This is the story of Hobgoblin Rae's Nepal experience.
For the past two months I have been living and working in Katmandu as a voluntary English teacher. Since the recent civil unrest made the UK news, the left has been falling over itself to offer criticism of the bumpy path to democracy in Nepal, and the maoist movement in particular. That’s not what I want to do, all I want to do is tell the story of what we saw. You can then make up your own mind.
Even before King Birendra and his close family were killed Nepal had a history of civil unrest and had trod a rocky path towards bourgeois democracy. With the ascension of Gyanendra and an escalation of the maoist campaign things have got progressively worse. Gyanendra, having ruled once before during his grandfathers exile is now the eleventh successor to Prithvi Narayan Shah, the founder of modern Nepal. Legend has it that the Shah dynasty will last only ten generations. Perhaps its time has come.
Before the Seven Party Alliance called the four day strike due to begin on 6th April 2006 we had become accustomed to the small scale strikes and roadblocks that pepper life in Nepal. Although inconvenient, the four day strike would give us opportunities to relax a little, catch up on some work and read all those books we’d never got around to. During the first few days there was virtually no traffic on the streets but people were moving freely around we saw a few taxis with their number plates removed. By the third day a curfew has been imposed by the Palace, and it turned out days one and two hadn’t been as quiet as we’d previously thought. We sat down with the Nepalese students we live with and watched the local news, it was full of reports of rioting all over the city, even down the road from us. The first protester has been shot dead by police and his body is shown on the television, images like this only serve to fuel peoples hatred of the king and the police.
Until day four we hadn’t really been able to leave our hostel, we shouldn’t have been able to today either as the curfew (now ‘shoot on sight’) was still in force. However, I had become very sick and needed to be taken to hospital, we drove through streets deserted except for tanks and burning tyres. From the rocks and bricks littering the road is was clear a riot had passed this way. We became trapped inside the hospital by a pitch battle waged between protesters and armed police outside. Despite using tear gas the police were eventually driven back. Having been suitably patched up we needed to get back to our hostel, and to safety. It would have been suicide to try to walk the three miles back so our only option was to accept a lift with the army. Crammed in the back of a jeep with armed men I questioned our choice, we had felt unsafe coming in by ambulance and now we were leaving in the vehicle of the enemy. Foreigners have occupied a strange position of privilege in Nepal for a long while, both sides fear the withdraw of tourists and tourist money. Today showed that it is impossible to remain neutral, even as foreigners we have to pick sides or they will be picked for us.
The curfews and responding riots continue through days five and six. Each morning the curfew hours are announced on the television, people then dash out to buy supplies before it comes into force. Food is running low as nothing can get into the city. We hear from our fellow volunteers working in a hospital in Banepa that gun shot victims are being brought in and that judging by the damage done, the police are not using rubber bullets like they claim to be. In Nepal, as perhaps the rest of the world, the police force is made up of poorly educated men and women subjected to a culture of violence. To the cynical eye they seem to be enjoying indiscriminately beating people.
For the next few days we are able to move a little and so head into Thamel, the tourist district of Katmandu. As the BBC says, Thamel is where tourists go to avoid politics. Walking around the police-free streets you can understand why, the shops are shut yes but the restaurants are open and showing no sign of the crippling food shortages affecting the rest of the city. However, by the following day, politics had found it’s way into Thamel by means of a heavily publicized tourist demonstration. Until this point the demonstrations had been organized by the Nepalese people with the aim of self-determination, now tourists were putting their oar in. I can’t know for sure the motivation of those who joined in but I know why I didn’t. This fight belongs to the Nepalese people, it is their country and their vision of democracy. I have no right to join their struggle unless invited, I choose to express solidarity with the views of the people I meet but to demonstrate is to demonstrate on their behalf. Instead I chose to see my role as witness, to come home and tell of the police brutality I had witnessed and of the pride and courage of the people. Several tourists are arrested and with the police breaching Thamel our status as privileged white foreigners is quite rightly shattered.
Day twelve brings a change in Thamel, the shop shutters are no longer coming down because the shop keepers are afraid of an impending demonstration but because, we realize, they are going to join in. During the morning three fellow volunteers and I are in the wrong place at the wrong time and become caught in a riot. Separated by the police charge they are caught in a stampede while I end up on the wrong end of a lathi (three foot wooden police baton). After running from the police I’m given shelter by a local hotel until the streets are quiet again. Within moments I have witnessed terrible brutality by the police and the kindness of strangers. After this it is very difficult to feel safe anymore, the policeman who hit me was fully aware that I was a white woman running away, he’d looked me in the eye. The following days bring further curfews and so much more violence. It is still however, the police and not the army committing most of the acts of aggression.
On day sixteen we watch the kings speech with some Nepalese friends and aside from the language barrier its hard to work out if they are happy or not. It quickly becomes clear that those still on the streets are not satisfied with the response. The king has offered the people virtually nothing, much less than he had originally taken away. It looks as if the struggle for democracy will continue and that the violence, curfews and shortages haven’t dampened the people’s desire for change. In the following days the mass action escalates, crowds flood the ring road and march into the city centre. Most main roads are filled with waves of men, women and children. They are risking their lives by defying curfew but they still look so happy. It’s hard to imagine a similar situation in the UK.
Eventually I had to leave Nepal, we didn’t know how long things would carry on and with impending fuel shortages if I didn’t leave then I might not have got out for a long while. As it happened on day twenty the king announced further concessions to the SPA and the maoists and allowed parliament to sit again.
It’s hard to know where things will go from here, the previous problems of corruption still dog the government and the king retains all the same powers that allowed him to seize control on 1st February 2005. All I can hope for is that the ordinary people who mobilized in the last few weeks will revel in their new found sense of autonomy. At times it was unclear as to who was calling the demonstrations and getting people onto the streets, was it the maoists or the SPA. Other times, towards then end it was clear that these were spontaneous demonstrations, without leaders and without political dogma. And why am I not advocating the push towards socialism or communism? Because thats not what the people of Nepal seem to want. Instead I wish them all the best in their ongoing struggle for democracy and once they get that, then we can all sit down as comrades and plan where we go together from here.
Thanks for this article must go to David, Robin and Sarah.