Monday, November 30, 2009

Are we prepared?

The Kathmandu Post
John Narayan Parajuli
NOV 26 - In less than two weeks, the United Nations Climate Change conference kicks off in Copenhagen, and the signs are already ominous about any breakthrough. A binding treaty with 40 percent reduction in carbon emission (on 1990 levels) by the developed nations and a fund to help the poorest countries mitigate and go green may not be ready in time for the summit. Developing countries like China, India and Brazil are doing more, but the developed countries have got cold feet about financing the poorest countries. And you can’t blame them in these tough economic times when their own coffers are running dry.

But as disagreement persists at the global forum, the problems for Nepal are local. The shrinking snow cover on the Himalaya places Nepal on one of the many frontiers of any battle against climate change. As scientists are playing catch-up with the gravity of the problem, anything they say or their models say should be taken as the least worst scenario. Just last week, scientists with the British Antarctic Survey revised the average global rise in temperature forecast to 6 degrees Celsius from previous the 4. “Oops! We were wrong in our estimates” is a common refrain among the scientific community these days, and we will have to expect more of that. Because climate science isn’t an exact one. But we would do well to err more on the side of caution.

So how is Nepal, as one of least developed countries, prepared to face the brunt? Is there a serious national policy to tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change? Are the government and non-government agencies working on a coherent plan?

Unfortunately, the discourse in most developing countries (including Nepal) on climate change has been focused more on blaming the developed nations, and less on taking initiatives. As a heavily donor-dependent nation, the problems of preparedness are a big issue for Nepal. Associating ourselves with the group of 11 most vulnerable countries (V11) will help to pitch a stronger case for assistance with urgency; but if we don’t help ourselves, there is very little others can do for us. The discussion on climate change is warming up as evidenced by a spike in national media coverage, but our national attitude still is cold towards our own responsibility, even though we want others to do something about it.

On Nov. 15, an international scientific team conducted an assessment tour of the 11 potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the Makalu-Barun National Park area. They also visited the rapidly melting Imja glacier and lake (which feeds some of the big rivers in China, Nepal and India); and though there are no details yet on their conclusion, one can only infer that the rate of melting glaciers and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) is rapidly increasing. As scientists have forecast a more rapid increase in global temperatures, the number of potentially dangerous glacial lakes will subsequently go up. The Himalayan region has witnessed an average increase of temperature by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius since 1975.

In 1995, the danger of Tsho Rolpa Lake bursting downstream was averted with some timely help from the Dutch in painstakingly siphoning out the water. But we weren’t so lucky in the 1980s: Most notable among them was the 1985 Dig Tsho burst that wreaked havoc downstream destroying “houses, farms, bridges and even the Thame micro hydropower plant”. But we still haven’t learnt our lessons.

The government needs to invest in its own capacity building to avert GLOF and mitigate other effects, including the ability to rapidly relocate people from harm’s way of some these dangerous glacial lakes in the event of a disaster. Some experts have already predicted a likelihood of glaciers completely disappearing from the Himalaya by as early as 2035. Planning and preparation needs to take into account the worst case scenario in the future. There is no way of accurately predicting the actual implications; but if what is happening now is any indication, climate change will fundamentally alter the way we live.

Climate change has been increasingly blamed as a trigger for a lot of natural disasters, and perhaps there is some truth in it. But what is also happening as this process moves forward is that there is very little inclination within our national government to take a proactive role in mitigating the effects on its own. In fact, we look with expectant eyes at the West. The developed countries are expected to fix our problem. Sure, there is a degree of culpability that falls on the rich nations, and they have to carry the bigger share of the burden in slowing the effects of this impending disaster. But Nepali officials would do well to remind themselves that though the problem is of a global nature, the worst effects will fall on us.

Poorer countries have to be effective partners on the global stage, and perhaps banding together in V11 will be useful in putting forward a stronger voice; but locally, they have to take their own home-grown initiatives to understand the implications. Presenting a rock from the Himalaya to the president of the United States, or the proposed Himalayan cabinet meeting, or the underwater cabinet meeting in Male may work well as a publicity stunt to get donor and Western attention; but it is a very superficial act, and does not contribute to any local undertaking in dealing with the effects of a warming world. We need to stop collecting evidence for others, while we ourselves seem to live in a state of denial.

I hope that we are not just sending a delegation to Copenhagen for the sake of it; and I hope, as a country increasingly under threat from melting snow on the third pole, our delegation has a concrete plan of action to share with the rest of the world. While it is true that we are in this together, it doesn’t mean the developing countries can afford to hold their breath for the developed countries to walk the talk for them. Once the worst nightmares of climate change begin to unfold, each country will be left to fend for itself. Therefore, any country that prepares and invests in local capacity will be better placed to mitigate the challenges. In the crudest terms, only the fittest will survive.

Monday, November 9, 2009

United States of Europe?

The Kathmandu Post

NOV 09 - Upon our arrival at the Heathrow Airport recently, an immigration officer asked me some routine questions. He wanted to know how much my stay would cost me; I replied in Euros rather than Pounds. Perhaps fatigue and having lived in Netherlands recently were to be blamed for the slip. The officer frowned and said: Over here, Pound Sterling is the currency, and we are proud that way.

Britain has maintained a relative distance from some of the European Union’s (EU) common policy, through opt-outs. But there is a growing debate within UK and other member countries on the extent of integration, although mainstream politicians want to clearly avoid it. The Lisbon treaty which will come into force from Dec. 1, following the ratification by Ireland and Czech Republic has triggered fresh discussions. Both Labour and the Conservative Parties in Britain had promised a referendum on the EU constitution. Labour reneged on their promise sometime ago. But the Conservatives who have been jumpy on the issue in the past were buying time to quietly break the news of their change of heart, until they were forced last week after the Czech president signed off on the Treaty.

Now that all ratifications are in on the treaty, Eurocrats may have succeeded in creating a slight distraction, as all eyes are now fixed on the newly created the post of EU President and foreign minister. Tony Blair’s ambitions of becoming the first president of Europe may have been sabotaged. The Conservative Party, which is likely to win the elections, next year, has already opposed Blair’s candidacy.

There is more: Britain’s half-hearted presence within the EU has been frustrating for other EU leaders. It seems British leaders can’t imagine themselves away from the Anglo-Saxon bloc, where they are happy to play second fiddle to the Americans. According to the Guardian, last week the French Minister for Europe, Pierre Lellouche came down heavily on the British Conservative party leaders, and described their policy as ‘autistic’ and blamed them for ‘castrating Britain’s position within Europe.’ “Nobody is going to play with the institutions again. It is going to be, take it or leave it and they should be honest and say that.”

Conflicting impulses

Europe’s problems are manifold: Controlling immigration, maintaining social security amid falling productivity, salvaging some lost glory as the continent where the entire ‘modernisation’ project began. But that’s not all, the core problem that haunts Europe is what it wants to become? Does it want to remain a loose union or push for more integration to become a strong union with federal features? Surely the failed EU Constitution and the current Lisbon Treaty have provided a blueprint, but do the people agree with what the Eurocrats have in mind?

Germany, a key driving force for a stronger Union, like other Euro-heartland countries, remains beset by its own conflicting impulses. The political establishment clearly wants more integration, and was instrumental in drafting the Lisbon Treaty after the Constitution was rejected by French and Dutch voters. Critics allege that the Treaty is a mere repackaging of the rejected Constitution, and they insist that it makes a mockery of the public opinion. The biggest criticism is of the EU is exactly that: the democratic deficit. The European Commission, the executive branch, is not an elected body and its office bearers are not accountable directly to the people. The Lisbon Treaty aims to grant more power to the European Parliament to counter some of the criticism. Critics aren’t happy though. They argue that no amount of patch-work can bridge the fundamental democratic gap within a transnational superstructure like EU.

European Union (EU) is surely a model for political and economic integration, although not a perfect one yet, nevertheless, it is one of a kind. But within the continent the ranks of skeptics are swelling, and even some ‘Euro-believers’ fear the rise of a super-state that would swallow sovereignty of the member states and would eventually march on the path of federalism. While in Nepal, the debate is on devolution of power, here in Europe, the debates are evolving around the extent of integration within a supranational instrument.

In June, the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that many of the competence handed over to the Brussels under the Lisbon Treaty will remain a sovereign German competence. The 8 judges involved also argued that the Lisbon Treaty is merely an international treaty of cooperation. The ruling effectively asked the government to consult the people through a referendum if it were to accept the treaty as a constitutional document. The very thing the treaty was designed to do: to avoid promised national referendum in Czech Republic, Ireland, Denmark, Poland, Portugal and Britain, and other countries where the national constitution stipulates such a provision before the transfer of sovereignty.

The elections for European parliament last year saw in the rise of number of right-wing Member of European Parliament (MEPs), some of whom ran on the platform of working towards abolishing the Union. Of course, it is silly to take a politician’s rhetoric at the face value and seriously believe that Brussels would be powered down; nevertheless their electoral victory is a measure of public’s frustration and resentment with Brussels performance. Right-wing stance may seem ludicrous but it is symptomatic of Europe’s burgeoning problem that could undermine the vision of united Europe.

The failure of Eurocrats to communicate the achievements of their project is equally frustrating. The transnational nature of the set-up allows very little direct contact with people. The democratic deficit is clearly a two-edged sword. Lack of it is equally problematic as its presence may be to the politicians. During a visit to Brussels in April this year, a spokesman for the EU Competition Commissioner, and some journalists who had gone native (by virtue of having spent too many years in Brussels), bitterly complained about how the national press treats Brussels: When everything goes fine, it is out of the press radar, but when something goes wrong national politicians rub it on Brussels, and EU gets hammered badly by the press.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


JOHN NARAYAN PARAJULI Sunday November 7, 2004
Source: NATION WEEKLY (See page 26, also 36)
Bhim Prasad Tamang was not exactly thrilled by the high profile visit of U.S. official Arthur E. Gene Dewey last month to his dilapidated hut in the Beldangi II refugee camp. He's been through it before. In the last 14 years, a number of foreign dignitaries have come to the camp and raised his hopes for early repatriation, and that was that.
The story never had a happy ending.

"Do you want to go to Bhutan?" Tamang quotes Dewey, the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, as having asked him. "Of course I want to go home," he says. "But what are the conditions?"

Like Tamang, more than 100,000 refugees in seven camps in eastern Nepal now feel that their desire to go home may not come to fruition. That they are doomed to a life of a refugee. Over the years, many high-profile comings and goings have raised expectations, but have amounted to nothing. In 2000, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
Sadako Ogata told them, "Bhutan is ready to welcome you back. You all will be going home soon." But her assurance turned out to be hollow, say refugees. After cycles of hope and bitter disappointment their expectations are now tempered with realism.

"We are optimistic," says Prem Khanal, a refugee teacher. "But we are also keenly aware of how optimistic we should be about these visits." As Dewey took stock of the miserable conditions in the camps, he told the refugees that he was visiting them to learn what they think is the best solution for them. This is the first high-profile visit since Bhutan's disengagement from the bilateral process on December 22, 2003. The process of repatriating refugees verified by the Nepal-Bhutan Joint Verification Team at the Khudunabari camp was to begin from February 15 this year, but following a scuffle between the refugees and Bhutanese officials, Bhutan pulled out of the process, citing poor security as the reason. After almost a year, the United States seems to be keen to revive the stalled process.

"I didn't come just to visit this part of the world," said Dewey to a group of refugees, "but with a serious purpose: to bring a solution." The urgency in U.S. efforts to find a solution comes in part from reports that the Maoists are operating in the refugee camps. The United States wants to resolve the refugee impasse quickly to deny the Maoists another fertile breeding ground. Dewey warned New Delhi and Thimphu that "time is running out." During his discussions in New Delhi he also sought Indian help in "getting Bhutan to agree on steps for repatriating at least some refugees." Dewey is learned to have
explicitly conveyed Washington's concern about the growing Maoist influence in the refugee camps and the dangers this could pose for India and Bhutan, just as well as to Nepal.

Apart from underscoring the urgency for an immediate solution, his visit has also triggered discussion on other options apart from repatriation; local integration or third-country resettlement are high on the list. "We have to look into all options," Dewey told reporters in Kathmandu. "Sometimes there is not just one solution." There are
indications that the United States has given up hope that a complete repatriation will ever take place. "Our hope is that Bhutan at least accepts this segment," Dewey said in Delhi, referring to the 2.5 percent of the refugees in the Khudunabari refugee camp who were
classified as "bona fide Bhutanese." Although Nepal is keen on the repatriation process, the refugee community is, at best, divided over the remaining two alternatives—local integration and third-country resettlement. Some fear that agreeing to either of the options, even in principle, could diminish their cause for a dignified repatriation. "It could end our existence as Bhutanese refugees," says a young refugee Dadiram
Neupane, "and hence our right to return to Bhutan."

But others insist that any solution is better than none at all. "It's fine if they want to give us citizenship here or take us to a different country," says Bhim Prasad Tamang. Refugees like Tamang feel that the two options are, if not adequate, at least a dignified escape from the confinement of camp life. And there are others who want to work towards all three options simultaneously. They say no single option will be practical for all refugees: Not all will be repatriated, if ever Bhutan decides to do so; not all can be locally integrated given their sheer numbers; and not all will be deemed fit by the host country for a third-country resettlement. Most refugees are encouraged that the American representative at least seemed open to all solutions.

Dewey's visit to the camps and the three capitals has renewed hopes, as refugee leaders believe that American pressure was instrumental in pushing forward the bilateral process in 2000, when Julia Taft and Karl Inderfurth, both senior State Department officials, convinced both Nepal and Bhutan to agree on a verification process. U.S. President Bill Clinton's letter to the Nepali and Bhutanese prime ministers in late 2000 was credited with getting the process started.


JOHN NARAYAN PARAJULI Sunday October, 17 2004
Last week brought another reminder to the more than 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, languishing in seven camps in eastern Nepal, that they might not be able to continue to enjoy the UNHCR's humanitarian aid for much longer. United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees Rudd Lubbers reiterated the essence of his message last year to Bhutanese refugees during the 55th annual UNHCR executive committee meeting in Geneva on October 5: By the end of 2005, we will withdraw. The UNHCR maintains
that the withdrawal doesn't mean the withdrawal of its protection mandate. "Less encouraging is the situation of the Bhutanese people in camps in Nepal. At ExCom last year I said that we cannot accept that they remain there indefinitely," Lubbers said.

Lubbers last year had unveiled the Convention Plus initiative, intended, according to the UNHCR, to find equitable ways of sharing the burden of caring for the refugees. The UNHCR's hands are understandably full. With more than 20 million refugees worldwide and more continuing to pour in from escalating conflicts in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, the UNHCR has initiated the plan to minimize its own role to a legal protection level only. Lubbers' plan could bring some relief to overstretched U.N. refugee agency, but it will surely take the relief away from the refugees.

The U.N. refugee agency is hoping that bilateral and multilateral donor agencies will chip in to substitute for the UNHCR. So far none of the bilateral donors seems to have committed to work in the Bhutanese refugee camps. Even UNHCR officials in Kathmandu haven't briefed the bigger donors about their plans.

Lubbers' reiteration of the message is likely to cause panic among refugees, as most of them were led to believe that UNHCR was just trying to pressure the Nepali and the Bhutanese governments to find a solution quickly. Now there is reason to believe that the UNHCR is serious. "The UNHCR's phase-out program could hinder repatriation,"
Ratan Gazmere, a Bhutanese leader accompanying Tek Nath Rijal to Geneva, told reporters before leaving to attend the UNHCR's executive committee meeting from September 28 to October 8.

Refugees are worried about what would happen to them after the proposed withdrawal, says a journalist from Damak, Jhapa. "The UNHCR is like our parent. Who would look after us after the withdrawal?" asks Moti Bishwa, an inhabitant of Beldangi Camp II. Refugees are already feeling a sense of insecurity. UNHCR officials have been trying hard to explain that phase-out or withdrawal doesn't mean complete pullout; they are also trying to explain that they won't leave unless a substitute comes in.

"The phase down strategy will not have any impact on UNHCR's presence and protection role in Nepal," said Abraham Abraham, the resident representative of UNHCR in Nepal. The idea behind the UNHCR's phase-out plan is to make the refugees self-reliant through development projects and programs. The plan is ambitious and may be too good to be true. Many think that it simply won't work. Refugees aren't willing to believe that any other agency can substitute the UNHCR in terms of expertise. "Is the UNHCR trying to substitute its mandate?" asked SB Subba, former chairman of Bhutanese Refugee RepatriationRepresentative Committee.

Any change of hands, some say, will be a failure. Even as the appointed time for completion of the phase down strategy draws closer, the UNHCR has made no visible preparations; there is no word on who's going to step in. Initially it was expected GTZ, JICA and USAID would chip in, but American diplomats in Kathmandu have already rubbished the idea of USAID's direct involvement. Even UNHCR officials in the
field don't believe that the 2005 deadline can be met, given the pace of progress. And the Nepali government has criticized the UN refugee agency.

In October last year Foreign Minister Bhek Bahadur Thapa even raised the issue with U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan. "I understand that the UNHCR is having a resource crunch," says Thapa.
"But to paralyze the refugee committee when two countries are negotiating cannot be appreciated." There are other refugee camps in the world with longer standing than the Bhutanese camps in eastern Nepal, he says. "I see the need to be fairer to the refugee community in Nepal."

Despite calls for fairness and continuing support by the government and the refugee community, the Convention Plus initiative is likely to continue. The three-pronged approach—repatriation, local integration and third-country resettlement—if adopted by the UNHCR will cause a huge uproar among the refugee community in Nepal. The UNHCR has said that it won't encourage repatriation to Bhutan unless Bhutan allows it
to monitor the process. Bhutan is unlikely to concede to the demand.

"The UNHCR's signals are easy enough to understand," says Rakesh Chettri, a Bhutanese refugee leader: "There won't be any repatriation." Without repatriation, the plan to phase down the UNHCR's role to protection level will increase the sense of insecurity caused by fourteen years of stalemate. "The international community has ignored us," says Chettri. That feeling resonates throughout all seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal.


JOHN NARAYAN PARAJULI Saturday January, 29 2005
Source: NATION Weekly

A popular joke out of the Falklands War that was fought in 1982 goes like this: How did the Argentine soldiers know that the Gurkhas had come to fight? Answer: In the morning when they woke up, their heads fell off.

Valor on the battlefield is the Gurkha's hallmark, but their perseverance off the battlefield is remarkable. For 14 years, retired Gurkhas have protested unequal pay and pension rules that make them second-class soldiers in the British Army. Their struggle may finally have paid off. The British government has put aside a longstanding
policy of revising minor aspects of its policy regarding the Gurkhas; something that retired soldiers, now activists, say was a cynical attempt to avoid major revisions. On Jan. 12, British secretary of state for defence, Geoffrey Hoon, made an announcement in the House of Commons: Britain will conduct a wide-ranging review of the Gurkhas' grievances.

Prem Bahadur Bega joined the British Army in 1984 and was given compulsory retirement in 1999 after 15 years of service. A British colleague who was recruited in the same year as Bega was allowed to serve for seven more years before his retirement. The Briton earned several thousand pounds more in a year than Bega and receives far more
in pension—625 pounds a month compared to Bega's 91 pounds. Bega's wife and children were allowed to accompany him for only 18 months out of his 15 years of service: The family of his British counterpart accompanied him throughout his service. "This is gross injustice," says Bega. Many other Gurkha veterans agree.

The Gurkhas want parity with their British colleagues in pay and pension, and also on the prickly issue of promotion. There seems to be a glass ceiling on Nepalis rising to higher ranks. Only three have been promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and only one has
commanded a Gurkha battalion. Beyond this, the Gurkhas argue, the terms of service should be equal. Only 25 percent of Gurkhas are entitled to married housing, and the length of time that Gurkha families can stay with soldiers and noncommissioned officers is limited. The grievances of pay, pension, promotion and terms of service form the bulk of the Gurkhas' discrimination case against the British government. For years the British refused hear their pleas. "The British government even didn't bother to respond to our
petitions," says Gopal Siwakoti, popularly known as Chintan, a lawyer who acts on behalf of the Gurkha Army Ex-Servicemen's Organization, the GAESO.

But after the Royal Courts of Justice in London cleared the way in May 2002 for the Gurkhas to sue the British Ministry of Defence, the British government found itself on the legal and moral low road. It has now for the first time conceded that fact. On Jan. 12, Defence Secretary Hoon announced that the government would conduct a "wide-ranging review" of the Gurkhas' pay and pensions. Hoon said that he wants to ensure that the Ministry of Defence is beyond reproach both legally and morally. Hoon's concession raises a few obvious questions: Why did the ministry decide to conduct the review now, and will the proposed review end the unequal treatment regime to the satisfaction of all?

"An ultimatum from us," says Krishna Rai, vice president of GAESO, "prompted the MoD to make the new announcement." GAESO, which is fighting court-battles against the ministry over its unequal treatment, sent the ministry a legal notice on Nov. 19 asking it to address all their grievances within a month or face court action. The Gurkhas see Hoon's announcement as a major victory. GAESO's legal advisers say that their case was strong and that they had collected new evidence that would have brought them a victory in court. The ministry must have found the new evidence damaging, say observers,
because it responded by asking GAESO to wait until January for a major announcement regarding Gurkha pay and pensions.

In a written ministerial statement to the House of Commons Hoon said, "As the House will be aware, our policy is to keep the Brigade of Gurkhas' terms and conditions of service under review, to ensure that they are fair and that any difference from the wider Army are reasonable and justifiable."

As happy as Gurkha activists are with the British action, they are also taking the new announcement with a pinch of salt. They have demanded that the British government make all aspects of the announcement public. In reply Lieutenant Colonel G.R. Harnby, chief of staff of British Gurkhas Nepal, says: "It will be a comprehensive review. It will look into all aspects [and be] sensitive to the Nepali dimension."

A British Embassy statement says that the examination of the terms and conditions of service will be all-embracing and look into the present terms of service for Gurkhas. The review is likely to include their career profiles; length of structures within the Brigade of Gurkhas; pay and pensions; allowances; personal support for soldiers and their families, including pastoral care, education for children, medical provisions and leave arrangements. The Nepali government has already been informed of the review. Hoon told British MPs the review would look at whether differences between the Gurkhas' conditions and those of British soldiers were "absolutely justifiable." But the Gurkhas
have warned the Ministry of Defence not to try to justify any disparity. "We want complete equality," says Chintan. "There can be no justification for any kind of discrimination."

Is British policy racial discrimination? Britain says it's not, but an increasing number of Britons including the wife of current Prime Minister Tony Blair, Cherie Booth Blair, argue that it is a clear case of racial discrimination and a human rights violation.

The argument has merit. Nepalis are treated differently than other foreign nationals serving in the British military. Fijians whom the Ministry of Defence recruits enjoy the same conditions as British troops.

Even the British government's Commission for Racial Equality has supported individual cases filed by some Gurkhas. In the case of Hari Thapa, a retired lance corporal, the commission said that the ministry's responsibilities under the Race Relations Act of 1976
outweigh the terms of the tripartite agreement (refer to Box Story).
Thapa, who lives in Wales, filed a racial discrimination case against the Ministry of Defence in an industrial tribunal after he was given an early discharge from the Army five years ago. During his 15 years in military service, he was paid 43,000 pounds less than his British counterparts.

Growing support among British political parties parallels the court support for the Gurkhas. Opposition Liberal Democrat defense spokesman, Paul Keetch, said that the ministry must recognize that it cannot "treat 21st-century soldiers like 19th-century conscripts." Even the British public seems to care about the Gurkhas. A demonstration of more than 400 retired Gurkhas in Liverpool caught the eye of the press, and the Daily Express ran a campaign supporting the Gurkhas. In a poll of 16,000 people conducted by the newspaper, 99 percent supported the Gurkhas' demand. In October, British Prime
Minister Tony Blair agreed to grant conditional citizenship to Gurkhas.

Gurkhas aren't going to be satisfied with conditions any more. They have called for complete equality with the British soldiers. There is another outstanding issue: more than 10,000 veterans and widows who are without any pension or compensation. In one example, in 1969 some 10,000 Gurkhas were made redundant under a retrenchment scheme. Their British counterparts who were also laid off under the scheme were handsomely compensated; Gurkhas were paid 150 pounds and sent home. In 1986, 111 Gurkhas soldiers on training in Hawaii were disciplined and dismissed en masse for mutinous behavior. Gurkhas said they were sent home without compensation or the right to appeal. When asked if the review would include these two issues, a British official in Nepal says that the review will be forward looking, although he quickly adds that he hopes the reviewers will look into the past and the future before reaching any conclusions.

Some Gurkhas are optimistic that the review will get them equal treatment. "Let's hope the Ministry of Defence will end the discrimination," says retired Lance Corporal D B Bomjon, who receives 71 pounds a month, about Rs.9,000, as pension while his British
counterparts receive 475 pounds.

The money is a big issue, and it is perhaps the reason the British have tried to avoid a full review. Full parity could cost the British government more than 2 billon pounds in total. It may finally be worth the cost to shake-off one of the last bits of the colonial hangover.
And if complete parity isn't forthcoming, the Gurkhas say they are ready to prove their mettle in the courtroom, just as they have in the battlefields.

Monday, October 26, 2009

We want results

The Kathmandu Post
John Narayan Parajuli

OCT 26 - Despite the ongoing political deadlock and the bad blood between the UML-led coalition and the Maoists, something tangible happened early this month that could go some way in securing lasting peace: the first steps towards addressing the status of the Maoist army. Despite the doom and gloom emanating from the rhetoric of the top leaders, there is room for optimism from the work that has been happening away from the constant glare of the media.

The government intends to separate the disqualified Maoist combatants from the cantonments and house them separately in a transit facility by Nov. 22. That is an ambitious timeline given past experience. One can only hope that the process doesn’t get stalled again like it did back in July. But the government and the UN agencies can do a number of things to ensure that the process sails smoothly.

The cooperation of the Maoists is vital to its success. The government and the international community have to dangle both the carrot and the stick. One of the reasons why the Maoists want to cooperate is their own difficulties in keeping the combatants at ease. They have been getting increasingly restive about the peace process that has brought almost no dividends since they were put into the cantonments. Their discharge and the subsequent plan for their rehabilitation gives the Maoist leadership an argument with the combatants that this is a win-win situation.

The Maoists also have some genuine concerns about releasing these ex-combatants into society without a solid plan. One has to be careful about the potential of these ex-combatants being lured into other armed groups. Matrika Yadav’s reconstituted outfit has already poached some combatants from the cantonments. It is conceivable that Yadav hopes to expand his organization by recruiting demobbed combatants. I hope there is a plan to deal with that possibility and that we are not simply discharging combatants of one army to supply recruits for another.

Strings attached
The financial assistance provided by the international community for the upkeep of the combatants and other areas of the peace process have to be tied to compliance within a given time-frame.

Norway announced an aid package of “US$ 5 million for the discharge and rehabilitation of disqualified Maoist army personnel on the condition that concrete progress gets underway and formal discharge takes place by Jan. 22, 2010.” Other donors should follow suit and pool their weight to put pressure on both the government and the party leaders. The international community should make it clear that the support for the peace process isn’t unconditional. Not to do so now will only be seen as rewarding unacceptable behaviour. Politicians are already operating under the assumption that the deadline for writing the constitution will be extended, and there is little tangible pressure on them to assume otherwise.

Lack of clear strategy
The urgency shown by the prime minister in dealing with the issue of the combatants shows his sensitivity towards the biggest stumbling block in the peace process, but he shouldn’t forget the bigger picture. Discharging combatants is only one aspect of the larger security agenda. The debate on Security Sector Reform (SSR) is not even at an embryonic stage. Prime Minister Nepal should take the initiative to convene an all-party panel and expert panel — similar to the Army Integration Special Committee — to look at the debate. Without doing a detailed study of Nepal’s security needs, issues of rehabilitation, integration and rightsizing of the army cannot be completed.

The prime minister has an opportunity, no matter how long his government lasts, to contribute towards the sustainability of the peace process. His party’s position is more acceptable among the two extremes represented by both the Maoists and the Nepali Congress on the issue of SSR. He is in a position to explore more common grounds with both the NC and the Maoists in areas where there is shared interest to expedite things related to the peace process.

The prime minister should also consider issuing a gag order on matters related to the peace process on his ministers who often speak their mind too freely — contradicting the government’s position and contributing to an environment of mistrust. Defence Minister Bidya Devi Bhandari’s statements have been least helpful. The Maoists maybe hell-bent on seeing this government fail, but they have to admit there are certain areas they want to wish otherwise. There could be many more areas of common interest only if they stop talking past each other.

Despite apprehensions about the Maoists’ democratic credibility, there is no doubt that they want to sit through the peace process. Sure, they have their own internal contradictions and different strands of thinking within the party where they are constantly negotiating, but so far they have remained within the general parameters of the peace process. Indeed, there is an element of good faith and bad faith on both sides. And in areas where it is politically expedient for them to cooperate, the Maoists have been more than willing to do so. The same is more or less true of the other parties. The parties will only move forward with urgency in implementing the peace process where it serves their interest.

That is where the international community and civil society needs to play a more effective role in encouraging the politicians where it works and showing some tough love where it doesn’t. Both the donors and civil society have underestimated their own ability; they can easily do more if they stand united. It is high time they put pressure on Nepal’s lackadaisical politicians. The country cannot hold its breath each time the politicians go to the edge, look over and pull back at the last minute. The international community should certainly demand more bang for their buck.


Sunday, October 25, 2009


(From the Kathmandu Post, October 24, 09)

A late-monsoon holiday to Mustang is filled with landslides, unexpected breaks and surreal landscapes

A delayed monsoon and strikes had made our plans to visit Mustang uncertain. After weeks of agonising over it, my wife and I finally boarded a tourist bus from Thamel to Pokhara at the end of August, but once inside the bus, everyone had the same look of disbelief and was probably wondering the same thing: Where are the damn tourists? Tourism in Nepal seems to be going through a period of transition. Western tourists are increasingly being replaced by domestic and regional visitors. Some tourism entrepreneurs will tell you, even off-season is good season for business nowadays. The green-plated tourist buses are packed more and more with locals and Indians. While the phenomenon has partly to do with the issue of road safety, it is also partly because a new class of upwardly mobile Nepalis has emerged along with an increase in Indian tourists. As we were approaching Damauli, a speeding truck smashed the side mirror of the bus scattering broken pieces of glass all over our vehicle. While trying to avoid a total collision, the driver had forcefully jammed the brakes— quite literally—that rendered the bus totally immobile, and he had to send for a technician to fix the brakes. Since we had to reach Beni that day, we waived down and hopped onto the next Beni-bound bus that came our way. We arrived at Beni very late in the evening after being stranded near Maldhunga in Baglung, where a bus that had been caught in a landslide had blocked the whole road. As we approached Beni, a fellow passenger, a total stranger, invited us to her house—the worry in our faces must have been visible, but we had to politely decline. She then volunteered and took us to her relative's hotel. We ran into two young and possibly trainee monks next to our room who, perhaps in secrecy, were taking some worldly pleasures by gulping down few glasses of local raksi. We could overhear them rationalising among themselves why they drink, and other monks don't. The next morning, a bus took us to Chamere, which was an hour away. Because of the landslide, we had to walk for about 20 minutes to go past a section where the boulders and mud were still crumbling. After another hour's jeep ride, we arrived in Beg Khola, where the swollen rivers had swept a section of the road. We found another jeep on the other side of the river, but we were 4 people short of the full capacity. We offered to pay some extra, but the driver wouldn't agree. So we decided to make use of our two limbs, and after a good seven-hour walk, arrived in Ghasa. We did stop on the way for tea and rest—chatting with locals and travellers, while marvelling at the scenery. As we would stop and enquire about the time it would take to reach the next point, people would confuse us with different estimates. It is amazing how fleeting a sense of time and direction do we have. Never take the time estimates of village folks at face value: Half an hour can mean anything between ten minutes to two hours. The locals seemed to have mixed feelings about the construction of the new road. Transportation had definitely become easier and goods cheaper, but the downside was that not many tourists trekked along the Annapurna Conservation Area routes as earlier. It is quite visible that people have invested a lot of money in facilities for tourists to stay overnight along the route. Like many trekkers did before the road was built, we intended to stay in Ghasa overnight and leave the next morning. Instead, we met two government employees who were headed to Jomsom. They assured us that they will find a jeep to travel and a hotel for us no matter how late at night we arrived in Jomsom. So, we continued, and reached Jomsom at 10:30 in the night, after a change of three more jeeps on the way, walking up and down the hills, and on suspension bridges that would swing violently in the pitch-black night. We were really touched by the warmth of the locals. Despite commercialisation in places like Jomsom, folks in these mountains have not lost their honesty and hospitality. Trust still seems to be a currency around here, and the guest word is taken quite literally. Although we were paying for the services, it did feel almost at home. Next morning, we woke up to the sounds of a landing airplane. We didn't know that our hotel was just opposite the airport when we arrived the night before. The landings and take-offs of twin-otters silhouetted by the mountains were a breathtaking sight. A Sri Lankan friend once put it after visiting Mustang: The landing at Jomsom airport always brings prayers to the mind of even a non-believer. We took a jeep headed for Muktinath. Drivers in these parts of the country are quite young. Among the half-a-dozen drivers that we used during the whole trip, only two appeared to be in their late 20s, while the rest were much younger. None of the drivers were from Mustang. They were either from Pokhara or further away. Local men seemed to be in short supply. All the businesses like restaurants and hotels are run by mothers and daughters, quite literally a women's land. Perhaps it epitomises the predicament of Nepal's rural areas in general. As we walked up to the Muktinath temple at a staggering 3,800 m, I could feel the effects of the thinning oxygen in my lungs and knees. I panted for the most part as we scaled up to the temple from breathlessness and excitement alike. Three hours later, we took another jeep down to Kagbeni, but to our dismay, it didn't live up to the impression created by the film. The next morning, we walked down to Jomsom. I had slightly sprained my right foot the previous day while navigating between boulders in one of the landslide affected sections. So we took four hours in a lazy downhill walk—sometimes scavenging for ammonites, at other times just awed by the surroundings—an unwinding effect, a calm that was accentuated by the almost silent flow of the Kali Gandaki River—and occasionally punctuated by the sounds of speeding jeeps and the gushing wind.

Rule of law? What?

OCT 5 - In a bid to fight off the Maoists’ carefully calibrated obstructions, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s team tried to reach out to the people by resorting to a sleek public relations drive. The airlifting by the prime minister of Kamala Chand, who was suffering from internal bleeding and labour pains, from Rukum in the second week of September stands out. The rescue effort has helped him to come off as a caring individual in the eyes of the public.

It has also highlighted Nepal’s qualities as a leader who is conscious of public opinion, and is perhaps capable of acting accordingly. Unfortunately, events like this are exceptions rather than the norm. It is a fluke when Nepali leaders hit the right note; but as a habit, they seldom dwell on the issue of public aspirations.

Madhav Kumar Nepal’s elevation to the post of prime minister was unnatural; and for that reason, he is walking the extra mile to claim legitimacy. He is acutely aware of the flimsy foundation that his government is standing on. So Nepal is trying hard not to leave any stone unturned when it comes to mending fences on the public relations front.

For a moment in the first week of September, it appeared as if Nepal and his team had finally understood that the basics of good governance begin with good public relations (PR). Of course, it is a slippery slope, and politicians can soon resort to too many pseudo-events to improve their image. The resulting PR overload would lead to another cycle of cynicism. Nevertheless, politicians responding to public distrust by doing something about it is a good start.

Many times it appears as if our leaders are impervious to the public pulse, and that their only drive is partisan and individual interests. The kind of politics that is being played out in Nepal at the moment repels most citizens. Many have retreated in utter cynicism concluding that nothing good is going to come out of the leaders who not very long ago collectively apologized to the public and vowed not to repeat the nasty politics of the 1990s. That promise has long been forgotten, and business as usual continues. The bitterness of losing the elections, personality clashes and other turns of events following the Constituent Assembly elections effectively snuffed the spirit of consensus that was the driving force behind the successful steering of the peace process until that point.

Any hope-inspiring act of the political leaders goes a long way in changing the public psychology and attitude towards the state. More positive gestures would rekindle faith among the people in the government and its ability to deliver, and that in turn will boost the confidence of the leaders and the state machinery. But that optimism was short-lived. Before Nepal left for New York, the cabinet took some decisions that will only perpetuate impunity.

The decision to dole out money from the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund to party workers and to withdraw serious criminal charges against Rishi Dhamala and others in order to include him in the delegation to the United Nations overshadows the few positive deeds, if any, the government has done. The work of angels seen in the act of saving Kamala’s life was drowned out by the work of the coalition’s demons.

Dhamala may be innocent, but the public perception of him is not favourable. The law should have taken its due course. A government that is staking so much on restoring the rule of law as a measure of its progress has so brazenly violated the due process by extending special treatment to an individual. The prime minister claims that an investigation found Dhamala and company innocent. What the prime minister is then saying is that the Nepal Police had framed Dhamala and the others; and what that implies is that the police cannot be trusted. Dhamala was facing criminal charges, not political ones. And he is too well connected for even senior police officers to touch without a strong basis. The charges against him are serious.

The police have him on tape assuring the security of alleged Rana Bir Sena operatives. The police may or may not have violated the due process in obtaining those tapes; but the important thing is that if the voice on the tape is Dhamala’s, these are explosive charges. Senior police officials naturally find the development disturbing. What they worry most is that this will set a precedent for other criminals with ties to politicians to operate with impunity. What it assures is that if a minister’s son is arrested tomorrow on a serious criminal charge of rape or peddling weapons, a cabinet meeting will withdraw the case. What this incident is effectively telling law enforcement officers is this: Do not touch those with connections to power centres.

Madhav Kumar Nepal assured the United Nations General Assembly that his government was working to end impunity and ensure transitional justice. But his government’s actions speak louder than his words. His failure to secure a meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is an indication that the international community no longer takes Nepali leaders at their word. Ban’s snub was nothing compared to the insult he faced at the hands of some Nepalis in New York.

At a programme organized by the Federation of Indigenous Peoples of Nepal in America on Sept. 26 in New York, where Prime Minister Nepal had been invited as the chief guest, he was reportedly insulted both by the organizers and some in the audience. Some of the anger is said to have been attributed to Dhamala’s presence in the delegation and the issue of the misuse of the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. The rest is displeasure over the way he has climbed to the top.

From the Kathmandu Post, October 5, 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

From the past

Veterans Subpanel OKs Bills on Suicide Prevention, Combat Health Care
March 16, 2007
By John Parajuli
CongressNow Contributing Writer

The House Veterans’ Affairs health subcommittee quickly reported out two resolutions today, one on suicide reduction and the other to extend the period of eligibility for combat health care.

The two measures, approved by voice votes and without amendments, are the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act (H.R. 327) and the Returning Servicemember VA Healthcare Insurance Act of 2007 (H.R. 612).

The suicide prevention legislation directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop and implement a comprehensive program to reduce the incidence of suicide among veterans. It focuses on improving care and treatment for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and for elderly veterans who are at high risk for depression. Among other things, the bill would institute 24-hour mental health care assistance for veterans.

The insurance act would extend the eligibility period for combat health care from two to five years. This provision will only apply to combat service in the Iraq War and in future hostilities.

2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved.

From the past

HELP Panel Approves Three Health Measures
By John Parajuli
CongressNow Contributor
March 16, 2007, 12 a.m.

To stem the tide of preventable injuries and deaths among the elderly and underserved communities, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved three bills in its meeting Thursday. Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) offered substitute amendments for all three bills.

The National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program Reauthorization Act of 2007 (S. 624), would renew a program designed to provide free and low-cost screenings of breast and cervical cancer for uninsured women.

“Through early diagnosis and treatment, these tests have the potential to prevent nearly all deaths from cervical cancer and more than 30 percent of breast cancer deaths,” said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

In a similar move on Thursday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved H.R. 1132, a bill designed to reauthorize funds to support breast and cervical cancer. The funding for the program was increased from $202 million to $275 million over the next five years.

The committee also approved the Trauma Care Systems Planning and Development Act of 2007 (S. 657), which would reauthorize programs to prevent deaths from traumatic injuries.

The third bill considered, the Keeping Seniors Safe from Falls Act of 2007 (S. 845), was reported out as well. The bill would expand research on fall prevention and treatment for America’s senior citizens.

One in every three people age 65 and older falls each year. Studies show that in 2002 alone more than 13,000 people died as a result of fall-related injuries.

The act authorizes the secretary of Health and Human Services to develop effective public education and prevention strategies in a national initiative to reduce falls among older adults.

The trauma and cancer bills were passed by a unanimous consent voice vote. The falls legislation was passed by majority voice vote.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

No time to stay cool

Kathmandu is awash with rumours and speculation about an imminent military coup with a civilian face. Some believe that it may happen well before September 10, the day Army Chief Rukmangad Katawal retires. But he is required to take a mandatory leave a month prior to his retirement. Now several things have happened since the beginning of April this year that provides some credence to the theory that Nepal's Army chief is seriously testing the water for a military takeover. The ruse it appears is to preempt a Maoist takeover.
When the Maoists led government sought a clarification from the General in April, there was a story in the press, of a dramatic exchange between the Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) that gave an account of a 'soft' coup that was planned by competing factions, but was averted by the leadership of General Katawal. The story was reported in The Kathmandu Post and Kantipur daily on April 24. The reason I think it was planted and that the exchange might have never taken place is based on two facts.

First, General Kul Bahadur Khadka says that the narrative about him in press story was ingenious but untrue. Second, General Katawal appears to be the calm, composed and rational military leader in the narrative, thus the hero in the story.
So it appears some within the military intelligence planted the story to achieve two things: one, to prove that Khadka was the bad guy and that the Maoists have tried to split and weaken the Army, the last line of defense against the Maoists takeover, by infiltrating it and pushing for wholesale integration. Second, it was a way to test the water: for the reaction of parties, international community and the public.
Since that incident, the Maoist led government was forced to resign, and it is not a secret that the Army had a say in the formation of the new government. The leadership of the Army that accepted civilian control following the demise of monarchy, has suddenly tasted some serious political clout in the new republic, and perhaps now feels invincible to rush headlong into a conflict with any political or military force within the country. In recent weeks, General Katawal has actively met political and diplomatic actors often with an unnecessary military entourage to sell his version of Nepal's impending apocalypse at the hands of the Maoists
Doesn't this rhetoric sound similar to that before February 1, 2005? Then, the United States tacitly backed the King in the belief that the monarchy and the Army were the only running horse and the last line of defense against a complete Maoist takeover. They condoned the squeezing of the democratic space, which expedited the end of the monarchy and the propelling of the Maoists to state power, albeit through democratic means. The paranoia about Maoist takeover then was exaggerated, and is equally so today. Anyone who is listening to these individuals who were instrumental in the downfall of the monarchy, is not in the right frame of mind. At best, it will only provide a ruse for the dismantling of the Nepal Army, should such a misadventure fail. Foolhardiness of few individuals will sink the entire Army.
Any militarization of politics, 'soft or hard', will only take us decades behind, and would protract the involvement and commitment of the international community here. It will actually play into the Maoist strategy. In the short term, it may provide a semblance of victory for the detractors of the Maoists, but in the end, will only act as a catalyst for consolidation of Maoist power.
Right-leaning politicians may be right to think of ways to stop the march of the Maoists, but military solutions should not be among them. As for Indians, it will have a bigger internal security implication, not necessarily from the Nepali Maoists but from their own. It will send the wrong message to the insurgents operating within the length and breadth of the country and would throw the chances of peaceful solution there out of the window.
The Maoists are a formidable force, but any militaristic thinking of the situation will only serve the interest of some individuals with deeply vested interests and the weapons cartel that stand to lose from the peace process. I hope both the politicians and the international community, especially, the Indians, the Americans, the Chinese and the Europeans will draw a line and say enough is enough to those behind the coup chatter. By courting the Generals too much, the ministers in the government, the president's office, and the diplomats are only giving the few adventurists in the military a toehold in the political turf. Before they realize, jarsaabs will have their whole foot and body inside the forbidden door of politics. It is one thing for the international community to maintain a line of communication with the military, and completely another to listen to the crazy idea of sabotaging the fledgling peace process.
By validating the decision taken by the President to revoke the decision of Prime Minister Dahal, the current government has effectively set a precedent that authorizes the President to take extra-constitutional decisions in the guise of political complication. The better course would have been to let the Supreme Court decide the matter. Even the hereditary monarchs hesitated after 1990, with the exception of King Gyanendra's takeover, to so overtly reverse the decision of an elected executive without seeking legal advice from the Supreme Court.
Now that we have a presidential precedent, and an ambitious General who is seeking to extend his tenure, only an international community that proactively condemns any further militarization of Nepali politics can prevent the self-fulfilling prophesies of the Maoists and jarsaabs alike.

Published in The Kathmandu Post on July 17, 09

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Diplomatic missions without ambassadors

The following report was aired on BBC Nepali Service on June 16, 09. Continuing political instability and frequent changes in government at home is affecting the timely appointment of ambassadors in Nepal's diplomatic missions abroad. In the case of France the Nepali embassy has been without ambassador for 4 years.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A modest solution

A powerful crisis resolution body at the centre is what we need to jumpstart the process of governance

In Britain the outrage over the Member of Parliaments' (MPs') expenses have generated enormous public pressure on the politicians to come clean. It has already cost the speaker his job, and many more heads are likely to roll with the proposed reshuffling of the cabinet. In Nepal, where we have religiously tried to copy the Westminster system in the past, the emphasis on personal integrity and morality of the British system are not biggest selling points for the politicians here.
Like Britain, we have many of the similar problems in closet of our parliaments. Unlike Britain, the cleansing rarely happens, perhaps a reason why we need frequent revolutions. There are complaints about MPs not attending the parliamentary and respective committee meetings, underpaying their staffs and horse-trading. I do not intend to paint everyone with the same brush, nevertheless these incidents are taking place on a regular basis.
Staffs of Constituent Assembly (CA) members have written anonymous letters to newspapers and radio stations about their bosses not paying them their allocated salaries. But those are smaller problems; larger problems lie in the eroding institutional capacity of the executive, so much so that an executive order barely seems able to move the garbage dumpsters to the dumping site.
One of the frequent attacking points against the Maoist government, for their hyperactivity in the use of the executive power - which in most cases generated more heat than light - was this refrain from Nepali Congress and Tarai-Madhes Democratic Party, among others: This is an interim government and its only mandate is to write the constitution. I found there remarks from very senior leaders eerily unrealistic and doubly naive. Perhaps this is where things have gone awry in this transition period. The executive branch is expected to consolidate its authority (especially following a civil war), fill the void left by the years of retreat, secure law and order, and tackle the basic problems that confront the public on a daily basis. Resolving problems like garbage disposal, ending strikes, and controlling inflation are a basic starting point for the government and political parties collectively to provide people some relief.
As they say the morning shows the day, failure to address even the most basic housekeeping issues raises serious questions about the ability of political parties to govern. Producing a fine constitution will not magically instill that capacity in the future, if they fail to do it now. For that and other reasons, the governing coalition needs to make a sincere effort and take initiative to restore a semblance of governance. Others will fall in line if they see enough merit. No politician, I hope, wishes the state to fail and they can all be reasoned with. The first step is really taking a keen interest in addressing the root cause. A patchwork solution for every banda and grievances will only exhaust the government and the country. There has to be a common framework. The next step is formulating that framework or mechanism that allows resolution of disputes without resorting to rough tactics that have tragically become a fad in Nepal.
One suggestion: The government should constitute a high-level conflict resolution body that has the participation of political parties, and civil society at the central and regional levels to listen to the disagreements and disputes that groups have against the state. Armed with a broad political mandate, the body would be able to address most problems within the current legal framework. Those beyond their mandate would be forwarded to the conference of government political parties and civil society at the centre to hammer out a solution or a compromise formula. With the formation of this body, the parties have to agree to outlaw strikes and bandh for the period of two year. This will give the much-needed breathing space to the government, people, politics, and economy.
Initially, the political parties had agreed to continue the civil society-led National Monitoring Committee (NMC) to continue its work. But the disagreement over the Terms of Reference (TOR) led to abandonment of an important institution that could have played a crucial role in defusing the current crisis.
Instead of protesting against the president's decision which is sub judice in Supreme Court, the civil society should look at institutional ways of addressing the problems. They should turn their attention towards pressuring the government and the parties to constitute a body with broad participation and political mandate to work as a conflict resolution institution for the interim period.
If the Brits think that their expenses scandal is serious enough to warrant a constitutional reform, ours is far too grave to leave it to the politicians alone. Time is running out.
The Kathmandu Post

Friday, June 5, 2009

Eu elections

The following report on EU elections was aired on BBC Nepali service on June 5, 09

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Learning the Dutch ropes

Amersfoort, May 21 - It's a sunny day and a group of young men stand out in the sun in one of the reception centres for refugees discussing the best internet plan they can purchase for their laptops. Inside one of the apartments, two women of the Karki family are preparing lunch in their fully furnished kitchen adjacent to the dining room where the men are talking and watching television.
Less than five months ago, they used outdoor solar cookers in the refugee camp in Nepal where they cooked in a narrow kitchen under a thatched roof.
After being stateless and homeless for as many as 18 years, many Bhutanese refugees (about 11,000 so far) are on their way to permanent residency and eventual citizenship in eight Western countries. Since Feb. 16, a hundred refugees have arrived in The Netherlands for resettlement. They are currently being housed in a transit centre in this small town of Amersfoort, where they will live until a suitable house is found for them.
“My family will be moving into a new house on June 16. The house has been assigned to us in Utrecht,” says Parlad Karki, who is in his 30s. The refugees will be eligible for social housing that is subsidized by the state for people with low incomes. As residents, they will also be getting unemployment benefits and free health care. As of now, they receive 55 Euro for adult and 30 for children in food allowances. Once they move out they will get unemployment allowance of 1,200 Euro every month, with additional money for children. Life here promises a lot they say.
Most seem eager to start a new life, but they know how hard the transition to a different world will be. In The Netherlands, where English is not the first language, even the young and educated will have to learn Dutch from scratch and make efforts to understand the local culture. “So far, learning the language has been the most difficult thing for me,” says Nawaraj Gazmere. There is excitement among the younger generation, most of who grew up with hard-ships in the camp.
“It was difficult for us in the beginning, but we are slowly adjusting to a new life here,” says Yog Bahadur Khadka. “There was no future for us in the camps and Bhutan was unwilling to accept us back. We didn't have much of a choice.” But for the older generation, the transition has been rough. “I can't read or write English, so it’s is difficult to get around,” says 60-year-old Akhil Bahadur Khadka.
Then there is that constant trauma of having left family members in distress. Many have immediate family members in Bhutan who have been denied property rights and are often persecuted because of their connection to the refugees. “I can't imagine living away from my relatives,” says Chakra Prasad Gazmere, who has a heart condition. “But now I have to.”

The Kathmandu Post

Refugees have mixed feelings about their new home in Netherlands

The following report was broadcasted on BBC Nepali Service on 20 May, 2009

Monday, May 18, 2009

A place to call home

Some Bhutanis finally gained a residency status after living as refugees for as many as 18 years. A group of 100 is adjusting to their new life in Netherlands.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

‘There is no appetite for more conflict’

Norwegian Minister for Environment and International Development, Erik Solheim keeps close tabs on the processes of conflict resolution around the world. He has served as the Norwegian facilitator for the negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. He was also in close contact with the Maoists during the insurgency. Norway, along with other Scandinavian countries has been relatively more positive and accommodating of the Maoists participation in the democratic process in Nepal. Minister Erik Solheim, who hosted Prime Minister Dahal during his visit to Norway at the end of March this year, spoke to John Narayan Parajuli, over phone from Oslo. Excerpts from the conversation:
JNP: There has been dramatic turn of events in Nepal that has led to resignation of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, how do you view these developments?
Solheim: I take a very optimistic view. I am hopeful that the conflict will be resolved peacefully and that the Nepal’s peace process will continue to move further in a positive direction.
JNP: Norway has very been supportive of the peace process in Nepal. But in the light of the current situation, is there a role you can play to defuse the tension?
Solheim: First of all, the local ownership is important to resolve any conflict. We continue to encourage all the actors including the military to resolve the differences amicably. If any assistance is asked of us, we will be happy to provide whatever we can.
JNP: You have been in contact with Prachanda during the insurgency; how would you describe your role in encouraging the Maoists to come to the mainstream?
Solheim: It was an independent decision on the part of the Maoists to take part in the peace process. From the international community, Norway was the first to speak to the Maoists while they were still in the jungle. Our general policy is to speak to everyone. We were also talking with the CPN UML, Nepali Congress and other parties during the same period.
JNP: The international community has been skeptical about the Maoists commitment to democracy, and with recent developments many fear that the peace process could be derailed.
Solheim: Maoists deserve credit for acting democratically in the current crisis. When they could not do what they wanted, the Prime Minister resigned in a true democratic fashion.
JNP: But not everyone in the international community is equally convinced of the Maoists democratic credentials. For instance the US has been more skeptical of the Maoists.
Solheim: It is very normal to have different views among the members of the international community. I understand the United States is more skeptical. I have discussed these issues with American officials and other leaders from time to time.
JNP: What are some of the biggest concerns of the Norwegian government about Nepal’s fledgling peace process?
Solheim: Nepal lies in a very vulnerable part or world, South Asia, where there are many conflicts: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Nepal has been able to peacefully resolve some of the outstanding conflict. And the important aspect of it is that the whole peace process is homegrown. Even the Madhesi parties have participated in the process. Of course, the international community has supported the peace process, but there is only so much they can do. Our biggest concern is not to let this light of peace in Nepal to be consumed by darkness. The international community has its handful with so many conflicts in the region that there is no appetite for more conflict.
JNP: Someone who keeps a close tabs on the conflict resolution endeavors in many places, how would you grade the progress of Nepal’s peace process?
Solheim: Up until the recent crisis, Nepal has scored an ‘A’. I remember in 2003-4, when many Nepalis frustrated with the conflict came to me and asked how can we peacefully resolve our conflict and learn from the Sri Lankan experience, when the negotiations there were yielding positive results. Two years later Nepal has now become the model other countries to emulate.
JNP: Prime Minister Prachanda recently returned from Norway and he described the visit has highly successful especially in terms of securing support for the hydroelectric sector. What is your own assessment of his recent visit and will your assistance change due to the possible change in government?
Solheim: I have been impressed by Prime Minister Prachanda’s leadership both as the leader of his party and as the Prime Minister of Nepal during his visit to Norway. A key aspect of his visit was about Norway’s support for Nepal’s hydroelectric development. We have said before that we are ready to support Nepal. We do not prefer this party over that party and our support will be extended to any democratic government. Our support is to the people of Nepal.
JNP: What can Nepal learn from Norway’s experience in harnessing hydropower for prosperity?
Solheim: Hydropower is the foundation for today’s modern prosperous Norway. Norway has technical expertise and environmental sensitivity to generate power without causing much destruction of the environment. Nepal can learn from our experience.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Norway pats Dahal on back

AMSTERDAM, May 8 - Norway has appreciated Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s act of quitting the government and hoped that the peace process continues despite the hiccups.
“Maoists deserve credit for acting democratically in the current crisis. When they could not do what they wanted, the Prime Minister resigned in a true democratic fashion,” Norwegian Minister for Environment and International Development Erik Solheim told the Post over phone from Oslo.
“I take a very optimistic view. I am hopeful that the conflict will be resolved peacefully and that Nepal’s peace process will continue to move further in positive direction.”
He stressed that the international community can assist but only the local ownership can yield meaningful results. “First of all, the local ownership is important to resolve any conflict,” Minister Solheim said.
“Of course if any assistance is asked of us, we will provide whatever we can.”
Minister Solheim played a part in encouraging the Maoists to come to mainstream, which ultimately led to the initiation of the current peace process.
Norway opened a line of communication with the Maoists when they were still in hiding. He said that Norway has a policy of speaking to everyone. Solheim has served as the Norwegian facilitator for negotiations between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government and keeps close tabs on attempts at conflict resolution.
In 2003-4, he said many Nepalis spoke to him about emulating the Sri Lankan model. But in less than two years, Nepal became a model for the rest of the world, he added.
The Scandinavian countries, including Norway, have been relatively more positive and accommodating of Maoist participation in the democratic process.
Minister Solheim, who hosted Prime Minister Dahal during his Norway visit, said he was impressed by Dahal's leadership. Responding to a question, he said that the Maoists acted democratically. “Maoists deserve credit for acting democratically in the current crisis.”
"It was an independent decision on the part of the Maoists to take part in the peace process. Norway was the first country to speak to the Maoists while they were still in the jungle. Our general policy is to speak to everyone. We were also talking with the CPN UML, Nepali Congress and other parties,” he said.
I have been impressed by Prime Minister Prachanda’s leadership both as the leader of his party and as the Prime Minister of Nepal during his visit to Norway.”

Excerpts from the interview will be posted later.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Media Matters

Media coverage reduces the reality of Maoists and their intent by muddling fact with fuss


Even as the army row forced his hand, the prime minister pulled a trick out of his sleeves and unexpectedly stepped down. The Maoists might have had the last laugh after all.
There is fundamental misjudgment about how the Maoists operate among segments of the media, the political parties and the international community. Part of this misconception has been perpetuated by the Maoists themselves to keep everyone guessing. But largely it is the consequence of the complex nature of interaction between the Maoist party and plethora of sister organizations and the work of over-speculative media pundits. Media coverage reduces the reality about the Maoists and their intent through sweeping generalizations and selective hype.
Empirical researches have shown that there is a positive correlation between the use of the mass media and the process of democratic engagement: political interest, knowledge and participation. But there is another side to the coin. The mass media also foments apathy, ignorance, disengagement and cynicism. Studies have also showed that there is a positive correlation between lack of trust in the government and trust in the media.
The story about the role of the mass media gets complicated. But one way to look at is that the trust of the government and the politicians is intertwined with the media's own credibility, and that the media is partly responsible for public cynicism and apathy.
A quick glance at the coverage of the army-Maoists row in the mainstream media shows how the media has failed miserably at political propaganda analysis. The coverage has been excessively critical of the Maoist bid to "politicize" the army, while the stance of the opposition, though equally driven by similar considerations of political expediency, has been subtly portrayed as an act in "defence of democracy". This comes to show how susceptible the media is to the forces of push and pull. Or is there an inherent urban-elite bias that the media cannot overcome?
There are not many functional institutions in Nepal, and the media as the gatekeeper of information ought to be more vigilant. More than a decade long democratic rule under of the watch of the Nepali Congress (for the most part) and others has done very little to build institutions. The problem is doubly compounded for a government led by the Maoists who have not been out in the mainstream for some period of time. For them, everything begins from scratch -- establishing power relationships, navigating the subtleties of coalition politics and learning to behave like parliamentarians, ministers and even prime minister.
The political orientation and the continuing belief of hardliners in Marxist and Maoist ideals dichotomize the work of the government led by moderates. In the classical Marxist view, there is no distinction between state institutions and political organizations. Nepali Maoists may also have taken Mao's maxim to heart: The party must control the gun, and that gun must never control the party. Euphemistically put, it simply means that there should be political control of the army, not the other way around. The Maoist interpretation of this maxim depends on how much the party has transformed so far, and how far it is willing to go in the future. For that, we should look at the continuing evolution of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for clues.
Shiping Zheng, a political scientist in his 1997 book Party vs. State in Post-1949 China, describes how the CCP still suffers from a revolutionary hangover half a century later. (Although the book is a decade old, some of my Chinese colleagues assure me that not much has changed since then.) The feud between moderates and hardliners among Nepali Maoists is largely about whether or not the party should continue to retain its revolutionary character and uphold the ideology of the "vanguard party". Even in China where there is a one-party state, CCP elders have been unwilling to completely abandon the wartime strategy. Therefore, it is not unnatural for Nepali Maoists -- so steeped in communist ideology and who still see themselves as being surrounded by adversaries -- to display similar traits.
The Maoists would like everyone to believe that they are rash and reckless in their decision-making process. But they are not so hell-bent on establishing a one-party dictatorship as it would appear from press headlines. The Maoist strategy, as I see it, is two-pronged: At the political level, they are playing up the stereotypical understanding of communists -- impervious to reason, rash and confrontational. On a more general level, they are ratcheting up the conflict to wear down their adversaries -- provoking them to react, not to reason.
Apart from measuring the preparedness of their adversaries, these conflicts provide a big propaganda victory for the Maoists. First, it keeps the cadres united and prepared against the "enemy". Second, every reaction or criticism is an opportunity to highlight how "regressive elements" are working to scuttle the aspiration of the people. Dahal's resignation shows to what length they will go to keep the party united. But they have killed two birds with one stone. They have managed to bury their poor performance with a political drama that ended with Dahal appearing to be resigning over a principle.
The Maoists are well versed in the process of political communication and how it trickles down to the masses, and they are making full use of the excessive negative media coverage (about themselves) to poison the well -- literally telling their constituency and beyond that they cannot trust the media because they are hand in glove with "anti-people" elements. For the Nepali media to become an effective watchdog of public interest, it is imperative to learn to cut through the thick of political propaganda (of both the Maoists and other parties) and separate the facts from the fuss.
Published in the The Kathmandu Post, May 07, 09

Monday, May 4, 2009

President's move, unfortunate

In trying to correct the decision of the Maoists led government, the president seems to have overstepped his boundary. It sets a bad precedent and encourages the creation of rival power centers. President Yadav was either ill-advised or he has his own political ambitions.It is really unfortunate that the office of president has been dragged into this controversy. President Yadav could have played more important role as a peacemaker, but now he has already marked himself as a divisive and partisan figure. He should have let the Supreme Court decide the validity of the Maoists move.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

April Revolution

The following is an amateur documentary that me and my wife (Safala Shrestha) made in the summer of 2006. It provides an overview of the conflict in Nepal.

Education matters

The following audio report in Nepali looks into the gap between the public and private schooling in Nepal

Thursday, April 30, 2009

I am an optimistic person

Dr. Surya P. Subedi has just been appointed the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia by the Human Rights Council, a tough job by any standard. The UN and the Cambodian government have had thorny relationship on the issue of human rights. Although the mandate remains the same, the Special Representative position was changed to the Special Rapporteur, following the resignation of Yash Ghai last year. Ghai suffered personal attack and even a visa ban at the hands of the Cambodian government. Dr. Subedi is a Professor International Law at University of Leeds and a practicing Barrister in England. He was appointed an honorary OBE in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth for his services to international law and Britain-Nepal relations. Dr. Surya Subedi spoke to John Narayan Parajuli about his new role and lessons Nepal can draw from Cambodia. Excerpts:

Why were you appointed the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia?

I believe it was because of my standing as a truly independent, impartial, and objective academic; my expertise in international law in general and international human rights law in particular; and my familiarity with legal, political and human rights issues in Asia in general and Cambodia in particular.

I worked as a General Editor of an annual pan Asian publication – the Asian Yearbook of International Law - for six years. It enabled me to interact with academics and other intellectuals from many Asian countries, including Cambodia. Perhaps as a Nepali citizen too. Nepal has no axe to grind against any nation. We Nepali people are generally liked in international circles for our friendly nature and hard working and sincere character. I believe a well-qualified, hard-working and sincere Nepali is well placed to serve in any high international positions.

UN and the Cambodian government have been at loggerheads over the issue of human rights for quite some time and that makes your job very challenging, doesn’t it?

Yes, it does make my role challenging. But again the very position of a UN Special Rapporteur is a challenging one – to perform a difficult and at the same a noble task. I regard this as a huge privilege and a great opportunity to make my contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights. Promoting human rights and speaking for the oppressed, marginalised and disadvantaged people is always a challenge. I am committed to human rights and the rule of law nationally and internationally and I would do whatever it takes to promote and protect the rights of Cambodian people. That is my main objective. But my approach would be a constructive one – designed to achieve results rather than unnecessarily antagonizing people.

Your predecessor Yash Ghai resigned in frustration. There is a growing concern among the civil society leaders in Cambodia that you might receive the same kind of hostile treatment from the government just like your predecessors.

Let us wait and see how the people and the government of Cambodia will deal with me when I begin my task. I am by nature an optimist person. I was encouraged by the tone and content of the speech delivered by the Cambodian ambassador to the UN after the decision by the UN Human Rights Council to appoint me to this position. His approach was a constructive one and he said his government would co-operate with me. I hope the government authorities realize that the progress, prosperity and peace in Cambodia lies in the greater respect for human rights and the dignity of each and every Cambodian citizen.

Does your understanding of conflict in Nepal add value to your work in Cambodia, and vice versa?

Yes I believe that my study and analysis of the situation in Nepal for a long time as an independent and objective person will help me to understand and appreciate better the situation in Cambodia and the plight of the people there. I have been writing quite frequently and for a long time in both the Nepali and international media on the constitutional, legal and political situation in Nepal and have advanced my own views on how to make the constitutional, legal and political system in Nepal a fair, inclusive and equitable one for all. Likewise, I hope the experience that I will gain from my work in Cambodia will enable me to make a contribution to improve the human rights situation in Nepal, and to encourage political leaders to embrace democracy and democratic culture both in their words and deeds. I think I have said it elsewhere that democracy has come to the people and the country of Nepal but not to the political leaders.

I do not think Nepalese leaders have been able to articulate any foreign policy of the country. The time to go out with a begging bowl to foreign countries should be over. It only lowers Nepal’s standing internationally and exposes the naïve and shallow character of Nepal’s political leaders. No foreigners will build Nepal. Foreign countries have their own agenda behind whatever assistance they may provide to Nepal. People in Nepal should start believing in themselves and put their act together to build the nation.

Cambodia has had a long period of political transition with occasional setbacks between the Paris Peace Accord signed in 1991 and now, how would you describe the process, and is there a lesson Nepal can learn from it?

The lesson Nepal can learn from the Cambodian experience is to abide by the letter and spirit of past agreements reached among the major political actors. Once people start deviating from their own commitments then they lose the trust and confidence of other people. Such a breakdown in trust and confidence costs the country and the people dearly. This is what seems to be happening in Nepal. Political leaders should lead the way and set good examples at least in their public life. You are right to point out the commitments expressed in the Paris Peace Accord concerning the situation in Cambodia. But the process to implement the commitments has been frustratingly slow. That is why Cambodia finds itself in this situation. In my personal opinion, both Cambodia and Nepal should honestly honor and implement the provisions in the past agreements to move the country forward so that they can achieve higher economic growth, political stability and social harmony in order to ensure that the fruits of democracy reach to as many people as possible

Is there a chance that the current transitional period in Nepal will drag that long?

No it should not last that long in Nepal. I am hopeful that the constitution will be written and promulgated within the stipulated time frame. There is no way out here for any body and any sensible political leader should have realised this. However, writing a new constitution is not an end itself. It is a vehicle to advance the society in a more civilised manner. For this, the political process should take the issues of impunity, transitional justice, and respect for human rights as seriously as the process of writing the new constitution. It is where people like us with independent and objective minds and no party political ties have a role to play in applying more pressure on the government and all political leaders and assist the UN agencies such as the OHCHR in playing a more meaningful and effective role in Nepal.

What is your take the ongoing debate and controversy surrounding the issue of army integration in Nepal?

The issue relating to the integration of the Maoist fighters into the Nepal army is basically a political one and should be resolved on the basis of the past agreements reached. The rank and file of the foot soldiers in both camps are the sons and daughters of the same poor Nepali people. They both have same aspirations for themselves and for their country and have similar traits. It should not be a problem to bring them together. There should be a programme of training to depoliticise the mind-set of Maoist fighters fit for a professional army loyal to the nation and the people as a whole rather than to their political masters. The problem may lie in the integration into the upper levels of the military hierarchy as the people in the existing Nepal Army would like to safeguard their current position and their prospects for promotion etc. But the number at the top end of the scale is small and a political solution should and could be found to address such concerns.

What are your hopes and fears for the Nepali peace process?

I am optimistic. In terms of the political change, so much has been achieved in Nepal. Some of them have been unprecedented in the world. Now the time has come to capitalize on this political achievement and focus on the overall nation-building process in unison. The fears would of course be not necessarily the derailment of the peace process because it is not a viable option for anyone, but the lack of foresight, wisdom and vision on the party of political leaders resulting in constant bickering and squabbling.