Thursday, November 26, 2009

Our Religious Right

(A Letter to the Editor - published in The Kathmandu Post, 27 Nov 2009)

Biswas Baral should understand that we live in a democracy with freedom of religion ("Final Thoughts on Gadhimai", Nov. 26, Page 7). If people have faith in Gadhimai and wish to sacrifice buffaloes to the Goddess, who is to say they are "religious fanatics"? The Post has also published a letter from a woman in Norway who considers this event a "disgrace to Nepal" ("Not in God's Name", Nov. 26, Page 7). They are practicing their faith and let no one, especially someone living in Scandinavia, complain.

Baral goes so far as to philosophise, "people who commit violence against animals early in their lives are likely to commit violent crimes against other people when they grow up" (no reference cited). Animal sacrifice to Goddess Durga is a basic practice in Hinduism. I have a Chettri friend in whose family every male member is taught to cut a goat with a khukuri (in a single clean stroke) by the time he is 14 or 15. It is a rite of passage into adulthood. My friend cut his first goat at 15 and his first buffalo at 16. He is middle-aged today and has committed no crime in his entire life.

Hinduism was taken away as the official religion of this country, ironically under the watch of three Brahmin politicians. But at least 65% of the population are Hindus (another 15% are Buddhists). Let them practice their religion without uncalled for judgments. I will not judge the American people, for instance, for the number of turkeys they are going to kill for Thanksgiving. Let no one judge Nepalis for practicing their religion.

Friday, November 20, 2009

No Foreign Interference on Nepal Army!

Nepal is perhaps THE country where foreign interference has reached a level of absurdity. Every politician of note heads south of the border before taking any decision. A certain ambassador has taken on the role of Governor General. Squeezed between two giant nuclear powers, we get it from north and south, though much more heavily from the south. The laughable irony is we - the Nepali Government - has allowed foreign interference in this country's internal affairs to be the modus operandi for all and sundry. Though never colonised, we have a grovelling approach to anything foreign. And when certain foreign countries line the pockets of our corrupt politicians, we might as well hand over our independence to anyone who wants it.

Currently the Nepal Army (NA) does not have an official second-in-command. Major General Toran Jung Bahadur Singh's promotion to Lieutenant General is being delayed by the hue any cry of so-called human-rightists. 49 Maoist detainees allegedly disappeared from the NA's Bhairavnath barracks in 2003-2004. The NA has established the whereabouts of 12 of them. It is common knowledge that detainees routinely gave false names. Upon release, they carried on with their real names. So, arguably, the 37 "missing" detainees may have followed this exact practice. The NA's internal investigations have cleared Gen. Toran, under whose Brigade Command Bhairavnath Battalion was at the time. The current Defense Minister, and of course the NA, has stood by Gen. Toran's eligibility for promotion.

On the other hand, the US, UK, the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the National Human Rights Commission are creating a brouhaha that this General has been implicated in human rights violations and can be promoted only at the risk of the country's "democratic credibility". Our dilly-dallying Prime Minister has yet to take a decision on this matter, ignoring his Defense Minister's advice. Apparently, the PM is shaken by visits from the military attache's of the countries mentioned above. Nepal must be the only country where junior diplomats - and military attaches are just that - have direct access to the PM and can sway his judgment.

While the Maoist militia have come out of their cantonments on many occasions, directly violating the Peace Accords, not once has the NA ventured out of its barracks except to help with humanitarian needs such as floods and earthquakes. Further, what is good for the gander should be good for the goose too. It may be remembered here that the NA has investigated so far 72% of all allegations received against it and 175 personnel have actually been punished for rights violations. How many from the Maoist militia have been punished? Or did the so-called PLA not murder and pillage, among civilians, in the countryside? Instead, the supremo of the PLA has come and gone as the Prime Minister of this country! Where were these human-rightists looking then?

Beyond the shadow of a doubt, the NA is the only institution that is keeping this country from total anarchy. The Maoist guns stored in the cantonments are fossils. The real weapons are buried deep in various parts of the country. Maoist leaders still talk of state capture, urban warfare and dictatorship of the so-called proletariat. They tried to politicise the NA by arbitrarily sacking the previous Chief and are now making a big issue of "civilian (or even people's!) supremacy", all the while pretending that they do not have a private "army", the PLA, and their youth wing, the YCL, which is primarily staffed by militia who should be inside the cantonments.

So, foreign parties, leave the NA and its internal matters alone. You have done enough harm already by meddling in Nepal's internal affairs.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Can Peace Hold in Nepal ? by Siddhartha Thapa

Can peace hold in Nepal? The answer to this question will draw mixed reactions from different quarters. But, whatever the reactions might be from different quarters there is a subtle consensus amongst Nepali politicians that the peace in Nepal is slowly but surely faltering towards a premature end. However, why is the peace process in Nepal heading towards a failure? First, the existing ideological divide between the parties and the Maoists is just too wide. Second, the recent Sino-India tension is real and Nepal is an issue that is prominent for both these countries. Third, the lack of leadership is clearly visible. And last, the role played by some external forces mainly the UNMIN and Norway is particularly questionable.

UNMIN’s bias for the Maoist Party is best explained by the relationship Samuel Tamrat shares with Maoist leaders. Tamrat, a former rogue rebel from Eritrea played a crucial role in establishing UNMIN’s mission in Kathmandu – he flew into Noida, New Delhi and met Dr.Bhatterai many times and his communist background came in handy to gain the trust of Maoist leaders. For the Maoist party, the presence of UNMIN served two strategic purposes to aide their strategy of eventual power capture. In plain and simple words, the Maoist party has used UNMIN as a tool to propel their tactical advancement in consolidating power in Nepal. First, UNMIN has in various reports to the Security Council equated both Nepal Army and PLA as equal entities. The obvious consequences of such reporting are beneficial to the Maoists as the PLA is seen as a national army en par with the Nepal Army – thus providing legitimacy and recognition for the PLA. What is without a doubt the most indigestible element of UNMIN’s presence in Nepal is that despite repeated warnings and suggestions it continued to accept thirty thousand militia as the total strength of the Maoist army – Prachanda declared to his cadres how the actual strength was only nine thousand and that he had foxed UNMIN.

Despicable as it may sound, UNMIN can serve no further purpose in our peace process – even with their use of sophisticated CCTV’s - murders happened in UN monitored camps and weapons continue to be removed from weapon containers which have UN stickers. It is without a doubt, a more structured indigenous surveillance can mitigate the complications arising in these UN cantonments. Next, UNMIN’s presence has also helped the Maoists to neutralize Indian hegemony in Nepal’s peace process. Fearing that they will be ultimately exposed and that India may intervene against their interests, Maoists have used UNMIN to checkmate India – UNMIN’s political mandate makes her the principal arbitrator of Nepal’s peace process and not India. The only difference between India and UNMIN is that for the UNMIN it just wants to conclude the peace process and leave, where as, for India nothing less than the establishment of a democratic polity will satisfy her investment in Nepal’s peace process.

Another prominent international player in Nepal’s peace process is Norway. The Norwegians have delivered consistent incantations to the Maoists leadership on the way to move forward. This juxtaposition can be explained by the role played by former Norwegian Ambassador to Nepal Tore Torang. Ambassador Torang was a key player in introducing Prachanda to numerous other Kathmandu based ambassadors. The most notable meeting that Ambassador Torang brokered between Prachanda was that with Ambassador Powell of the United States. Sri Lanka is a glaring example of how deceitfully the Norwegians took on the side of the outlawed Tamil Tigers – the same process is being emulated in Nepal. Why? Norway has the money to spend on development, and they have identified the Maoists as their partners to expand their base in the developmental process of Nepal, with issues such as human rights, inclusion and gender discriminations providing a perfect fa├žade for their unity.

In a recent panel discussion in Washington titled, “China 2025”, organized by the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, a prominent expert on Asian studies, Aaron Friedberg from Princeton University warned of a “period of India-China tension". He further added that, "There are things that are ratcheting up on the border a little bit, but I think broadly tamped down within limits that are set by the political leaderships on both sides." However, the most interesting of Professor Friedberg’s observation was that Asia is a unipolar political entity and that India’s presence can help constitute a balancing force on Beijing. As Indo- US cooperation has increased, Asian politics has taken an interesting turn. China operated in Asia as a unipolar power with India in the distant as a balancer.

However, American-Indian cooperation has drawn Asian politics into a world of multipolarity which is discomforting to Beijing. It is in this context that Nepal cannot be ignored. In this jostling of diplomatic supremacy, Nepal has been caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Nepal is now as much a priority on the security policy paradigm of both China and India. As for China, it needs a leadership in Nepal that can assure them that Nepal will not be used against creating trouble in Tibet. Where as India, needs to maintain her interest in Nepal so that energy harnessed in Nepal can be used for her industries as India grows rapidly. Equally important is the growth of Naxalism in India and the possible ramification a rogue Nepal can have on the security of India. What would serve the Indian’s best is if they tried understanding the security complication of their country through the eyes of Nepal.

Last, the ideological divide between the Maoists and the political parties is just too wide – end goals are drastically different. Political parties remain week, unorganized and do not have the imagination to check mate the Maoists both politically and constitutionally. Equally deplorable is the leadership of the political parties. In such light, the Maoist has entangled politicians in useless political debates. While politicians remain locked in Kathmandu, Maoists roam around Nepal campaigning and organizing against the state. As political capacity to check mate the Maoists erodes, the use of force seems like a probable strategy to counter the violence unleashed by the Maoists. Capable political leadership would explore ways of uniting parties against a common threat and then fighting the Maoists politically and constitutionally in which the Maoists would have surely lost once defanged by the process of democracy.

As things stand the peace process has entered the last phase, it can either work from here or completely fail. India and China must exert their influence on political actors to build consensus so that Nepal can usher in a new era of peace, stability and democracy. However, UNMIN’s mission to Nepal needs to be further streamlined if not terminated for all the dishonesty that has been synonymous with her presence in Nepal. Her further participation in Nepal’s peace process is determined by her ability to resist being used by the Maoists – it is a fallacy to generalize that the UN is an impartial peace mediator – all conflict mediators take side and this is a historic phenomenon. Most important, political parties and Maoists need to reach a common ground to ease the persisting ideological divide that engulfs them – democratic process and constitutional liberalism are processes that can’t be traded for the sake of peace.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Day's Cricket

It has been speculated that Prince Edward (the one with questionable sexual inclinations), the son of Edward Longshanks (who captured and killed Scottish nationalist William Bruce, as depicted in the film "Braveheart") played a game something like cricket in Kent in 1301. The origins of cricket has definitely been traced back to 16th century Tudor England. It soon became the national sport of England. When the sun shone on the British Empire, the game was exported to its colonies. Ironically, today, these very same ex-colonies manage to thrash the English regularly at their own game.

Cricket conjures up the image of teams in gentlemanly whites playing demurely and even having tea breaks over a 5-day test match. That was the way it was for a long time. But with the advent of one day internationals and the the more recent 20/20 forms of the game,cricket has thrown off its colonial heritage. It is now a colourful exciting game. The 20/20 matches even have cheerleaders!

My attention span is ideal for a 90 minutes game of football (soccer). Fast-paced action with just one half-time break. Within 2 hours, the match is over and one can go about one's business with the 'high' induced by the game. Even as a tennis fan, some of those slug fests which last 3 to 5 hours are hard on the attention span. So imagine my chagrin last Sunday when I recklessly decided to watch the India vs. Australia one day international cricket - the match started at 9 a.m. and ended at 4 p.m. I kept my interest in the game whetted by rooting for the doomed Indian side, but still I think I have just watched my last 7-hour game!

It was an important game. Australia is ranked No.1 in ODI cricket and India No.2. They were playing a 7-game series this time,in India. Australia led the series 3-2. So India had to win this game to stay alive. India had lost the previous game by only 3 runs, despite the 175 scored by Sachin Tendulkar. So it was anybody's game.

Unfortunately, it wasn't! India had 27 runs and 5 men out, due to the heroics of the Aussie bowlers Johnson and Bollinger. Tendulkar was out for 10, Sehwag and Yuvaraj for even less. A good partnership between Jadeja and Parvin Kumar helped India a bit, with both scoring over 50. Anyway, all out with 170 runs. The Aussies started batting. Their star batsman Shane Watson scored 49 before Harbhajan Singh got him to hit a flyer for a catch. Harbhajan got the dangerous Ricky Ponting out too. But one cannot hope for miracles, not with a measly 170 runs against Australia. The Aussies won by 6 wickets, and my 7 hours ordeal was disappointingly over.

My post last June was on the 20/20 world finals between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, played in England. I ended it by saying, "Whoever wins...the trophy will be held high with pride and the world of cricket will marvel at the heroics of these young men - from South Asia!" It was my personal ode to regional South Asian pride. South Asia could not lose in June. This time, it did. So until next time, regional pride will have to be patient...and I shall not be watching entire cricket games anyway, unless they are 20/20 matches which last only about 3 hours. One consolation I do have from last Sunday is that I won a $10 bet from an Aussie friend who was betting on the Indians! Now I have to figure out which country's dollar is strongest before I collect my win.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Mon Ami Asterix

Asterix, the beloved Gaul, recently celebrated his 50th birthday. Appearing first in a French magazine in 1959, 33 Asterix comic books have been published as of 2008. The story line is that of a village of ancient Gauls in Brittany resisting Roman occupation. They have a magic potion to help with the resistance but they are also brave and industrious. France celebrated Asterix by naming its first satellite, launched in 1965, Asterix-1.

The cast of characters in these comics are a sight to behold. Asterix, warrior nonpareil especially when he has had a go at the magic potion. The huge Obelix, strong as an ox and Asterix's side-kick. The bard, Cacophonix, whose lack of singing talent is the bane of the whole village. I have a dog which bears an uncanny resemblance to Dogmatix, always scratching fleas off himself. The village chief is carried around on a shield. Many other colourful characters abound.

The Romans, with their empire, just can't seem to vanquish this little band of Gauls. Wave after wave of legionnaires are sent against Asterix and company, to no avail. To those of us who fancy David against Goliath, this is the ultimate turn-on.

The creators of this marvel, writer Rene Goscinny and illustrator Albert Uderzo, have provided a commentary on history and politics. Uderzo's parents had fled Mussolini's Italy so he had no qualms about making the Romans laughing stock of the Brittany country-side. His illustrations are superb and make Archie comics, or even the old Classic comics, look like rags. Goscinny died in 1977 but Uderzo has carried on as best he can. At 82, he has not stopped.

I am going to go now look for the latest Asterix comic. Au revoir et vive les Gauls!