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Lost Democracy in the Himalayan Kingdom

Perhaps eclipsed by the new escalating threats of nuclear war between the mega nations of Pakistan and India, the fate of Nepal remains a tattered shred of its former cloth. A tiny country perched on top of the planet and nestled amongst the world's most impressive peaks, Nepal continues to slouch to an all time low.
Lost Democracy in the Himalayan Kingdom
Lost Democracy in the Himalayan Kingdom
It was on this very evening last year that an already crippled economy with the majority of her population struggling merely to survive, learned that the beloved King Birendra had been gunned down at the dinner table under very sketchy circumstances at the royal palace. Even though the incident came as a horrifying shocker and a wallop the size of Mt. Everest, it was only the latest blow in the long lineage of events that solidly confirmed for most Nepalis, that their beloved and hard won democracy had been successfully obliterated. The real heart and soul of the concept had just gone to the dogs - now, only the nine-letter word remained.

For weeks following the massacre, from day break to sunset, a gender-segregated line snaked down along Tridevi Marg; rows of somber faces in formal attire - each Nepali stood like stone, gripping a clutch of color in hand, and waited patiently for a moment to pay a floral tribute at the front gate of Narayanhity Palace. Beyond the rod iron gate, the mystery and opaque nature of the killings within remained unsolved. Of course the "official" yet waffling government line in the Kathmandu Post each morning reported that Birendra's son had pulled the triggers, double-fisted with an Uzi and an M-16, in a calm yet calculated rage. His shots were accurate, even though he was reportedly dead drunk and under the influence of various narcotics. But the consensus on the street, culled from rickshaw wallahs to various heated tea stall debates, was that something truly rotten was wafting behind the veil of the Himalayan kingdom.

King Birendra was a hero for a wide swath of the common folk. He was no JFK, but on some levels, parallels can be drawn - especially on the note that significant truths will never surface regarding the Violent Royal Episode. Yet regardless of the injustices that are historically so common under any form of monarchy, King Birendra ignited a lightning rod of hope for the people and was a figurehead of stability. After years of unrest and international news headlines of discontent, his popularity soared after the 1990 revolution when he ushered in democracy and began a new course - that of elected parliament members and a functional Constitutional Monarchy. For the king to shift gears like this, pressured by the widespread and popular demands of the people, whose vigilance surged in the streets for years on end, ultimately won Birendra an unparalleled admiration and the metaphorical title of Vishnu, the Hindu god of scripture - the great preserver and protector.

For most people during those early days of June, the idea of Prince Dipendra slaughtering his entire pool of relatives, along with a swath of senior ministers, in one blunt stroke, was just too astonishing to accept. Days passed like molasses while rumors twisted in every direction and the so-called eyewitness accounts at the deadly dinner table were laid out like a deck of playing cards in the papers - each new discovery getting lost in the shuffle of other dubious details and skewed gossip. Among the many reports were witnesses who claimed that funeral pyres were burning all night long at the Pashuputanath Temple on the night of the killings, therefore leaving nada in the way of remains. And so, the forensic evidence literally went up in smoke.

A simmering unease with the situation slowly rumbled to a boil. Curfews were enforced practically around the clock. Defiant protesters initiated stand-offs with the police as tear gas intermingled with hurling stones on the Thamel side of town. The stream of trekker tourist dollars and the subsequent trickle of converted rupees through Kathmandu dramatically waned as the weeks passed. Cancellations of incoming flights became routine at Tribhuvan International and were counterbalanced by loads of westerners cutting their vacations short and high-tailing it out Nepal for fear of a random Maoist attack on their bus to Pokhara.

Each day, street vendors either sat on their stoops in a perpetual gloom or bolt-locked their stalls altogether during the marathon strike days that always follow the death of royal individual. What was once a wild spectral display of thangkas, prayer flags, and every imaginable colorful textile - making the collective mosaic of Kathmandu - became a dreary summer of a society under lock-down. The usual blitz of chaos and traffic in the Jyatha District found a new rhythm, one akin to a full-on depression. For a few weeks, the only noteworthy boom was in the blue and Neapolitan green barbershops. Young Nepali men, in a traditionally Hindu gesture of respect, were shaving their scalps as a show of sorrowful solidarity - honoring the passing of Birendra. It was common to spot a small sprig of hair poking from a shiny bald crown passing by in the street, which indicated that his parents were still living - a cleanly-shaven head indicated otherwise.

Today, the shattered morale of the people is still scattered over the land. Word of mouth is more credible for most common folk than the daily news. An overwhelming distrust of the new regime is out in the open, full blown. King Gyanendra, the brother of the late Birendra who was conveniently the only family member absent on June 1, 2001 - now holds the keys to the kingdom. The same Gyanendra who slipped into the throne within three days and publicly insulted the intelligence of the nation by issuing a statement to the international press saying that crown Prince Dipendra's guns had "accidentally exploded" and then, with his left hand, shot himself on the right temple. These clips of absurdity were very common, a year ago today. They continue now in what still appears to be a no-win situation for Nepal, which ranks as one of the poorest countries on earth.

Right from the get-go, Gyanendra was widely unpopular and had the reputation of a shrewd big businessman with skeletons in the closet. His eldest son, Paras, was implicated in the murder of a famous Nepali folk singer and is probably the most despised character in the entire extended royal family. He was unharmed in the palace incident, was reported to have "stowed many ladies behind him in the gunfire," thus saving their lives, and is now the Prince of Nepal. How a dynamic duo like this could be instrumental in pulling an impoverished nation - one with a hardly existent, fledgling democracy - back from the brink, is not clear in the least bit. In fact, the opposite seems to be the current reality.

What has definitely gained notable footing in the political landscape in the last 12 months is the "people's war." The seven-year-old grassroots revolution waged by the Maoist guerillas (Communist Party of Nepal) has strong appeal in most of the countryside, which is divided into nearly one hundred rural districts. At the root, it's a class war. The gap between rich and poor is vast. The agrarian masses, the working class and peasantry, are sick of the endless corruption, false promises, and non-transparency of their government. Routine slaughters at rural police posts have become leading headlines practically every day. In November, a state of emergency was declared by King Gyanendra - suspending peaceful assembly, freedom of movement, and the right to privacy for all of Nepal's citizenry. Publicly, he has shelved the Nepalese constitution. Freedom of the press and freedom from preventative detention has also received the axe. Thirty muzzled journalists are currently being detained without a charge. Fearing the scrutiny of his policies, Gyanendra has clamped down harshly with his own royal version of Homeland Security.

A recently issued Amnesty International report has stated concern that political detainees are being tortured and unarmed civilians extrajudicially executed within the context of government security. It is now well documented that the Royal Nepalese Army has been carrying out their own murderous "search and destroy" campaign since November - killing, torturing and arresting hundreds of guerrillas and civilians accused of being Maoist sympathizers.

Enter George W. Bush. Behind the broad and uncompromising sweep of his brush stroke statement, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists," Bush has asked congress for $30 million in military aid for Nepal. This, paralleled with a visit to the kingdom by Secretary of State Colin Powell, where he catapulted the Maoists into the Class One Terrorist List in the world press, has firmly aligned the US government with that of Gyanendra's repressive regime. Painted by the Bush administration as the good fight for "securing democracy and ridding the region of terror" - anyone who bothers to take a closer look sees the eroding reality. Inflating military regimes under the guise of strengthening a people's democracy, doesn't hold up.

It is an armed struggle on both sides. The build up of guns and violence always makes for a sad story that doesn't preach a sane or achievable end. It is always the innocent majority who are caught in the crossfire. Many people die. The pages of history are red. They scream this over and over again.

George W. Bush's convoluted path to peace through an endless 'War on Terrorism,' imbued with an edge of moral certainty is beginning to raise a skeptical eyebrow even within the ranks of established US allies. This was made evident by Bush's recent jaunt through Europe when French leader Jacques Chirac issued a statement to the press saying, "US unilateralism runs contrary to a balanced and serene vision of the world."

It can be argued that "War" and "Terrorism" are one and the same thing, and that it is impossible to wage one on the other. The result can resemble fighting a fire with fuel, badly burning all who participate in the action.

And on and on it goes. Here in Nepal, the food for the flame is Bush making alliances with warfare, doling out big money for Gyanendra, and putting U.S. aid to the King of Nepal within the context of the so called war on terrorism that claims to have no end. In the face of outlandish repression and the bulldozing of human rights, the military machine lurches forward.

And so, one year is ripped from the Nepali calendar. June marks the onset of the monsoon; a deluge of rain that will hide the tears.


***


Geoff Oliver Bugbee is a freelance photojournalist based in Portland, Oregon. Initially traveling to the Himalayas to further a body of photos on the issue of widespread cataract blindness in Nepal and Tibet, his sense of luck, misfortune, and timing came to a sudden head when he landed in Kathmandu on June 2, 2001 - the morning Nepal learned of their own royal massacre. For three months, he navigated the incessant general strikes, curfews, careening bus rides, and daily episodes of extreme uncertainty. This piece is a one-year tribute to the people of Nepal.

To read more of Geoff's journals from this time period, submitted daily to his website, cut and paste this URL and toss it into your browser:

 http://geoffbugbee.com/content/journals/global_notebook.lasso

To see more pictures:

 http://geoffbugbee.com/content/Nepal/

homepage: homepage: http://www.geoffbugbee.com
phone: phone: (800) 590.7114

Wow! 02.Jun.2002 10:01

****

I only vaguely remember newsblips of the shooting of the royal family. It seemed surreal, but was soon eclipsed by 911. Thanx for the excellent, very readable background and update!

a liberal at the end of the tunnel 02.Jun.2002 11:52

Dutt

Nepal's "democracy" has some of the worst life expectancy statistics in the region. Maybe there is a real pressing reason why some peasants would take up arms in the face of a "democratic" system that condemns them to starvation and lack of health care.

But I am sure this conclusion is too "material" for liberal ideologues who continue to trot out the old saw of the "poor -ignorant -apolitical -mass-caught -in -the- middle." We have been hearing this crap like this at least since the Vietnam War. It is a covert defense of the status quo of starvation.

great work !! 02.Jun.2002 14:18

jds

Great article, Geoff !! This type of I-was-there reporting is why I love Indymedia. Keep it coming !! Do you have any other photos you could upload ??

are you kidding? 03.Jun.2002 00:20

anarchist

Is this a joke? The "beloved" king?
I thought indymedia was about changing the world, not romanticizing dead monarchs.

ANOTHER REASONS WHY WESTERN LIBERALS SUCK 03.Jun.2002 00:50

REVOLUTION

This article by Geoff Bugaboo is an excellent why Liberals are no better than conservatives.

Geoff, like most Indymedia "activists" whine and moan over the lack of some worthless Western-style capitalist Democracy which would only lead Nepal to more poverty and starvation. But of course, why does that matter along as Western neo-hippie tourists can visit the country on some Politically Correct Eco-tour?

Geoff, in case you didn't realize, your Western capitalist democracy is a Fraud and Scam to begin with because it is based on private ownership of property and wealth.

This is one reason why the Maoist struggle is gaining popularity in Nepal and even in India. The issues of class and capitalism are foremost. Any political struggle that doesn't address these points--no matter their propaganda Indymedia style rhetoric about "Democracy"--ain't worth a hill of beans to the people.

"Power grows from the Barrel of a Gun."

Maoist Peoples War Only Existing Solution 03.Jun.2002 12:43

jacob richter, the CAU$E instruggle@hotmail.com

I'm in agreement with Dutt and REVOLUTION. Let's look at some of your quotes:

"loads of westerners cutting their vacations short and high-tailing it out Nepal for fear of a random Maoist attack on their bus to Pokhara."

What evidence do you have that there ever were such attacks? As far as I know, CPN-M only attacks police and military targets, landlords and gov't lackeys, and have explicitly directed their members NOT to attack Western tourists and they have distributed leaflets to tourists informing them that they have no beef with tourists.

"The build up of guns and violence always makes for a sad story that doesn't preach a sane or achievable end. It is always the innocent majority who are caught in the crossfire. Many people die. The pages of history are red. They scream this over and over again."

Apparently, you are unfamiliar with the great achievements of the democratic, anti-imperialist, and socialist revolutions of the last +200 years.

If anyone can tell me whether there is to be any debate in Congress over approval of Bush's $30mil request, please e-mail me.

People's War in Nepal: Countering the Lies 03.Jun.2002 15:09

RWOR

Special News Update from A World To Win
People's War in Nepal: Countering the Lies
Wild Claims by Bellicose Government
Revolutionary Worker #1153, June 2, 2002, posted at rwor.org

The RW received the following news update from A World To Win, a magazine inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement.





In the second week of May, news services around the world reported that the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) had killed over 500 Maoist "terrorists", and that the final tally of dead could reach as high as one thousand. At the same time, they also claimed that the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) had ordered a unilateral ceasefire in the People's War that has been shaking this mountain kingdom for over six years.

The reality that lies behind these claims goes a long way to revealing the actual situation in Nepal today, in particular the government's intensifying campaign against the People's War.

Earlier in May, RNA spokesmen had claimed that they had killed "250 Maoists" in actions in western Nepal, in Satbaria and Lamahi. They went so far as to boast that they recovered 92 Maoist dead bodies in combat dress in several mass graves and around the battlefield.

The reality on the ground was very different. Some guerrilla fighters were killed on the battlefield in Satbaria and Lamahi, in fact, 17 revolutionaries fell to the guns of the Nepalese army. Ten of the Maoist fighters died on the battlefield and another seven died later of wounds they had received.

But these figures were a long way from the numbers the Army claimed--so what accounts for the difference? The revolutionary forces have established that some of those the RNA killed were passengers traveling on a bus in this area, which is known to be a stronghold of the Maoists. They were simply executed in cold blood for being suspected sympathizers. While this is not a message the RNA wants to go out to the world at large, the killings were no mistake, and amounted to a bloody threat that the RNA very much wants to go out to the millions of Nepalese who have given their allegiance to the People's War.

The Army has erected a cordon around the battle areas in an effort to control the flow of information and ensure that only their version of events goes out--exactly as their imperialist masters have done in Afghanistan. But it is difficult to hide massacres like this--and the story behind the rest of the dead reveals a tale the Nepalese government does have an interest in hiding. There is in fact little reason to doubt the Army's story that 92 bodies were recovered in combat dress on the battlefield--for it was the Royal Nepal Army that carefully dressed them and placed them there. What is known so far is that the Army took 29 revolutionary prisoners from Chitawan prison and executed them. They then mutilated their bodies as a grisly warning and moved them to the battlefield. They also took and executed prisoners from the prisons at Ghorahi, Dang, Nepalgunj, Dhangarhi and Surkhet, though the exact numbers from each prison are still not known. The "great victory" of the reactionary imperialist-backed RNA was, then, nothing but the cold-blooded execution of unarmed men and women.

Likewise, the "great victory" proclaimed by the RNA during the second week of May is also proving to be a sordid but empty affair. This involved a classic attempt at an encirclement campaign in western Nepal, in the Lisne Hill area around Rolpa. The Army declared it a resounding success, claiming it had killed at least 500-600 "terrorists."

On 11 May, Daniel Lac, a BBC correspondent in Nepal, reported from the battlefield that the Army has been able to show the bodies of only 21 Maoist rebels. At the same time, he also said that the Army commander in Rolpa has realized that the government has exaggerated the number beyond reality. Indeed, the revolutionary forces scorn the figures. There were a substantial number of casualties-- but efforts up to now have found that most of them were villagers and that the Army victims included a number affiliated with different parties, and not at all exclusively guerrillas or even Maoist symphathisers.

What is known for sure, and what the Nepal government has been utterly unable to hide, is that the People's Liberation Army forces broke through the attempted encirclement in the Lisne Hill area and attacked the army camp at Gam, which they in turn encircled and cut off. By the end of this large-scale battle, late in the night, they had overrun the base, killed more than 130 security forces and seized all their weapons and ammunition. This finally brought into play some more independent media exposure. Even so, the definitive number of casualties on the army side is still not available, though the Army itself has announced that it has recovered the bodies of 104 security forces, including soldiers and armed police force. The revolutionaries believe the actual casualties on the Army side may be somewhat higher.

Meanwhile, it is also being reported by the BBC that the Royal Army has retreated from different camps of Rolpa and concentrated on the district headquarters at Liwang. The RNA said in Asian Age that it was making a tactical withdrawal from two of the five base areas of the Maoist forces.

What is the Nepal government trying to accomplish with its wildly exaggerated claims? First, the government and its imperialist backers are very concerned at their failure to make any real progress against the People's War, despite having unleashed a campaign of terror in the countryside and a vicious clampdown in the cities. Tourism has collapsed, poverty is intensifying, what civil rights previously existed have been suspended, newspapers are censored, hundreds or even thousands are being held without trial, and inequality and corruption are on the upswing. There has been massive disaffection from the government, and the extent of popular support for the Maoist insurgency is now so great that almost no one denies that they control a large portion of the countryside. Worse for the government, they are advancing. Half of the 4000 casualties claimed during the war have occurred in the past six months. The RNA chief Prawajjwal Samsher issued a statement in mid-May complaining that Nepal's political leaders were not doing enough to promote the morale of the Army, and strongly urged all political parties to become more serious about giving the Army support.

Exaggerated claims of success are not an invention of the RNA. The US army adopted similar practices when fighting guerrilla forces in Vietnam. Body counts became part of the nightly news on TV screens around America. High figures spelled promotion for officers. By the paper counts, the US should have won the war handily. Reality, of course, turned out otherwise.

There is also an obvious question about the timing of these "great victories"--they came at the very moment that the Nepalese PM was making his most prominent trip abroad in many years, including to London as well as the first visit of a Nepalese PM to Washington. The extravagant claims of the RNA "victories" made it onto the main Western news programs and provided what the imperialists must have considered "suitable background" for PM Deuba's requests for stepped- up military assistance.

Finally, trumpeting these large casualty figures was intended to demoralize and intimidate the insurgent Maoist fighters and their millions of supporters. But this kind of tactic involves a big gamble by the RNA. War does indeed break the spirits of many. But, ruthless suppression, particularly when it is met by a revolutionary force with a clear programme of eliminating exploitation and oppression through empowering the vast majority of the oppressed, can temper and harden far more. The Maoists of Nepal, it should be remembered, have been applying and developing strategy and tactics in their own country that were pioneered by Mao and the Chinese revolutionaries. The Chinese People's Liberation Army succeeded in defeating the Japanese and then, after World War 2, Chiang Kai-shek, despite massive backing by the US.

In the very days that the Nepalese government was making these wild claims of victory, it also announced that an unnamed CPN(M) spokesperson had issued a proclamation of a unilateral ceasefire. Party Chairman Prachanda quickly refuted this claim in a press release that denounced it as an "evil- intended hoax" designed to "confuse the masses of people." He said it had the "feel of a government conspiracy," and went on to point out that, "a unilateral ceasefire from us will not work with a government that, far from proposing any political solution, continues to massacre the people while closing the door to negotiations, announces rewards on the heads of Party leaders and, while facing defeat, roams the world's capitals and puts the country into debt." Prachanda evoked the sacrifices that the revolutionary forces had made, but pointed out that in light of what the liberation of Nepal would mean for so many millions of poor and oppressed, such sacrifices were an inevitable part of the People's War. He defiantly concluded, "We are prepared to fight to the end."

The wild claims made in the Nepalese and Western media reflect serious concern in Kathmandu about the ability of the RNA to counter the insurgency. And while the Maoist forces can ultimately meet the escalating attacks of the reactionaries only by turning to the masses of people, the rulers of Nepal's feudal monarchy see no way out for themselves other than turning to more powerful forces abroad. This means in particular the traditional regional power India, and ultimately the imperialists, particularly the US and Britain.

The Western media, tuned to a new level of slavishness as part of the US "war on terror," have been cooperating by pouring out lurid lies about "Maoist atrocities," usually based on "unnamed sources." A new and disturbing low point was reached in the 12 May issue of the British national newspaper The Independent,which attempted to tar the Nepalese revolutionary Maoists by claiming they had links with al-Qaeda. The basis for these reports is, unsurprisingly, nothing more than the "suspicions of Western intelligence agencies." This baseless fabrication is a transparent attempt to place the revolutionary masses of Nepal squarely in the crosshairs of Washington's "war on terrorism."

The imperialists will certainly use the claim of "terrorism" to justify any measures against the People's War, however bloody they may be. Bush has already granted Nepal $20 million in military aid, to be used for night vision goggles and other hi-tech equipment; Britain is stepping up its aid and hosting a conference in mid-June in London against the People's War; while India is offering helicopter gunships. The London Observer also reports that US Army scouts have recently been reconnoitering western Nepal, near Rolpa. The Revolutionary Worker newspaper in the US elaborated: "At the end of April, at least a dozen U.S. military personnel spent weeks with the RNA, touring western districts where fighting has been the most intense. A Pentagon spokesman said the team's mission was to assess how to best spend U.S. funds to help the Nepalese government fight Maoist insurgents. According to the Pentagon, the team was made up of personnel from the U.S. Pacific Command specializing in intelligence, aviation, logistics, engineering and medicine."

Buoyed by this support, PM Deuba has brushed aside any talk of negotiations and is keen on intensifying the war. But the small band of feudals and reactionaries who rule Nepal are also falling out like thieves. King Gyanendra is reported to have just dissolved the lower house of Parliament, while the ruling Congress Party has expelled PM Deuba, amidst a backdrop of plans to extend the State of Emergency.

The battle in Nepal is certain to intensify in the coming period. But as an article on Nepal in the forthcoming issue of A World To Win points out, "With millions of the poor increasingly mobilized to struggle, with vast and deep support from all sections of society, urban as well as rural, the flimsy, threadbare label of `terrorist' cannot be made to stick at all. A new power, people's power, is emerging and consolidating in the Himalayas, and it is already influencing the revolutionary situation as a whole in the vital South Asian region, home to one-fourth of humanity."

Namaste! (revolutionaries, liberals etc.) 03.Jun.2002 19:16

Geoff Oliver Bugbee geo@mcn.org

Okay, some reply - The statement: "loads of westerners cutting their vacations short and high-tailing it out of Nepal for fear of a random Maoist attack on their bus to Pokhara" - was actually quite true, even IF there was no credible evidence to the reality that Maoists were boarding buses. That was the point. There was a load of sketchy speculation and obvious lies circulating in the media during the first few days after the killings at the palace. Many people did fear for their lives and split, while others waited it out for a few weeks. I wrote this with an emphasis on the "fear," not that Maoist killings of tourists was actually a documented truth. In June, the People's War had been going on for a long time outside of Kathmandu without civilian casualties, that is quite true and everyone knew that. But then this bombshell hit the palace with no real explanation of who done it, making alot of people a little freaked for their safety - foreigners and Nepalis alike. It was palpable. But that passed after a few days.

To write "the beloved king" doesn't make him my "beloved" king - and from the perspective of some Nepali people, it's not such an outrageous label either. Many Nepali's of every class stripe called him this with admiration and respect. I say this because I was there and talked with a lot of people. And so were thousands of others, similarly talking with a lot of other people. And thankfully, there are that many different opinions out there. That's the beauty of this medium. That's why we've got IMC's.

Whoever posted it, thanks for the RW piece - it was really informative. I respect your point of view REVOLUTION, but really, to take shots at each other's last names is so pathetic, reminds me of my grade school days. And your presumptuous remarks about the work I was doing over there also sucks, given that you had no idea of the context of what I was doing. I was there documenting Nepalis giving other Nepalis sight restoration surgery for free. I could care less if it was "politically correct," as you say. And it sure wasn't an "Eco-Tour."

And thanks, but I'll stand by massive organized non-violent Direct Action - rather than waiting it out for beautiful things to sprout from the bloody barrel of a gun. That's my op and you've got yours.

But go ahead, keep venting your "more radical than thou" quippy-wit-put-downs, label everyone under the huge umbrella of Indymedia as whiny, moaning, bleeding heart liberals, hit that Publish button with a big old grin and feel good about yourself.

Just remember chappy: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some!" And when you do, post it to the newswire so we can all read it!