LETTER FROM NEPAL; High hopes amid political struggles -By Rob Werner
Careening down the streets of Kathmandu at night surrounded by the honking horns of motorbikes, cars and trucks, the raw energy of the city is palpable. Collisions seem imminent, but somehow the traffic flow develops its own rhythm and mishaps are avoided – amazing, given the lack of obvious traffic signals and signage. To western eyes and ears, this cacophony can be disorienting but exciting all the same.I visited Nepal earlier this year as part of a Legislative Fellows Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, joining colleagues from across the United States to learn about the political traditions and challenges of the country as well as the attitudes and concerns of its citizens. We spent time in urban centers and rural villages, marketplaces and tourist sites. Our week-long visit included a full briefing from the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu regarding the political situation in the country, and we met representatives of a number of the leading political parties.While the country is halfway across the globe, there were familiar reminders of home. For example, as a Rotarian I got to attend two Rotary meetings in Nepal. The same camaraderie, connection and fellowship greeted me in Kathmandu as in Bow, and the projects were universal – scholarships for students and fundraisers to support community improvement initiatives.
We conferred with business leaders during a visit to Biratnagar, an industrial city in southeast Nepal where the woefully underdeveloped power grid allows the flow of electricity for only 14 hours a day. Members of the local chamber of commerce were justifiably proud of their efforts to generate economic opportunity for their community but loudly dismissive of the government’s indifference to investments in basic infrastructure. Local government leaders are sincere in their efforts, but resources are lacking.
What we take for granted as basic city services delivered on a consistent basis are often lacking in Nepal – I think first of the implications for public health. While the food was consistently delicious and intriguing, we were warned not to consume any raw vegetables or fruit – too risky. The headlines warned of bird flu, but it had not migrated from fowl to human during our time there.
We learned much about the history of Nepal and current political attitudes, and there was a good deal of interest from Nepalis in the political traditions and operations of the United States, including the 2012 presidential election. Describing the election process was a particular challenge. Who would purposely design such a system, anyway? The absurdities become glaringly apparent when trying to explain the difference between a caucus and a primary. The electoral college seemed especially anachronistic through the eyes of our hosts.
The promise of a new day in Nepal is tempered by the reality of continuing political struggle over the adoption of a constitution after 10 years of armed conflict and democratic elections in 2008.
While Nepal was once a monarchy, an insurgency led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist rebels forced the end of the kingdom. Once the 601-member Constitutional Assembly was established with representation from nearly 30 political parties, the task of establishing a governing document began – and has continued, with the nation’s Supreme Court granting two extensions, the most recent and final extension until May 31 of this year. But little discernible progress has been made on the details of the document, and there is widespread skepticism that the deadline will be met.
The consequences of failing to adopt a constitution by the end of May are uncertain. Some residents imagine business as usual; some predict increased authoritarian control by the governing party. Some fear a renewal of violence. Perhaps the deadline will serve to concentrate the efforts of the participants, most of all the representatives of the three major political parties: the Communist Party/Maoists, the Nepali Congress Party, and the United Marxist-Leninist Party. I’ve taken to checking in on the situation by reading the paper online that I became most familiar with while visiting Nepal, The Himalayan Times. Election held, but still no constitution
Regardless of the growing political tension within Nepal, the warmth and hospitality of the people we met was a constant. Our hosts invited us into their homes, businesses and schools. We shared memorable meals and conversations. I look forward to returning to Nepal one day, perhaps for a Himalayan trek – I did catch a glimpse of Mount Everest (Sagamartha in Nepalese) during the plane ride from Kathmandu to Biratnagar and was awestruck at the sight of these mighty mountains.
My experience in this most remarkable part of the world was extraordinary and a privilege. It is my hope that the people of Nepal will pursue every opportunity to control their destiny, and that our interactions and continuing communication will play some small part in a positive outcome. (Monitor)