2/8/2006

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Nepalis voted today, for the first time in nearly a decade. The voting was marred by protests from opposition parties, police roundups of dissidents, and violence from the country’s Maoist insurgency. Almost all observers of the situation predict only more troubles for one of the world’s poorest countries, a land fractured by violence and suffering.

The original kernel for this post lies in a picture. I saw the photo on the BBC website, in an article on Nepal’s Maoist insurgency. A beatific young Nepali girl, bundled against the cold, cradles her rifle while observing some unseen maneuvers of her comrades. The harsh incongruity of the photo, of a wan and beautiful face cradling a weapon of destruction, compelled me to delve deeper into Nepal’s troubles and the Maoist insurgency that has wracked the country for the last decade.

The Maoists declared war on the government in 1996. Originally scoffed at by authorities, the rebellion began to make serious gains in 2000 against the government. The government is losing whatever tenuous control it had in the hinterlands of western Nepal, and vast regions of the country are being swept up into a paroxysm of violence and revenge killings on both sides. The Maoists ended a unilateral cease fire several weeks ago and slew 12 policemen in Kathmandu last weekend. Those attacks prompted a city wide curfew by the military, squelching protest marches planned for this week under martial law.

The upheaval within the royal family certainly hasn’t helped matters much either. In 2001, a distraught Crown Prince Dipendra went on a bloody killing spree, slaying his parents, the king and queen, his brothers and sisters and retainers before turning the guns upon himself. His uncle Gyanendra ascended to throne because he was the only one left alive. Last year, the worsening situation with the Maoists cause King Gyanendra to suspended the country’s fledgling democracy and seize absolute power in the country. Whatever his reasons, it certainly hasn’t helped calm the situation in the country.

In the last few weeks the situation has continued to worsen. A unilateral ceasefire by the Maoist ended in January with continued violence and protests. In response the military clamped down on dissidents and protest rallies in Kathmandu, declaring dawn to dusk curfews and additional overnight curfews. The scheduled elections for the country are descending into a farce, as candidates are being locked up in safe houses, either for their own safety or to keep them from dropping out of the elections. Violence is escalating across the country, including attacks by the Maoists inside Kathmandu against police and security forces.

Nepal is a poor country, landlocked amidst the heights of the Himalaya. The birthplace of the Buddha, Nepal is also the world’s only Hindu monarchy. A timeline of Nepal’s recent history shows some of the historical antecedents for the current crisis. A power struggle between the ancient rulers of the mountain kingdom facing off against a burgeoning population facing economic and environmental despair. The violence is regrettable, but is it any different than the French Revolution? The old privileged caste is holding onto power through ever more brutal means and only reinforcing the resistance with every lock down and curfew. It’s the same old story, only new players.

Gurkha Kukri Knife
One thing has struck me; the repeated preponderance of women in the photos of these Maoist rebels. It seems like the revolutionary army is chock full of women. And there’s a reason why:

Feudal traditions like arranged marriages, dowries, and polygamy are enforced in many ways and under a mixture of feudal and capitalist rules; women’s bodies are owned, controlled, and bargained over in everything from marriage to sex trafficking. Religious and cultural practices promote and perpetuate male domination. And everywhere a woman turns, her freedom and independence is policed and smothered. For women to be free of all this, the basic economic relations of land ownership in the countryside have to be upended. Control has to be taken out of the hands of the religious, political, and military forces which back up the tyranny of local landlords, corrupt politicians, and moneylenders. Social and cultural institutions which provide a foundation for the patriarchal control of fathers, brothers, and mother-in-laws have to be done away with. The whole education system has to be revolutionized.
Take that with a grain of salt, it’s coming from a pro Maoist writer. All I can say is that violence always harms those that are most vulnerable.

So what? I’m not heading to Nepal anytime soon, and neither are many of the tourists that are the lifeblood of this impoverished country. While foreigners are not being directly threatened, tourism is down to the mountain kingdom. I foresee a downward spiral of violence and mayhem ending badly for all involved.

A liquid telescope on the moon? Now that’s a cool idea.