Nepal, 2008 AD: The Highs and the Lows
NEPAL MONITOR samples the highs and the lows of the year 2008—the year of a new republic, the rise of the Maoist to power, and Koshi deluge, 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, 2008 A.D. was marked by the buzz around the election of Barack Obama as the first US Black President, the global economic recession, earthquake in central China that killed around 70,000 people, the Beijing Olympics, Russia-Georgia tensions over South Ossetia, Kosovo’s independence, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck’s ascension to the throne in Bhutan, anti-government protesters’ siege of Bangkok`s two airports, and, of course, an Iraqi reporter’s shoe shower over US president George W. Bush, the rise of twitter community online, among many others.
For Nepal, 2008 became a year of years-- the country was declared a republic, the historic Constituent Assembly elections paved the way for the formation of a Maoist-led government, the CA abolished the centuries-old monarchy, and soon business continued as usual— polarization among political parties, everyday violence, load-shedding, joblessness, insecurity, utter helplessness among the ordinary citizens.
The following Nepali events and issues, identified by NM editors, are suggestive of 2008, but they do not necessarily or solely determine the year, and their ordering is not reflective of the order of their significance.
The Highs1. Republic is born in the Himalayas
Following the Constituent Assembly Elections of April 10, 2008, with a decade-long Maoist insurgency, a united front of political parties against monarchy on the background, the 240-year old monarchy in Nepal ended. A new ‘Federal Democratic Republic’ of Nepal was born. On May 28, the CA voted to adopt a republican system in the country. The proposal for a republic was overwhelmingly endorsed—560 members were in favor, and 4 members against it. The proposal read: "Nepal has turned into an independent, indivisible, secular, inclusive, federal democratic republic with sovereignty and state authority vested in the people." The proposal scrapped all and any royal rights and privileges of former king and his family members. The elections served as a legitimate means for the Maoists’ ascendance to power.
2. Exit King Gyanendra
Dispelling widespread fear of a royal retaliation and a military coup, the deposed king Gyanendra made an honorable exit when he followed the CA ultimatum to vacate the palace. Prior to his exit, there were rumors that the king was attempting a military coup. The last of the Shah kings organized a press conference in Narayanhiti, addressing his former citizens as “dear brothers and sisters” and boldly announced that he was accepting the verdict of the people and leaving the palace. He announced he would remain in the country and work for the peace process. His step was historically significant-- he facilitated a smooth transition process, without any bloodshed.
The elections for the constituent assembly took place on the 10th of April. As many as 54 political parties (5,998 candidates) contested the 601-member CA, of which 240 members were elected through First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) system and the rest Proportional Representation (PR) system. Although the campaign period was marked by tension, cases of voters’ intimidation, disinformation, and some violence, observers (such as DEAN, EU, UN, Carter Center, ANFREL, and others) described the elections as generally calm, peaceful and organized. The Election Commission released the final results in the last week of April 2008, confirming that the Maoists had emerged as single largest party in the country. The Maoists had won 220 seats in the CA, more than the combined number of seats garnered by the two traditional ruling parties, the Nepali Congress (110 seats), and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or UML (103). The CA paved the way for the formation of an interim coalition government led by the Maoists, who did not have an outright majority to form a government of their own, exclusively. The success of the election helped to keep the peace process on track and provided the hope that a constitution of the new republic would be written on time (by 2010).
4. New Faces in Power
In the past, Nepal saw the re-election of a prime minister as many as five times. In some families, such as the Koiralas, political succession is almost like a hereditary tradition. The year 2008 altered that. On July 21, the Constituent Assembly elected Dr. Ram Baran Yadav (a son a peasant in Janakpur) the first President of Nepal. Earlier on July 19, 2008 the CA also elected Parmananda Jha as Vice President. Both men are from the Terai plains in southern Nepal, and they represent the Madhesi ethnic community, a minority in Nepal’s mainstream politics. The context of their rise to apex power was definitely party-politics and part of the conditions set by coalition partners in the government that was formed later, when the former Maoist rebel Prachanda (who suddenly metamorphosed into Pushpa Kamal Dahal after reaching the center-stage in Kathmandu) was elected the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Nepal with 464 out of 601 votes. Nonetheless, these new faces symbolized a visible shift in leadership, and the rise of commoners to the seats of central powers.
Equally significant, the year also saw the rise of women’s leadership, with 191 women members elected to the 601-member CA. After the 1999 general elections less than six percent (12 out of the total 205 representatives) were women. The historic CA also saw a visible representation from the Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits and other indigenous groups. Earlier last year, the interim parliament's seven-party coalition had framed an interim constitution that required parties' candidates to be 33 percent female.
5. Cricket Eves
Nepali women’s cricket team provided a sense accomplishment amid all the political failures and hopelessness in the country. Nepal won in the finals of the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) Under-19 Women’s Championships held in Thailand. Nepal’s men’s team have won several international matches in the past, however, this was the first-ever continental finals win for the country. In 2007, the women’s team had lost to Bangladesh in the final match. Although Nepal's U-19 women’s team started playing international cricket only about three years ago, often with limited practice and training, they demonstrated incredible stamina in the cricket arena, yet another sign of Nepali women’s growing stature in recent times.
6. Peace Process Continues
Peace process, despite many drawbacks (YCL terror, lack of consensus among coalition partners, perceived foreign interferences, law and order problems, insecurity, industry closures, increasing authoritarian tendencies and cronyism in the Maoist leadership, utter lack of debates on the constitution making process, etc), remained more or less on tract under the watchful eyes of the civil society, media, and opposition party. In the religious and cultural areas, which have implications for the peace process, Nepalis enjoyed tremendous freedom.
Prachanda tried to assuage fear regarding the Maoist rise to power. In his 24 April meeting with foreign ambassadors, and UN and non-governmental organization (NGO) staff at the UN’s Kathmandu headquarters, he tried to assure international donors that his party was “aware of the realities of the 21st century”. The government continued talks with the Terai based militants groups and other outfits. The NC opposition role, also at display in its boycotts of CA proceedings, forced Prachanda to concede some Maoist flaws and to declare that he would do away with YCL’s paramilitary structure and return the Maoist-confiscated property to their rightful owners. That may be just another lip service on the part of the Maoists, yet it apparently signified some forward movement.
7. High Profile Visits
There was significant apprehension among the international community when the Maoist party emerged as the king maker in Nepal. When the Maoists took reigns of government, the international community took the initiative to send their representatives to Kathmandu so as to ensure that the change of regime was in line with the democratic ethos of the world community. Thus the country received considerable international attention in 2008. The election brought many international observers to the country. Five months after historic elections, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon visited Nepal in October. He was followed by foreign ministers from India, Britain, China and Denmark. A Chinese military delegation as well as the British their army chief was in town. Such visits also helped to legitimize the Maoist government and to stabilize the peace process. Prachanda himself visited the United States and addressed the UN general assembly. He also managed to shake hands with US president George W. Bush. Prachanda’s ministers made rounds in US and Europeans speech circles. Thus, after years of internal strife and diminishing formal internal contacts, Nepal appeared to be returning to normalcy, at least in the diplomatic front.
8. Iraq Battle
There was little good news coming out of countries that consume Nepali laborers. Yet, toward the end of the year, news reports said that there was some progress in the hearing on a human trafficking case involving Nepali laborers filed against Kellogg Brown and Root Inc. (KBR), a prominent U.S. military contractor operating in Iraq. The case involves families of 12 Nepalis killed in Iraq in 2004. The hearing will begin on January 12 next year at the District Court of California, Los Angeles.
This is a symbolic feat for Nepalis, who have suffered excesses silently in the past. Earlier, in April 2008, Judge Larry W. Price of the US Administrative Law Court for the Department of Labour had ruled that since the 12 Nepalis brutally murdered were employed by US subcontractors, their family members were entitled to death benefits. The judge ruled that that for each spouse and set of parents of the killed must be paid $223 a month for life with an additional $75 a month for life for men who had children.
9. Mountain Showcases
The mountain nation of Nepal also saw some impressive showcases on mountains and culture in the past year. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), based in Kathmandu, celebrated 25 years of its existence for mountains and people in the Hindu Kush- Himalayas. ICIMOD celebrated the occasion with a year-long series of events aiming at raising awareness of the impacts of climate change; the need to enhance the adaptation and resilience of mountain communities. Its “Himalaya – Changing Landscapes” photo exhibition, organized in December, drew attention to the impacts of climate change in the Himalayan region.
Similarly, the annual Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival (KIMFF), organized by Himal Association, screened 66 movies focused on mountains and mountain cultures. Both events helped to transform the otherwise murky Kathmandu into a festive place.
10. International Honors
Some Nepalis helped to attract positive stoplight on Nepal by winning international awards. Lawyer and activist Sapana Pradhan Malla, (along with Yanar Mohammed of Iraq, and Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian of Palestine) received the 2008 Gruber Women’s Rights Prize, in recognition of her leading successful efforts to advance women’s rights in Nepal, despite great risk to their own safety. Malla, a member of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, was given more than NRs. 1 crore worth in cash and a gold medal for her role on women's issues. In January, Sanduik Ruit, a Magsaysay winning eye-doctor, was conferred Thailand's most prestigious medical award by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok. There were more Nepalis who bagged international awards, though lesser known than the above.
1. Flood Woes, Koshi and Far-West
Nepal (and a large portion of northern India) was devastated by heavy floods during the monsoon season, resulting in massive damage, displacements, and obstructions to transportation and untold human suffering. Causing a massive humanitarian crisis, the eastern retaining wall (some 10 kilometer to the north of the East-West Highway) of the Koshi River gave way on August 18, 2008. More than 50,000 people in Nepal and many more in the north Indian states of Bihar and Utter Pradesh were displaced by the floods. Many VDCs of Sunsari District in Nepal are adversely affected. Since a large portion of the highway was destroyed, road transportation became virtually impossible through the districts to the eastern part of Nepal. It has been six months since the disaster, and victims continue to languish under shades.
Similarly, several districts in the Far-West and some Mid-West saw heavy rainfall during 19-21 September. The result was a severe flash floods and landslides. The disaster affected some 180,000 people. The two most affected districts were Kailali and Kanchanpur. VDCs of Kailali such as Dasinhapur, Narayanpur, Tikapur, Khailad, Lalbojhi, Bhajani and Thapapur in the south-east corner of the district were worst affected. In Kanchanpur, Dekhatbhuli and Shankarpur were the worst affected districts. Other worst hit districts included Krishnapur, Parasan, Dodhara, Rauteli.
2. Political Polarizations
The year 2008 began with many unity efforts but towards the end, after the elections and a Maoist-led government in power, there began to emerge ideological rifts within the Maoist party as well as tensions between the Maoist party and the Nepali Congress, the main opposition. Rather than focusing on the constitution making process and developing the needed consensus among parties, the Maoists began to float an idea of a “people’s democratic republic”. Instead of letting the CA decide on the nature of Nepal’s political set up in the future, the Maoists spent their valuable time on ideological bickering within their own leadership. The Maoists also veered away from a consensus politics and tried to woo left elements under the guise of their “nationalistic” cause. In turn, frustrated by the Maoists authoritarian tendencies, the NC urged the formation of a “democratic” alliance among liberal parties and boycotted several CA proceedings. The souring relations only helped to retard the peace process.
3. YCL and Youth Force
The Maoists youth wing (Young Communist League, a paramilitary force) continued to spread terror around the country, taking the law in their hands. Following UML's poor performance in the CA election, the party decided to form its own youth outfit called the Youth Force, to challenge the YCL and its excesses. There were many clashes, most prominent in Dhading, Taplejung, Ilam, Dhankuta and Kathmandu, between the two youth groups, who often took the law in their hands. The Terai based Madeshi Janaadhikar Forum also announced the formation of its Madhesi Youth Force. The NC too was reportedly joining the bandwagon of creating an unruly youth power, but such a move was dismissed by the leadership. The youth wings helped little to elevate the image of parties, in fact, they became a pain in the neck for their mother institutions. So much so that some Maoist leaders began to decry their violent ways and even urged a ban on YCL. The home minister called for a ban on both YCL and Youth Force.
The youth wings, particularly the YCL and the Maoist trade unions forced closures of many industries and factories. They use this tactics to extort money, obtain jobs for cadres and relatives and as a means to control the capitalist mode of production. Inspired by their terror and bullying, other political factions and groups frequently enforced blockades of highways near major towns to have their ways. Finally, under the NC pressure, Prachanda declared that YCL would discard its paramilitary structure. It is yet to be seen if his words will materialize in the New Year.
4. Attacks on Media
Compared with 2007 and the years earlier, the media environment saw relative freedom. Still, at times the situation remained precarious in some parts of the country. The Maoist called the “big media” anti-people and capitalistic. In May, 2008, after his election victory, Prachanda warned that his party would no longer tolerate criticism of media because the people had elected them. The government did very little to investigate the whereabouts of journalist, Prakash Singh Thakuri, who was kidnapped by a group claiming to be from the CPN-M and who has been missing since July 2007. Journalists in Terai remained vulnerable. There were cases of attacks on the media houses and journalists, prominent among them being the abduction and killing of Maoist-affiliated journalist Jagat Prasad Joshi.
Toward the end of the year, Maoist affiliated trade union activists burned thousands of copies of magazines published by Himalmedia, and on December 21, attacked the prominent publication house. Although Maoist trade union leaders claimed the incidents were in favor of labor rights, the attack appeared to a response to an article in Himal Khabarpatrika. The article was critical of Maoist trade unions for their bullying tactics and closure of industries. Soon the Maoist trade union intimidated and forced the closure of other publications such as APCA Nepal and the Biratnagar edition of Kantipur newspaper. There were widespread condemnations of the attacks and nationwide protests by journalists.
5. Energy crisis
Nepal saw its power outage (load-shedding) worsen. As the winter approached, the government declared “national power emergency” (a step long overdue) and announced that the daily outage hours could reach 14 to 18 hours. It also proposed thermal plants to avert the crisis. The country lost several billion rupees in industry revenues due to load-shedding. Interestingly, this very paragraph was interrupted by a 6-hour wait during a scheduled outage. There was widespread shortage of energy and power, especially in the urban areas. Earlier, the Maoist-led government announced its ambitious plan to produce 10000 MW of hydropower in the next 10 years. Currently, the country is able to use less than 2 percent of its total hydroelectricity capacity of and estimated 83,000 MW.
6. Economic woes
Initially, the global financial crisis that started in the West was viewed in Nepal as a distant problem. The government claimed that it would have no any visible effect on Nepali economy. In October, Binod Chaudhary, president of Confederation of Nepalese Industries (CNI), told the government that Nepali industries, particularly dealing with iron, edible oil, metals had suffered Rs. 20 billion in losses. Soon remittance (which constitutes 17.4 per cent of the GDP) was hit. Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) announced that the remittance growth rate was likely to decline to 40 percent by mid-November in the new year, as compared to a 80.7 percent growth by mid-October the previous year. These dismal developments had direct effect on productivity, jobs, and prices of basic goods. Worse still, the index of the Nepal Stock Exchange (NEPSE) continued to drop significantly, although analysts also attributed the downward spiral to domestic fiscal factors. Forced industry closures by Maoist groups also contributed to worsening economy. One of the few shining spots was tourism sector, which saw significant increase in tourist arrivals.
7. Victims of War
The victims of war continued to remain in the shadow as political polarization in Kathmandu continued and as media outlets began to shift their attention to the unfolding drama such as the floods, the elections, CA proceedings and every political deviation at the national level. The Maoist victims of war took to streets several times, demanding the return of their seized properties. The UN and other human rights organizations demanded investigation on the whereabouts of the hundreds of disappeared people and justice for thousands of displaced people.
Their demand for compensation, return the confiscated property and resettlement remained unfilled, although by the end of the year, Prachanda declared that he would return the property soon. Ironically, the Maoist combatants stationed in several cantonments across the country and who were involved in killing many civilians during the war, continued to enjoy perks and stipends whereas the war victims languish in slums on the bank of Bagmati and other rivers or townships.
8. Labor Agonies
Thousands of Nepali laborers continued to suffer exploitation in foreign lands, and hundreds in jails in the Middle East and Malaysia. Throughout the year, news reports relayed stories of Nepalis joining Indian and Bangladeshi laborers in labor demonstrations in Malaysia, Korea and other locations. Reports also said that there were over thousands of Nepalis in foreign jails. On Aug 9, 2008, Khaleej Times reported that abuse of Nepali maids in Saudi Arabia was on rise. It reported that in a latest incident a Nepali maid, named Maya, who was raped and suffered sadistic torture from her employer, walked into the local Nepali mission showing evidence of physical and sexual abuse, including injuries to her abdomen. It was the eighth case of the brutal rape of a Nepali maid reported between May-July last in Saudi Arabia.
Another case, which involved Dolma Sherpa, who was sentenced to death by a Kuwaiti court for killing a Filipino colleague, drew widespread international attention. The plight of Nepali laborers in Qatar also continued. As the single largest consumer of Nepali labor, Qatar employed 76,000 new Nepali laborers in 2008 alone. An increasing number of Nepali laborers die at worksites there and at least 7 died by hanging. Many laborers continued to suffer in the hands of manpower companies in Nepal too who made tall promises of salaries to their clients.
9. Traffic accidents
Scores of bus accidents in 2008 killed and maimed several hundred people across the country. While such tragedies are not new to Nepal, the accident in early December near Mukundapur of Chitwan came across as a real terrifying event. The bus was overcrowded, it was carrying school children, it skidded off a highway, and 22 children died. Lack of awareness on road safety, overcrowding, drunk-driving, and difficult mountain highways (poorly maintained), etc. often lead to vehicular accidents in the country. There is no official record on how many people died in such accidents but the estimates run in the hundreds.
10. Edmund Hillary is Dead
An era ended with the death of the legendary Sir Edmund Percival Hillary, at age 88. Nepal lost a true friend and one of its own citizens (Hillary was granted an honorary Nepali citizenship in 2003). He died on January 11, 2008. He was ill, suffering from pneumonia and died of a heart attack. Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay, conquered Mt. Everest on May 29, 1953, spent his lifetime to contribute to the educational progress of Sherpas in the Everest region. Throughout his life, the mighty mountaineer, whose humility touched everyone, considered himself as an ordinary beekeeper.
Posted by Editor on January 1, 2009 11:11 PM