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