Q & A: Milan Rai
Just back to UK from his month-long book tour in the USA this June, MILAN RAI, the famed author and peace activist, talks about his writing career, activism, world events, and Nepali politics in response to questions by Nepal Monitor.
Milan Rai is regarded as one of the icons of anti-war movement in the United Kingdom. He is also the author of acclaimed books Regime Unchanged (2003), War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War with Iraq (2002), Chomsky's Politics (1995), and most recently, 7/7: The London Bombings, Islam, And the Iraq War (July 2006). He is a founder of anti-war groups Justice, Not Vengeance (J.N.V) and of Voices in the Wilderness, U.K. Born of Nepali parents in Hong Kong, Rai, 41, lives in Hastings, on the south coast of United Kingdom, with his artist spouse Emily Johns, and 11-year-old son. His favorite author is Noam Chomsky. Rai, also known as “Mil,” is a Nepali citizen, and occasionally visits Nepal, where his parents live. Rai responded to questions by editor Dharma Adhikari:
You recently completed a book/speaking tour in America. What is your assessment of Americans’ desire for global peace and justice? What did you tell them? Are they listening?
I found a surprising degree of opposition to the war among the general public, as assessed by the reaction to roadside vigils and peace walks that I took part in. I was talking about the way in which British and US foreign policy has deepened hatred and despair in the rest of the world and undermined national security in those countries. The people who turned up to the talks were listening! Maybe some of those who heard me talking on the radio were listening.
Going by your books released in the past few years, it looks like anti-war campaign (for Iraq) is your main area of activism. How do you describe yourself—an activist, a wager of peace, an author, an independent researcher, a critical thinker or…?
I usually say ‘activist and author’.
What are your priorities and preoccupations at the moment? Are you writing another book on Iraq war or a related topic? How do you describe the nature and volume of your readership?
My priority right now is home-focused because I’ve been away for the whole of April and the whole of June on speaking tours, and my partner Emily Johns has a major project under way creating images for an anti-war exhibition of art in relation to the question of Iran. So I have childcare and housecare as my priorities right now. I have a few writing projects under way as well. The nature of my readership? Well, I try to write for people who are concerned about important issues, who may or may not be activists. At the same time, I try to make books that can be used by activists in their campaigning work. The volume of my readership? Well, War Plan Iraq came at the right time, so there was quite a lot of readership then. Not so much since then, I guess.
You have been campaigning for “justice not vengeance.” Justice on whose terms, and vengeance for what, in what context? Are universal laws and justice inevitable in this globalizing, unipolar world? Or are we essentially headed toward a clash of civilizations, as theorized by Professor Samuel P. Huntington? What do you think is the effective way to go about solving world’s problems in the 21st century?
The concept of justice has some elements which are agreed, and even codified in international laws and agreements. It has other aspects which are contested. In general, ‘Justice Not Vengeance’ believes in justice for those who are currently powerless and oppressed. As for the ‘clash of civilizations’, the Huntington thesis is not a serious proposition. There is a clash going on, but it is between those committed to a global civilization, and those who are undermining it via corporate domination and great power aggression. The phrase ‘justice not vengeance’ was originally adopted as a proposal for responding to terrorist acts such as 11 September 2001. It is also our position on how to respond to terrorist actions like the invasion of Iraq.
I’ll take a pass on the ‘effective way of solving the world’s problems’. Maybe on a day when I have more time!
Why do you think “justice” is so scare a commodity even in the supposedly law-abiding, developed democracies such as the United States and UK? What are the challenges of being an anti-war activist? So far, how successful have you been in waging peace?
Justice in market economies is like every other commodity. You get as much as you can pay for. The challenge of being an anti-war activist in a Western country is mostly psychological, in terms of motivation and development. My success rate I leave to others to judge.
You may be the lone Nepali native speaking up to power centers in London and Washington D.C, via your highly persuasive writing. Critics have lauded your books for their penetrating analysis of the build-up to 2003 Iraq war as well as the ongoing war efforts of America and its allies. There has been a lot of media coverage and many books have been published on this topic. But why is it that the Western media and the book industry have generally failed to provide a balanced view of the Middle East conflict? How could this imbalance be rectified?
RAI: There are quite a few Middle East conflicts, unfortunately. Israel/Palestine, there are special factors. Israel serves US and Western interests in the region, and became psychologically important for Western liberals at a time when Third World challenges at home and abroad had them reeling. Israel demonstrated that the West still knew how to deal with these threats. In Iraq, the Western countries are carrying out the atrocities and aggression, so that’s pretty understandable.
You symbolize a major break from the traditional stereotype of Nepalis as submissive tea farmers and mercenary Gurkhas. Could you explain what motivated you to become a critical thinker, and an activist author?
I’m not sure whose traditional stereotype this is. I think that a certain proportion of the middle classes in any community always become critical thinkers and activists. (And a certain proportion of working class and peasant class people – but they rarely gain access to the media or to national or international recognition.) If you have a small middle class in any particular society, you have fewer critical thinkers and activists from that community. In this particular generation of Nepalis, there is a pretty small middle class with access to the international movements and media, so there aren’t many Nepalis who are recognized as critical thinkers and activists – and there aren’t many people who are published authors in the West, for the same reason.
What motivated me to become such? I think there are motives, and there are enabling factors. The motives are the same as for a lot of people who are active at different levels of intensity and in different ways – there are terrible things happening. When I became politically conscious and active, I was in the UK, and there was something of a nonviolent insurgency going on against the heightened threat of nuclear war – in the early 1980s. That was my big motivation at that time. Enabling factors were that I was lucky to know people who were involved in movements, who helped me to become part of the British peace movements in different ways, and that led to my writing more and more about various issues, in newsletters, leaflets, pamphlets and so on, until I was confident enough to try to write Chomsky’s Politics, which was published in 1995.
I assume you have been following events back in Nepal. How realistic is the portrayal of the Nepali problem in the West? How do you view the USA-UK-India alliance for democratic reforms and the fight against Maoist insurgency in Nepal? What about China’s role?
I don’t think that ‘the Nepali problem’ is really understood in the West, and the portrayal is skewed in all the familiar ways, familiar from Western media coverage of conflicts in the Global South. The USA/UK/India and China are all pursuing their own interests in Nepal, not the interests of the Nepali people. That is basic and obvious. In general they are all frightened by the prospect of real democracy and radical social change in the region. Nevertheless, at different points they might exert a restraining influence on the regime.
Some have observed that the recent pro-democracy movement (April 2006) was such a “people’s phenomenon,” “a grassroots uprising” -- an example for the many societies with oppressive governments. Others have argued that Nepali polity has been hijacked now by the mob, instigated by the Maoists. You champion “Voices for Creative Non-violence.” How do you assess the creativity of those Nepali revolutionaries?
I’m phenomenally impressed by the courage and creativity of the Nepali democracy movements (I think there are probably more than one of them, co-existing alongside each other). For the whole history of Nepali politics (as opposed to simple royal rule), the polity has been hijacked by elites of one kind or another. The democratic insurgencies are attempts to enforce democratic demands on these elites.
Maoism is anachronistic even in Mao’s home country of China, not to mention the Western world. How do you look at Nepali Maoists’ claim of redefining the communist ideology for the 21st century? Has democracy truly triumphed as Francis Fukuyuma would like us to believe or communism will resurge again?
What is called ‘Maoism’ is a mixed bag of ideas, and the history of Mao’s China is also a mixed story. There is brutality and oppression, and there is also the abolition of starvation and a major change in the status of women, for example. I would hesitate to call all of that experience, and all of those ideas, entirely anachronistic. ‘Maoism’ as a term belongs in the history of religion – elevating the status of one man to a level that no one should considered at. I don’t know enough about the Nepali Maoists’ claims regarding their ideology to make a judgment. All I can say is that I think that all forms of Marxism-Leninism are obstacles to human progress – just as all forms of authoritarian capitalist and feudalist thinking are obstacles to human progress. The latter are much more prevalent and much more dangerous in most of the world. As for ‘Democracy’, we haven’t seen that established solidly anywhere. The major problem, as Noam Chomsky keeps pointing out, is that in the West ‘democracy’ is restricted to the civil sphere of political rights, and excluded from the economic and financial sphere. Until we have democratic control of the productive resources in a country, and an appropriate redistribution of those resources, we can’t have full or meaningful democracy.
What do you say about the role of monarchy today in Nepal vis-à-vis the role of monarchy in Britain?
Monarchy in Nepal and in Britain are both relics from an earlier era of repression and superstition. In Britain, the Queen’s powers (the ‘royal prerogative’) is used to give the Government (and the Prime Minister in particular) dictatorial powers. The monarchy is also the foundation stone for much of the ‘anachronistic’ constitution of Britain, including the unelected second chamber, the House of Lords, the incorporation of Church power into the State (the established Anglican church), and so on. These powers and this continuing legacy of hierarchy and oppression are regarded as residual here, but in fact they have an enormous distorting influence, and a huge role in political life, undermining democracy and freedom. They should be abolished. All of this criticism applies much more strongly to the monarchy in Nepal.
You have analyzed world events. But you have remained virtually silent (as far as I can tell) on the unprecedented political situation in your native country of Nepal. What do you see as the crux of the Nepali problem? What is your vision for Nepal? How to break the deadlock?
The crux of the Nepali problem is several-fold. One is the extraordinary gap – common to many Third World countries – between the metropolitan capital and the rest of the country, so that the concerns of ordinary Nepalis in distant parts of the country barely register in the Valley, where political, financial and economic power is centralized. Another is the high level of caste and tribal oppression and discrimination, which as far as I understand is resented more and more as time goes by. Another aspect is the high level of violence and authoritarianism of the state apparatus, historically. Underlying all of this seems to be a form of land hunger, embedded in a complex land tenure system which in recent centuries has replaced more egalitarian and communally-controlled forms of tenure.
Right now ‘the Nepali problem’ is manifesting itself as a political struggle over the rights of the King versus the rights of Parliament (or the Constituent Assembly). I think however that the true ‘Nepali problem’ is rooted in social and economic problems which are deep-rooted and difficult to resolve.
Why haven’t I written about these things? Well, at this level of generality, I can offer you my opinions, but to really be part of the debate I think I would need to be able to read Nepali and to familiar with the Nepali literature on these subjects. Unfortunately, despite the encouragement of my family, I am functionally illiterate in Nepali, and barely functional in spoken Nepali. As you can probably tell from the remarks above, I do not follow Nepali affairs closely.
I think that for a Nepali based in Britain, without a close understanding of Nepal, to offer a ‘vision for Nepal’ would be rather inappropriate.
How to break the political deadlock in Nepal? The same way it has been done in dozens of countries over the decades. By popular organizing, by grassroots power, by the struggle for democracy and against authoritarianism – wherever that threat comes from.
What is the nature of your connection to Nepal/Darjeeling currently? Are you writing or planning to write any book on Nepal? Why (not)? Any speaking tours planned in Nepal?
I have not visited Nepal or Darjeeling for a number of years, and unfortunately have no current plans for visiting. Am I planning to write about Nepal? Perhaps. I think learning to read Nepali could take a while.
Posted by Editor on July 12, 2006 7:00 AM