On May Day, two days after we arrived, the Maoists in Nepal amassed 300-400,000 people in the centre of Kathmandu and declared a general strike. The country was closed down for over a week. Roads were closed, all shops and businesses were closed and there was a very peculiar atmosphere around the city. These are some young demonstators taking a break from the protests.

By: thisisnotspicy

Jul 26 2009

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Category: Kathmandu (20)

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Aperture:f/5.6
Focal Length:55mm
ISO:400
Shutter:1/400 sec
Camera:Canon EOS DIGITAL REBEL XTi

Some background:  Nepal, unlike most of its neighbours, has never been colonised and was a Hindu kingdom until quite recently.  Its geography, 8 of the 14 highest mountains in the world (over 8000 metres) are in Nepal, explains a lot of that.  And being landlocked at the cross roads of Asia has meant that dozens of different ethnic groups from neighbouring countries have settled here over time.  So walking down the street in Kathmandu you’re as likely to see almost white-western physical traits as far-eastern ones and everything in between -apparently there are 60 ethnic groups speaking over 70 languages and dialects.  The country is 80%Hindu, 20% Buddhist. So nation building or a sense of nationalism in the western sense are alien concepts to the majority of the population, the rural poor.  Add to this a rigid caste system and the discrimination and racism that go with it and the fact the country’s biggest export is its educated young people and  you’ve some idea of the context for the recent crisis.     

The country is going through a transition from a constitutional monarchy to a republic and a new Constitution is being written.  The king was booted out in 2006, there was a peace accord to end the ten-year conflict and an interim constitution was drawn up.  In the elections that followed the Maoists won most seats in the parliament.  From what I understand, the country has been ruled by an urban elite from the capital loyal to the king for decades and the Maoists’ giving voice to the grievances of the rural poor and campaigning against the caste system, for women’s rights and land reform rang true with disillusioned Nepalis. Now they’re the biggest party in the country.
They didn’t win an absolute majority though and needed to enter a coalition to gain power. One of the most contentious issues in the transition is the integration of the 20,000 Maoist armed fighters (who fought as underground insurgents for ten years) in to the national army. This is the reason the Maoists are not in government any more.  While they were in power the Maoist prime minister tried to sack the head of the army during a dispute over the sequencing and timing of the integration.  Apparently the army is really politicised and has close ties with the traditional ruling elite.  He left office over the issue and the other parties formed a grand coalition against them.  This all happened in the context of the interim constitution. And a lot of the ministers, including the prime minister in the coalition government cobbled together after the crisis,  were unelected members of the smaller parties whose support was needed to win a majority.

So the Maoists claim the government is illegitimate and is to busy playing politics and is not implementing Peace Accords.  They are demanding a new grand coalition based on the 2006 election results.  This is all happening during a time when the new constitution is supposed to be being written and a peace agreement implemented.  So yeah, they’re all totally pre-occupied with power and can’t focus writing the constitution that’s needed to give shape to the new state institutions.  It seems like a huge distraction to me.

The Maoists are obviously struggling to make the transition to a fully civilian political party intact.  They seem to be going through a crisis of identity with some members claiming this to be the ‘final uprising of the proletariat’ and their leaders negotiating a grand coalition with political parties representing the traditional ruling elites.
The geopolitics are quite interesting too.

The UN have a big presence on the ground.  They are monitoring the peace agreement and the Nepali army, you see them a lot around Kathmandu.   Their mandate has actually just been renewed.  And there are international human rights observers on the streets at the moment.  Apparently one of he biggest external influences is the Indian government (with the US in their ear no doubt) and they’re backing the current government at all cost it seems.   As Nepal is landlocked between China and India, it’s like a mini 21st century cold war confrontation too.  It’ll be interesting to see what stance the Chinese take.

For more info on what’s going on in Nepal, this journalist blog has been recommended to me.  He’s here in the city.
http://jedbrandt.net/
http://southasiarev.wordpress.com/

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