My Article On Nepal Earthquake For Foreign Policy: Draft 2

(This is Christian's edited version due to space constraints.)



by Paramendra Bhagat

Paramendra Bhagat is a New York City-based tech entrepreneur and a former activist in Nepal’s pro-democracy movement.

Nepal is in the headlines this week -- for all the wrong reasons. On Saturday, April 25, the country was jolted by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. The epicenter was located 80 miles northwest of the overcrowded, unplanned urban sprawl that is the capital city of Kathmandu. Nepal is a seismically active zone (the price you pay for having the world’s highest mountains), but the last time an earthquake this big hit was 81 years ago. It says something about the scale of this latest quake that many of the buildings and temples that made it through the one in 1934 didn’t survive this time around. This earthquake is not just the worst natural disaster to have hit Nepal in my lifetime -- it is the worst to have hit the country during its entire existence of a few hundred years.

For Nepal -- the poorest country outside of Africa, one of the most corrupt in the world, and one still struggling to recover from the lingering traumas of a ten-year civil war -- this latest catastrophe is spotlighting its utter political dysfunction. Many of those left homeless or injured have been waiting in vain for any form of government assistance. There were no pictures of political leaders visiting stricken citizens, no words of empathy or consolation; Nepalis had to content themselves instead with a TV appearance by a minister, who merely acknowledged “some weaknesses in managing the relief operation.” While some foreign countries have already started supplying humanitarian assistance (albeit on a fairly limited scale), much of what they have brought, according to reports, is already being sucked into the corrupt government machinery. Political parties that have shown themselves highly organized when it comes to flooding the streets with protestors have failed to put those skills to use in the relief effort.

This background might help to explain the bewildering spectacle of desperate villagers blocking convoys bringing relief supplies to victims, as was reported earlier today. In Kathmandu, dozens of people have been demonstrating outside parliament, demanding better distribution of help for those in need. In the village of Dolakha, locals smashed the windows of a local administrative building in protest. A New York Times reporter interviewing residents of a tent camp in Katamandu noted broad anger at the government’s feeble response. “Many accuse government officials of incompetence and neglect,” he wrote, “and residents voice suspicions that officials are hoarding the aid supplies for themselves.

During its recent past, Nepal’s national tragedies – royal coups, a ten-year civil war, the slaughter of the entire royal family – have served as catalysts for change. Will the same thing happen now?

Nepal’s political problems are deeply rooted in the country’s history, shaped by centuries of entrenched feudalism and compounded by a long stretch of British colonial rule. After the British left India, Nepal briefly flirted with democracy. But then King Mahendra launched a military coup, got rid of representative institutions, and installed himself as the unchallenged ruler. A popular uprising in 1990, prompted in part by the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, succeeded in placing some constraints on the royal reign, but that didn’t stop his son from continuing to wield considerable power. Capitalizing on the countryside’s endemic poverty, the Nepalese Maoists, shinier than the Shining Path of Peru, launched a civil war that lasted from 1996 to 2006. At their peak they controlled some 80 percent of the country. And then, in 2001, the crown prince went on a rampage and massacred his own family, decapitating the monarchy at a single stroke.

That tragedy prompted yearnings for fundamental change. In April 2006, one third of Nepal’s 30 million people took to the streets for 19 days to depose a king (the slain monarch’s brother) who had tried to stage a coup of his own the year before. Nepal is now a republic. The king, Gyanendra, is now a citizen -- a rich citizen, but a citizen nonetheless. He was seen in the streets right after the earthquake, taking stock of the situation, even as the elected political leaders were conspicuous by their absence.

No one can say for sure, of course. But what we can state with certainty is that the country is in desperate need of change. Perhaps the biggest question looming over Nepal’s fragile democracy is that of federalism, one of overwhelming importance in a place marked by an astonishing ethnic and cultural diversity.

There are the Khas, who form the ruling elite – a bit like Saddam Hussein’s Sunni supporters, who ruled Iraq even though they represented but a fraction of the population. There are the Janajatis, the Sherpas of Everest fame. There are the various groups who make up the Gurkhas, sent by Nepal’s rulers to fight in foreign wars over the centuries. And then there are the Madhesis (like me), people from the southern plains who have a strong ethnic and cultural affinity with the Indians. Finally, 10-15 percent of Nepalis are Dalits, those who occupy the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system. (And let’s not forget that half of the population is made up by women -- a key point, since Nepali society remains profoundly sexist.)

In 2008, two years after the war ended, Nepal got its first constituent assembly, an unwieldy beast, dominated by the Maoists, that boasted more than 600 members (bigger than the national legislatures in the United States or India). A second followed four years later. The assembly’s leaders claim to have come to agreement on all issues except the big one, the nature of Nepali federalism; they can’t even manage to define the borders of prospective states. In short, while the country’s diversity has many positive aspects, it has also become a major obstacle to political development. The continuing absence of a constitution has stymied further moves toward democracy. Nepal had its last popularly elected local governments two decades ago.

Meanwhile Nepal’s deeply entrenched inequities continue to fester. Racial and ethnic discrimination are widespread. The traditional elite continues to dominate public life. A few hundred thousand people in the police, army, bureaucracy, political parties, media houses, human rights organization and NGOs, representing perhaps 10 percent of the population, remain hell-bent on denying the other 90 percent their due share in a country of 30 million. This select few continues to exploit the trappings of democracy to maintain its own ascendance. A few years back a Nepali prime minister simply knocked four million people off the voters’ list. In the 2012 election the army is alleged to have engineered widespread fraud on behalf of the anti-federalists, in a bid to keep the Khas hold on power. Yet the Maoists, too, don’t seem averse to electoral manipulation when it suits them.

Corruption remains endemic. Only a few weeks ago, the British government was threatening to hold back its aid if Nepal did not mend its ways. Few in the outside world took note at the time. But now the dismal response to the earthquake, including the reports about the misappropriation of relief supplies, means that the government can no longer pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in the rubble who died because help never came, or came too late.

Right now, of course, it’s imperative that Nepal’s friends in the outside world do whatever they can to alleviate the immediate pain and suffering of the earthquake’s immediate victims. But once we’ve had time to catch our breath, perhaps we can then have occasion to consider what all of us – Nepalis and non-Nepalis alike – can do to help build a sustainable democracy in this unique part of the world.

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