May 16, 2012

in Nepal

And sometimes a day in Kathmandu looks like this: wake up, meditate, eat breakfast (same menu, different garden), walk out to the main street to catch a taxi and……where is the chaos?? People are walking around, but the street is empty. No trucks, no cars, no motorcycles, no bicycles, and most definitely no taxis.

Strikes have become the preferred form of political voice in Nepal. Anyone who isn’t getting what they want is likely to call a strike and shut down transportation and businesses. As Nepal approaches the deadline for writing a new constitution, groups in the far west of the country have shut down the area for days demanding states divided along ethnic lines, while here in Kathmandu the two-day strike is demanding states NOT drawn along ethnic lines.

It seems one of the biggest barriers to democracy in Nepal is that people think the only way to be heard is by forcing businesses and transportation to shut down. Everyday people want their businesses open, but gangs of boys and men (yes, this form of political expression appears to be 100% male) march all over town threatening anyone who dares open their shop doors, yanking people off bicycles and motorcycles, and torching taxis that might try to pass. That a few thousand people can shut down a city of 3 million speaks volumes to the fatalism and fear of the masses.

Nepal, however, might finally get its overdue constitution. Four years into a two-year program, the politicians are finally making great strides forward and have come to agreement on many intractable issues. They managed to whittle down the former Maoist guerrillas seeking entry into the national army from 17,000 to 3,000. They are finding consensus on the form of government (a directly elected President and a Prime Minister elected by a 371-member Parliament).

Baburam Bhattarai, the Prime Minister, is probably the best leader the country has had in years, both in terms of working for the country and building political bridges. Those roads I saw being constructed on day 1 of my trip were a signpost of how much work has started to happen. By the end of May, we’ll see if there is a new constitution drafted, but as the deadline approaches, strikes will no doubt be ever more prominent.

As for me, I pack my bags–including perhaps 30 lbs of jewelry!–and I escape the dusty streets and political unrest as I fly home to San Francisco. I’m going to trade in my flip-flops for some city shoes, and I welcome the return to friends and food and urban life.

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