/2021

Robert D. Kaplan, a bestselling foreign affairs author in the US, in his new book The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the US Government’s Greatest Humanitarian, talks about Bob Gersony’s ( the good American’s )mission to Nepal, among others, in which Bob was to make a judgment call on whether Nepal’s Maoist insurgency would turn into something like Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge leading to US actions. In fact, Gersony wrote about his visit to Nepal in his 2003 report Sowing the Wind, History and Dynamics of the Maoist Revolt in Nepal’s Rapti Hills which was submitted to Nancy Lindborg at the Mercy Corps, Oregon-based relief charity — Lindborg was president and CEO of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) until 2020.

In 2003, as the United States was busy in the buildup to Iraq invasion, Nepal’s Maoists puzzled the West by claiming to have modeled themselves after massive violent movements around the world like Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the Indian Naxalites. But Westerners barely knew anything about these Maoists along the mountains of Nepal. Then USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios asked Gersony on Nepal: “are we headed for another Khmer Rouge scenario?”  In Washington, according to Gersony, “the National Security Council was poised to blame USAID for …the Khmer Rouge-like takeover of Nepal.”  

With the help of CIA in formulating some interview questions about the Maoists, Gersony arrives in Kathmandu on February 19, 2003 on his 58th birthday– unlike other humanitarians, Gersony was not the enemy of the CIA. The White House had cross-checked Gersony’s reports on African countries with the CIA before considering his recommendations.

In Kathmandu, then US Ambassador Mike Malinowski also had questions similar to those of the CIA. The embassy told Gersony that there was very little information about these insurgents despite the crowd of Western PhD folks in Kathmandu. Interestingly, Boston University Professor David Scott Palmer had explained to Gersony that these Maoists were a “bunch of high-caste Brahmins” within Nepal’s political system and were “limited in their violent intent.” Anyway, Gersony, whose obsession that motivated him to go to Nepal’s rugged mountains, was thinking of a detailed report, even more than what he had done in northern Uganda. His modus vivendi was to travel around the affected areas and ask many questions methodically. So he goes to Nepal’s Midwestern region, including the heartland of the insurgency Rolpa and Rukum, which he labeled “the Red Zone” and along the Rapti river valley.

For safety reasons, he avoided core zones and stayed in the adjacent villages and interviewed people moving in and out of local markets. He interviewed 150 inhabitants in 66 different villages which culminated into 101-page report along with 20 maps. He talks about the geographic isolation, diversity of caste and ethnicity and so on, but stressed on the hashish factor more than others in terms of fuelling resentment in peoples there against the state of Nepal. As other means for subsistence like iron mining or sheepherding had declined, the marijuana and hashish production had brought some prosperity in the region – 1930s onwards and by the 1980s the region that would become the “Red Zone” was large producers of hashish. But Gersony argues, the state which had not done much for the region, by enforcing prohibition on such produce, ended people’s hope which sowed the seeds of radicalization. He finds, just in 4 years after the ban, the allegiance to communist movement grew from 10 to 60 percent.  He thought, ironically, that the very lack of colonization of Nepal by European powers and Nepal’s self-isolation, further removed Nepal from modernity, and wished the USAID had built more roads in these mountains of Nepal.

Gersony argues that the Human Rights groups’ claims of “state terror” were exaggerated – in fact, he found the Maoists’ actions so horrible that he would not put those details in his report.  However, Gersony  concludes that Maoist conduct was “ significantly different”  compared to Khmer Rouge in the 2 years before coming to power in that the Maoists had less frequency of violence, had no social and economic policies applied in areas they control like Khmer Rouge did, and the “fundamental difference” was the Maoists did not find national issue outside of the Red Zone for mass mobilization. Similarly, in his findings, the Maoists showed “little proclivity for social reorganization and engineering” and they also lacked “systemization and regimentation to inflict their will over mass.” They neither succeeded in redistributing land nor could affect commerce.

Therefore,Gersony concluded that in his comparison to the Khmer Rouge, the Maoists represented “much less of a threat.” Kaplan thinks “history has proven him right,” as after few years the Maoists were co-opted by the democratic systems of the country and accordingly the State department removed the Maoists from terrorist tag for their “credible commitment to pursuing peace and reconciliation process in Nepal.”

In Nepal today, the struggle for power among the communist leaders continues intensely.

Dr. Anil Sigdel is founder of Nepal Matters for America in Washington, and the author of the new book “India in the Era of China’s Belt and Road Initiative: How Modi Responds to Xi,” Rowman and Littlefield, Lexington Books, Washington.

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