Fourteen people, including an 8-month old baby, were hospitalized yesterday as a result of injuries sustained during clashes between ethnic groups in Pokhara, Nepal, just a few miles from where I am staying. Yesterday was the second day of a three day bandh (general strike), called by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) to address concerns of various castes in the final days before the May 27th deadline for adopting Nepal’s new constitution. Pokhara has a large Gurung population, one of the ethnic groups represented by the NEFIN, so the bandh is being very strictly enforced. No buses or taxis are running; all stores, general services, government offices, and schools are closed. Hospitals, police, ambulances, newspaper, TV are all working (most of the time), and police are escorting tourists who have managed to get to Kathmandu to the airport for their flights, but but Internet is intermittent and it is becoming increasingly difficult to go online to report what is happening.
Bandhs began about two weeks ago, as the more than 100 castes in the country became increasingly upset over the wording of the proposed constitution and division of the country into States. Various ethnic groups demanded general strikes on days of their choosing, often called at the last minute, in attempts to force the government to make changes prior to the adoption of the constitution. Last Wednesday, following a brief respite from the strikes, it was rumored that bandhs would begin anew the following morning and extend until the deadline date of May 27th. Indeed, on Thursday everything in Pokhara was once again shuttered and the streets looked like a ghost town. By yesterday, tempers were short. With nothing better to do, activists congregated at Prithivi Chowk and Zero Kilometer, two of the major intersections in town. Gurungs erected a sign demanding that the area around Pokhara be designated a Gurung State, where only members of their caste would be eligible to hold elected office or government jobs. Opposition forces subsequently put up a banner calling for a “United Nepal,” where all ethnic groups live and work together in peace, as has been the case for hundreds of years in this tiny nation. Violence erupted when Gurung factions tried to tear down the “United Nepal” sign; rocks were thrown not only at the demonstrators but through the windows of local houses, in one instance gashing the skull of an infant sleeping in side the home. Fighting continues today. Local radio is reporting that a Brahmin man was bashed over the head with a pipe and a number of demonstrators have been arrested for smashing windows of a local hotel.
The situation is even more serious in other parts of the country. In Kathmandu, rioters have burned motorcycles inside family compounds and severely beaten members of the media as they attempted to cover events, forcing police to respond with tear gas canisters. In the Terai, the sultry lowlands that stretch across the southern portion of Nepal, bandhas have been even more prevalent and more violent. Locals and tourists alike have been stranded in bus stations for weeks at a time as all transportation into and out of the Terai came to a screeching halt. Families who had expected to be gone for a weekend holiday found themselves stranded and quickly ran out of money for food and lodging; many were sleeping on the ground next to their abandoned buses. It does not appear that this stalemate will end any time soon; Tharu and other ethnic groups that comprise most of the population in the Terai are demanding the entire southern belt be designated a single ethnic State. It is unlikely their demands will be met, as a single Terai State would be able to blockade access to India, from where many of the goods Nepalis rely upon are imported.
In real time the bandhs make life difficult and frustrating but the long-term effects are likely to be much more significant. According to the Chinese news service Xinhua-ANI, “around 1000 vehicles carrying essential goods are stranded in the northern and southern border areas of Nepal…compelling importers to pay extra cost, which will eventually be transferred to consumers.” China and India, the two giants that sandwich this tiny nation, are undoubtedly watching with more than a little interest as events play out. Home to Mount Everest and many of the world’s tallest mountains, Nepal has an impressive potential for the generation of hydro-power, a commodity highly coveted by its two power-hungry neighbors.
Much of the present strife stems from the influence of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which was behind the “Nepalese Peoples War” that began in 1996. Communist Maoist insurgents enticed poor Nepalis (generally members of the lower castes) to join their army by promising free land, food, and restructuring of the government that would include ethnic States – a scheme they labeled “Federalism” – if they were successful in overthrowing the current government. After some years of fighting, a truce was reached and Maoists became a legitimate part of Nepal’s government. Now, they cannot lose face by reneging on their promise of Federalism. Though the fighting is nowhere near as severe now as it was during the Maoist wars, the tension and violence are ramping up at an alarming rate, causing some to call for a state of emergency to be imposed across the country.
For the moment, I am safe. The Nepali family with whom I stay has stores of food and drinking water to last quite some time and yesterday I finally found an ATM that was working, so I now have additional cash on hand. My plans are to stay in Pokhara until mid-June, at which time I will return to Kathmandu before continuing on to Tibet, however I am taking it one day at a time and hoping that things will settle down after May 27th. In the meantime, I feel fortunate to be here to witness first hand the re-making of a country. I will try my best to bring you the news, both here on the blog and on my Facebook Page (http://www.facebook.com/holeinthedonut), as long as we have power and Internet.
20 thoughts on “The Re-making of a Country Is Never Smooth”
What a remarkable story. Even with the troubles Nepal is very high on my bucket list. Thank you for sharing.
Indeed, as far as we stay cautious and avoid the most tensed periods it would be a shame not to visit amazing countries at least once in our life! I am also thinking about South of America here…
While I think the short term pain will be great with more bandhs, some bloodshed and much squabbling, I have a positive feeling that the end result may be quite good. Any country where tribalism rules over national interest will always struggle to find a compromise, I still feel that a path will be found through all this. I watch on with interest for this wonderful country.
Does Nepal feel safe? We were there last summer and I fell in love with the country. My husband is Nepali, and we have a son. We were planning to move there for 6 months in the fall, but now we are not so sure…So just tell me, does it feel safe? Love your blog, thanks!
Hi Laureleigh: You’ll understand that I can’t make any recommendation for your travels, however I can tell you that I feel safe here. Every year, as the constitution deadline approaches, these types of demonstrations occur. This year was worse than before because the Nepal Supreme Court made it illegal to extend the deadline, as they had the previous three years. So, as of today there still is no constitution (only an interim one), no Parliament (again, only an interim one), and the Constituent Assembly, which was charged with the task of promulgating the new constitution, ceased to exist at midnight on the evening of the 27th of May. There are many calls for the resignation of the current Prime Minister, who is a Maoist, as he was a member of the CA and not the interim Parliament, so he has no authority to hold office now. In my opinion, the biggest potential problem right now is the split within the Maoist party, with hardliners threatening to break away and once again take up arms. If that happens, things could shift, but at the momentthey seem to be headed down a path of just forming yet another political party. Things really seem fine at the moment, but I’d recommend monitoring the online version of the Kathmandu Post (http://www.ekantipur.com/tkp/).
Truly it makes me scared ….
Oh that is really sad..but I absolutely agree with you that a shinning can come after a horrible and dark night. thanks for sharing
the situation is really frightening. it’s good to know that you are safe despite of everything that has been happening. but i think this is one of the exciting parts in travelling. you get to experience a lot of unusual things. it’s the experience that counts. 🙂
Thanks Barbara for this very interesting and well written (as always) article. I am glad you are safe, and I hope it stays that way! My Nepali friends really suffered during the early Maoist years, and I so hope things wont return to that and change for the better, though your post does sound alarming!
Barbara, I am so thankful you are with such a kind, generous family. I’ll keep a close eye for your updates. Be safe, my friend. Much love, D
The changes in Nepal over the past decade plus are very troubling. We spent nearly 12 months in Nepal between 1995-1997.
That was a very different time… before the (current) Maoist
Revolution, before the Massacre of the Royal Family, before all the
violence that has plagued the country over the past decade. This is not
to say the country didn’t have any problems, it did. I don’t think they
could keep a coalition government together for more than a few months.
However we were able to work with the government reporting on several
stories that we published that to this day are still some of our
favorite pieces. During our time there we spent time with so many wonderful Nepalis and we spent nearly 6 months
just in the Khumbu region. I presume things, other than development,
haven’t changed too much there. But I fear in other places too many
things have changed along with the amazing people. Nepal is possible our
favorite country in the world (but we’re not putting that on the record
since we don’t like to play favorites) but I’m not sure I want to
return at this point to experience it’s current troubled state.
Hi Trans-Americas: Nepal does have a way of getting under your skin. People used to ask me what my favorite country was and I could never give an answer; I liked different places for different reasons. Then, three years ago, I stepped off the bus in Pokhara, N]epal and that was all she wrote. As you probably know, I gave up my home and possessions some years ago to travel perpetually, but for the past three years I’ve returned to Pokhara for 3-4 months each year. It’s the closest thing I have to a home these days, and I now live with a local Nepali family that has adopted me whenever I’m here. I am happy to report that the Nepali people have NOT changed; they are as welcoming and lovely as ever and I would encourage everyone to come experience this incredible country for themselves. As for the troubled times, I really feel that being here during this historical “country-making” time has given me a deep insight into the culture that otherwise might not have been possible. I hope you get a chance someday to return.
I do hope that things can stay calm – it can’t help the people long term if tourists have to stay away
Very well written. Bandhs have been a part of Nepali life for too long. I am sorry to hear how severe the problems are this time.
Please take care.
Wow, what an intense experience. Please stay safe. I hope the violence ends soon. 🙁
Wow, that’s serious business and worrying indeed. Stay safe!
Your title is intriguing – from my perspective, the idea of a federation seems more like tribalism in a country where the indigenous people are trying to get a voice.
I followed up and read about NEFIN on their Facebook page and website. I get the feeling that they think they are going to get the nasty end of the stick again, however this plays out.More power to you and I hope your internet connection keep strong.
I will be following your updates closely. I’m due to arrive in Nepal at the beginning of July and obviously all of this is rather worrying.
Glad to hear you are safe and have supplies.