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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Nepal, 2007 AD: The Highs and the Lows

NEPAL MONITOR samples the highs and the lows of the year 2007-- a year of postponements, tarai turmoil and prashantamania, among others.

Nepal Monitor editors randomly surveyed and chose the 10 highs and the 10 lows (both best and worst) for Nepal in the past year.

Internationally, 2007 A.D. saw some heightened buzz on climate change (culminating in a Nobel Prize for environmental activists and a conference earlier in Dec 2007 in Bali of Indonesia) plus a sustained interest in the ongoing battles in Iraq and an increased focus on China and India as rising powers. For Nepal, 2007 became a year of postponements-- the historic constituent elections planned for this year were postponed and postponed and postponed. Many setbacks occurred in the process of transition, but Nepalis also saw several positive developments.

The following events and issues, identified by NM editors, are suggestive of 2007, but they do not necessarily or solely determine the year, and their ordering is not reflective of the order of their significance.

The Highs

1. Alliance pull together
Nepal entered a transitional democratic process with the implementation of a new interim constitution and the formation of a unity government on April 1, 2007, consisting of the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists). That definitely was not an April Fool's prank (the fact that Maoists exited the government only to rejoin later is a different matter). It was a positive development given the historically discord-ridden politics in the country. What was remarkable was the fact that several political parties of different ideological leanings pulled together in their quest to hold the Constituent Assembly elections. Periodically, there were fissures in the alliance, particularly relating to the role of monarchy and the nature of the electoral system, but the alliance's unity somehow remained intact, the latest example being their willingness to sign the 23-point agreement on December 23, 2007.

2. Toward an inclusive society
Nepal, for the first time in her modern history, seemed to move toward an inclusive society, at least in the discursive sense. Indigenous, dalit, ethnic and religious communities began to assert their presence and identity demanding for more rights. They turned Nepal into a talking country, and there was a burst of gosthis, seminars and workshops as well as rallies and demonstrations around the country. These events helped to raise public awareness about the rights, and identity of these communities. Such forums also helped to deliberate on issues of justice, equality, and citizenship. It was a remarkable effort in the direction of a more inclusive and deliberative form of democracy in a country still lacking strong institutional structures and a stable national government or local administrations.

3. International pressures
The international community-- the United Nations, the European Union as well as countries such as India, USA, UK, China and others-- continued to maintain their pressure on Nepali political actors for positive democratic progress in the country. The UN Security Council passed resolutions on maintaining a monitoring mission and the mission started its work of verifying Maoist combatants (some 19,000 were identified as genuine combatants out of some 30,000), completing the work in December. In terms of direct pressures, representatives from the European Union (EU Troika), the Indian foreign ministry, the US embassy and the State Department, the Chinese embassy, and the British embassy made period formal visits and appeals to influence the peace process. There were similar pressures from the Scandinavian Countries. Some helped coach Nepali leaders on the merits of democracy (Remember the pompous visits of Maoists leaders in Northern Europe?) There were other many informal, backdoor diplomacy efforts. Likewise, foreign INGOs and rights groups, such as the Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch and other regional rights groups and think tanks. Such pressures, to some extent, helped check retardation in the peace process.

4. Madhesi unity efforts
The Madhesi leadership, divided in its aims and means, made notable effort in November in announcing a united front for the cause of the tarai region. Given the turmoil in tarai where bloodshed is a daily norm, and where it is very hard to tell politicians from criminal gangs, this new effort signaled a dignified approach to making genuine political demands for the region. The independent political unity effort, in the name of regional autonomy and ethic identity, was a positive development.

5. Journalists' courage
Journalists' watchdog role was highly commendable. They displayed immeasurable courage in their continued mission for a free society. Their organized efforts to publicize the atrocities against journalists and to demonstrate against media intimidation, and even under such difficult circumstances, to continue to play their professional roles as watchdogs, led to official investigations into the highly publicized killing of Birendra Sah, a journalist of Inaruwasira VDC-8, Bara district as well as other cases of killings, abductions and attacks against newspeople. Journalists kept the flame of freedom burning even under death threats. They continued to spotlight hurdles in the peace process, the follies of politicians and the Maoists' atrocities.

6. Growth sectors
With only USD 41 billion GDP (PPP), declining exports, as well as poor infrastructure (already devastated by the decade-long insurgency), Nepal is struggling to revive business activities. Fortunately, there were a few good signs. During the past year, foreign labor, real state and tourism remained the growth sectors. Foreign remittance crossed USD 1 billion and there were housing booms in Kathmandu, Chitwan, Itahari, Dharan, and other areas. Tourism picked up again. According to the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), as compared to November 2006, there were 74,000 more tourists visited Nepal in November 2007 (17.6 percent growth). Similarly, the overall growth of tourists from January to November 2007, as compared to the same period last year, was 28.6% up.

7. Quest for quality education
With 40% literacy, and an education system still striving to modernize, Nepal has a long way to go in quality education. The year saw marked growth in students' interest in going abroad for higher education. The US, the prime choice of Nepali students, for instance, took 7,754 Nepali students in the 2006-2007 academic year, from 6,061 in the previous year. There was 27.9%. No exact figures are available for other countries, but estimates are in the thousands for other countries, in Europe, East Asia and South Asia. There is a notable trend in doing professional, job-oriented courses in nursing, IT, media, management, etc. This is also reflected within the country, in the continued mushrooming of private technical institutions of learing.

8. International honors
Some Nepalis helped to attract positive stoplight on Nepal by winning international awards. Mahabir Pun won Ramon Magsaysay (also called the Asian Nobel Prize) under community leadership category "for his innovative application of wireless computer technology that brought progress to remote mountain areas." Previous Nepali Magsaysay awardees include Mahesh Chandra Regmi (1977), Bharat Dutta Koirala (2002), and Sanduk Ruit (2006). In June 2007, a diaspora Nepali, Dr. Raghav Dhital of London, was conferred Order of British Empire (OBE) by the British Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his contribution towards UK-Nepal relations. There were more Nepalis who bagged international awards, though lesser known than the two above.

9. Resettlement of Bhutanese refugees
The long-suffering Bhutanese refugees in Jhapa camps saw some hope of resettlement since the United States began to make formal arrangements to identify people in the camps who would be interested in resettling in America. The talk of resettlement last year transformed into some action. The US will resettle some 60,000 refugees. It may take only 3-4 years to move them to the American homeland. This is a good sign 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. Prashantamania
He is not a Nepali by nationality, but in the case of 23-year-old Prashant Tamang of Darjeeling, India, nationality has no boundaries. The Nepali-origin boy, who won Indian Idol, the popular show on Sony TV, captivated the entire Nepali world. Many ordinary Nepalis took Tamang as their own and mobilized thousands to vote for him. The show provided many Nepalis a sense of relief from the political turmoil in Nepal and a thrill of victory amid many failures within their own country.

The Lows

1. Postponements
It's never late in Nepal. The year was marked by postponements-- Initially, the Constituent Assembly elections were slated for June 20, 2007, then for November 22, then postponed indefinitely again on October 5, later to be announced for mid-March, 2008. Procrastination also affected transitional justice. The victims of war still need to be rehabilitated. Hundreds of people remain missing-- some INGO reports suggest 1,000 are unaccounted for. It is not clear how many of the more than 200,000 displaced people have returned home.

2. Tarai crisis and YCL terror
The year 2007 was markedly defined by the violence and instability in the tarai (some 115 people were killed due to violence instigated by a dozen or so groups between March and November, 2007). A UN study said 130 people were killed and at least 200 others kidnapped in 2007, in tarai's fighting. Other accounts put the number at 300. Hard hit by chaos and violence, particularly, were Lahan, Rautahat, Kapilabastu, and Nepalgunj. There were fears that India was instigating the violence or that the monarchists were behind it. Government-Madhesi talks did not result in any resolutions. Such rumors and assertions stained the cause of genuine Madhesi activists and their leaders. Likewise, Maoists youth wing (Young Communist League) spread terror around the country, taking the law in their hands. Both outfits pushed the country back to heightened conflict, weathering the hopes and aspirations of many peace-loving Nepalis.

3. Deadly disasters
Devastating monsoon floods and landslides in July 2007 killed as many as 70 people mostly in tarai districts and some hilly regions. The effects were damaging in 14 districts: Bara, Chitwan, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Makwanpur, Okhaldhunga, Puythan, Ramechhap, Rauthat, Saptari, Sarlahi, Sindhuli, Siraha, and Udayapur. Bus accident: That was another major (and a usual) killer. There is no official record on how many people died in such accidents, which are common along the winding and narrow mountain highways, but estimate run in the vicinity of several dozens. Likewise, as the volume in road traffic continues to increase dramatically, vehicular accidents have become common in Kathmandu and other urban areas and along the major highways. In Kathmandu, more than 300 people killed each year in such accidents, according to traffic police. The last of major 2007 disasters involved a bridge collapse on December 25 in Surkhet. That incident killed 19 people and injured about 90.

4. Journalists under fire
Several dozen suffered beatings, intimidations and abductions in the hands of tarai rebels and YCL cadres. The nation's major news media houses were also repeatedly harassed and attacked by the Maoist trade unions. The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) reported 652 cases of excesses against the media persons and media houses since April 2007. Some newspapers were forced to cease publication, a precedence in the country owing to political (not governmental) intimidations. In their effort to serve the truth to the public, some lost their lives and many others were abducted, harassed or beaten. In many instances, even the government did not come to the rescue of journalists many of whom had helped restore the democratic process in the country.

5. Energy crisis
There was widespread shortage of energy and power, especially in the urban areas. Gas and electricity and vehicular fuel shortage caused tremendous hardship to citizens, who naturally had hoped for some relief after the historic democratic change. Blackouts were already common and this year again 'load-shedding" hours were further extended. Stupidity of planners and leaders was apparent; they only talked and promised, but did not act on issues directly affecting people. For example, the huge hydropower potential of the country, a staple of energy talks, has largely remained untapped.

6. Abduction of Children and others
Abductions and killings continued throughout the country. Some incidents in Kathmandu were nerve-chilling and indicative of the ruthless times Nepalis are living today. Several children were abducted and some killed in Kathmandu. The highly publicized abductions and subsequent killing of Rohit Gupta, 11, Dhiraj Adhikari, 8, and Bibek Sharma Luintel, 8, terrified the entire nation. The abduction of businessman Mahesh Murarka (later released on ransom) and others suggested an upward slide in such incidents. The government had to act, and it adopted tough new measures to curb such incidents.

7. Environmental crisis
The tourists are back and a government is back, too, but the streets of Kathmandu (as well as other urban areas) remained cluttered by trash. The garbage continued to pile up amid the concrete jungle in Kathmandu. The gray skies tell all, there is dust and stinky smell everywhere. The rivers have turned into massive sewages, and there is always shortage of drinking water in households. The level of pollution remained deadly, in deed. Add to that the chaotic traffic of Kathmandu, full of old and environmentally unsound vehicles. The roads remain the same, but the traffic continues to expand, with more than 350 new vehicles entering the traffic daily.

8. Economic woes
Exports are declining, and unemployment is rampant-- well below 50% (2004 data puts it at 42%). Foreign labor may have helped to some extent (bringing $1.2 billion or 25 per cent to our GDP in 2006), but majority of Nepalis remain without basic food and shelter. Decline in farm output because of poor rain, slump in business and tourism due to the Maoist insurgency as well as infrastructure damage, etc, has caused economic woes. Farming contributes to more than 36 percent to the country’s economy and this sector employs over 80 percent of its 26.4 million people. But this sector's growth slowed to 0.7 percent in 2006/07 from 1.1 percent the previous year.

9. Koili Devi dead
An era ended with the death of the legendary singer and music composer Koili Devi (Mathema) at age 77. She had a heart condition. Koili (the Nepali word for "the Cuckoo") enthralled Nepalis with her enchanting voice for over four decades. She sang or composed more than 4,000 songs, including rastriya geets, bhajans and contemporary songs. She won many high-profile awards during her career.

10. Asylum Tragedy
One single incident in Scotland drew widespread media attention, and subsequently a focus to Nepal and the plight of her citizens who sought asylum in foreign lands. Uddhav Bhandari, a 40-year-old from Nepal who was living in Scotland for six years, killed himself to protest his host country's immigration laws. On Wednesday 7th March 2007, he set himself ablaze in the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal Centre in Glasgow. He was fighting to prevent himself being deported back to Nepal. This incident, though isolated, resonated with the plight of thousands of Nepalis living in foreign lands illegally.


Posted by Editor on December 31, 2007 4:00 AM