Nepal goes to the wire on writing constitution

Nepal's ethnic Newars, including Prakash Tandukar (left) and Gopal Tandukar, holding a flag in Patan, have been advocating for their own state. (Photo for the Inquirer / St. John Barned-Smith)
Nepal's ethnic Newars, including Prakash Tandukar (left) and Gopal Tandukar, holding a flag in Patan, have been advocating for their own state. (Photo for the Inquirer / St. John Barned-Smith)

Marginalized groups seeking a role have staged strikes, slowing the entire process.

Posted: May 28, 2012

KATHMANDU, Nepal - Political discord has come to Shangri-La. Again.

Kathmandu, which normally swarms with business, honking horns, and creaking rickshaws, found itself stuck in a tense quagmire last week as political leaders struggled to finish writing Nepal's new constitution by a May 27 deadline.

Even though Nepal proclaimed itself a democratic republic in 2008, two years after a brutal decade of civil war, this mountainous country of almost 30 million is still operating with an interim government.

Now the government faces difficult options. The nation's highest court has ruled that the Constituent Assembly cannot extend its term past May 27, but the process has been complicated by a push for power and special rights by some of Nepal's marginalized ethnic communities. They are demanding their rights and more involvement in the political process. They want ethnicity to play a key role in shaping the country and structuring its states.

And there's political infighting as well. Nepal's main parties - the Nepali Congress, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist/Leninist), along with a coalition known as the Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha - have been unable to find a solution palatable to all involved.

The transition to democracy has brought about a "tectonic shift" in the country, said Akhilesh Upadhyay, editor of the Kathmandu Post. Nepal "is doing something that took you [the United States] 200 years to master" - the creation of a Constitution. "It won't be a perfect document . . . the process has to be incremental."

In the neighborhood of Pulchowk this month, the strike scene had something of a party atmosphere - several women sold snacks and water, and people gamboled with their friends. But several unlucky motorcyclists were surrounded, and then forced to watch as their cycles were set ablaze.

A strike, or bandh, last Sunday was held by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), a coalition of ethnic groups. In Patan, one of the three main cities in the Kathmandu River Valley, ethnic Newars were advocating for their own state.

One protester, who identified himself only as Krishna, said, "It is a question of decision-making power, we want power sharing. . . . We have been deprived this decision-making power by other ethnic groups for a long, long time."

Gopal Tandukar, 40, was one of the people enforcing the bandh in Kathmandu. He arrived at 4 a.m., he said, and was planning to stay until 7, the end of the strike. At midday, he was sitting on a curb holding a limp red flag, advocating for a Newar state.

"So far, they have not really fixed how big the state will be," he said. "I want to make sure the Newar state will be there. . . . We built this place and we have to own it."

Another demonstrator, Prakash Tandukar, 30, admitted that the bandhs were causing hardships. "We understand that it's hard," he said. "We have to work too.

"But the whole state structure is so apathetic, without enforcing a bandh, no one will listen. We have to make a show of force."

Though the Tandukars' bandh ended Tuesday, other strikes have caused considerable stress. Pilgrims returning home to India were stranded in Nepal for days. Because of the shutdowns, some provinces have faced critical shortages of goods. In the Far West province, where a bandh has lasted more than three weeks, hospitals and pharmacies have run out of many supplies.

Gambhirman Nepali, 62, died in one of the bandhs after he had an asthma attack, and the bus he was in was not permitted to pass through a crowd of protesters to go to a hospital, according to the May 17 Himalayan Times.

Amanda Binks, 28, of Brisbane, Australia, has been working with Engineers Without Borders near the southwestern city of Nepalgunj for 10 months. The bandhs started in the west in the last two months, she said. Two weeks ago, she took a bus to try to meet a friend in a community north of Nepalgunj.

At one point, she said, "There were 50 angry guys mobbing our minivan. One had a massive stick and was threatening to smash the windshield, but he was laughing. I didn't know what would happen. . . . I was a little worried."

Throughout the country, vans and buses have been smashed. The tourism industry, news reports here say, has experienced a 40 percent drop in business. Journalists have been attacked on a regular basis, and rallies take place throughout the city and the countryside.

News reports vacillate daily about the number of states that the country will have, from 6, to 11, to even 14. And while the Constituent Assembly has tried to gain another three-month extension, the judiciary has rejected that effort. Two senior officials of the interim government have resigned in protest over a deadline extension. There have even been demands that Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai resign.

"That's how Nepal works," said John Parajuli, 30, a reporter for BBC Nepal. "It's a last-minute thing, down to the wire. They [the members of the Constituent Assembly] are trying to buy time. There are very few options left."

Even with an extension, finding a consensus will still be hard.

The challenge, Parajuli said, "is actually finding a compromise that satisfies the aspirations of all the different groups. The people should have ownership of the document."

Otherwise, he said, there would be an immediate rejection, continued bandhs and other protests.

The bandhs, Parajuli said, have "created a sense of urgency among the leaders. . . . It's created positive energy. It can be a mess on the street, depriving people of movement, and people particularly have to learn they can't use violence to enforce a strike. But the politicians in particular have to show more leadership on that.

"It's hard to say what will happen. Even the politicians aren't sure."

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