On the outside, Nepal is quite simply a paradise. It’s been the traditional pilgrimage site for the West’s hippies for over forty years. However, most tourists don’t have a clue about the politics of the country.
For the last ten years the Communist Party of Nepal has been fighting a People’s War against both the government and the monarchy. They have attracted a barrage of criticism from foreign governments and the UN for their methods, and it is estimated that 13,000 people have died on both sides during the war.
Once in Nepal, it’s hard to miss the presence of the Maoists; the hammer and sickle is plastered across the walls of Kathmandu, and the colour red raises its head in a multitude of places. There is also a general spirit of protest, or some may say revolution, in the country, experienced by any traveller who decides to venture outside of the capital.
This spirit of protest shows up mostly in the form of the infamous ‘changka jam’ which literally translates as ‘jam the wheels.’ These strikes can be the result of almost anything, from the Indian authorities shooting a Nepali driver on the border, to a rise in petrol prices. The latter was the reason for the most crippling of the changka jams when I was there. It was supposed to be one day of protests, but ended up spilling over into almost a week. The scenes in our nearest city were horrific. The whole place looked like a war zone as the black smoke from burning tyres filled the air and youths walked round with bandanas covering their faces. It’s this slightly sinister side of Nepali politics that tends to be missed by the tourists.
The main problem the Maoists have, and to be fair the whole country has, is a distinct lack of communication. Although roads are ploughed further into the foothills of the Himalayas every year, vast areas of the country can only be reached on foot. The postal system is dire, and some parts of the country don’t have electricity, never mind a telephone. As a result, it is extremely hard for the government and other political groups to contact people in the rural areas. This has caused a number of problems for the country as a whole, mainly because it sometimes takes weeks for information from the capital to filter out to the far reaches of the country. For the Maoists themselves, it’s caused a nightmare of a PR problem. Whilst Prachanda Path, the leader of the Communist Party, may say one thing, his followers out in the country do another.
Of course, there is always a lighter side to politics. On a treacherous bus journey to Kathmandu I witnessed an event that I would like to think of as communism at work. We were about five hours into our four hour bus journey when our driver rounded the corner and screeched to a halt. A van had crashed into the side of the mountain and then ricocheted back onto our side of the road. However, it was not this that was obstructing the bus, but the hordes of people who had gathered around the van. As our bus trundled past them slowly, weaving it’s way through the crowd, we realised the reason for the vast quantities of observers. The contents of the van had exploded over the area on impact with the rock face, showering packets of instant noodles onto the road. Word had obviously spread like wildfire about this manna from heaven, as the entire population of the nearest village were scuttering round the place, filling up upturned umbrellas and stuffing noodles down their trousers. As our bus pulled away, the man in the row behind me mumbled to his friend, “wealth to the people and all that eh?”
In April of this year, thousands of people took to streets of Kathmandu to protest against King Gyanendra. The protest was a peaceful pro-democracy march that turned into pandemonium. The army met the march with extreme violence that sparked mass riots lasting weeks. During the riots twenty-one people were killed and thousands injured. They were eventually successful, with the king reinstating parliament and the Maoists uniting with the other political parties.
Despite all the political uncertainty, I was only genuinely terrified once during my stay in Nepal. I had wandered into Durbar Square, the heart of old Kathmandu, to have a wee look at the old palace and temples. Whilst there, I realised that the Kumari would be coming out of her house for her yearly public appearance that afternoon. The Kumari is Nepal’s living Goddess. I waited two hours to see her, during which Durbar Square became packed. Finally the Kumari exited her house and climbed into her chariot. There was then an extremely loud bang from round the corner that sounded remarkably like a gunshot. I did actually think for a split second that I was going to die. There I was, the only white person within a large crowd, trapped on the steps of a temple with some maniac shooting at me. Nobody else seemed to be concerned about this noise though, and understandably so, as it turned out to be a firework. The rest of the day passed uneventfully, the Kumari trundled past in her carriage and I went on my way back to the hotel.
The UN is currently working with all the political parties in Nepal to help write a constitution and establish peace between the Maoists and the government. The Maoist Rebels and Nepali goverment have since signed a peace agreement, ending the eleven years of civil war. Nothing is easy though, and political stability is still a long way off for this Himalayan paradise.