Thursday, April 1, 2010

Forget Kathmandu

Forget Kathmandu: An Elegy for Democracy, Nepal  This is the title of a book I'm reading right now by Munjushree Thapa, reporting the events that occurred around the 2001 royal massacre in Kathmandu, as well as briefly outlining the three hundred year history that led to that event. The book is really well written because she doesn't pretend to know everything or position herself as a definitive narrator of history, she tells it as she experienced it as a well to do upper middle class Nepali woman living in the capital.

I had previously read a book called Blood Against the Snows, that detailed the convoluted history of the Nepali monarchy from around 1750ish and it concluded around the events that transpired in 2001. For those who don't know, the crown prince gunned down the King, Queen his brother and sister along with several other relatives in June of 2001 supposedly over an argument about their disapproval of who he wanted to marry. He then killed himself, though there is wide speculation that the official version of events is suspect, and due to a lack of any real investigation it is unlikely that anyone will really know what ever happened.
What we do know is that following this, the king's unpopular brother took the throne and as the Maoist insurgency stepped up and the political parties proved to be forever useless due to constant jockeying for internal power the new king eventually took control of the country. This book was written just after the king took total control in 2005. After this books publication, mass protests and bleak military prospects against the growing insurgency forced the king to allow for elections, and after the maoists won a majority in 2006, he was ousted.

What strikes at me hardest in the book is how the intelligent and well to do people of Kathmandu pin all their hopes on the helplessly corrupt political parties in their parliament, who even as the world disintegrates around them can't help but squabble over powers that are soon to be irrelevant. While it is easy to blame the politicians, the fault really seems to rest with the people in the authors position, who repeatedly states that she is not willing to face death, or imprisonment for democracy (I don't know if this sentiment changes, I haven't finished). In some sense who can blame her when all you have seen is corruption and ineffectual squabbling. This though is where people in the comfortable upper and middle classes needed to stand up. The public sector always can push to the limit of where a people will put up with injustice in taxes and mal-representation. The crisis the country faced was brought on by not checking and standing up to the government in the first place and allowing it to engage in excesses and ineffectual management that alienated large quantities of the population in rural Nepal in the first place.

This might sound harsh, but it usually is the buying off of the somewhat well to do by the elites that always allows the worst of the corruption. Why risk your comfort, your good life to stand up for vague things? What good does one person do, especially when you are not involved in the process? Every person has a point at which they sell themselves out, and many people are willing to push that line that they thought they would never let another cross much further back if it maintains their comfort and easy life. As a population you can not blame the politicians when you bought into their system, when you allowed them to rule as they did, when the citizens did not demand a curtail to their corruption or judicial oversight of public treasury.

There was a Roman Senator Priscus Helvidius who did not see eye-to-eye with the Emperor Vespasian. The Emperor had sent a message for him to not come to the senate and this back and forth ensued;
“You can forbid me to be a senator; but as long as I am a senator I must come in”

“Come in then,” said Vespasian, “and be silent.”

“Question me not and I will be silent.”

“But I am bound to question you.”

“And I am bound to say what seems right to me.”

“But if you say it, I shall kill you.”

“When did I tell you that I was immortal? You will do your part, and I mine. It is yours to kill and mine to die without quarreling: yours to banish and mine to go into exile without groaning.”

As a historical note of interest the senator was killed. What good did he do? Well today I still know his name and he stands out as an example to people of what it means to stand up for what is the right thing to do, regardless of the consequences. Your own actions are always in your power, and the consent one gives to another is arbitrary and is not required when they have acted in poor faith of public trust. My point is that you should never invest your hopes in someone else doing the right thing, never see something wrong and think that someone else should do something about it. Do the right thing, and set an example for others to follow. Because he didn't compromise, the senate heard his opinion, the emperor was shown for what he was.
So coming back to Nepal, it is encouraging to see how far the country has come since the king grabbed power in 2005. The people of Nepal did stand up, and though things aren't perfect here there is a citizenry that is prone to stand up on occasion and say "No". Journalists, lawyers, human rights advocates, and many others have stood up and reported on things that have gotten them killed or at least in compromised positions. This can't be said for many places I've visited, and in the end despite some of this countries dysfunction there is a certain amount of jealousy the rest of the world should have for a people that can stand up every once in a while.

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