Turmoil in the Himalayas and the Dawn of a New Era

In Ruckus [Vol. 8, Iss. 4, February 2005]

Nepal, remembered by every ones’ parents as the primary destination for high-altitude, low-cost karma (not to mention hashish) has recently seen the second subduction of its’ government in about as many years. Ruckus investigates what’s up and what’s down on the roof of the world.

Introduction

Precariously sandwiched between the two largest populations on Earth, populations from whose ranks the upcoming century’s global leaders will rise, lies the mountain kingdom of Nepal. It is the author’s opinion that, because of the unique niche Nepal and its turmoil occupy in time and space, events there may well represent nothing less than the opening chapter of a new unwritten volume of global history.

For the first time in recent memory, a popular socialist uprising has been allowed to spawn, grow and blossom without Western interference. The die has been cast, and it is not for lack of interest that there are no WASPs at the table. Rather, it is because Delhi and Beijing have firmly taken their opposing seats and, having become irritated with their bothersome sting, have decided not to let them play.

June 2001: Early Tremors

It is around 9:00 pm on Friday evening on the first day of June 2001 in Kathmandu, Nepal. 29-year old crown prince Dipendra, the Eton-educated heir to the throne, walks room to room in the Narayanhiti Royal Palace where his family is enjoying a social get-together. Slung over his shoulders are an M-16 A2® assault rifle and an Uzi™ submachine gun. Screams and gun-fire ring out, scarcely heard over the merciless clatter of the monsoon rains outside. Minutes after committing patricide, matricide, fratricide and sororicide, the prince completes the brutal ‘-cide’ omnibus by shooting himself in the head.

Shockwaves carrying the news of the royal family’s unexpected slaughter surge through the Himalayan kingdom. All television and radio broadcasting is suspended. Army checkpoints manned by fresh nervous soldiers spring up in remote corners like virgin rhodondendron buds poking through the snowy sheaths of winter. From the slopes of the world’s tallest peaks in the north, to the malaria-infested tropical forests in the south, Nepal’s 24 million-or-so citizens brace for uncertain times. After all, no-one knows better than the Nepalese that tremors often forewarn of larger earthquakes to come.

The Nepalese Peoples War: The Avalanche Begins

Technically, Nepal has been in a state of civil war since February 13th, 1996. Like a slab of melting ice, the insurgents (variably termed ‘Maoists’, ‘Terrorists’ or ‘Republicans’ depending on whom you talk to) are slowly diffusing their control inwards to the political heart of Nepal: Kathmandu Valley. About three quarters of Nepal lies under their control today.

Predictably, the Nepalese government has whole-heartedly embraced the anti-terrorism rubric that has enslaved much of the world since 9/11. Many media commentators have simplistically likened the insurgency in Nepal to the 1970’s Khmer Rouge offensive in Cambodia and the 1980’s and 1990’s Sendero Luminoso attacks in Peru. All derive(d) their support primarily from rural peasantry. As a group of armed self-described Maoists in the Manang region of western Nepal explained to me, their struggle is against the absolute and despotic monarchy, with the express aim of establishing a People’s democracy.

The Maoists I spoke to, however, were not brainwashed killers. They were laborers, farmers, porters; they were fathers and mothers. Indeed, only two facets made them stand out. Firstly, many of them were women. This was surprising in the context of the strongly dichotomous gender relations prevalent throughout Nepal. Secondly, they were heavily armed.

To date, no foreign trekkers have been reported killed in the conflict. However, as noted by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, the ‘encircle-and-kill’ tactics employed by the Nepalese army – borrowed from Chiang Kai-shek’s brutal ‘communist extermination’ methods in China in the 1930s – have led to uncounted civilian deaths.

The Maoists, meanwhile, have implemented carefully orchestrated and highly selective deadly raids against police and army structures, and against key government representatives and supporters.

February 2005: The Political Earthquake?

Following the murder of the highly popular King Birendra in 2001, the throne was occupied by Birendra’s younger brother, successful businessman and now king, Gyanendra. Almost immediately upon rising to power, the latter began to systematically reverse the steps taken by his royal predecessor to mold Nepal’s governance into one based on a democratic parliamentary constitution. He fired the Prime-Minister amidst massive protests in October 2002, only to reinstate him after an 18-month spell of experimental multi-party politics.

The last two years have seen the standard array of collapsed peace talks, broken seize-fires, delayed and cancelled elections, and escalating violence. Recently, on the February 1st of this year, King Gyanendra may have made his last desperate move. In addition to once more sacking the Prime-Minister and instating a brand-new 10-member cabinet, he officially introduced severe restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of the press, constitutional protection against censorship and rights against preventive detention. (Ruckus prize-question of the month: which other nation also recently… oh, never mind.)

The Future: Aftershock

At the time of writing, the situation in Nepal is far from normal. The King’s grip on the press is tighter than ever. The General Secretary of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, Bishnu Nisthuri, was arrested on February 5 and its President, Tara Nath Dahal, has taken refuge in the United Nations headquarters in the capital. Many of the journalists who have escaped arrest have gone into hiding. Networks of all the political parties have been rapidly and methodologically dismantled to impede their coordination. One of the largest parties in the recently dissolved government, CPN-UML, has gone entirely underground. Almost all other prominent political leaders are either under house arrest or have been detained.

Finally, in a BBC interview on February 7th, a leader of the now-underground Nepali Congress confided that the displaced government is considering joining hands with the Maoists and launching a mass-movement to unseat the king. Many analysts would now agree that a Revolution in the Himalayas within the upcoming weeks has turned from being near-inconceivable to being near-inevitable. But what will the new day bring?

Afterword

Reader, we quite unexpectedly find ourselves at the door-step of a new era. Outside, over the western horizon, the sun has passed through its’ zenith largely unnoticed and is steadily continuing along its indifferent arc. Soon, the sun will set on the long shadows of over half a millennium of Euro-American dominance. Before the fall of night, let us daringly climb atop the slowly crumbling roof of western civilization and turn our backs on the approaching sunset, with its falsely comforting final rays of warmth.

Now, let us turn our faces into the rising easterly winds and look towards the horizon, where the faint red glow of an approaching dawn is already visible through the binoculars of history. Let us squint our eyes, reader, so that we may perhaps steal an occasional glimpse through the slowly lifting cloud canopy. There, do you see it too? Surely those lands, rising out of the obscurity of time once more, are the vague outlines of China and, a bit further still, India.

Reader, even if we will never be able to adequately prepare ourselves for this new day, let us at least find consolation in having been allowed to gaze upon its birth!

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