Nepali Times

SILENCED

Monday, May 2nd, 2016
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Photo credit: VATSAYAN/KANTIPUR

Photo credit: VATSAYAN/KANTIPUR

There have been attempts to foist authoritarianism on the people throughout Nepal’s recent history. But there was dissent even during the iron-fisted rule of the Rana oligarchy, and some were hanged for their trouble. A hush-hush and underground pro-democracy movement was gathering strength even during the Panchayat to erupt in street protests in 1980 and 1990. During the decade-long war for totalitarianism by the extreme left, or the royal-military coup of 2005, civil society fought tooth and nail to protect our freedom. It is the sacrifice of the martyrs, and the fortitude of Nepal’s pro-democracy warriors that we are able to enjoy the open society we have today.

Make that ‘had’. Ever since the pre-meditated appointment of Lok Man Singh Karki as the head of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) in 2013, we have been seeing a gradual erosion of the freedoms guaranteed by our constitution. A creeping counter-revolution is taking the country back to authoritarianism. This time it is not being done with the force of arms, or mass arrests, but by intimidation, threats and the blatant abuse of authority by the very institution created to curb such abuse.

In the three years since his appointment, Karki has made the CIAA an extra-constitutional source of political power that works hand-in-glove with business syndicates, political cartels and at the behest of outside powers and their agencies. The ultimate aim here seems to be to derail a democratically produced constitution and abrogate its implementation. Some don’t like the secular provision and want Nepal to remain a Hindu state, others would like to see the monarchy back, there are those who think federalism doesn’t go far enough and some who think it’s a bad idea. Rival forces in New Delhi have got embroiled in this power struggle, and are competing in Kathmandu through their proxies.

Kanak Mani Dixit is just the latest pawn in a game in which Karki sits at the chess board but there are larger geopolitical sources moving the pieces for him. By now, just about everyone who had run afoul of Karki in the past as the Royal Law and Order Enforcer, or those who opposed India’s five-month blockade of Nepal, have been issued CIAA summons or been hauled over the coals.

On the pretext of investigating corruption, the CIAA has systematically targeted bureaucrats, police, politicians, professors, journalists, lawyers, civil society activists and pluralism campaigners. The intimidation and threats have instilled a culture of silence that is destroying our democracy and rule of law. And the latest proof of that is the inability or reluctance of the Kathmandu polity to speak out openly against the CIAA’s unlawful detentions.

Few spoke out when the CIAA violated Article 20 of the constitution by not allowing lawyers to see Dixit for a full 72 hours after his detention on 22 April. The Federation of Nepalese Journalists opted to stay quiet even when its global umbrella body, the International Federation of Journalists, spoke out against this attempt to silence a journalist. The Nepal Bar Association, which has always been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy in this country, has kept silent about Dixit, who himself is a member of the Kathmandu Bar.

To be sure, Nepal’s politicians, civil servants, legislators, and even heads of sports bodies are rotten to the core. The CIAA was set up precisely because various pillars of the state could be co-opted by organised criminals enjoying political protection. But today that very institution has been infiltrated by a persona epitomising the collective scourges his office is supposed to investigate. What do you do when an agency set up to stem the rot is itself rotten? Or when politicians whose closets rattle with skeletons keep mum? To counter abuse of authority by a constitutional body we can only fall back on two other constitutional bodies: the judiciary and parliament. The danger is that these institutions themselves will be the next to be silenced by the conspirators.

Those who remain silent when they come for freedom fighters may like to remind themselves of this famous message: there may be no one left to speak out when they come for you.


Disastrous coverage

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016
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Photo: Bikram Rai

Photo: Bikram Rai

Given their short attention spans, limited capacity to capture context, and the scripted narrative of international news, reporters cannot be entirely blamed for their unidimensional coverage  of disasters. We have seen the pattern repeated after Typhoon Haiyan, Cyclone Nargis and Hurricane Katrina. So, there was a certain predictability to the way that an earthquake in distant Nepal would be covered.

Anniversaries are a time to revisit disasters, and the story about our earthquake has been written even before the reporters skydive in — government response has been non-existent, survivors are still living in tents, and none of the $4.1 billion pledged last year at a donor conference has been spent. The truth, as we know, is little more complex. But it would be silly to let facts get in the way of a trending topic.

Where was the foreign media and a self-righteous international community when Nepal was reeling under a ruinous Indian blockade, the economic impact of which on the country was much more debilitating than the earthquake? Where were they when the Tarai was burning last August? Was there coverage of earthquake relief material being stuck at the border for five months? Who  covered the shortage of aviation fuel and diesel that halted delivery of winterisation kits for earthquake shelters?

And now, when the sky goes dark once more with parachute journalists, the world is fed decontextualised coverage of delays in relief delivery and survivors still not receiving their reconstruction grants. Where were you when patients were dying in November-December 2015 because ambulances had run out of fuel? Didn’t see internationals showing much concern when hospitals ran out of diesel for generators, vaccine cold chains broke down, schools were closed and the country was in the throes of a humanitarian crisis.

The Google Database of Events Language and Tone (GDELT Project)  collaborated with the humanitarian news agency, IRIN to analyse coverage of the earthquake in the first half of 2015, using 300,000 articles in 65 languages that mentioned the word Nepal. Starting with a ‘background radiation’ of an average of 300 mentions per day in March, the number suddenly soars to nearly 33,000 on 25 April (see graph). Then in a week it drops precipitously to 2,000. There is a small peak on 12 May, the day of the 7.3 magnitude aftershock and the disappearance of a US Marines rescue helicopter, and another small blip four days later when the chopper is found in Dolakha.

Photo: IRIN

Illustration: IRIN

Interestingly, the GDELT/IRIN study further analyses the 33,000 mentions of Nepal on 25-26 April 2015 and finds that nearly a quarter of the stories were about the avalanche at Mt Everest Base Camp that killed 16. Even in May 2015, 17 per cent of the stories were still focusing on Mt Everest. Predictably, by mid-May the international media has moved  on to disasters elsewhere in the world, and coverage of Nepal falls back to nearly pre-earthquake levels even though the real slow motion disaster was just beginning in Nepal.

The coverage, especially on tv, zoomed in exclusively on the destruction, creating the impression that Kathmandu had been utterly devastated. Monuments had collapsed, and those visuals were just too photogenic to resist. The fact that 90 per cent of the residential buildings in Kathmandu Valley were intact did not seem to register because it did not fit the prevailing news narrative. Reporters are supposed to strive for accuracy, but disproportionate coverage of destruction distorts the truth.

The GDELT Project analysis of the data after May 2015 concludes: ‘…the world’s news media appears to have largely moved on from Nepal, finding it no longer “newsworthy” enough to devote significant attention to.’ If the monitoring had continued, we would likely be seeing a slight rise in mentions of Nepal worldwide now, less steep but peaking perhaps on Monday next week, and a steep descent after that as Nepal and the earthquake once more sink back into oblivion.

This is the reality of international news coverage, and there is little we can do about it. News is a product much like what is called FMCG in advertising parlance — to be gathered, processed, packaged and sold like a fizzy drink or fried drumstick. The market is mainly in the West, and that dictates the selection of what makes news. Earthquakes make it, blockades don’t. It just takes too long to explain.

The Indian blockade was an asymmetrical response to the inability of Nepal’s rulers to address the grievances of plains-dwellers, and its heavy-handed crackdown on ensuing protests last year. It gave the wily Oli government the perfect excuse for the delays in earthquake relief. He whipped up xenophobia and ultra-nationalism, camouflaging his inability to deal with India, to get the National Reconstruction Authority up and running, and to hide the blatant protection of the black-market economy. The Indians did Oli a big favour with the blockade, and allowed him to get away with doing nothing.

In the midst of all this are the bright spots that we feature in the current and previous editions of this newspaper: the communities that have taken up reconstruction on their own, heritage conservationists at the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Trust (KVPT) who are rebuilding historic sites with the Department of Archaeology , international organisations like Possible that have forged effective partnerships with the Ministry of Health to rebuild not just destroyed hospitals but also the health system in the earthquake-affected areas, or organizations like Miyamoto International and Childreach Nepal working with the Department of Education to rebuild government schools in Sindhupalchok. These are working examples of non-government organisations delivering valuable services by collaborating with government, and not trying to bypass it. Ultimately, our goal should be not to absolve the government of its responsibility but improve its capacity to reach people in need.

News about slow government is no longer news to us Nepalis. It is a given. The news is what we do despite that, but such behind-the-scenes partnerships are just not newsworthy enough for ambulance-chasers.


The sharp edge of history

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016
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A new book looks back at 200 years of Gurkha history.

KUNDA DIXIT

Exactly 200 years ago this week, Nepali defenders were waiting at Makwanpur Fort for the East India Company to attack. This was going to be a make-or-break battle to protect Kathmandu, and Nepal’s sovereignty. The Gorkhalis ambushed the British, and a shell from a cannon exploded near the British commanding officer, Major General David Ochterlony, nearly killing him.

In her new book, The Khukri Braves, Jyoti Thapa Mani concludes: ‘If Ochterlony had been hit, the complexion of the Second Anglo-Gorkha War would have changed completely.’ Indeed, the Gorkha kingdom, having lost Garhwal and Kumaon, was balking at ratifying the Sugauli Treaty. Learning from past experience, the British brought in two 18-pounder cannons and aimed them at the fortifications. The Nepalis knew then that the game was up, and dispatched Chandrashekhar Upadhya at 2AM to Ochterlony with the Sugauli Treaty duly signed and stamped.

The Khukri Braves

Ochterlony wrote a receipt: ‘Received this treaty from Chunder Seekur Opedheea, agent on the part of the Rajah of Nepal in the valley of Mukwanpoor, at half past two o’clock on the 4th of May 1816, and delivered to him the Counterpart Treaty on behalf of the British Government. (signed) D Ochterlony, Agent, Governor-General’.

It is details like these that make Mani’s book riveting. Far from being a history text book with dry annotated text, it is an illustrated encyclopedia of the wars that shaped this country, a saga of how Nepali soldiers ended up two centuries later fighting for other nations. We learn, for instance, that Nepali soldiers had defected to the British side in 1815, even before the Anglo-Nepal War formally ended.

That first unit was called the Malaun Regiment after the last big battle in Garhwal, which went on to become the 66th Ghoorkha Rifles and then the 1st Gorkha Rifles of the Indian Army after the British left. We learn that Mani’s own ancestors were part of the Gorkhali Army in 1790 as it marched west, later they served in the Malaun Regiment and her great-great-grandfather was in the 66th Ghoorkhas and her great-grandfather Kaluram Thapa fought in the 1st Gurkha Rifles. Mani’s military genes and her job as a newspaper designer make her the ideal person to package this history of Nepal’s famous fighting men.

Pic credit: The Gurkha Museum Winchester and Ayo-Gorkhali.org. Timeline by Ayesha Shakya

The East India Company in Calcutta was a multinational trading house that represented the British state in the subcontinent, and had an army made up of Irish and Scottish mercenaries and Indian recruits. The expansionist Gorkha empire at its height in 1815 stretched along the Himalayan foothills for 2,000km from the River Sutlej to the Tista in the east. The Company was interested to find trading routes across the Himalaya, primarily to monopolise the lucrative trade in shatoosh, a fine wool made from the chest hair of baby antelopes found on the Tibetan plateau. But the Gorkhalis controlled the Himalayan passes.

The Khukri braves

The Shah kings after Prithvi Narayan Shah had brilliant generals like Amar Singh Thapa and Balbhadra Kunwar who waged a westward blitzkrieg conquering territory at astounding speed. But the supply lines had become too long, the Thapas and Pandes in Kathmandu were feuding, and principalities they had conquered started rebelling behind them.

Mani carefully retraces the steps of her ancestors, and visits the blood-soaked forts at Nalapani, Khalanga, and Jythuck. She becomes an archaeologist herself to pinpoint the location of Kangra Fort. These are names of battles etched in Nepal’s national memory, and The Khukri Braves makes them all come alive. The book is superbly researched, illustrated with maps, as well as with then-and-now photographs of the famous forts that forged the histories of Nepal, India and Britain. We can follow the legendary battles, the bravery of the Nepali defenders who fought to the last. There is a gripping account of how Gen Bhakti Thapa charged British cannons at Malaun, was hit, tied his disemboweled stomach with his turban and proceeded to behead a whole lot of enemy soldiers before falling.

Mani follows the exploits of the Gurkhas in later campaigns under the British. More than 100,000 young Nepali men served in the Western Front and in Gallipoli during World War I, and 22,000 were killed. In World War II, 250,000 British Gurkhas and Royal Nepal Army soldiers fought and died in Europe, Burma and Malaya, 32,000 were killed. We find out that Nepali soldiers were on opposite sides in the Burma front, British Gurkhas fought fellow Nepalis from Subhas Chandra Bose’s INA who were allied with the  Japanese.

The Khukri braves

Mani makes the distinction between Indian ‘Gorkha’ and British ‘Gurkha’ soldiers, and explains why it is a generic term and not an ethnicity. She includes a Hall of Fame of 13 Gurkhas awarded the Victoria Cross and Indian Army gallantry medals for action in wars against Pakistan and China. The book argues that Nepali soldiers can’t be called ‘mercenaries’, but even so it is a historical aberration that allows the nationals of one country fight and die for another. Also, research into censored letters written by Nepalis in the trenches of Ypres show a less stereotypical, more human, Gurkha suffering from homesickness, fear and gloom.

The book has a useful guide to the Gorkha forts of northern India, and as citizens of this country we are left to ponder how we ourselves have honoured our brave forebears who died to leave us a nation called Nepal.

The Khukri Braves: The Illustrated History of the Gorkhas

by Jyoti Thapa Mani

Rupa India, 2015

407 pages, INR 2,795 

Read also:

The Pashmina War Kunda Dixit

200th Anniversary of Nalapani Kunda Dixit 

Double centennial Editorial

100 years of platitudes Sunir Pandey


Fly or ride?

Monday, February 22nd, 2016
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Domestic airlines compete with new roads to service Nepal’s remote mountain airfields.

KUNDA DIXIT in DOLPO

A red sun rose through the mist as a Twin Otter of Tara Air taxied out for takeoff at Nepalganj airport one morning this week. Inside, the seats were all folded up to fit 1.5 tons of cargo bound for Dolpo: cement, sacks of rice, a water tank with pipes and even a large steel cabinet.

Twenty minutes later, the plane was flying up the narrow Bheri Valley into shadows cast by towering mountains. A sharp right turn, wingtips skimming the icy slopes, and the plane landed on the gravel runway, braking dramatically in a cloud of dust. The only other way to get here is by weeks of walking.

Airfields compete with roads

The seats inside the Twin Otter were all folded up to fit 1.5 tons of rice bound for Dolpo. All pics: Kunda Dixit.

But times are changing as new roads reach remote districts. Of the 20 mountain airfields west of Pokhara that used to be regularly served by air, only nine are in operation today (see map). Among those, only Dolpo, Jumla, Rara and Simikot have daily flights from Nepalganj or Surkhet. The rest have become pastures for cattle.

Ironically, while the volume of air traffic is falling, the government has invested in upgrading remote area airfields, lengthening runways and asphalting them. Jumla airport, which used to be the busiest in northwestern Nepal with up to 10 flights a day now gets only three.

“Jumla used to make up 80 per cent of our traffic among airfields in the western mountains, now it is less than 10 per cent,” says Umesh Rai, CEO of Yeti Airlines, “but you can’t stop progress, the people of Jumla want roads.”

Indeed, even though trunk routes have enough passengers the challenge for Nepal’s domestic airlines will be to diversify passenger profiles to remote airfields newly accessible by road, develop new tourist destinations with modern facilities and offer smoother and more reliable services.

Airfields compete with roads

Rara’s airfield upgrade coincided with the arrival of the road.

Even Jomsom, which has a captive tourist and pilgrim market, suffered a drop in passenger volume after the road to Pokhara was completed. The map of Nepal is littered with airfields that are disused or have been abandoned: Doti, Sanfe, Dang, Baglung. Other airfields like Salle, Chaurjhari and Bajura are only serviced by state-owned Nepal Airlines once a week due to political pressure. By contrast, local politicals in Eastern Nepal are competing to build new airfields that no airline wants to fly to.

Dolpo used to be the trickiest airfield in Nepal, but a mountain has been sliced to make approach safer, the runway levelled and lengthened. The airfield will be closed for a month from next week as the runway is paved.

Airfields compete with roads

A Tara Air plane unloads a water tank, metal cabinet, carpets and sacks of cement at roadless Dolpo this week.

“The road is now one day’s walk away, and once it gets here people will prefer to take the bus,” predicts Krishna Chhetri, station manager here of Tara Air. Cargo by air costs Rs 85/kg to Nepalganj, while mules cost Rs 30/kg to the roadhead at Triveni, and it is only Rs 10/kg from there by pickup.

Dolpo gets sizeable tourist traffic during the trekking season, and with the premium fare of $160 one way to Nepalganj (compared to Rs 4,500 for Nepalis) the airfield will still see business. Simikot of Humla is the only other district capital without a road yet, and its recently upgraded airfield is busy, servicing 15 flights a day.

Airfields compete with roads

Simikot airport is busy because it has no road yet.

Rara airfield’s much-delayed improvement was completed recently just as the road arrived. Although a drop in flights is expected, Rara’s location could make it the gateway for Nepali and foreign tourists visiting the scenic lake.

“Tourism is the way forward for domestic aviation,” Rai told Nepali Times in an interview, “but airlines can only take you there, others need to followup with hotels, trails, tourism facilities.” Rara, for instance, could have direct flights from Pokhara too, but only has a rudimentary lodge with six rooms run by the National Park.

Airfields compete with roads

Rush hour at the newly-paved Rara airfield.

Which must be why Yeti Airlines is getting into the hotel industry, and developing chains of high-end lodges along trekking trails in Khumbu, Kaski and Mustang for premium tourism. With the earthquake fading from memory, and the blockade over there is cautious optimism in the industry about the future.

The other factor negatively impacting on domestic air travel was safety, and the EU’s blacklisting of all Nepali airlines. But even here, there is progress with Yeti Airlines and Tara Air recently getting the ISSA Certification from the IATA. However, even though fixed wing safety has improved, helicopter services are lagging behind.

“Air traffic to remote mountain destinations will pick up if the economy picks up,” explains Rai, “it is the classic gold fish bowl syndrome, the size of the fish is determined by the size of the economy.”

Airfields compete with roads

A Twin Otter of Tara Air at the Dolpo Airfield during an early morning flight. The airfield is currently being upgraded.

Safety first

Nepal’s aviation safety record has been appalling with nine crashes involving more than 120 fatalities in the last ten years. The causes were pilot error with the plane hitting mountains in cloud, by overloading, or a combination of weather and mechanical issues.

Air safety investigators have cited lack of terrain awareness due to over-confidence or carelessness on the part of the crew as the reason for most of the crashes. Since some of the crashes were on tourist routes, the European Union blacklisted Nepal’s airlines in 2013, requiring travel agents to inform passengers and raising insurance premiums. The EU Air Safety Committee has kept Nepal on the blacklist despite a marked improvement in aviation safety in the past three years.

Airfields compete with roads

Captain Roshan Manandhar on a Tara Air Twin Otter flight from Dolpo to Surkhet.

Last week, Yet Airlines and Tara Air got the IATA Standard Safety Assessment (ISSA) certification, which is awarded to smaller operators after audits find that they comply with global safety standards.

Yeti’s CEO Umesh Rai credits private airlines and the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) jointly for making safety their number one priority, and hopes that this will go some way to mitigate the negative publicity.

“This certification was a recognition of our serious effort to improve safety, and can be like a torchbearer for other domestic airlines, and help to improve Nepal’s image,” he said.

One factor pushing airlines to get serious was that insurance premiums had doubled, making it unviable to operate in Nepal. Airlines hope that the ISSA certification will help get Nepal off the EU blacklist, and boost the industry.

Nepal is still in International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) list of countries with ‘significant safety concern’, and audits have shown that airport perimeter barriers, animals on runway, bird activity, and insufficient navigational aids need to be addressed. CAAN’s air traffic controllers are also much stricter than before in closing airfields if wind, visibility or en route weather deteriorate.

Read also:

High costs, low fares Sunir Pandey

Rebranding tourism with remodelled plane Kunda Dixit

Back to the future Kunda Dixit

No fly zone


Getting to the heart of the story

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016
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barkha

Photo: Nepal Literature Festival

In her recently-released book, This Unquiet Land, Indian tv journalist Barkha Dutt exposes chapter-by-chapter the fault lines of modern India: the appalling social inequities, structural violence against women, religious fanaticism, and the chasms of caste and class. And the reaction to the book in India’s public sphere has proven just how entrenched those fault lines are.

Dutt has been pilloried on social media platforms, she has been vilified personally and her liberal agenda on gender, secularism and an open society relentlessly ridiculed. None of this is new for Dutt, of course, she is no stranger to controversy.

“I have realised that as a journalist in the age of Twitter you have to have a thick skin, the attacks can be vituperative and venomous,” Dutt said while attending the Nepal Literature Festival in Pokhara earlier this week. Indeed, while giving readers an eye-witness account of recent news events in India, This Unquiet Land devotes considerable space to Dutt’s side of the story on how her Iridium sat-phone couldn’t have given away the position of an Indian forward base to Pakistani artillery commanders, why it was essential for a journalist to cover events like the Taj attack live on tv, or her role in the Radia Tape scandal.

Well-wishers advised Dutt to say sorry and get it over with, but as she writes in the introduction to her book: ‘ … there was absolutely no way I was going to apologise for something I hadn’t done … if I have one regret about those hurtful few weeks it’s only that I spent too much energy explaining myself.’

It is Dutt’s tenacity and commitment to the profession that sees her through, values that she was brought up with by her journalist mother. Today, with nearly 3.5 million followers on Twitter Dutt is one of those celebrity journalists who has found that the social web is double-edged: it can amplify her message but also be the medium for hate and anger. A look at Dutt’s Twitter timeline indicates that there is a lot of hate and anger directed at her, most of it from the Hindu right and from insecure men who feel threatened by her gender activism.

This Unquiet Land Stories from India’s Fault Lines by Barkha Dutt Aleph, 2015 324 pages, Rs 1,000 hardcover

This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines by Barkha Dutt
Aleph, 2015
324 pages, Rs 1,000 hardcover

Dutt recounts going out to Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh or the streets of Delhi to cover horrifying rapes and abuse of women, she finds out how caste, class and politics all come into play in protecting perpetrators. We revisit the story of Bhanwari Devi, the Dalit woman who is raped by upper caste men who are too powerful to be apprehended by police. And the gruesome and tragic story of the medical student whose gang rape in a Delhi bus unleashed a firestorm of protests.

Almost as an afterthought, towards the end of that chapter, Dutt goes on to reveal for the first time about being sexually abused herself by a relative when she was ten. The ordeal seems to have shaped her career and fuelled her drive for justice through journalism. But by not playing up her own experience, she lends more credence to the stories of other victims of sexual violence that she covers.

Dutt is a staunch defender of the public service role of media, and is sensitive to generalised criticism of journalism. Yes, tv is dumbing down content, she says, but there is enough space for real debate on real issues. Yes, there are too many talking heads and they are all talking at the same time, but at least people can vent their feelings. KD

However, Dutt is keenly aware of the ‘content hierarchy’ and the way the news agenda is shaped by industry. She sees a need to balance commercialisation of media with independent and relevant content. In answer to a question in Pokhara, she admitted that Indian tv journalists can be boorish and inaccurate like when they parachuted in to cover last year’s earthquake in Nepal, or in not doing enough to highlight the humanitarian impact of the blockade. But that is the way they cover domestic news events in India itself, they don’t have anything against Nepal per se. Come to think of it, that is quite a strong indictment of the way the Indian media operates.

This Unquiet Land is a ‘terrific’ introduction to recent Indian history, and should be required reading for journalists everywhere — especially here in Nepal where the socio-political fault lines are similar. Dutt says the book has allowed her to understand India better, and concludes with what could be her motto: ‘Nothing, no matter how crazy, will stop me in my efforts to get a good story.’


Losing paradise

Friday, January 29th, 2016
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HAPPIER TIMES: President Mohamed Nasheed (right) at a climate change conference just before he was ousted in the 2012 coup and replaced by Mohammed Waheed Hassan (left). Nasheed restored democracy in the Maldives and lobbied internationally to save his archipelago nation from sea level rise. Pic: Kunda Dixit

HAPPIER TIMES: President Mohamed Nasheed (right) at a climate change conference just before he was ousted in the 2012 coup and replaced by Mohammed Waheed Hassan (left). Nasheed restored democracy in the Maldives and lobbied internationally to save his archipelago nation from sea level rise. Pic: Kunda Dixit

Passing through Sri Lanka in 1993, I arranged to meet an exiled Maldivian pro-democracy activist at the KFC in Colombo. We talked about the torture he endured while being imprisoned by South Asia’s longest serving leader, President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Over drumsticks and hot sauce, we planned coverage of his home country for the news agency I worked for then, Inter Press Service.

His name was Mohamed Nasheed, Anni to friends. Twenty years later, author J J Robinson of the recent book Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy,  is also at KFC Colombo to meet the Maldivian Election Commissioner Fuad Thoufeeq for an interview. Thoufeeq is also in exile after defying a Supreme Court decision ordering him to reject an election that Nasheed had won fair and square in 2013.

This week, Nasheed was freed from prison for medical treatment in the UK after another year in jail. He has spoken out for targeted sanctions against Maldivian officials, and says he will return to serve out the rest of his 13 year jail term.

Slim and athletic, brash and peripatetic, Nasheed had the air of a man in a hurry. Indeed, he was racing against time to institutionalise democracy in his country, while saving it from being wiped off the map by sea level rise. However, this conservative Muslim nation of 350,000 people living on an atoll archipelago was not quite ready for a man such as Nasheed, who was probably more admired abroad than in his own country.

At an International climate change conference near Malé in 2011 Nasheed delivered an impassioned keynote speech, and during the break lined up with other participants for coffee. What a refreshing sight for us from the South Asian mainland where we are used to rulers being fawned over by flunkies and ushered by kowtowing sycophants to the head of the line.

Back in Malé, he waved off his limousine and walked us to his house. He had converted the official residence into the Supreme Court, ironically the same body that cancelled his election win in 2013. He spoke fervently and knowledgeably about turning the Maldives carbon neutral so he had the moral authority to speak out on climate change at international fora. I remember thinking, “When are we ever going to have a leader in Nepal who can speak with such passion and conviction?”

The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy by J J Robinson Hurst, 2015 336 pages

The Maldives: Islamic Republic, Tropical Autocracy by  J J Robinson Hurst, 2015 336 pages

J J Robinson doesn’t hide his admiration for Nasheed, but being a journalist he takes a step back to give us a factual, blow-by-blow account of how an activist came to lead a pro-democracy movement, unseat a dictator, rise to national and global leadership, get overthrown in a coup, still manage to win an election only to be thrown back into prison.

The reader is struck by how a country with the highest per capita GDP in South Asia squandered its future by rejecting a leader who promised a more open society. It wasn’t just the Maldivians who were cheated, the world lost a charismatic environmental campaigner.

Every page in this book reminds us of a familiar malaise: elected demagogues  rigging the system to put themselves in power, then dismantling the very institutions that got them there. The judiciary, legislature, anti-corruption watchdogs are just tools for intimidation and to pursue political vendettas. They stoke religious extremism to make themselves politically invincible. losing paradise

Nepali readers of The Maldives get a chance to trace the trajectories of our two countries. They had Gayoom, we had Gyanendra. Nasheed held an underwater cabinet meeting to highlight global warming, we had one at Kala Pathar. India’s GMR Group bid to upgrade and manage Malé and Kathmandu airports, but were thwarted in both places. Mohammed Waheed Hassan who replaced Nasheed after the coup was stationed in Nepal with UNICEF in 2001.

We share the same Big Brother, and the Maldives coup predates the Nepal blockade as an example of New Delhi’s diplomatic bungling. But just as the Indian Air Force airlifted relief after our earthquake last year, it flew in water to Malé after its desalination plant broke down. Robinson reports on how Indian High Commissioner Dnynaneshwar Manohar Mulay was meeting Gayoom’s half-brother Abdulla Yameen (now president) even as the coup was unfolding on 7 February 2012. Robinson remembers Mulay being condescending and viceregal in a meeting with fellow Maldivian journalists.

As in Nepal, Western powers have outsourced their foreign policy in the Maldives to India. Represented by Colombo-based western diplomats, they seem clueless and unable to decode the impenetrable politics in Malé, but share suspicions of radical Islam and the need to keep a wary eye on China.

In 2012, Nasheed was putting into place a plan to make the Maldives energy self-reliant by harnessing wind, solar and wave. That plan was being launched on the morning of 7 February, but Nasheed was forced to resign after a mutiny by security forces. As a journalist with Minivan News in Malé, Robinson had a ringside seat to  interesting times. Events continue to unfold as Maldivian youth join ISIS, journalists are hounded and an increasingly paranoid Yameen turns against his own allies.

Robinson gives us a vivid account of the recent history of a small country with a big leader who was changing the course of his country’s history, and helping avert a global climate calamity.

Nasheed had told me in 2010: “What we in the Maldives do is not going to save the planet. But it will save us. And we can tell the world — Look it works.” Reading Robinson’s book, I am even more convinced that the Maldives, and the world, need more leaders like Mohamed Nasheed.

Read also:

Little big country, Kunda Dixit


Stirred, not shaken

Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
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On National Earthquake Safety Day, it is worth remembering that 25 April 2015 was not the Big One everyone had feared. That one is yet to come.

Nepal 1934 earthquake

Every year, Nepal has been marking 15 January as National Earthquake Safety Day to commemorate the 1934 magnitude 8.3 quake epicentred in Okhaldhunga that killed 10,000 people in Kathmandu Valley. After last April’s disaster, we probably don’t need to be reminded of the devastation earthquakes can cause. But it may be well worth remembering that April was not the Big One everybody had feared — that one is still coming.

Three months before the April event on National Earthquake Safety Day we wrote an Editorial in this space titled ‘Unnatural Disaster’. In words that presaged the disaster, we had said:

It has been accepted wisdom that there is a Great Earthquake in Kathmandu every 80 years and the next big one is due any day. Well, if it’s any comfort, Som Nath Sapkota of the National Seismological Centre tells us that the frequency of 8 magnitude quakes is more like 500 years. The last one in 1255 killed one-third of the Valley’s population, including King Abhaya Malla. There have been smaller quakes every 80-100 years, but as Sapkota says: “You don’t need an 8 magnitude earthquake to destroy Kathmandu, a 7 will do just fine.”

As it turned out, the earthquake three months later on 25 April was not the expected megaquake. Tragic as the loss of life was, the country did not suffer catastrophic nationwide damage. This was one of the most data-rich earthquakes ever in the Himalaya, and the numbers are being analysed. What scientists know so far is that the whole of central Nepal, including Kathmandu Valley, moved southwards by upto 3m. The terrain tilted like a seesaw, with the Mahabharata range rising as the mountains north of Kathmandu dropped.

The earthquake’s aftershocks travelled along a rupture zone eastwards from the epicentre on the Gorkha-Lamjung border. There was very little shaking and no major aftershocks to the west. The earthquake was not strong enough to release all accumulated energy in the block of crust below central Nepal, however, and seems to have fizzled out just the south of Kathmandu Valley. The shaking lasted less than a minute, and the shock waves were of sufficiently low frequency, causing damage to older mud and brick buildings and monuments but sparing most ferro-cement structures. These and other lucky factors, like that the main earthquake struck on a Saturday afternoon, saved many lives. Based on the number of classrooms that were completely destroyed, it is estimated that 75,000 children could have died had the quake happened on a weekday.

Seismologists say that there are now two looming dangers. One is that tectonic tension underneath the central Nepal block was not completely dissipated. This could be let off slowly and safely through what scientists call ‘creep’, but the rock strata could also snap without warning causing a major earthquake epicentred south of Kathmandu. A similar double whammy occurred during the 1833 and 1866 earthquakes in eastern Nepal, when tectonic tension stored underground was not fully released in the main event.

The other even more nightmarish scenario is the seismic gap in western Nepal between Pokhara and Dehradun in India where there hasn’t been a major earthquake for over 500 years, and the accumulated energy could lead to a sudden crustal shift of up to 10m. This is a ticking time bomb, and when (not if) it strikes, it could be a 8.5 magnitude event that will devastate western Nepal, the cities in the Indo-Gangetic plains and also Kathmandu. The April 2015 Earthquake will pale in comparison.

On National Earthquake Safety Day, we should remember not to forget what happened nine months ago. We should be conscious of the fact that we got off relatively lightly. The earthquake was a warning for us to redesign and build seismic resistant homes, schools and public buildings, have a preparedness plan tested for coordination, and be ready not just in the 15 affected districts, but in all 75.

It is worth reminding ourselves that earthquakes don’t kill people, weak houses and bad planning do. Earthquakes should not be considered ‘natural’ disasters, they are manmade. There is a false sense of security among Nepalis after April that multi-storey concrete structures are safer. They will actually be terrible death traps in the next Big One.

The earthquake stirred us, but did not shake us out of our complacency and fatalism.  There are many tottering substandard buildings that will crumble unless we heed the lessons from 2015.

Read also:

Unnatural disaster Editorial

Preparing to be prepared Kunda Dixit

Not if, but when Kunda Dixit

Disastrous management Editorial


 

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