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May 2006

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On Nepal and Democracy

We have Tibet as an example and we have Mongolia. Let's take these two as exemplars of far-away places remote from the rest of the world and separated, as much as possible in these days of instant global communications, from international trends of thought. Isolated to an extreme degree, Tibet and Mongolia both are found on the other side of the globe. Conrad's darkest Africa, too, contains other examples of this political and geographic isolation.

And there's yet another country that easily fits into the category of faraway lands out of the international mainstream: Nepal, next door to Tibet and abutting India to the south. Remote? Distant? Politically and economically underdeveloped? Nepal virtually defines those concepts. The capital city of Kathmandu. it happens, sits on almost precisely the other side of the world from Tampa, Florida, in terms of both longitude and latitude.

These examples of lands far away on the other side of the world permit us to compare various aspects of life there and here in the West , where most of us reading these words reside. Let's discuss Nepal in particular in a political context.

Nepal has several distinctions, one of which is being the site, alongside Tibet, of the world's tallest mountain, Everest. The scenery across the long range of the Himalayas in the north is spectacular. Nepal additionally has for many decades furnished the British and Indian armies the famed Gurkha troops, said to be the world's finest light infantry. And Nepal has the distinction of never being a colonial possession of Great Britain or anyone else. It has been independent since unification under a ruler from the village of Gorkha in the late 1700's, albeit with various forced changes of boundaries over time. Most unusually Nepal long had both hereditary monarchs and prime ministers. Its rulers closed its boundaries to all foreigners until 1951, except for a small diplomatic contingent from Britain. (The British embassy at Kathmandu long posted, and presumably still does, an honor role of representatives over the years. Some tours of duty approached two decades in length, if memory serves, presumably with only infrequent home leave to England.)

Over a half century ago the winds of political change began to waft through the mountain kingdom. (Kathmandu valley, incidentally, sits at almost exactly the same height as Denver, Colorado, tending to make a casual visitor avoid strenuous exercise on a short visit.) A comparatively liberal hereditary Rana family prime minister proposed a new constitution based on local, regional, and national representation called the “Panchayat” system. With the assistance of Indian political figures, the Nepalese organized a political party, headed by B. P. Koirala. Only limited power accrued to either the people or the system, but it was a beginning..

During the 1950's the Nepali Congress party of Koirala proved to be too successful for the crown. The party was suppressed and the hereditary prime ministers - the Ranas -- were deposed after long ruling the country. King Mahendra took the role of benevolent monarch but with supreme powers. The Panchayat system operated into the '70s under close controls and restrictions. No political parties; no human rights; no economic development. Political and economic stagnation ensued.

In 1996, a violent campaign of bloody guerrilla warfare led by Maoists erupted in the rugged reaches of western Nepal. This took place in regions of the country in which intrepid trekkers had for generations been able to wander freely up hill and down dale without the slightest concern about receiving anything less than courteous and hospitable treatment. Certainly that was the reception that your editor enjoyed consistently during the four years he was stationed in Nepal during the '60's.

Maoist-instigated agitation continued in recent years. Some 13,000 people died. (One wonders if the Maoists had the backing of Beijing, but this writer has not seen anything to indicate that was the case.) The Nepali Congress and the Marxist/Leninists were the two main opposition political groups, with only limited political freedom.

Nepal's newest king, Gyanendra, who assumed the throne in 2001 following a palace massacre unconnected to political maneuvering, closed the parliament in 2002 and eventually took the drastic action of abolishing entirely the political system in favor of his direct rule. The Nepalese reacted very negatively during April, with considerable violence (twenty-one people died in Kathmandu), forcing the king in recent days to give in and return the politicians to the political process. Notable among these once again was the aged Nepali Congress leader, B. P. Koirala. At least a modicum of popular rule was restored, this in a monarchy so long marked by a history of arbitrary rule by either a king, or farther back in time, a hereditary prime minister.

The significant point here, the writer suggests, is the very institution, or reinstitution, of parliamentary rule, whether or not called a Panchayat form of government in this remote, romantic, mysterious kingdom high in the Himalyas. It's as far away from us here in the West - as far away from the currents of political thought -- as you can get, short of a trip by rocket to the moon. Observers comment that very probably the voting populace would have preferred elective democracy, the form of government we adhere to and promote, rather than a resurrected Panchayat system. But some form of self rule, no matter what exactly it's called, obviously is a driving force in this day and age. This is so, evidently, even in a far mysterious, mountainous country having little contact with the outside world and the currents of political thought. The point is debatable as to the universality of a desire for freedom and democracy, but as Nelson Mandela, a native of a far away former colonial dependency in Africa, put it more than forty years ago:

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society . . . It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Such, evidently, not too surprisingly was also the ideal of the Nepalese people. What should we think in that regard these days of the peoples of the Middle East? Could the experience of far Nepalese be held up as a model for the good folk of Iraq?

Editor Henry Mattox


Editor Henry Mattox

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