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Nepal Monitor: The National Online Journal

Nepal 2009: The Top 10 News Stories

Nepal Monitor samples the top 10 news stories of 2009. The peace process debacle, the economy, public security/health epidemics were the top three.



As the year 2009 winds down, Nepal Monitor, with research support from the Media Foundation, samples the top 10 news stories that more or less defined the events and issues in Nepal during the year. These stories dominated the headlines and affected our daily lives and our view of the world in Nepal.

These are suggestive and representative of the major stories that thrust the country into spotlight this past year, locally and sometimes globally. These were randomly selected by NM editors, based on their salience in the public domain.

The peace process, which took an unwelcome turn following the fall of the Maoist-led government on 4 May 2009, was the top news story of the year. The faltering economy was the second top story.

Public Security/Health Epidemics were voted by the editors as the third top story, followed by extended power outages (as many as 16 hours a day), which affected common lives as well as industrial productivity, the climate change buzz, Gadhimai sacrifices/Pashupatinath temple row, disasters (Koshi boat capsize, forest fires, bus accidents, etc.) Vice-president Oath Row/Narayanhiti Palace/Khagendra Thapa Magar, Christians on the Spotlight/Attack on Media, and Tibet/China factor.

The Monitor editors also identified other major stories that missed the top 10 in the list.

The following are 2009’s top 10 stories as voted by the editors of Nepal Monitor:
#1. Peace Process Debacle: The country’s peace process took a u-turn following the Maoists’ firing of Nepal’s Chief of Army Staff Rukmagat Katuwal and his reinstatement to the post by President Ram Baran Yadav. Puspa Kamal Dahal, who led the coalition government, quit on May 4 over failed bid to fire Katuwal, calling for “civilian supremacy.” The unlikely comeback newsmaker was Madhav Kumar Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). He was elected the new premier by lawmakers on May 23. As new political alliances emerged, the gulf between political parties widened and public disillusionment continued to be exacerbated, even as the call for consensus became louder and fruitless, and these cast increasing doubts about the main agenda of the transitional process— Constitution-making.

The Maoist change in posture— starting with the infamous Prachadagate video and characterized by blockage and disruption of parliamentary sessions, phase-wise protests, continued killings, intimidation of media and other public or professional bodies, their unilateral declarations of autonomous regions in the country, their call for dialogue with India to resolve Nepal’s political deadlock, etc.—overshadowed the peace process. Other political parties came under fire for their incapability to address the Maoist demands and embrace a consensus politics, or to form a national unity government. There were also protests by other ethnic groups, such as the Tharus, Rais, and Limbus. Other stakeholders in the peace process, such as the United Nations Mission to Nepal (UNMIN) also came under fire from political parties for being too lenient to the Maoist positions.

#2. The Economy: Unnatural and sustained rise in food prices and real estate, coupled with a bearish NEPSE, with the index early December laying the lowest (down to -3.15%) since May 2007, and liquidity crisis in the banking sector dominated the news, pointing to the economic woes of country with a poverty rate of 32 percent and unemployment rate as high as 42 percent. In the first quarter of 2009-10, according to the Nepal Rastra Bank, the country’s exports had declined (17 percent) and imports continued to soar (30 percent).

Although, in the first two months of the current fiscal year inflation became moderate (9.7 percent as against 13.5 percent during the same period last year) prices of consumer goods skyrocketed, as much as 43.5 percent for fruits and vegetables. Foreign remittance, the backbone of the nation’s economy, was hit hard, with its growth rate slowing down dramatically. According to a NRB report, there was a 19.7 percent increase in remittance during the period as against 59.4 percent during the same period in 2008. Trade deficit reached Rs 73.77 billion, 48.6 percent up from 2008.

#3. Public Security/ Health Epidemics: Among the many cases of kidnapping and murders, the case of Khyati Shrestha stood out. The young woman’s kidnapping and brutal murder shocked the country. As the law and order situation worsened with the rise in cases of child-kidnapping, many groups and people took the law in their hands. In many cases innocent people were lynched or killed on mere suspicion of being kidnappers. On July 7, three students in Bhaktapur were lynched to death in one such mob attack. In another case, a woman was burnt alive by a mob in Dhanusa, southern Nepal (April 12) after she was accused of trying to kidnap a toddler

The Jajarkot diarrhea epidemic, the deadly bird flu strain and the swine flu scare also collectively stood at #4. The first case of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu was confirmed in early January 2009, which triggered panic in the poultry industry. The government declared an emergency and thousands of chickens were slaughtered in the southern districts and poultry consumption almost came to a standstill for several months.

The diarrhea epidemic which broke out in the remote western district of Jajarkot and spread to other adjoining 19 districts killed more than 280 people. The problem was compounded by difficult geography, monsoon reason, and poor access as well as inefficient government relief efforts. Worse, the region was already reeling under food shortage.

The global swine flu strain also arrived in Nepal. The Ministry of Health in late 2009 confirmed 150 cases of AH1N1 across the country. At least one death from the flu was reported.

#4. Power Outages: Closely following health epidemics was the story on power cuts—as many as 16 hours a day during the peak winter season. The outage--which has dominated news for several years--adversely affected not only daily lives of ordinary people living in urban and semi-urban areas but also many enterprises relying on electricity. It even affected the media industry: For several months, beginning in January, all private television stations in the country stopped broadcasting their programs past mid-night until 5 am, citing power cuts. No alternatives were developed although last year the Maoist-led government had proposed setting up thermal plants to avert the crisis. Lacking policies to ensure investments in infrastructure development, Nepal is currently able only about 2 percent of its total hydroelectricity capacity of and estimated 83,000 MW.

#5. Climate Change/Environment: The first major regional climate change conference in Himalayan nations was organized in Kathmandu on Aug 31. Nepal’s cabinet met near Mt. Everest (Kalapathar plateau, 5,262 meters, the Himalayas), the highest altitude such meeting in human history, on December 4, to highlight the issue of retreating mountain glaciers due to climate change. This has been a real concern to policymakers ever since a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)-backed scientific study in 2002 found that the glacier near Mt. Everest had retreated by around five kilometers up the mountain. The meeting received global media attention. The Sagarmatha Declaration called on the world to preserve the Himalayas. It was followed by Nepal’s large presence at the Copenhagen summit (Dec 7-18).

Related stories included the news on the discovery of some 353 new species in the Eastern Himalayas, and continued efforts to manage garbage in the capital city.

#6. Gadhimai Sacrifices/Pashupatinath Row: Toward the end of the year, November 24-25, more than 250,000 animals were sacrificed at the Gadhimai temple, in Bara district of south-central Nepal, in a centuries-old tradition—described as the world's biggest ritual slaughter. The event is organized every five years, but this year it got unprecedented news coverage in both local and international media, mainly because of protests spearheaded by animal rights activists. Several animal rights groups, including prominent personalities or celebrities from abroad like Brigitte Bardot of France and Maneka Gandhi of India as well as Ram Bahadur Bomjon (the Buddha Body) from home joined the appeal and the protest campaign in an effort to stop the sacrifices. But the authorities did little to stop it and organizers went ahead, arguing that animal sacrifice is part of religious and traditional beliefs and cannot be stopped.

The other story on the #6 slot was the Pashupatinath temple priest row. The Maoist-led government forced three Indian priests of Pashupatinath--one of Hinduism’s most revered temples--to resign in late December 2008. The government appointed Nepali scholars in their place. In the new year, the move sparked widespread protests from other political parties, Nepali priests of the temple and civil society groups. Since the last 300 years, Nepal has recruited south Indian priests to head the temple ceremonies. The controversy was widely reported in the Indian media as well. After nearly two weeks and a Supreme Court challenge against the new appointments, the government withdrew its appointment of two head priests.

#7. Disasters: Landslides, floods, bus accidents, forest fires and boat capsizes were some of the major disasters. In August at least 7 people died in floods in Jhapa district, and thousands were displaced. In the first week of October, 34 people lost their lives in landslides in Dailekh, Achham, Bajhang, Kailali and Doti, in western Nepal. There were also floods in Nepalgunj and near Rapti river.

Bus accidents, as in the previous years, also comprised majority of disaster stories. More than 80 people were killed in such accidents across the country. A sample: Baitadi (10 killed; March 1), Gaindakot, Nawalparasi (3 killed; July 24), Jaibire, Sindhupalchowk, Sun Koshi river (18 killed; Sept 10), Sukute, Sindhupalchowk, Sun Koshi river (20 killed; Sept 25), Lahan (2 killed; Sept 25), Palpa (6 killed; Oct 7), Mahendranagar (2 killed; Oct 26), Hanshapur, Arghakhanchi (16 killed; Nov 8), Pokhara (2 killed; Nov 8), Gaindakot, Nawalparasi (8 killed; Nov 10), Aabukhaireni, Tanahu (1 killed; Nov 12), among others.

On April 23, 13 Nepal Army men were killed while fighting forest fire in Ramechhap district. Two days later, 6 people were burnt to death in Gulmi while trying to put out a fire in the Hastichaur community forest. On 4 January, at least two people drowned after a crowded ferry capsized in Koshi river in eastern Nepal. On March 9, four teenaged students, including three girls, were killed in another boat capsize in Koshi.

#8. Vice-president Oath Row/Narayanhiti Palace/Khagendra Thapa Magar: These three stories competed for the #8 slot.

VP Paramanand Jha on July 23 took the oath of his office in Hindi. After much public criticism and a Supreme Court order of Aug. 12 to take his oath of office and secrecy in Nepali, he declined to do so and his post remains defunct to this day.

The Narayanhiti, the former royal palace and the site of the infamous massacre of 2001, was turned into a national museum in late February, nine months after monarchy was abolished. Several months later, it opened for public viewing, drawing in large crowds.

The 50 cm tall Khagendra Thapa Magar, 18, remained in media spotlight both at home and abroad, as the shortest person in Nepal, and possibly the shortest man in the world. His campaign to include himself as the shortest man in the Guinness Book of World Records became successful by mid-December. However, he was still striving to compete for another title—the lightest man in the world. He weighs only 4.5 kg.

#9. Christians on the Spotlight/Attack on Media: The minority Christian community in Nepal faced two tragedies that thrust them into unprecedented media spotlight. On May 23, two people were killed in a church at Lalitpur packed with worshippers when a bomb exploded. Religious communities in Nepal were rarely before fatally targeted by groups. A Hindu extremist group called the National Defense Army claimed the responsibility. On September 29, 23 people were killed and some 65 injured when a makeshift church building in Dharan, eastern Nepal, collapsed. A positive spotlight was seen in December during Christmas—the media, now under a secular environment, gave unprecedented coverage to the festivities.

The other #9 story was attacks on the media, most prominently highlighted in the killing of Janakpur-based journalist Uma Singh on January 11. There were many other cases of intimidations of journalists by Maoist and other groups across the country. Another case involved the arrest in early February of journalist Rishi Dhamala and his and imprisonment. Police charged Dhamala had links with the extremist outfit Ranabir Sena. He was released in April. Two other journalists Ram Shuvak Mahato and Birendra KM remain in jail. The Supreme Court on Dec 27 ordered both be released on general bail. By the end of the year, in mid-December Tika Bista, a journalist based in Rukum was brutally attacked allegedly by Maoist cadres.

#10. The Tibet/China Factor: Tibetan refuges living in Nepal organized series of protests against China, demanding the freedom of their homeland. These protests, which continued for several months intermittently, were sometimes participated in by thousands of Tibetans and some turned violent. There was an increasing pressure on Nepal from China to suppress the demonstrators which received widespread international media attention. Tensions between China and India began to emerge and both seemed concerned over their interests in Nepal. China’s more overt policy manifestations in recent times also added to this new posturing, which affected Nepal’s politics as well.

Other major stories, some of which just missed the top 10, included (in no particular order):
- Madhav Kumar Nepal assigned chair of the Constitutional Commission (Jan 13)
- Nepal government banned `Chandni Chowk to China' (Jan 22)- there was public protest over the fact that the movie has a claim that Buddha was born in India
- US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard A. Boucher visited Nepal (Feb 11)
- Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa cut short his three-day state visit to Nepal (March 3) after the attack on his country’s cricket team in Pakistan. He re-visited Nepal on Oct 29.
- First woman deputy PM Shailaja Acharya died (June 12)
- Apa Sherpa reached Mt. Everest summit for record 19th time (June 17)
- Nepal Rastra Bank governor row- After a protracted trial the Supreme Court reinstated (in late July) Bijaya Nath Bhattarai to the governor’s post. Since June 2007, Bhattarai had remained suspended from his post under corruption charges
- Joanna Lumley, “the goddess of the Gurkhas”, visited Nepal (end of July)
- Govt announced incentives for widows in August; the move sparked protests by women
- Chhatra Man Singh Gurung appointed Chief of Army Staff (Sept 9)--he is the first Nepali from the ethnic group to head the Army.
- Store clerk Pankaj Joshi accused of stealing US$1 million lottery prize in the US (Oct.)
- Nepal and India renewed trade treaty (Oct 27)
- First Nepali solar car by 16 year old Kushal KC from Baglung district (late Oct.)
- Government passed budget (Nov 25) after months of Maoist seize of parliament
- Min Bahadur Sherchan, 78, recognized by Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest man to climb Mt. Everest
- Facebook and Twitter mania: The social networking phenomena catch up in Nepal
- Foreign trips and junkets by political leaders, including Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal
- The cabinet decided to nominate Girija Prasad Koirala for Nobel Peace Prize (December)

(You could suggest other major stories of the year that might have been left out in this suggestive list. You can simply post them as comments below. Thank you!)

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Posted by Editor on December 30, 2009 11:41 AM