Can Burma Learn from Nepal?
A Burmese journalist looks to his neighbour, Nepal, for a fresh perspective on peace and democracy – and his own country.
“Is there light at the end of the tunnel?” asked Kanak Mani Dixit, the editor and publisher of Himal magazine in Kathmandu, as he sat down. He looked at me and seemed in no hurry for a reply. I realised he was talking about the political situation in Burma.
“There is a distant light, yes,” I replied slowly. “In fact, it's like walking the streets of Kathmandu at night.”
I explained how the previous night I had wandered around the backstreets of Thamel, an area usually bustling with foreign visitors, which was in total darkness due to the general strike. I still hadn't eaten dinner and thought everything was closed. Then I found a marvellous bar-restaurant tucked away down an alley. It was full of revellers and the atmosphere was fantastic.
“It was like finding an oasis in the desert,” I said, and Kanak nodded to show he understood the metaphor.
We raised our glasses to the prospects of change in Burma; then Kanak dutifully began unravelling for me the factors behind the political winds in Nepal, a country, like Burma, that is no stranger to corrupt government, uprisings and political chaos.
In December 2009, the opposition Maoist party called for a three-day nationwide strike. All shops were closed and public transport halted. The streets in Kathmandu were quiet, dark and dusty. Garbage piled high at the side of the streets and dogs competed with sacred cows for rotten food.
The December strike was considered to be the largest protest in the country since Maoist party Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal resigned on May 4 and the Maoist-led coalition government was toppled.
Nepalese riot police armed with batons, tear gas and automatic weapons clashed with Maoist sympathizers in the Nepalese capital. The Maoists claimed that 100 demonstrators were injured while about 70 people were reportedly arrested.
Burmese activists and opposition politicians looked to the West to solve the conflict and to achieve peace and democracy in Burma… We should come here (to Nepal) instead
Two and a half days later, on Dec. 22, the Maoists called off the strike. At noon, motorcycles, vehicles and an army of rickshaw drivers suddenly hit the streets. Smiles came back quickly to people's faces as the city returned to its noisy, vibrant self.
Maoist Chairman Dahal, also known as Prachanda, concluded the strike, saying it was pointless to hold talks with the 22-party coalition government since they were backed by New Delhi. Kunda Dixit, the editor of Nepali Times, said that whenever Nepal faces a domestic crisis, “We all look to India”.
Nepal's giant neighbour (some Nepalese call it a bullying big brother) wants a stable and democratic Nepal, and has expressed desire to see a Nepalese army that does not meddle in politics. Still, India would probably be willing to throw its weight behind a united Nepalese army, if the country slid into violent confrontation in the near future.
Some 19,000 former Maoist fighters are confined to camps monitored by the United Nations. They are supposed to be integrated into the country's security forces and army, according to the peace agreement between the Maoists and the coalition government.
In one of the world's poorest nations, the Maoists have had strong support from the rural masses for decades. They have also been accused of holding the country to ransom with terrorist tactics and policies garnering fear and intimidation. “They are the Khmer Rouge of Nepal,” thundered Kunda Dixit, whose office was attacked in December.
As in Burma, many European donor countries are involved in development projects here. In heated teashop conversations, UN officials and reports from the International Crisis Group are openly derided. “They just come and go, but we live with the reality,” said one local aid worker. I explained to local journalists how Burmese activists and opposition politicians looked to the West to achieve peace and democracy in Burma.
“We sometimes forget to mind the gap,” I said. “We should come here instead.”
Back on the streets of Kathmandu, people talk about the issue of “rapid migration” as more and more rural folk, driven by the civil war, move into the capital.
In downtown Kathmandu, a street cleaner relaxes and watches passers-by.
The brick manufacturing industry in Kathmandu provides employment to around 125,000 people. It is one of the major culprits of air pollution in the city.
To eat peanuts while basking under a warm winter sun is everyone's favourite past-time in Kathmandu as most houses are without heating.
Photo credit: Aung Zaw
The air pollution in Kathmandu is awful and is getting worse. Although road-building projects are finally underway, the streets of the capital are pot-holed and traffic is chaotic.
Many ordinary people in Kathmandu are left wondering which direction the country is heading. They blame corrupt politicians and the Maoists but perhaps, unlike the intellectual journalists I met, they do not see the bigger picture.
The dirty streets of Kathmandu left me choking, but I left with a fresh perspective of how to view Burma.
Aung Zaw is the editor and director of The Irrawaddy magazine.