Nepal, 2006 AD: The Highs and the Lows
A slow year? Not for Nepalis. The year 2006 is perhaps Nepal's most momentous year politically in more than two centuries. NEPAL MONITOR samples the highs and the lows of the year of years.
It may look odd for Hindu-majorty Nepalis to evaluate a year based on the birth of Jesus Christ, or Anno Domini (A.D.). Even when India, another Hindu-majority country, chose to adopt AD officially, Nepal continues to maintain its own calendar based on the Bikram Sambat, and currently, it’s 2063 B.S. Despite this, many Nepalis enthusiastically mark the A.D. New Year, too.
To celebrate the good and forget the bad (and help improve the bad in future), Nepal Monitor editors randomly surveyed and chose the 10 highs and the 10 lows (both best and worst) in the past year in the life of Nepalis, in the country and around the world.
Globally, and in terms of hard news, 2006 did not bring any surprises— Iraq continued to dominate the headlines, and, to some extent, Western focus also shifted to North Korea and Iran. But for Nepal and Nepalis, 2006 was a historic year, perhaps the most momentous year politically in more than two centuries.
The following events and issues, identified by NM editors, are suggestive of 2006, but not the sole determinants of the past year:
1. People power subdues monarchy
Following massive street demonstrations in Kathmandu in mid-April, the 238-year-old Shah dynasty was stripped of all its powers. The spontaneous mass movement, led by civil society groups and leaders as well as politicians, is unparalleled in the history of the country. It was not confined to Kathmandu Valley, but extended to rural towns. The real indication of a distaste for absolute monarchy was apparent even among the King’s loyalists. As early as on January 25, the pro-monarchical Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) had formally decided to boycott the municipal polls of February 8 ordered by the King. On April 24, King Gyanendra restored the House of Representatives that was dissolved on May 22, 2002.
On May 18, the reinstated HoR made the historic proclamation. It brought the army, loyal to the palace, under the control of the government. The government discarded its royalist name (His Majesty’s Government of Nepal) and adopted Nepal Government as its new name. The predominantly Hindu nation (and officially, the world’s only Hindu country until then) with diverse ethnic and linguistic groups was also declared a secular state. Later, the government also scrapped many symbols with royal allusions. For example, a new national anthem was selected that eulogizes citizens and the nation, not the crown. With the new and an unusual alliance between the leftist (including the extremist Maoists), centrist and rightist parties in favor of democracy, Kathmandu saw an unprecedented shift in state power.
2. Maoists announce end of war
The new alliance between the parties and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and the historic peace agreement on November 21 between the government and CPN(M) prepared the way for a formal end of the 10-year people’s war that resulted in the deaths of more than 13,000 people, about $2 billion in infrastructure damage and the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Both parties agreed to hold Constituent Assembly elections in June 2007 to choose between a republican set up and a ceremonial monarchy. To prepare for free and fair elections, they also agree to lock up their arms under UN supervision.
3. Diaspora power
For the first time in Nepal’s history, the Nepali diaspora emerged as a new and very powerful factor that began to influence events and outcomes in Kathmandu. Nepalis living in India, USA, UK, Australia and Hong Kong demonstrated routinely for democracy and peace in Nepal and helped attract the world’s attention. There was a spike in the speaking engagements and conventions of Nepali intellectuals, leaders, journalists and activists in the diaspora. But the power of diaspora was not limited to political events. Nepali migrant workers, estimated now at 1 million and working pre-dominantly in East Asia and Middle East, kept the economy of the country alive in spite of the crippling and long war. They helped transform the country’s agricultural based economy into a remittance based economy. Reports suggest that remittances sent by migrant workers now near one hundred billion each year, and it forms the largest source of foreign exchange earner.
4. Participatory media
The year 2006 also was remarkable in the rise of participatory media and their use by Nepalis. Although less than 300,000 regularly use the Internet in Nepal, the numbers are growing steadily. Online chat, blogging, and citizen journalism are no longer unfamiliar practices to urban-based, Internet literates. If 2005 saw the inception of blogs among Nepalis, 2006 saw their proliferation, and to some extent, their consolidation. Although democratizing powers of Internet publishing reached Nepal in the late 1990s, the participation by Nepalis in the Internet-based media outlets based on blogging platforms was notable in 2006. Blogs like blogdai, UWB, Mero Sansar, samudaya.org made their marks and recently citizen journalism sites such as cjnepal.org began to emerge. CitJ sites such as the Seoul-based OhMyNews International as well as general interest news site such as the New Zealand-based Scoop (http://www.scoop.co.nz/) and California-based Newsblaze.com, etc. fueled noticiable participation of Nepali reporters and writers of all types, upcoming scribes, familiar bylines, as well as authors with pseudonymns. The rise of Nepali-language blogs has further helped democratize media and lessen digital divide to some extent. At the same time, the rise of participatory media coincides with profound changes in Nepali society, and the need to record and debate them.
5. World community responds
Nepal lacked pro-active involvement of the world community for long. The past year saw involvement of foreign diplomats, world powers in the Nepali problem unlike in the past. After the April movement, there was a major change in Indian policy vis-a-vis monarchy. The Indians and the Americans helped broker the November peace deal, earning both praises and criticism of political parties and ordinary Nepalis. The EU, the UK and other European nations also put unprecedented pressure on all sides to resolve the crisis peacefully. As a result, despite India’s initial reluctance to engage the UN in Nepal, the world body is now directly involved in monitoring the peace process. Always used to no more than Indian involvement in the name of foreign help in solving internal problems, Nepal appears to be embracing the current arrangement.
6. "Buddha Boy" instills hope and faith
Ram Bahadur Bomjan, a 16-year-old, dubbed the “Little Buddha” meditated in a forest at Ratanpuri in the southern district of Bara for ten months (until March 06). He instilled hope and a survival spirit in many people forced to live in a war-torn country. He made world news by reportedly meditating without food and then disappearing in March and again reappearing in December 2006.
7. International honors
Many Nepalis helped to attract positive stoplight on Nepal by their works and the awards they won, but two individuals, in particular, were noteworthy. After Mahesh Chandra Regmi (1977) and Bharat Dutta Koirala (2002), Sanduk Ruit, director of the Tilganga Eye Centre, won the Magsaysay Award for 2006 for "his placing Nepal at the forefront of developing safe, effective, and economical procedures for cataract surgery, enabling the needlessly blind in even the poorest countries to see again." The Magsaysay is considered Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Human Rights Watch, (HRW), the New York-based nongovernmental organization, honored human rights activist Mandira Sharma for representing and defending the Nepali people during the serious political oppression and the bloody civil war spearheaded by the Maoist guerillas.
8. A tourist’s destination again
Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district, is alive again and so are the many mountain treks. Before April uprising and during the Maoist war tourism was hit hard. In 1998, Nepal received 500,000 foreign tourists. In 2004, just a little over 200,000 visited the country as compared to 1.2 million tourists who visit Tibet annually. According to Nepal Tourism Board, the number of tourists visiting Nepal by air increased by 6.9 per cent in November.
9. A glimmer of hope for Bhutanese refugees
The US Assistant Secretary of State for refugees Ellen Sauerbrey said in October her government was prepared to take in up to 60,000 refugees from Bhutan living in camps in the east of Nepal. The US also expressed the desire to relocate thousands of Tibetan refugees currently living in Nepal. It may take only 3-4 years to resettle them in the American homeland. This was one of the few positive news of the year, particularly for the 100,000 plus refugees languishing in camps in eastern Nepal for more than 15 years. Canada and Australia are also interested in absorbing the refugees.
10. Media eulogies
The news media eulogized Girija Prarsad Koirala and Prachanda. Things changed so dramatically in recent months after the peace deal that these former foes, who suffered bad press on a regular basis, became the idols of the media. Some even began floating the idea of nominating Koirala for a Nobel Prize for peace. Thus, 2006 helped restore innocence on the corrupt face of the formerly discredited leadership, and to resurrect Koirala as one of the greatest leaders of South Asia, in the words of the Indian PM Man Mohan Singh.
1. Communal clashes in Nepalgunj
A bad omen and a dangerous precedent for Nepal, known for communal harmony and unity for ages. The country saw its first communal clash in memory when Madhesi youths clashed with Pahade youths in Nepalgung, a town in the Terai plains bordering India. The pro-Madhesi Nepal Sadbhawana Party (Anandadevi) (NSP-A), a small party in the ruling alliance, had called for a regional strike on December 3 to demand some changes in the proposed interim constitution. One person was killed and 20 others were injured in the clash.
2. Suppression of pro-democracy rally
In April, King Gyanendra and his aides tried unsuccessfully to suppress the popular pro-democratic/republican movement. The death toll of the people’s movement reached 21. Hundreds were seriously injured during the 19-day movement (April 6-24).
3. Municipal elections
The municipal elections, ordered by the royal government, amidst tight security was held on Feb 8, scores of arrests and sporadic violence across the country. Only 22.07 percent of the total voters in all the municipalities where the polling took place cast their vote. The alliance of seven major political parties boycotted the elections. Nearly a month later, the United States branded the controversial municipal poll a hollow attempt by the king to legitimize power.
4. A Conservational tragedy
A Shree Airlines helicopter carrying 24 people, most of them world-class conservationists and some high-level government officials, went missing on Sept 23 near Ghunsa area of Taplejung district. Those who lost their lives included Gopal Rai, Minister of State for Forests and Soil Conservation Gopal Rai’s wife, Dr Damodar Parajuli, acting secretary at the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation, Narayan Poudel, director general of Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation, Sharad Rai, director general of Department of Forests Pauli Mustonnen, charge d’affaires, Finnish Embassy, Margaret Alexander, deputy director, USAID (American), Bijnan Acharya, program specialist, USAID, Dr Jill Bowling, conservation director, WWF UK (Australian), Jennifer Headley, coordinator, WWF UK (Canadian), Mingma Norbu Sherpa, managing director, EHEC, WWF US Matthew Preece, program officer, WWF US (American), Dr Chandra Gurung, country representative, WWF Nepal, Dr. Harka Gurung, advisor, WWF Nepal, Dr Tirtha Man Maskey, co-chair, AsRSG, Yeshi Lama, WWF Nepal, Vijaya Shrestha, central member, FNCCI, Hem Raj Bhandari, Nepal Television, Sunil Singh, Nepal Television, Dawa Tshering, chairperson, KCAMC. Crew members included Klim Kim, Russian captain, Valery Slafronov, crew member, Mingma Sherpa, captain (Nepali) and Tandu Shrestha, a crew member.
5. Peacekeepers held hostage
One Nepali peacekeeper was killed in combat during a clash on May 28 in the region of Tsupu (Ituri district), about 100 kilometres from Bunia, in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The Congolese rebels then captured 7 Nepali peacekeepers held them hostage for more than a month. The rebels threatened to execute the peacekeepers. After much UN efforts, the rebels released two of the abducted soldiers. Later, in the first week of July, they released rest of the 5 hostages.
6. A case of impunity
On November 20, the High Level Probe Commission, formed in June, to investigate the atrocities committed during the April movement, submitted its report to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. The 1184-page report indicted 202 high-ranking officials of the King's Government and recommended action against many. However, the problem is report shied away from recommending action against the King. Moreover, the government has shown no interest in constituting a similar commission to investigate the atrocities committed by Maoists and former government officials.
7. Human rights, freedom and suffering
Silent killers such as AIDs, famine and child mortality continue to be major concerns. In Humla, people suffered acute shortage of food. In addition, the displaced, who number some 200,000 and dalits such as Kamaiyas and other groups remain destitute. The fate of thousands of children and/or child soldiers separated from their families remains unknown. The SAARC Human Rights Report 2006 branded Nepal as the "Most dangerous place for children." Another is the continued suffering of more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees. Civil liberties have been formally restored but cases of Maiost intimidation, extortions and killings continued. The press may be enjoying political freedom, but there were no signs that threats on journalists’ lives and assault on the press were subsiding.
Superstitions and prejudices, such as witchcraft, offered a grim picture of Nepali society. For instance, Sharada Devi, 65, of Tikuliya Tole of Gaur Municipality, Rautahat, was forced on December 2 to eat human faeces by neighbors who accused her of practicing witchcraft. This is not an isolated case. This medieval and shameful practice continues to this day. It is part of a pattern of abuse that is indicative of rural, superstitious Nepal. In the past, similar cases have been reported in other parts of the country, such as in Nuwakot, Mahottari and Malangwa.
8. Migrant workers’ woes
Nepali migrant workers may be a diaspora power to reckon with (see Highs #3), but their plight constitutes one of the major lows of 2007. News reports say more than 1,000 Nepalis remain in Qatar jails for violating immigration and labor laws. This is a sour twist in Nepal's booming foreign employment sector. The woes of Nepali migrant workers do not end there. Lacking a comprehensive governmental policy on the subject, Nepali laborers continue to suffer in the hands of man-power agents, as well as the inadequacies of host countries, particularly in the Middle East, in South Korea and Malaysia.
9. The plight of Nepalis in India
India may be rightly seen as a democratizing force for contemporary Nepal as well as a country that helped Maoists ascend to power in Kathmandu. The real issue for many Nepalis who call India their home (as many as 7 million), is safety and security. In June, suspected Islamic militants shot dead 7 Nepali laborers in a Kashmiri village south of Srinagar, Kashmir. The brutal execution-style killing shocked the world. But this apparently genocidal killing is not the first one in Kashmir for Nepalis; there have been similar incidents in the past. Nepalis in the northeast also suffer ethic discrimination and human rights abused on a regular basis. In Nepal, several million people of Indian-origin, who have lived there for at least 20 years, are about to get citizenship cards. However, many Nepali-speaking people in India live the life of second-class citizens. India has shown no indication to provide citizenship to many who have made India home for generations.
10. Nepal loses candidacy in UNSC
Nepal’s desire to win a (non-permanent) seat at the United Nations Security Council could not be realized on October 16. Against the 158 votes Indonesia managed to win, Nepal garnered only 28 votes. It was a humiliating defeat specially since the government ignored calls for a graceful withdrawal. Nepal had successfully won two UNSC candidacies in 1968 and 1988.
Posted by Editor on January 1, 2007 2:53 AM