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Nepal: Unity is found wanting without king

NewsNotes, March-April 2009

“Coming together is a beginning. Staying together is progress. Working together is success.” According to industrialist Henry Ford’s reasoning, Nepal has taken its first step as a new republic, but it might be faltering on its second. With 64 political parties, the government seems in disarray without a unifying symbol like the king, who stepped down from the throne last June. Citing slow progress on drafting a new constitution, and questioning some of the actions of Maoist Prime Minister Prachanda (Pushpa Kamal Dahal), the populace expresses little confidence in the near future.

Many Nepalese say they don’t expect much change over the next few years. Political parties seem more eager to promote their own agendas than to cooperate on programs that could benefit the country as a whole. They might try to block Maoist initiatives to prevent the governing party from claiming any significant progress or success. India, which hosted the 2006 peace conference that ended Nepal’s decade-long civil war, is perceived as manipulating Nepal’s political parties for its own interests.

Many Nepalese have put their expectations on hold until a new constitution is written. The government solicited suggestions for the charter, and the Church submitted proposals calling for equal treatment and equal rights for minority groups. (There are more than 100 ethnic groups in Nepal and nearly as many languages.) Meanwhile, Church spokespeople and others credit the Maoists for advancing the status of women. Women are gaining more prominence in society, and some have the confidence to speak before a male audience – something unheard of during the monarchy.

Without the king to unite the country’s disparate groups, however, the Maoists could face strong opposition from other major political parties. In addition, some breakaway groups in the Terai, on the Indian border, seek to organize an independent state.

Only half the country has electricity, making progress difficult in any case. Power in Kathmandu is scheduled for eight hours daily, apportioned in a series of rolling brownouts, but on many days capital residents have just four hours of power. Only one percent of the country’s potential hydropower has been tapped, and Nepal faces daunting challenges. The nation’s electrical grid had little maintenance during the civil war, and demand for electricity is increasing. Further, heavy flooding last August and September due to late monsoon rains washed away roads and took down power lines bringing electricity from India. There has been speculation that Prachanda is considering importing giant diesel-powered generators from China, but estimates are the electricity would cost 4-10 times more than at present.

Prachanda sought to strengthen friendships abroad, visiting China, India and the U.S. during his first month in office. However, it did not boost his popularity at home when he purchased a bed reportedly costing more than 110,000 rupees ($1,450) in a country whose per capita income is less than $1 per day. Reports of widespread nepotism have brought further criticism.

Individuals, businesspeople and institutions are often victims of intimidation by young Maoists. Cadres visit a community with sound trucks announcing they will be making rounds to levy assessments. With fresh memories of murders and disappearances during the insurgency, there seems little choice but to pay. Prachanda denies ordering such activity, and some suggest the young people are only flexing their muscles to make a name for themselves in the Maoist party. Meanwhile, the Young Communist League has given itself a facelift by renaming itself the Young Communist Democratic League.

The country still enjoys lively debate in the press, but news people find themselves coming increasingly under attack. One journalist noted the Maoists benefited during the insurgency from news reports of excesses by government forces. More recently, however, journalist Uma Singh was murdered in a widely publicized case, and other journalists have been beaten in their offices. Some in the profession suggest the Maoists’ aim is self-censorship and the end of a free press.

While a free press is reputed to be the fourth pillar of democracy, the public has not rushed to journalists’ defense. The perception is that the profession favors its own, decrying the death of a journalist more loudly than the kidnapping of a business person or the killing of a school teacher, so the outpouring of public sympathy has been limited.

Prachanda himself downplays attacks on journalists in which no one is killed, and he notes that more journalists were killed in post-conflict situations such as South Africa than in Nepal. Yet, as journalist and editor Kanak Mani Dixit has pointed out, "[T]here are no ‘Asian values’ versions of democracy and press freedom; both must be absolute.”

Nepal’s abundant rivers and exquisite rice terraces, verdant in season, provide tranquility and spectacular beauty, but the reality is mixed. The rigid structures of caste and class change slowly, and overburdened women still carry heavy loads such as firewood as their husbands walk alongside unencumbered.

In the Kathmandu Valley towering chimneys mark brick making ovens in the midst of rice fields. The industry clearly depletes the soil as the rich land is converted into handmade bricks. The poor and uneducated come from distant villages to work as beasts of burden at the factories during the six-month dry season. They return home with perhaps 25,000 rupees ($325), having earned 77 rupees ($1) each day shaping the bricks and transporting them on their backs.

Health workers from nongovernmental organizations offer lectures and provide medical treatment to the workers during their lunch breaks. Factory bosses sometimes tell the health teams to keep their presentations short so the laborers can get back to work. (The admonition is hardly necessary, however. The workers take little time off, as it means carrying fewer bricks and earning less for the day.)

On a clear day patients at the Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Children outside the capital can see the magnificent peaks of the Himalayas that surround the Kathmandu Valley. Surgical teams correct conditions in children ranging from severe birth defects to more recent injuries. Within days, it seems, the patients are breezing through the wards, down the hallways and outdoors into the sunshine, heedless of their crutches or prostheses.

The Nepalese must now try to heal the wound of losing 13,000 loved ones to violent conflict. With the confidence that stems from knowing one’s past as well as one’s potential, the people have chosen to set aside the crutch of former institutions and try to bridge their ethnic, linguistic and political differences. Can they reunite, celebrating the magnificence of their diverse culture, and step forward into a bright new day?

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