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Close encounters in the Himalaya


LUBA SVRCINA in DOLAKHA


The first time I visited Nepal in 1999, the people were shrugging the Maoists off as a flash in the pan. A year later they were seen as a nuisance. By 2002, villagers had fear written on their faces and in 2004, it had changed to a heavy feeling of despair, resignation and fading hope. They were fed up with extortion, the fall in trekking tourism caused by the insurgency and felt let down by successive governments in Kathmandu incapable of resolving the crisis.

Trekking used to be an adventure in nature but by 2002 there was a new kind of adventure in the mountains. The certain interception by Maoists along the trail, the demand for money, the bargaining and the inevitable political discussions. Some trekkers sought out Maoists, the guerrillas in the mist they came to see and were disappointed when they didn't. Others were visibly upset and even if the revolutionary tax was not a lot of money for them, had moral problems giving money to a group that espoused violence.

Being from a former communist east European country, I decided if I was going to give them money I may as well find out what they'd do with it. How did they propose to fund the promised free education and medical care with the money they collected from trekkers? If they want to play Robin Hood, take money from the rich and give it to the poor, why were they destroying the tourism industry? Governments collect taxes from the people for their operating budget. How can they tax people who are subsistence farmers and have no cash flow to start with? History has shown that communist systems have failed everywhere it has been tried, why do they think Nepal will be a miraculous exception?

The young Maoist seemed baffled and at a loss for words. Each question was punctuated by a long silence. An hour and a half into my harangue and he was questioning his own ideology. I told him I fled communism to Canada and was a refugee. He couldn't imagine a white person could be a 'saranarthi'. I gave him a fraction of the money demanded and made him promise to leave us alone.

Last October, I met two Nepali men also trekking in Dolakha. One seemed to be educated and loved to talk, the other one was the silent type. We talked about balance of power and its importance in democracy. If nobody supports anybody in anything, how is progress possible? People need to support parties according to their platforms not on the basis of caste or ethnicity.

The talkative one asked me about restructuring parliament. There has to be a balance of power, I said, there has to be a strong parliament and a strong king. If parliament is weak and the king is strong, there is no democracy. If parliament is strong and the king weak, there is no veto power and the system is unbalanced again.

February First did send democracy reeling but democracy is a right that has to be earned. Nepal has a certain feeling of isolation. The reason for all that has happened are the Maoist threats against the political parties and the instability it has created, especially in the countryside. If the political parties give up their tantrums and cooperate for a change, Nepal would have a better future.

When the first gentleman found out I was a refugee, he flooded me with questions. Was there a military solution? I said no. They looked at me, stunned. I added that I was a Buddhist and believed in ahimsa. Two weeks later, I learned that the reserved fellow was a Maoist making sure that the first one was not a government spy. That's why (like in my old country) they always come in twos.

A few days later, I met another Maoist. He demanded Rs 2,000 again and filled out a receipt. I gave him Rs 1,000 and began arguing in broken Nepali. The villagers gathered around us, surprised to see a bideshi woman daring to challenge a Maoist. I knew from experience that communists don't negotiate easily, they need to be weakened first. The young rebel was annoyed and started screaming: "Is there democracy in Nepal now?" I replied: "Democracy is not possible when there are terrorists in the country." He picked up his bag and walked away without a word, the villagers parted to let him through.

Tourists roll over and play dead when the Maoists ask them for money, paying the price demanded instead of trying to reason with them. The Maoist collected Rs 3,000 from our little group of one guide and four porters. A group of 35 trekking behind us paid the full amount. In that one-hour, the rebels had collected Rs 35,000.

There is no question that the king's move undermined democracy. But democracy is a right that has to be earned and it comes with obligations and requires a degree of maturity. Rural Nepalis have time and again demonstrated maturity, unfortunately national leaders of the parties haven't. Since none of the governments since 1996 had the capacity and wisdom to deal with the Maoists, the king really had no choice. A desperate situation demands desperate measures. It is easy to criticise the king but he is hardly the problem. The Maoists are much more elusive, destructive and dangerous and few are brave enough to question their intentions.

The king perhaps didn't realise the world was watching that closely. If he now acts with wisdom and garners domestic and international support, this crisis can be brought under control and resolved. After all, he says he is fighting for the survival of democracy, as well as for his own crown and country.



LATEST ISSUE
638
(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)


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