April 19, 2015
Surya Bahadur Thapa, the octogenarian politico, who perhaps knew more about the impermanence of leadership than anyone in Nepal, died this week and was cremated at one of the great holy sites for Hindus, the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu.
During his lifetime he served under three kings and became Nepal’s Prime Minister a record five times (1965-1969, 1979-1983, 1997-1998 and 2003-2004). His political career spanned an astounding 65 years, beginning in 1950 when he became involved in an underground student movement that prefigured profound changes in Nepal’s political landscape.
In 2009, I interviewed Thapa at his home in Kathmandu and, after -reading the transcript of that meeting, I think it’s relevant to re-publish it here -- not only because his views from an historical standpoint were unparalleled in clarity, but also because it emphasizes how little, astoundingly little! the political leadership since 2009 has been able (or willing) to move the nation forward, toward a stable and permanent democracy. And that – a stable and permanent democracy in Nepal – was Surya Bahadur Thapa’s greatest wish.
Mikel Dunham’s interview with Surya Bahadur Thapa, May 30, 2009
DUNHAM: What was the political atmosphere like in the 1950s, when you began your political career? And how does that atmosphere differ from today’s political scene?
THAPA: It’s quite different today. When I was a young man, the major power was the king. The parties, still testing their wings, were struggling to be represented in the government. The parties just weren’t very strong.
Prior to 1950 and the Ranas’ fall from power, there was the Praja Parishad party. [Nepal’s first political party established in 1935– a secret society fueled by Kathmandu intellectuals but supported by a broad spectrum of castes and ethnic groups, dedicated to ushering in democracy to Nepal.] The Praja Parishad’s reach was basically limited to the Kathmandu Valley. They were an underground group. They had to be. If the government caught them, they were imprisoned and silenced in that way.
By 1950, the leading democratic party was Nepali Congress. It had a socialistic base and had entered into an armed struggle to overthrow Rana rule, which resonated throughout the country. But also there was a communist party in Nepal that was growing rapidly. And there was the Gorkha Parishad party, [a party formed in 1951 by a group of Rana revivalists – no longer existent]. When the Rana dynasty was overthrown, the Rana clan created the Gorkha Parishad in reaction to the governmental shift. They attempted to project democratic concepts, but it was too rightwing, too old-school to gain much popularity. There were other parties emerging, though with less impact than the ones I have mentioned.
And that was basically the political scene: It was an uphill battle for all the parties to gain ground. The king had a very strong power base. The concept of the monarchy, as well as the king himself -- both were popular with the people.
DUNHAM: I’m interested in the 50s because it was a remarkably dynamic and transitional time for Nepal. Up until the 1950s, Nepal’s borders had been closed to the outside world. Suddenly, there was an influx of Western notions coming in. What was it like, to experience the dramatic infiltration of outside cultures?
THAPA: Yes, prior to that time, the Ranas had maintained a closed society. The only outside presence to be found in the Kathmandu Valley was the British legation. Then after the Ranas were overthrown, we suddenly felt the impact of Indian presence. They had just gained their own independence from the British a few years before.
But beyond that, at least for the first few years, there was not much additional foreign presence felt here. Treaties were made with America, Russia, China and some other countries. Embassies followed. But there was no tourism yet. There were no roads leading out of Nepal yet. There was a small airport that was constructed but the influx of foreign presence remained extremely limited.
Then the first road was built: Tribhuvan Rajpath, which linked Kathmandu with the border town of Birganj. It was constructed by the Indian government. This, of course, allowed a significant flow of traffic from India. But I must say that, even then, the introduction of foreign culture into Nepal remained limited.
The Kathmandu Valley is, historically, very rich, very dense in culture and religion. And those foreigners who came to Nepal, didn’t try to influence or alter our customs.
Socially, on the other hand, there was definitely a shift. Many advisors and experts arrived, especially American advisors, who set up residence here. They didn’t socialize with commoners. They mixed with the privileged classes and within that group you could see that a social fusion was taking place. Our social customs began to reflect some of the Western ways. There was also an introduction of various political ideologies that had a significant impact on Nepali intellectuals. And people working in Nepal’s government were sent abroad for training –especially to America and, to a lesser extent, to Britain and India – and that had a big impact in so many fields: administration, agriculture, technology.
Remember, during most of the 1950s, there was still no university in Nepal. Naturally, many young people began going to the universities of our nearest neighbor, India. And that experience -- getting an education outside Nepal -- colored every aspect of their lives. It was profound. They learned other languages, cultures and attitudes of foreign societies. And when they returned to Nepal, there was a huge impact here – the social structure of traditional Nepali society began to expand -- slowly at first, but continually reaching out to a broader community. And eventually, foreign social elements became more and more acceptable to Nepali society. What I want to say is this: When you ask about the modernization of Nepal, those early years of our young people going abroad to study – that was what really got the wheels turning in a new, more modern direction.
DUNHAM: One of my major interests in Nepal is the impact of its youth – both now and in the past. I’ve interviewed so many young people here. Today, the effect of brain drain on Nepal is increasingly significant. So many talented and intelligent youths are leaving Nepal and not coming back, to the detriment of Nepali society, which needs all of its human resources to build a stable, modern Nepal. What’s your take on this? How can Nepal’s leaders, whichever party is in power, reverse the pattern and persuade the youth to remain in Nepal?
THAPA: Yes, you are right about its significance. But to be fair, I think this is a phenomenon prevalent in all the third-world countries.
Still, that’s no excuse for what is going on here in Nepal. It’s true. We are facing a problem with our youth that we didn’t have in the past. Just as we were discussing: In the early days, after the youth received their higher educations, they came back to Nepal to help with its development. They contributed to all sectors of society: political, economic, health, education -- all sectors.
But now we are facing a different trend. Job opportunities in Nepal? Where are they? Show them to me! There is a stalemate here – wanting to keep our youth here but failing to be able to offer them opportunities here. Complete stagnation – that’s what the youth see. The youth see their future in job opportunities in America, or Australia or Europe. Those who are brilliant and studied abroad and find themselves competitive with the job opportunities in that country, will remain there. Not being able to keep our youths in the country is one of Nepal’s weakest points.
I see two problems. Until and unless we create an atmosphere of political stability in Nepal and until Nepal’s economic horizon is broadened, we do not have a persuasive argument to keep our youth in Nepal. And who wants to stand in the way of their children’s opportunities? The dilemma actually falls into the category of human rights, if you think about it. The youth should have the right to pursue a better standard of living; if a better standard cannot be offered here, what right do we older people have to prevent them from going elsewhere?
If we could provide political stability and economic opportunity for our youths, they would certainly return. But first and foremost, we must be able to honestly tell our youths that the country is politically settled and in a state of permanent peace. With peace established in Nepal, economic opportunities can follow and the youth will want to remain here.
DUNHAM: Then the next question is how do you achieve political stability? Obviously rule of law must be firmly established and the tradition of impunity must be reversed. But what about the integration of the Maoist army into the Nepal army? It would seem that nothing will move forward until that problem is solved – the Maoists won’t allow it.
THAPA: This is such a sensitive topic in Nepal. And it’s not the first time it has happened here.
Looking back in history, after the Ranas were overthrown, there was a similar problem with what to do with the armed faction of Nepali Congress supporters. They too came into the Kathmandu Valley and needed to be offered some sort of future. But the difference was that they were not trained ideologically. They were simply against the Rana rule. They did not espouse any sort of dogma that had been taught to them by party leaders. They were just open like common citizens, except that they were trained to raise arms against the Rana government. So they came here and when Nepali Congress came into office, they were then trained to serve in the police force. And the amalgamation process was a successful one. Some of the armed people even managed to join the national army, without negative results.
Of course those who were allowed to join the army had an entirely different background than the Maoist rebels today. Back then, the Nepali Congress armed fighters had fought in the Burma War during the era of World War II. They were top-notch soldiers, trained by the British in a completely professional fashion. So they could be integrated into the army and the police force without bringing into question their levels of proficiency in military expertise. Even more important: There was no problem because they didn’t come to the army with ideological differences.
The Maoist rebels came completely equipped with an extreme brand of communism. The Maoist command trained them first in ideology and second in military skills. That was the order of importance.
What happens if the ex-combatants are integrated into the national army? If you want to make a communist country, if you agree to have an extreme communist military force here, there is no problem. You can integrate them into the regular army. In five or six years, there will be a first-class revolutionary army in Nepal.
But just now, the Nepal army is very much independent from communist ideology. They don’t adhere to any ideology. They are a professional army, trained by world-class officers. If you compare army officers with civilian professionals who have, more or less, the same level of expertise in their fields, you will find that the army officers are far superior. Why? Because of their exceptional training. They have been sent all over the world for training: Britain, America and India.
And if you try to integrate the PLA into this highly trained organization, forget about having a professional army. So the people have a choice: they can choose to have an ideologically based army or a professional army. But they can’t have both.
More important: Does Nepal want a Maoist country or a democratic country? You can’t have both.
This is a vital question, particularly while the constitution is being written. The Maoists are very clever. They can make very beautiful speeches about democracy, but their real intentions lead in an entirely different direction.
Outside of the Valley, throughout the countryside, the Maoists have been able to control the people through the YCL -- by threats and intimidation. And no one has tried to prevent them from doing so, including our neighbor to the south. The Indians underestimated the Maoists. Before the election, the Indians never dreamed that they would, overnight, have an open border with a neighbor that was Maoist. India was not alert.
The army is the only institution that has remained alert. And that is why Prachanda was so determined to get rid of General Katawal – to break down the professionalism of the army. The Maoists are not interested in real integration.
DUNHAM: The Supreme Court supported General Katawal, but the SP is being attacked by the Maoists too.
THAPA: Yes, and the democratic parties must be very cautious about these attacks and come to the defense of the Supreme Court. That’s one thing. The second thing is the international community should be defending the Supreme Court as well. This is no time for the international community to remain silent.
DUNHAM: Yes, to take my country as an example, for instance: America. It’s been interesting for me to watch the difference in diplomatic approaches -- between Nancy Powell and James Moriarty. Moriarty, the former ambassador, never failed to speak his mind -- especially when it came to the Maoists. It’s been the very opposite with Ambassador Powell. The current embassy is very discreet.
THAPA: And I think this is a problem. Since there is no political mandate in Nepal, the people who want to see democracy work in Nepal, very much look to three countries -- USA, UK and India – to support their democratic ambitions. They want to hear theses countries’ voices.
Perhaps, to some extent, the Nepali government – whoever is in power – is to blame for international silence. Our politicians always like to give the impression to their constituents that, “We are a very independent country and we can judge and determine what to do without the interference of international powers.” But the reality is different. All parties, including the Maoists, are at least partially dependent on the attitudes and wishes of the three countries I mentioned. Those countries inspire much of how Nepali politicians proceed in governmental activities.
You mentioned, the previous American ambassador – Mr. Moriarty. He was very frank. He said what he thought. Now, whether it was diplomatically correct for him to do so or not is not for me to say. But personally I never regarded it as interference with our government.
I do understand that, in the diplomatic world, there are norms that cannot be stepped over. If a democratic government in Nepal is strong enough, then the foreign powers can act significantly to support that government. But if the international powers are watching how an unstable, tentative government proceeds, they will be hesitant to go too far in making their voices heard.
Still, given the current situation here, I find the international silence disturbing. In principle, it is OK to say that each sovereign country should make its own decisions, but in practice, these countries’ goals are to safeguard democracy throughout the world, so they should speak up.
.Your position -- as I understand it -- your desire is to bring the moderate parties together to create a meaningful block, as a response to the Maoists.
THAPA: Yes, as I’ve been watching this transition, what I’ve seen is that the Maoist have not come to Kathmandu to surrender their basic ideology. And if you think that is not the case, then you will be surprised one day. So in Nepal, just now, the democratic forces – and I’m not talking about any particular party right now -- all the democratic parties must speak up as one voice – to create a strong opposition to the non-democratic parties.
As it stands now, the democratic parties are off-balance and the Maoists are taking advantage of them, as well as the common people, to see how far they can go. If there were a strong democratic block in Nepal, the Maoists would be automatically checked.
In particular, I am asking Nepali Congress to get unified. There are many good, young people in the Nepali Congress party who understand the dynamics of the situation. Unfortunately, they are still not in the positions of power. They are not part of the upper echelon of the party hierarchy. But I’m telling the Congress party to please take the initiative. And I think what I am saying is beginning to have some resonance within the party. But without Koirala’s consent, no one can do anything. So it all hangs on what GP Koirala will do.