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