January 13, 2009
For those Nepalis who went to the polling booths last April hoping that Maoist leadership would serve as a restorative to a succession of inept governments – a parade of political parties that, one after another, proved to be subsumed by personal or political agendas at the expense of the nation’s well being – those same optimistic voters may find themselves now surreptitiously consulting their calendars and wondering what is happening in the “new” Nepal. What happened to Prachanda’s magic wand? What happened to his momentum? The Maoist Prime Minister, whose cardinal duty is to help secure a lasting peace by orchestrating the creation of a new constitution, seems deadlocked with vying parties, dogged by a power crisis with no end in sight, intransigent in his dealings with the Nepal army, and sidetracked by secondary issues that may be of great ideological importance to his party but ill-timed if his main goal truly is to, first and foremost, get a new constitution up and running. The problems are titanic for any man who takes the helm of a poor and unstable nation. But in the first 100 days or so of his tenure, Prachanda’s steering of the Ship of State seems to be handicapped with a faulty compass. Has he taken his eye off the prize in order to keep peace within the adversarial leadership of his own party? Where’s the pragmatism that is essential in a leader if he is to garner support from the broadest constituency possible and prod the country forward? Has he gone myopic and inadvertently isolated himself from a large chunk of the people who took a deep breath and wished him well last April?
Currently, the Prime Minister’s most pressing problem is to quite literally rescue the country from darkness. No government can survive the 21st century without providing its people with an adequate source of electricity.
THE POWER CRISIS
Toward the end of December, the new government declared a national power crisis. This is the dry season in Nepal, a country that depends on hydropower for most of its electricity. The water levels in the major rivers are low and mountain snows aren’t melting fast enough to make up for the deficit.
But the electrical shortage is not just a seasonal one. Bishnu Poudel, minister for water resources recently warned, “It will take at least five years to free the country form power shortages even if everything works out as planned.”
The State-run Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) generates a mere 300 megawatts of electricity against a demand of 800 megawatts; public demand for electricity is growing 10% annually. The picture becomes even gloomier when one takes into account that only 40% of the Nepali population has ever had access to electricity. The majority of the Nepal’s population still relies on wood -- an increasingly precious natural resource -- for their cooking and heating needs.
The power shortage has severely hobbled industry and business productivity and now, in mid-January, private television stations announced that they have been forced to cut broadcasting time by five hours a day.
The news gets worse: Beginning last week, the NEA increased the length of load shedding to 16 hours a day. Basically and quite literally, Nepal is living in the dark with a reportedly marked increase in crime in the urban areas. Frustration and anger and resentment will only continue to fester and grow – not the healthiest scenario for the world’s youngest republic, which is attempting to take its first steps toward a brighter future.
THE QUESTION OF THE ARMY
Another stumbling block for Prachanda is how to deal with the army. The peace process is already fragile enough without the additional gamble of forcing Maoist integration into the armed services, especially when there are numerous alternative solutions available. The question of the army does not have to be an “all or nothing” proposition.
Moreover, the question of the army must be resolved by political consensus. The Maoists prevailed in the April 2008 elections, but they did not get the kind of resounding mandate that would allow them to simply bulldoze their way into the army and reconfigure it to their liking. The sooner the Maoists quit behaving as if they have a monopoly on the army question, the sooner the country can get on with the peace process. The Maoists must work with the other parties on this issue. Without comprehensive, collective support the peace process cannot move forward.
What are the alternatives to integrating ex-rebels into the Nepal Army? One thing is certain: The Maoist combatants must be addressed with as much sensitivity and promptness as possible. There are dire social, economic and political implications if they are not handled with kid gloves. 32,250 Maoist cadres registered in 28 cantonments – all of who are basically idle and under-skilled, while the politicos determine their fate – must feel that they have the right to choose, that they are part of this process. Instead of forcing them into the army, they should be given the option of returning to the community with assistance to pursue further education and employment opportunities, with health benefits and financial support in place to shore up the odds of successful re-integration into civilian society.
In the meantime, the army must be allowed to thrive. It serves no one’s interest for the military status quo to be compromised. Yet this became a white-hot issue last week when the army announced its ongoing intention of recruiting 2,884 personnel to fill vacant positions and Prachanda rejected the proposal. Chief of Army Staff General Rookmangud Katawal responded by saying that the army was above politics, that its duty to the people of Nepal was to ensure territorial integrity, national unity and sovereignty.
A behind-the-scene meeting took place a few days later between the general and the Maoist’s defense minister, Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal. It was reported that heated words were exchanged, that both men were infuriated, although the general later dismissed it as a routine meeting.
Regardless, the army is unlikely to willingly accept integration into its ranks politically indoctrinated combatants – men and women who they once fought bitterly, for a decade. Nor is General Katawal likely to ever “bear the flag of any particular party”, as he was reported to have said last weekend.
Perhaps the present government should heed the philosophy of Nepal’s most famous native, the Buddha, and follow a “middle path” instead of clutching to and demanding that there is only one possible solution.
A TOTALLY UNNECESSARY DISTRACTION: PASHUPATINATH
The holiest Hindu temple in Nepal, Pashupatinath, was turned into a political free-for-all these last few weeks when Prachanda sacked three Indian priests -- including the head priest -- thus breaking a time-honored tradition dating back nearly three centuries. The peremptory decision to replace the Indians with Nepali priests touched a raw nerve among the devotees of Lord Pashupatinath and threw into question the Maoist-led government’s apparent desire to become the self-appointed arbiters of all things spiritual.
Apart from the main Pashupatinath temple, the complex encompasses 518 temples, monuments, cremations ghats along the sacred Bagmati River, and is listed by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Its regarded as one of the eight holiest Hindu shrines in the world. Tens of thousands of pilgrims, both Nepali and Indian, annually pay homage there.
It came as little surprise, then, when protests erupted in both Nepal and neighboring India.
Nepali Congress, the opposition party in Nepal, was quick to condemn the “slap in the face” to ancient Hindu customs, particularly in light of the fact that the party attempting to re-write religious tradition boasts an atheistic ideology.
Former King Gyanendra, who has shied away from the spotlight since the abolishment of his monarchy, made a rare public statement: “I request and urge the Nepal government, devotees and all others to keep the Lord Pashupatinath Temple above politics. Faith, tradition and religious practices are matters closely linked with the right and responsibility of our life and nationalism.”
The Supreme Court chimed in by asking temple authorities not to honor Prime Minister Prachanda’s edict but, rather, stay the appointment of the new head priest.
Reaction from the Maoist youth organization (YCL) was swift and aggressive: Cadres assaulted temple priests, who were preparing to address a press conference to protest governmental interference. On January 5, the Pashupatinath Area Development Trust, an autonomous body that manages the shrine, banned all rallies and press conferences within the environs of Pashupatinath.
On the same day, Nepal’s major parties joined the chorus of condemnation, thus putting pressure on the Prime Minister to rethink his position. It seems to have worked. After a hasty meeting with President Ram Baran Yadav, Prachanda relented and promised on State-run television that, “We will honor the order of the Supreme Court.”
Finally, on January 7, Prachanda cancelled his appointment of the new Nepali chief priest altogether, thus vindicating those who denounced his attempt to interfere with strictly religious affairs. The episode has done nothing to improve Prachanda’s popularity among the rank and file. Nor has it improved his image abroad. Nepal has been known as a shining example of religious tolerance in Asia. For the ruling party to now attempt to ride rough shod over temple leaders is not only ill-advised but a distraction from the Constituent Assembly’s primary function: to create a new constitution in a timely fashion.
CONFUSION OVER LAND HOLDINGS AND MAOIST LEADERSHIP
Although Prachanda has assured journalists that private properties, which were seized by the Maoists during the ten-year struggle, would be returned to previous owners, Maoist Central Committee member Matrika Prasad Yadav contradicted that promise several weeks ago. Speaking in Biratnagar, he said, “We [the Maoists] prefer to take up arms than return those properties that have been already distributed to the needy population of this country. …I totally disagree with what Prime Minister Dahal has been uttering in public, whether it is Dahal or Girija, no one has the right to confiscate lands back from the poor – the new holders of the land. The leader of feudal elements – the monarchy has been already abolished, yet new monarchs have begun emerging in Nepali politics.”
So which is it? Are the lands to be returned or not? Who is in charge of the Maoist party? Are members of the Central Committee now referring to Prachanda as a “new monarch”?
According to Newsblaze (Jan. 4, 2009), Prachanda’s “own lieutenant, Chandra Prakash Gajurel, lambasted the Maoist-led government’s non performance, saying it had hardly done 10 things during its first 100 days in power.”
Since the 2006 peace accord, tourism in Nepal has bounded back: The industry brought in $230.6 million dollars in 2007 and accounted for 4% of GDP. The government has designated 2011 as “Nepal Tourism Year”, hoping to receive one million visitors during the campaign.
Given the present worldwide economic crisis, it might be prudent to rethink such bounty in 2011. Most economists discount any sort of quick recovery from the international recession. Certainly in the U.S., even the most optimistic experts aren’t predicting improvement much before mid-2010; a full recovery could take years. In America and Europe, even affluent travelers are having second thoughts about charting far-flung vacations. Obviously, the Nepal tourist industry has no leverage against people who are tightening their purse strings. But what they can do is to protect and maintain Nepal’s newfound reputation for being a safe and reliable destination.
This was jeopardized last week in Pokhara, a tourist Mecca for foreigners, rightfully regard as one of the most beautiful spots on Earth. Pokhara closed down.
Or rather, Pokhara had no choice but to close down. All hotels and restaurants were forced to lock their doors for four days because Maoist trade unions went on strike demanding salary hikes. Hoteliers were forced to kick out their guests, leaving them stranded until they could make their way to other destinations. Other tourists, who were planning to visit Pokhara, cancelled their flights.
One wonders if the strikers in Pokhara have any idea of the extent to which bad press like this ripples throughout the foreign tourism industry. What Western travel agent is going to recommend Nepal if some of their clients had a horrible, exasperating experience there?
The Maoist unions need a reality check. Do they really want to strike their way to joblessness? Times are very hard in the West. Very hard. Do not underestimate how hard times really are in the West. Do not estrange the few visitors who are still willing or able to pay to visit your country. Especially in the next year or two, accepting salary freezes may be the new world order – not just a local one.
TIME FOR A REASSESSMENT
The bottom line is that Nepali citizens are beginning to ask what progress, in the eight months since the elections, has been made toward penning a new constitution. The answer is little to none and Maoist leadership would do well to look at themselves to see if this is not, at least in part, because of shortcomings within their own party. They blame Nepali Congress. They blame the Marxist-Leninists. They blame the Indians. They blame the United States. They blame the Madeshis. Which leaves no time, I suppose, for self-criticism.
In the meantime, most Nepalis just want their damn lights turned back on.