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Thursday, November 08, 2007

RED FLAG OVER PARADISE: LAST DAYS OF THE KINGDOM OF NEPAL

RED FLAG OVER PARADISE: LAST DAYS OF THE KINGDOM OF NEPAL

Greeting the arriving visitor at Lukla Airport of the Mt Everest region were red hammer-and-stickle flags and posters proclaiming the vision of Nepal's Maoist leader, "Chairman Comrade" Prachanda:

"Exercising people's democracy in the 21st century, free from exploitation, suppression and discrimination…advancing from the basic area of world revolution…in order to prevent counter-revolution, consolidated into one…highways…roads…complete electrification and self-sustained economy…herein lies my vision of a new Nepal."

Even as the Soviet Union fell into demise and China and Vietnam turned capitalistic in all but name, a new communist, in fact Maoist, revolution has been brewing in Nepal since 1996. Driven by deep rural poverty and one of the world's most unequal social divide in what is essentially feudal society, as well as the failure of the country's political parties in governing the country, Nepal's Maoist guerillas have gained from strength to strength. In June 2001, King Birendra and the entire royal family were massacred by Crown Prince Dipendra who then allegedly killed himself, in what was a world-shocking event which has remained largely unexplained. He was succeeded by his brother, King Gyanendra, who together with his son, were extremely unpopular even before the massacre.

King Gyanendra subsequently took over the government thinking that he could do better than the elected politicians in alleviating the crippling poverty of the countryside and the escalating Maoist insurgency. He failed miserably, became a public hated figure in the country, and was forced to concede power to a coalition of politicians and the Maoists after a bloody People's Movement uprising. Today, most of rural Nepal has fallen under Maoist control and the Nepali Parliament, under pressure from the Maoists, had just passed a motion to abolish the monarchy and declare the country a federal republic.

After almost 240 years, the Kingdom of Nepal under the god kings of the Shah Dynasty – Nepali kings were believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu - is coming to an end soon, and with Parliament in continuous special session, everyone expects the final declaration of republic to come any day now.

Nepal, kingdom on the roof of the world, has been renowned for being home to Mt Everest, the world's highest peak (as well as eight of the world's top ten highest) and the Sherpas, legendary for being expert mountaineers; birthplace of Lord Buddha; and home of the Gurkha warriors. Sum all that up, in short, a land of peace, a living Shangri La. However, the old Shangri La is in tatters and communists, more specifically, Maoists, whose ideology has long been discarded worldwide, is on the verge of taking over this country.

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I flew to Kathmandu Airport on 30 October - a journey from sea level Bangladesh now under threat from rising water levels caused by global warming to Nepal on the world's highest mountain range. My friend, Jason, joined me from Singapore. Together, we would spend 1.5 weeks in Nepal and another 1.5 weeks in Delhi and Rajasthan, India together, before he heads for Vietnam and I proceed for another 3 weeks in Northeast and Southern India.

We arrived in a Kathmandu faced with an uncertain future. Parliament was in special session to discuss the demands of the Maoists, who controls the countryside, for immediate declaration of a federal republic ahead of elections for a constitutional assembly and a system of full proportional representation in the Parliament. The country's political parties, at this point, were opposed to Maoist demands. Any such major political changes, the parties held, must be conducted through proper electoral process and decided by Nepalese as a whole. Opinion polls had shown that the Maoists were unlikely to win many votes in a fair, democratic election where neither the Army nor Maoist guerillas could intimidate the voters. The Maoists, angered by the obstacles to the prospects to any rapid victory, had withdrawn their delegates from the provisional coalition government and threatened to relaunch the war. My Nepalese friends were confident that the parties would prevail and the ridiculous Maoist demands, constitutionally wrong, would not pass.

Meanwhile, despite the political tension, Thamel, the tourist ghetto in central Kathmandu, parties continued wilder than ever before. After a few years of slump following the 2001 royal massacre, tourism is once again booming. The hotels and backpacker hostels, restaurants and clubs were full again. Hip young middle class Nepalese thronged Thamel together with trekkers and hippies, to escape the mess and chaos of the world beyond. To me, Thamel, with its English signboards and all the modern conveniences money could offer, was a welcome change from the grinding poverty, heat and dirtiness of Bangladesh's crowded cities and slums.

We hung around Thamel shopping for Tibetan thankas and miscellaneous trinkets, with forays to the magnificent architectural gems of the ancient Durbar Square of Kathmandu, with amazing exuberant sculptures of gods and wild animals, as well as the inspiring, out-of-this-world stupa of Swayambhunath with its all-encompassing, mysterious "Buddha's eyes".

We passed the New Royal Palace almost daily. I wonder what went on in the minds of the 3000 royal guards. Would they defend the king if a Maoist mob storms the palace like the Parisians did Bastille at the onset of the French Revolution? After all, "Comrade" Prachanda had said that he wanted King Gyanendra and Crown Prince Paras, the latter more known for several Thamel night club brawls, to face the firing squad for alleged war crimes.

The New Royal Palace was notorious for another event – the royal massacre of 2001. Crown Prince Dipendra, high on a dose of cocaine offered by his cousin Paras (yes, now the crown prince) and supposedly unhappy over disagreement with his parents over his choice of bride, machine-gunned his father, the well loved King Bailendra, his mother the Queen, and his younger brother and sister, together with other relatives in the extended royal family who gathered for a family dinner.

His uncle, Gyanendra, who was till then more notorious for shady business dealings, was somehow not present, and Paras somehow survived the mass shooting. Dipendra, despite being the suspect murderer, was declared king while in coma – he had allegedly shot himself on the left side of his head, although he was right-handed. He died 2 days later. No autopsies were conducted on any of the dead and all the dead were cremated within 24 hours.

Gyanendra was quickly crowned king, amidst curfew declared as mass protests broke out among ordinary Nepalis who suspected foul play. Angry young Nepalis with shaved heads marched through the streets, shouting, "We don't want a murderer as king!" A board of inquiry was conducted in which one member out of three resigned, and the findings of the remaining board was inconclusive and left the whole episode in mystery and a multitude of conspiracy theories. Within months, the building where it all happened was completely razed and flattened.

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We flew to Lukla airport on Agni Airlines. We could have flown any of Nepal's curiously named airlines, such as Buddha Air, Cosmic Air and Yeti Airlines – all of them known to be more punctual and reliable than the state-owned outfit, Nepal Airlines, whose "Royal" suffix was dropped recently following the cessation of power by the King. Let me be completely honest here. Wee Cheng, who had been to 133 countries and territories before Nepal, has never been the trekker type. In fact, as some old friends had rumoured, he had gone soft and would do the world's tallest mountain by walking to a town at Everest's foothills and take a picture below. But what a walk it would be – 2 days of uphill trek through cold winds and staying in basic unheated lodges – no big deal to a regular Scandinavian trekker more game for the standard 20 days climb to the many peaks nearby, but certainly a hell of an endeavour for one who up till recently was a faceless corporate executive more used to 5-star international chains or boutique hotels in smaller cities.

I would have preferred a quickie drive to Namche Bazar, the largest town in the region, but was shocked to discover that the road from Kathmandu ended a few hundred kilometers short of here. Nepal is a pathetically poor country with few roads linking its many disparate towns and villages scattered across mountainous terrain and deep valleys. It is common for people to walk from town to town, or village to village, just to see a doctor, or to sell a yak. What had the monarchy, or the politicians during the two periods of Nepali democracy, done for its people? Only such desperate poverty, as indicated by a GDP per capita of only US$240 (in 2000) and a shocking life expectancy of 55, would have led many to support an insurgency backed by what is now considered elsewhere as an outdated ideology.

Nepal outside Kathmandu and the larger towns appeared to be controlled by the Maoists. A poster with broken English quotations of "Chairman Comrade" Prachanda greeted the visitor arriving at Lukla airport – lots of socialist mumbo jumbo that said a lot and nothing at the same time. Students of political science would no doubt recognize the same communist jargon once favoured by Soviets and Chinese. After all, Prachanda was among Nepal's first scholars sent to the USSR. No one knew for sure what their economic policies would be. Would there by full scale nationalization and confiscation of private property? Leftwingers and international wellwishers say that Nepali Maoists are pragmatic and merely want to liberate the country from feudalism and the corrupt nobility and oligarchy. But I am not so sure.

Across the countryside and in most towns and villages, red flags now fly from the odd building and lamppost, and Maoist graffiti defaced many walls with drawings of the hammer and sickle. In Lukla as well as across the Everest region (and perhaps elsewhere in the country), Maoist booths had been set up to collect somewhat compulsory "donations" from passersby. This was supposedly illegal, in particular, after the Maoist entered the provisional coalition government following the cessation of king's power, but the booths remain. When asked why they continued to collect "donations", "local rules and regulations" was the reply.

Yes, the Everest region is now the territory of the Kirat Autonomous Republic the Maoists wanted to set up, or have declared. The Maoists want to establish nine autonomous republics across Nepal, of which seven would be based on a main ethnic group. Nepal, the Maoists claim, is an oppressive centralized state set up by the Brahuns (also known as Brahmins or the priestly caste, the highest Hindu caste) and Chhetri (the second highest caste, also known as the warrior caste) to oppress the land's many ethnic groups. Therefore, a new federal Nepal must be set up whereby autonomous units would allow ethnic groups to live under laws drawn up in their own local language and governed by their own people.

It all sounded very well and noble –but the reality is that Nepal has 4 major castes and over 60 ethnic groups. Other than the Chhetri and Brahun, none of the ethnic groups exceed 10% of the national population and another four are between 5% and 10%. In fact, none of the proposed ethnic republics would have a predominant race. An angry Sherpa told me, does it mean we have to abandon the Nepali language and study the Kirat language now that the Sherpas' home region lies in the Kirat Republic? How about Sherpas who have moved to Kathmandu, which falls within the borders of the proposed Newar Republic, where ethnic Newars account for only 35% of the population? Many Nepalis of all ethnic groups have moved to the capital over the years. Will there be ethnic cleansing and racial conflicts?

I also came across a boy wearing a uniform and Maoist badge playing with other children. He was probably not older than 12 years old but he could well be wearing the uniform for fun, although there have been allegations of both sides in the conflict recruiting child soldiers. The local papers reported on the abduction and killing of a journalist by Maoists which the Maoist Politbureau claimed to be an isolated incident by "renegade elements", and the confiscation of properties by the Maoist Young Communist League that have already begun in certain districts. Another paper reported that anarchy had emerged in the Terai region – one person killed by gangs every other day and nobody bothered to report to the police any more because the police no longer bothered when regime change was imminent. Things did not look good at all.

Depressing politics aside, the Himalayas were magnificent. Alpine landscape and quaint villages, green meadows interspersed with forests of pine. Prayer flags and mounds of sacred stones, the occasional Tibetan Buddhist monastery, and caravans of yaks and fit Sherpa porters. Tibetan pilgrims singing their way back to Tibet after visiting Dharmasala for an audience with the Dalai Lama. This is the legendary Shangri La, if one ignores everything else.

We spent a night in the small hamlet of Phakding (pronounced "Focking" – sounded almost obscene) and then slaved in almost army forced-march fashion up the final cliff-like slopes to Namche Bazar (3480m) on my birthday. It was too hazy to see Mt Everest's 8850m peak, but the next morning was clear. We walked up the hilltop army base overlooking Namche Bazar – there it was – the white icy peak of Mt Everest, also known as Sagarmatha to the Nepalese and Qomolangma to the Tibetans and Sherpas. All that pain and fatigue seemed worth it.

After the photo was taken, I went to the Namche Monastery, which was closed but nevertheless stayed awhile to give thanks to what was an extraordinary year for me – my corporate endeavours and associated rewards, my own struggle against hypocrisy and the perverse seduction of corporate slavery, and the eventual decision for self-actualisation. Then, it was a tough back-track and return to the hot showers and general comforts of Kathmandu.

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What is a typical Nepalese face? Is the Nepalese Indo-Aryan (i.e., Indian-looking) or Mongoloid (Chinese- or East Asian in appearance)? Sit in a café and one encounters Nepalese who look Indian, Chinese or a mix of both. Nepal lies on the edge of two major Asian racial divides and many ethnic groups have evolved independently and together in the many deep valleys within its borders. Four major Hindu castes and over 60 ethnic groups live in this country. Though Nepalese can often give an intelligent guess on the ethnic identity of a random person, mistakes can still be made. A Brahun or Chhetri typically looks Indian, though I have met a Chhetri who looked Mongoloid; whereas Sherpas typically look Mongoloid, one on the Everest trail often also encounter Indian-looking porters who say they are Sherpas (though a friend of mine living in Kathmandu say that sometimes porters lie that they are Sherpas due to the legendary mountaineering skills of these people).

The Nepali tongue, an Indo-Aryan language close to but different from Hindi, is the unifying tongue of all Nepalese of diverse ethnic groups. It was formed from the dialect of Gorkha, a poor small town in the hills that once played host to the Shahs, a dynasty of warriors from Rajasthan, India, who fled here from the Muslim invasion of their desert homeland. In 1768, Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ninth of the Shah kings of Gorkha, conquered the rich city states of the Kathmandu Valley (Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur), thus beginning the process known to Nepalese as the "unification" of Nepal. Over 50 tiny hill states were conquered by the Shah Dynasty, which formed the basis of the Nepalese state today.

Two opposing forces now confront the Nepali language. Outside Nepal, among the Nepalese diaspora, which included several million living in Sikkim and Darjeeling in northern India where are Indian citizens, and the million or so Nepalese of all ethnic origins working across the world as maids, construction workers and skilled and unskilled jobs of different kinds, the Nepali language is their sacred tongue from home. Among these people, as well as those living in the metropolis of Kathmandu with its 3 to 4 million people, Nepali is the unifying force and identity among all Nepalese. In fact, I was told that the recent winner of the Indian Idol contest is an ethnic Nepalese policeman from Darjeeling who mesmerized a billion Indians with his Hindi pop, was proud of his Nepalese roots and spoke excellent Nepali, and moved all of Nepal with his victory in the giant nextdoor.

To Maoists, however, the Nepalese state is the prison of ethnic groups, and the Nepali language, with its links to the Shah kings, is the oppressing tool used to chain up all the disadvantaged ethnic groups living across the country. Thus, the Maoists, as well as many of their allied regional separatist groups, would like to promote local ethnic languages over the national language. It remains to be seen how this struggle would play out.

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Nepal, up till the recent cessation of the king's absolute powers, was officially the world's only Hindu state. There remains on the statutes, a ban on the killing of cows. I have seen, more than once, wondering cows on major roads, and yet unrestrained. It is interesting to note that water buffalos are not considered cows, and hence available on most menus in tourist restaurants, which sounded like cheating for me. The Maoists have said that the cow sacredness would not be preserved, for the ban on its killing and consumption violates the human rights of ethnic groups that consume beef, such as the Rais.

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The royal massacre of 2001 was not Nepal's only major bloodbath. After the reign of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the country was ruled by a whole series of weak, infant or insane kings, supervised by a confusing series of queens and queen-mother regents, who conspired with their families or lovers or both, against their rivals, kings and other queens (because a king could have several queens and concubines). Murder, poisoning and coups were common-place but the country's borders continued to expand rapidly to cover an area larger than today's Nepal, later to be scaled back by British India. This confusing period of queen rule ended with the infamous Kot Massacre of 1846.

The young up-and-coming general and Chhetri nobleman (and possibly a lover of the queen regent to an insane king), Jung Bahadur, engineered the murder of a few hundred noblemen and high officials in the Kot courtyard adjoining the Durbar Square in Kathmandu. Following the infamous Kot Massacre, Jung Bahadur changed his surname to Rana and made himself hereditary Prime Minister, Maharaja and Supreme Commander-in-chief, thus beginning a rival second "royal family" for Nepal. Jung Bahadur even got the king to declared him the honorific "Sri Sri Sri", three "Sri's" compared to the king's own five "Sri's" – this reminded me of some of Ming China's power-crazy eunuchs who made themselves "Qian-Sui" ("thousand years"), just a step lower than the emperors' own "Wan-Sui" ("ten thousand years"). Rana rule had brought some limited progress to Nepal, but court intrigue was no less complicated, with intra-family murders and coups. Few Ranas died naturally, in a history that would provide ample material for an exciting TV series on palace affairs and intrigues.

The Shahs remained puppet kings until the Shahs' Restoration of 1951 that removed the Ranas hold on power. The Ranas continued to exercise disproportionate influence in Nepali business and public life. Every Shah king had married a Rana – including the dead King Bailendra, and the girl Crown Prince (and king-for-2-days-while-in-coma) Dipendra wanted to marry was a Rana too, albeit from a rival branch that his mother (also a Rana) had disapproved of.

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We returned to Kathmandu to find that newspaper headlines reported that the Parliament had passed the demands of the Maoists – a federal republic would be declared before any free elections, and full proportional representation, with rules probably favourable to the Maoists, would be implemented for the elections. Weren't my friends confident that the Maoist demands would not be approved, especially given that they were a minority in the Parliament? The problem was, none of the non-Maoist parties could control the situation any more. Their longstanding bickering in the Parliament and inability to alleviate poverty and promote development had led to the failure of democracy in Nepal and ultimately the success of the Maoist insurgency,

Now, with the countryside under Maoist control, no one, neither the political parties, the army nor the monarchy – all discredited institutions - could defy the Maoists anymore. Plainly, the Maoists have a blank cheque for anything they want since they control the guns. To me, the only plus point is the world would soon have to learn exotic new names such as the Autonomous People's Republics of Kirat, Newar, Tamuwan, Madhesh, Tharuwan, Temang, Magarat, Seti-Mahakali and Bheri-Karnali – all constituent states of a new Federal People's Republic of Nepal.

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We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Thamel, one of the many new ones opened by Mainland Chinese. The owner, a handsome young man in his early thirties, came to Nepal 4 years ago. He has now married a Nepalese girl and begun a brave new life in a country he once knew little about. The Chinese presence were getting more obvious in Nepal. They have taken over hotels once run by Nepalese and turned them into hotels oriented towards the Chinese market. They have gone into retail too, and even set up cybercafés that, according to a Nepalese friend, have broadband that run faster than any of the locally run ones. As in Bangladesh, they are making waves in local business.

Their appearance in Nepal, even as tourists, according to my Nepalese friends, was not exactly non-controversial. Some Chinese came on tourist visas but ended up as businessmen, while many bona fide tourists were not keen on spending in Nepalese-run businesses. They stayed at Chinese budget hotels, ate in Chinese restaurants and sought Chinese tourism service providers. These seemed to be the complaints not just in Nepal, but from people in many parts of the world.

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The Nepal Army, I have come to understand, is as good as a ceremonial force. Staffed 51% by Chhetris and Brahuns, the Nepal Army, until recently known as the Royal Nepal Army, has not fought any war since the 19th century wars with the British. The legendary Gurkhas were recruited from the unprivileged ethnic groups of Gurung, Tamung, Limbu and Rai – all Mongoloid in appearance – and trained by the British Army and Singapore Police Force. And yes, the same ethnic groups, together with many others, form large parts of the Maoist guerrilla force too.

Most ironically, the Maoist top leadership, like those of most of Nepal's political parties, is headed by Brahuns. The more skeptical Nepalese say that the current military conflict, like those between the forever quarrelling political parties, is simply a big quarrel among the Brahuns, the highest and most privilege caste/ethnic group in Nepal.

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From Kathmandu, we visited the ancient cities of Patan and Bhaktapur. The temples and fabulous architecture on the Durbar Squares of the two cities are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Built by the Malla kings, the spectacular tiered temples and pagodas reflected the wealth and creativity of mediaeval Nepal. Bhaktapur, in particular, was an amazing place: where peasant women dried and beat grains on the city squares; fruits and vegetables were still traded in the fresh produce market in front of the intricate goat blood-stained altar of the Bhairabnath Temple, overlooked by the monumental pagoda of the Nyatapola Temple; and numerous cottage handicraft shops hidden in the many hidden lanes and alleys in this mediaeval city.

Imagine growing up here and playing football on the ancient city squares, where kings and knights with their armour rode through the streets. There seemed to be few such places anywhere else in the world, and those that exist tend to be in pathetically poor countries where development didn't occur and hence time stands still. Is this what one would like to grow up in? Unfortunately, development and mediaeval authenticity often comes as a package.

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If Nepalese in general have remained poor, selected ethnic groups have benefitted from tourism development. The Sherpas have gained from being guides, hoteliers and restaurants not only in their mountainous home region popular among tourists, but are also engaged as mountain guides in faraway places like Ladakh and other parts of India, Pakistan, Bhutan and Tibet. They are active in tourism industry across Nepal and their wealth have enabled them to educate their children and reinvest in a wide range of businesses and properties in Kathmandu. Tibetan exiles (despite their lack of citizenship and hugely disadvantaged status as long term refugees) and Newars of the Kathmandu Valley have also made used of their business acumen, traditional craft guilds and cross-border network, and become a new middle class. The question of the future is, how can other ethnic groups learn from these successful groups and better themselves? Tourism is certainly one sector to further nurture and develop.

Despite years of developing the tourism industry, most of Nepal is hardly visited by tourists. The vast majority of visitors spend time only in Kathmandu Valley, Chitwan, Pokhara and the Everest region. The rest of the country, where over 60% of the population live, has hardly been penetrated. The lack of road, aviation and general hospitality infrastructure were among the causes. Even the existing infrastructure of the popular Everest region could potentially be improved significantly to improve yield, especially with regards to non-trekking oriented visitors who prefer to spend less time but are willing to pay more for comfort and speed in sightseeing in this region. At present, such tourists have no choice but to skip the region.

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We got onto a bus through winding roads to the lakeside city of Pokhara. Renowned for its good climate, spectacular scenery and ideal location as a base for major trekking trails such as the Annapurnas and Mustang, Pokhara is a place for both sightseers as well as hardcore trekkers. We spent two nights here, boating on the lake, relaxing in the bars, general sightseeing, watching sari-dressed local tribals doing bollywood dances (yes, Mongoloid/Chinese looking people in saris) and snapping photos of recent ruins of destroyed statues of the Shah kings (the work of Maoists). Amazing that the local authorities did not even bother to clear the ruins up especially when they were located at key city spots.

I sat by the peaceful shores of Fewa Lake, reflecting on the travails of Nepal. What a beautiful country – one of the most beautiful I've ever visited. It is amazing that I have only now visited a country so near Singapore, after I have done 133 others. As loud music burst from Pokhara's many bars and discos, I pondered over this country in deep, uncertain transition. Will the Maoists be catalysts for progressive change for greater equality and sustainable development? Or are they destroyers of foundations, society and traditions? Will Nepal be turned into another Pol Pot's Cambodia when peasants led by mad intellectuals destroyed all good and old, or see the ethnic cleansing that had occurred in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda? The following months will tell.

On Saturday, I will head for India, which together with China, will be a great new superpower of the brave new century.

Regards,

Wee Cheng


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