Nepal: Democracy in thin air

John Burdett – The New York Times

The New York Times
KATMANDU, Nepal Last week, Nepal’s Maoist rebels and a coalition of opposition parties agreed on a program to try to end direct rule by King Gyanendra. The accord was the latest twist in this tiny Himalayan kingdom’s decade-long civil war, which took a bizarre turn almost five years ago: On June 1, 2001, the drug-abusing crown prince, Dipendra, murdered nine of the royal household, including his parents, before taking his own life.
Conspiracy theories abound, with a focus on the two factions that benefited from the catastrophe: the faction led by Dipendra’s uncle Gyanendra, who inherited the crown, and the one led by the Maoists.
Since the murders, the new king has twice declared a state of emergency followed by the inevitable suppression of free speech. Trafficking in drugs and women has increased enormously, and rural Nepalese have streamed into the Katmandu Valley, creating a refugee crisis.
All this is on my mind as I venture back to Katmandu for the first time in three years. I had prepared for arrival in a dysfunctional wasteland, yet I find the capital as lively and diverse as I’ve seen it in more than 20 years of visiting. There is one exception: Nobody seems willing to talk about the future.
Pradeep is an economics student I meet at Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple. While I’m trying to figure out a way to persuade him to open up, a slapstick comedy unfolds: as a tourist reaches into her handbag and takes out an apple, a monkey moving at warp speed grabs the fruit in two tiny hands. The tourist lets out a little scream of shock, by which time the monkey has retreated.
“You see,” says Pradeep, laughing, “you want me to speculate on the future of my country, which is one of the poorest in the world, while that wealthy Westerner cannot control the future long enough to get an apple from her bag into her mouth. There is no certainty but change.”
I had forgotten how Buddhist the thinking can be here. From Swayambhunath, I walk back down the mountain and find a cab that will take me to Pashupatinath. On the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath is considered by many to be the second-holiest site in Hinduism, after Benares. I come here whenever I can to see a pal I made many years back….
…Suman, my taxi driver back to the guest house, is a history student when he is not driving a cab. Finally, I have found someone who is prepared to speak his mind. He points out that Nepal has seen worse crises: At times the monarchy’s feuds with pretenders have reduced the kingdom to a few hundred square miles of the Katmandu Valley, but this is an exceptionally resilient country. “You have been trekking here?” he asks. “Then you have used the thousands of miles of steps my people have carved out of the Himalayas by hand. This is the land of Shiva, the most powerful of the gods. When do you have to be at the airport?”
“In about two hours.”
“I will drive you. I will give a discount of 50 rupees, but you will listen.”
“OK,” I say, after I fetch my bag from the guest house. “What?”
Suman says, “Eight years of communist insurrection but we ordinary Nepalis only went crazy once – do you know why? I will tell you. We went crazy after King Birendra was murdered because at first we were sure it was a coup. Why? Because King Birendra was saving us from democracy and the people knew it.”
“Saving you from democracy?”
“Certainly. If we are not very, very careful, democracy in Nepal will mean urban feudalism, the country will be run by the same half-dozen families as run it now, who will join forces with Indian and Chinese businessmen. The people would not be able to find freedom in the countryside anymore. Why do we have to go through the robber baron period – because you did?
“King Birendra understood this and wanted full democracy to come slowly, after all the proper institutions were in place. Our beloved king was our only defense against capitalists and communists both.” Suman has grown so excited he suddenly turns self-conscious. “Are you shocked?”
I think about that. “No, Suman,” I say, “I just wish I could patch you through to the White House.”
For the entire article please see the link below.
(John Burdett is the author of ”Bangkok 8” and ”Bangkok Tattoo.”)

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