September 17, 2015
After seven years of sluggish and inept efforts to unveil a new constitution for Nepal, the Constitutional Assembly (CA) has suddenly thrown the process into high gear, promising to promulgate a new constitution by September 20. The voting is over. Only the formalities remain. The CA congratulates itself in spite of the ongoing protests by the Madhesis and Janajatis in southern Nepal. Who will be celebrating on the 20th? Those groups enraged by the way the CA railroaded the seven-state version of the new republic into law, have called for a national-wide strike on the 20th. Violence in the south has not been subdued.
On September 10, I spoke with Minister of Commerce and Supplies Sunil Bahadur Thapa at his home, discussing various aspects of the current political situation. Thapa has 25 years of service with the UN to his credit. He served in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Sudan until 2011. He then turned to Nepali politics, joined Nepal’s Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) and was subsequently elected to the Central Committee of RPP in 2012. He is a director of Himalayan Bank in Nepal and the only son of former PM Surya Bahadur Thapa.
DUNHAM: I would like to begin with the recent outbreak of violence in Madhes over the CA’s high-handed implementation of federalism in the south. This recent violence, some of it very grizzly indeed, isn’t really a new phenomenon in the south. I was in Madhes in 2007, only days after the Gaur massacre. The tension was palpable. I interviewed shopkeepers from Kapilvastu, just days after Pahadis torched the town. The locals became so hostile to my camera crew and me, it became an unnerving and very tricky business getting out of town with out injury to body and equipment. I visited a Pahadi village that had been burned to the ground the night before – smoke still rising from the embers. I held a meeting in Janakpur with twelve prominent local leaders – politicians, professors and journalists – who unabashedly supported the killers in Gaur. I visited a displace person’s camp where the people were afraid of just about everyone. My crew and I made a midnight run through the southern highway, barricaded with felled trees and burning tires. It was chaos down there.
And yet, by the time of the 2008 national elections – I was an international observer for three southern districts – the mood was fairly subdued. Voting was impressively high in the south. People wanted to engage in the democratic process. People seemed to believe that the promises made to them – those supporting equality in the south – would be made good by the Maoists and other political parties after the elections.
But the problem hasn’t gone away, has it? The problem may have been swept under the rug by the major political parties, but judging by the recent spate of violence in the south, concurrent with the CA’s contentious ideas on federalism, the Madhesis and Janajatis and Tharus still feel as if they have been ignored by the Kathmandu power center – that nothing has changed in their districts in terms of discrimination and condescension. And the new constitution doesn’t seem to have the southern districts in mind.
THAPA: It went wrong after the 2008 elections. Of course the Maoists were in total command of the CA. No doubt about it. But I’m speaking about all the major political parties. The party leaders did not take their own MPs or CA members into their confidence, when beginning the writing of a new constitution. All the decision-making took place outside the CA building. The formulation of a new constitution took place in private homes. If I remember correctly, there are only 16 to 20 people who were really involved in writing the constitution – this out of 601 CA members. Of these 16 to 20 people, only 10 were elected members of the CA. The rest of the “writers” were people who were defeated in the elections. That was one of the major mistakes that the political parties made.
To make matters worse, the issues that people in the south had fought for were never introduced in the CA for discussion. OK, you may not like certain things, but had those issues been introduced to the CA for discussion, everyone would have had the opportunity to ventilate their feelings and there would be a point of compromise at the end. So everything was left unaddressed until the eleventh hour, the last few weeks. One hour is never enough.
DUNHAM: Right. The Madhesis are still basically excluded from the conversation. They didn’t get to have a dialogue. Even after the 2008 elections.
THAPA: There was no dialogue. Major issues like federalism and religion were sidelined. People were just coming out of this great insurgency movement. There was no appetite to really discuss federalism. So basically there were two or three issues that were never discussed in the first CA. The Madhesis didn’t get to have a dialogue. And then, when the first CA failed, [from 2008-2012, with Prime Ministers Prachanda, Madav Nepal, Khanal and Bhattarai coming into power in rapid succession] the leaders of the political parties did not review the situation and examine why the CA had failed.
This was a big mistake. Once you know why something fails, and if you know the root causes, then you are better equipped to address the problems – in our case, the failure of the first CA. What did we learn from the failure? Today, in the second CA, we have gone back to the same old habits.
DUNHAM: Failing to bring everyone to the table for a real dialogue.
THAPA: Yes. Just like during the first CA, the real discussions were taking place in private rooms, hotels. That’s where different agreements were made: nine-point agreements, eleven-point agreements, sixteen-point agreement – none of which allowed the space for other parties to ventilate. I’m not against constitution by majority but minorities should also be respected.
DUNHAM: People who don’t feel like they have a voice don’t simply go away.
THAPA: The political dialogue and political process to write the constitution should have been as broad as possible, including the international community. I’m not saying that international entities should come in and intervene, but we should consider their advice and keep them in the loop of our process. They play a major role, too.
DUNHAM: We are talking about ongoing arrogance from the leaders of the major political parties.
THAPA: Absolutely. First of all, the major political parties totally bypassed the smaller parties and their alliances within the government. Let me tell you, you have got three-party alliances, sometimes four-party alliances. But there hasn’t been a single day that I can remember when the three-party alliance invited our party president chairman and said, “Come sit down with us. Let’s have a dialogue. This is our plan and this is what we envision. What is your opinion?” Neither have they invited the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (ML), CP Mainali, for a talk.
There are two things. It’s a matter of them not taking us into their confidence based on arrogance: “We are supreme, we will do everything and we know everything. Without anybody’s help, we can get everything done.”
Which is wrong. And today, just a few days before we are supposed to be going to promulgate the constitution, the country is on fire. Disagreement from all walks of life. Pandora’s Box has been opened.
DUNHAM: I think it has, too. And the fact that everybody shoved aside the difficult issue of federalism until the last moment, and suddenly everybody is trying to scramble and make something out of that…. In stead of spending the last seven years really developing comprehensive ideas – what federalism is going to look like, what’s inclusive and what’s not, and, as you said, at the eleventh hour, pulling together something very, very quickly – it’s very bull-headed. And, as you said, Pandora’s box has been opened. You can’t pretend that it hasn’t been opened. That’s just make-believe. Or panic.
THAPA: Yes. When they carved the first federal model with six states, in the east sector, they included nine districts, which is predominantly Limbus, Khumbus and of those minorities, and later Jhapa and Morang were added and Sagarmatha was also added. There was no adverse reaction. People seemed happy about it. I think that that was the only federal state that was so content and happy, because it had all the natural resources, superior human resource pools, facilities – you name it and it was all there. It was one of the most prosperous states. But then, when they opened the seventh province, when the Tharus started saying, they wanted Tharuhat [the state of Tharu], the Magars started saying they wanted Magarat [the state of Magar], then things started to fall apart.
In the east Nepal, the Limbuwans and the Khumbuwans started saying, “We don’t want Jhapa, Morang and all of the districts of Sagarmatha. We only want our nine districts intact.”
You know, it was unraveling the fabric, one thread at a time, instead of strengthening the fabric. And today, if you ask me, the leaders don’t have any solutions to address this problem. The problem has come from all four cardinal directions. If you are going to stick to seven provinces, how do you address Tharuhat? How do you address the problems of the hilly regions? If you go back to six provinces, how are you going to cut your cake again? If you going to propose eight provinces, then sooner or later, you will be going to nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Can the nation really survive or exist in that fragmented state?
DUNHAM: The protests that are going on today: What are they demanding? Are they demanding an eighth state?
THAPA: In my view, the protestors began with the demand that they have their own federal state. That was the root cause. I think that it has now gone beyond that, where all these marginalized people and Madhesi groups are now seeking that their rights should be preserved in the new constitution. They were promised as much in 2007, after the Gaur massacre. The government signed an agreement with the Madhesis and that’s why the Madhesi people today say, “Dialogue? We don’t need to sit for another dialogue. We had enough dialogues with Prachanda and GP Koirala. Everything is already in black and white. Just implement it.”
DUNHAM: Now it has all come back and bitten the major political parties on the backside.
THAPA: Of course! I think that, to some extent, the federalism has become redundant. Today, people are seeking the rights that were already promised to them. The right to ethnic identity, etc. – the right to be recognized as such.
From the beginning there should have been a open dialogue in the CA about what federalism was going to look like in Nepal. A model should have been created. A model with benchmarks, with guidelines. “Look, these are the guidelines and within those guidelines, let’s discuss federalism.”
Even at this late date, there is no real model. What are the criteria for federal states today? It’s been defined based on ethnicity and on resources. And I don’t understand: What resources are they talking about? Today, you’ve got the sixth province where you’ve got Dang district and Karnali district. It is the poorest of the poor federal states in Nepal. How can you sustain that state?
Let’s look at the second state – from Saptari to Parsa – what do they have there? They don’t have water. They don’t have irrigation. They don’t have any source of income. The source of income could be the custom points [along the Indian border] but that is going to be controlled by the federal government, so how are they going to sustain themselves? The government should have set a half-dozen or so parameters and within those parameters, begin the discussion. Most of the wars today are based on either ethnicity or religion or both.
DUNHAM: Are there any contentious Muslim issues currently evident in Nepal?
THAPA: Percentage-wise, I think the Muslim populations not more than five percent. They want to have their identity recognized and duly represented in the new constitution, but they haven’t resorted to coming to the streets in a violent mood, or anything like that. Whatever they have done is through low-level dialogues, talks and peaceful protests.
DUNHAM: What’s the worst-case scenario for Nepal if the Madhesi people feel they have been excluded from the new constitution?
THAPA: Well, it’s very difficult to predict a worst-case scenario. But I suppose it would be people resorting to violence and, believe me, the violence would be ethnic. All of our lifeline routes – Biratnagar, Jhapa, Parsa, Dhangadi and Bhairahawa – would be stopped. Even today, that is in existence. You have got thousands and thousands of truckloads of goods on the other side of the border that cannot come in because of the unrest along the southern border of Nepal. I hold the Ministry of Commerce and Supplies and I have had sleepless nights for so many days – whether the petroleum products can come in or not. So far, thanks to the security forces, a crisis has been diverted. They have gone out of their way to provide escorts for petroleum trucks.
We’re also getting help from the government of India; they are not stopping any of these petroleum products from coming into Nepal. They have helped us along the border areas to have easy passage. If they would not give easy passage, our trucks would be lined up—oh, I don’t know – they would be lined up many kilometers down the road. As it stands today, all the trucks that carry petrol, diesel and gas are taken out of the line in India and brought toward the border. You know, that’s a great help from India. The moment there is no petroleum product in Nepal, the people’s houses and kitchens will stop, which would basically mean that our people had been denied their right to eat. When people don’t get to eat, violence is going to flare up. And that would add fuel to the fire in regard to our current political movements.
DUNHAM: That’s the last thing you need.
THAPA: Yes, yes, yes. We are totally reliant on petroleum. We don’t have biogas, solar systems, adequate hydroelectricity. (We are having massive load-shedding every day.) So we have generators. But the generators are operated on diesel. People might not mind if they have no petrol for their transportation. They can always walk. But what about their other needs? All the hospitals in Nepal would have to be shut down. Indirectly, thousands of lives would be lost. We would have no idea what our trade-business volume was. All of our office buildings would be closed down because they would not be able to communicate. Nepal is drowned into the IT world. Anyone who goes to the office today, and the computer is not running, that’s an automatic holiday for them. We don’t have old-fashioned typewriters anymore. We don’t know to write by hand anymore. You can see the after-effects. That’s what worries me every day.
DUNHAM: There’s also the issue of having non-petroleum products cut off from the people, especially in regard to the post-earthquake reconstruction work. One reason I’m in Nepal at the moment is that I’m representing an American organization specializing in disaster relief and reconstruction.
THAPA: What is the organization called?
DUNHAM: Operation USA. We are building a school in Fyakse, Dhading, which is remote and completely destroyed. The school was literally and figuratively the center of the town and the loss has significantly hurt the local community. The old school served not only Fyakse, but six surrounding wards as well. One of OpUSA’s concerns is getting realistic estimates on the prices of building supplies, particularly if blockades along the highways prevent the construction crew from receiving necessary building materials.
THAPA: Well, there is going to be a big affect, no doubt, because, when you talk about supplies, it doesn’t stop at petroleum. It begins with petroleum and moves on down the list including building materials, food, medical items, equipment. You know, we are late. The post-earthquake, we should have acted very fast to put things together. But we failed.
People ask , “Is the earthquake issue over? Has it been taken care of?” In my view, no. The media attention has died now. With the CA writing the constitution and the unrest in Madhes, the earthquake takes a back seat.
And this is where we are failing. When we received international pledges of 4.1 billion dollars, the National Reconstruction Authority (NRA) should have been activated immediately.
DUNHAM: One of the things I have experience this time, traveling through Dhading and talking to village people – the people don’t expect the government to help them with post earthquake reconstruction. They are just building whatever they can build with the few resources available to them. The school up in Fyakse, for instance, which has been red-flagged and condemned – they are still using those rooms, because they want their kids education to continue – with or without government assistance. Their children could grow into adults before the government comes in – that’s the prevalent attitude among the people. That’s how much they rely on the government. It’s never helped before; why should the government help now? Interestingly, there didn’t seem to be that much hostility because that’s the way it has always been. “We are on our own, here. Sure, this toilet is condemned, but we’ve got to use this toilet until we can built something that is more safe.”
For more information about Operation USA: