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Nepal: Democracy in Thin Air

John Burdett is author of Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo.

The New York Times, Kathmandu, Nepal, Nov. 27, 2005

Photo: A Nepali Maoist rebel, with a King Gyanendra poster in the background

Last week, Nepal's Maoist rebels and a coalition of seven opposition parties agreed on a program to try to end direct rule by King Gyanendra. The accord was the latest twist in this tiny Himalayan kingdom's decade-long civil war, which took a bizarre turn almost five years ago: on June 1, 2001, the hard-drinking, drug-abusing crown prince, Dipendra, who had been told by his parents that he had to choose between the kingdom he expected to inherit and the woman he loved, responded by murdering nine of the royal household, including his parents, before taking his own life.

Questions and conspiracy theories abound, with a focus on the two factions that benefited from the catastrophe: the faction led by Dipendra's uncle Gyanendra, who inherited the crown, and the one led by the Maoists.

Since the murders, the new king has twice declared a state of emergency - most recently in February, when he ousted the government - followed by the inevitable suppression of free speech; trafficking in drugs and women, especially the sale of Nepalese girls to Indian brothels, has increased enormously; and rural Nepalese intimidated by the Maoists have streamed into the Kathmandu Valley, creating a refugee crisis.

All this is on my mind as I venture back to Kathmandu for the first time in three years. I had prepared for arrival in a dysfunctional wasteland, yet I find the capital as lively, loquacious and diverse as I've seen it in more than 20 years of visiting. There is one exception: nobody seems willing to talk about the future.

On my way to Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple, I pass ethnic Indian women in saris and Tibetan women in thick plum-colored skirts with square aprons; Western backpackers; yak herdsmen from higher altitudes come down to the valley to trade; old women carrying single gigantic cauliflowers to market; youngsters in white-and-navy school uniforms in the best British tradition.

Pradeep, whom I meet at the top of the Monkey Temple's long stone staircase, is an economics student. He is prepared to talk about anything except politics. While I'm trying to figure out a way to persuade him to open up, a slapstick comedy unfolds: as a Swiss tourist reaches into her handbag and takes out an apple to eat after the long climb up the stairs, a monkey moving at warp speed grabs the fruit in two tiny hands. The Swiss tourist lets out a little scream of shock, by which time the monkey has retreated to the top of the stupa, where he nonchalantly munches on the apple.

'You see,' says Pradeep, laughing, 'you want me to speculate on the future of my country, which is one of the poorest in the world, while that wealthy Westerner cannot control the future long enough to get an apple from her bag into her mouth. There is no certainty but change.'

I had forgotten how Buddhist the thinking can be in this Hindu kingdom. From Swayambhunath, I walk back down the mountain and find a cab that will take me to Pashupatinath. On the Bagmati River, Pashupatinath is considered by many to be the second-holiest site in Hinduism, after Benares. The public cremations here are an attraction for Western tourists, but I come whenever I can to see a pal I made many years back.

He is a jorgi or yogin in a loincloth, who has not cut his hair in more than 30 years; it reaches to his knees, but most of the time he keeps it in a huge bun like a pillbox hat on the top of his head. I once made the mistake of asking his name, after he had filled his great chest with an inhalation of smoke from his black stone chillum. He took a full minute to exhale, then said: 'Bam Shankar' - I am Shiva.

It is for such dizzying perspectives that one travels to Nepal: everything here is giant size, from the courage of the Sherpas - those professional conquerors of Everest - to the Gurkha heroes of the British Army, to the mountains themselves, to the cruelty of human trafficking, to the godlike vision of the holy men.

Not that Shiva is entirely above trivia. Out of a long meditative silence, he asks: 'How did your book do?' I had forgotten his almost total recall of our conversations, which are usually at least two years apart. He had said he would meditate to bring me luck, and now I'm wondering if this is baksheesh time.

'Good,' I say. He is distracted, though, by a junior sadhu who is preparing fire and incense for some ceremonies. Neither baksheesh nor the body politic are half as important as the finer points of the rituals.

Suman, my taxi driver back to the KatHmandu Guest House, is a history student when he is not driving a cab. Finally, I have found someone who is prepared to speak his mind. He points out that Nepal has seen worse crises: at times the monarchy's feuds with pretenders have reduced the kingdom to a few hundred square miles of the Katmandu Valley, but this is an exceptionally resilient country. 'You have been trekking here?' he asks. 'Then you have used the thousands of miles of steps my people have carved out of the Himalayas by hand. This is the land of Shiva, the most powerful of the gods. When do you have to be at the airport?'

'In about two hours.'

'I will drive you. I will give a discount of 50 rupees, but you will listen.'

'O.K.,' I say, after I fetch my bag from the guest house. 'What?'

Suman does not say anything until we are really quite close to the airport. Then: 'Eight years of communist insurrection but we ordinary Nepalis only went crazy once - do you know why? I will tell you. We went crazy after King Birendra was murdered because at first we were sure it was a coup. Why? Because King Birendra was saving us from democracy and the people knew it.'

'Saving you from democracy?'

'Certainly. If we are not very, very careful, democracy in Nepal will mean urban feudalism, the country will be run by the same half-dozen families as run it now, who will join forces with Indian and Chinese businessmen. The people would not be able to find freedom in the countryside anymore. Why do we have to go through the robber baron period - because you did?

'King Birendra understood this and wanted full democracy to come slowly, after all the proper institutions were in place. Our beloved king was our only defense against capitalists and communists both.' Suman has grown so excited he suddenly turns self-conscious. 'Are you shocked?'

I think about that. 'No, Suman,' I say, 'I just wish I could patch you through to the White House.'