'Historic changes' shaking Nepal

September 20, 2008

In April, Nepal held historic elections for a new constituent assembly, a product of years of pro-democracy struggle against the monarchy, including a 10-year-long "people's war" waged by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), which easily won the largest share of seats in the assembly.

On May 28, the new assembly officially abolished the monarchy and established a democratic republic.

After much manoeuvring and attempts by right-wing forces, based on privileged layers of Nepalese society, to frustrate the popular mandate won by the CPN-M, a new coalition government was formed in August, with Maoist leader Prachanda as the new prime minister.

This has created a situation in the impoverished Himalayan country where a government is headed by radical left-wing forces seeking to push through social changes to the benefit of the poor majority, while powerful forces in Nepal (backed by the US and neighbouring Indian governments) seek to hold back any threats to their interests.

Green Left Weekly's Ben Peterson spoke with Dipak Sapkota, the assistant editor of the Nepalese left-wing English language publication, Red Star (http://www.krishnasenonline.org/theredstar) about the situation.

Nepal is currently going through a very radical time of change with the abolition of the monarchy. What is the atmosphere like in Nepal?

As you said, Nepal is going through very historic changes. People celebrated the declaration of the republic with huge enthusiasm. On May 28, people organised rallies and gathered outside the constituent assembly to hear the declaration of the republic. The government announced a holiday for three days to celebrate.

People hope for a lot from the first post-monarchy government. But at the same time, we are suffering from acute fuel shortages and inflation, which is hampering our happiness.

The monarchy has been abolished, but the king remains in the country. Is there any possibility of the monarchy returning and how strong are the remaining royalists?

The possibility of the monarchy returning is very small. The king was infamous and is not a politically strong man. He was a businessman and he still holds his business. So he may not dare to re-establish the monarchy.

There is a very small force that still advocates a monarchy. There are only four members out of 601 in the constituent assembly from the royalist party.

The monarchy lost the majority of its powers in the 2006 democracy movement when millions protested in the streets. What was the experience of that uprising?

The people's movement in 2006 was a joint attempt of CPN-M and seven parliamentary parties. A 12-point understanding was reached on November 2005 and was the main inspiration of the movement.

People wanted to get rid of the monarchy, and also wanted peace and progress for the country. Twenty-one people were killed during the movement in the cities.

In the corporate media, a lot is made of the Maoist Young Communist League (YCL) that supposedly intimidates opponents. Could you tell me more about this group?

The YCL was a semi-military organisation that existed before the Maoist armed movement started in 1996. Many revolutionary-minded youths joined it.

Later, the People's Liberation Army came into existence and the YCL was overshadowed. After the Maoists signed the peace agreement in November 2006, PLA limited itself to 28 different temporary cantonments. But there were no provisions for thousands of militias.

So the YCL was reactivated to organise the militias and youths that joined the Maoists. In the past, the YCL engaged in building roads, combating crime, distributing drinking water in cities, combating fraud at manpower agencies, traffic management and youth awareness.

Now they are busy in collective farming and working towards solving the problems of education and unemployment.

The corporate media characterises the YCL as the "young criminals league" and there are many allegations of criminal or violent activities. Is there truth behind the claims of intimidation and violence?

This is the matter of class. The corporate media serves the interests of elite class of Nepal. That means they see the YCL as criminals. YCL activists "arrested" some of the most infamous corrupt figures and handed them to the police. This was "intimidation" and "violence" to the corporate media.

During the "people's war" and the state of emergency enforced by the monarchy, there were many limitations freedom of speech. What was it like to be a journalist under those conditions?

The monarchy imposed many restrictions against the press. They especially attacked progressive journalists. More than 25 journalists were killed by the state and around 200 arrested during the conflict. There was the danger of being killed by the state at any time.

The Nepalese progressive press often talks of Krishna Sen. Who was he?

He was one of the most senior progressive journalists in Nepal. He was an editor of a progressive daily Janadisha when he was arrested in 2002. The police killed him in custody via torture.

He was also a revolutionary poet, a soft spoken man and highly respected among the Nepali left.

There is much talk in the mainstream media about the "authoritarian" tendencies of the CPN-M and concerns for the freedom of the press. Prachanda was said to have threatened certain media outlets earlier this year. As a journalist, is freedom of speech under threat?

This is very common allegation. The Nepali press enjoys a lot of freedom. The present government is not a soley Maoist government. The Maoists have assured multi-party competition and they have time and again expressed their commitment for the freedom of press.

Prachanda has not threatened the press, but he requested the media be serious about the nation before they write.

What role are women playing in the changes in Nepal? What are conditions like for women and are there any signs of improvement?

Women play a vital role in the changes in Nepal. The participation of the women in the people's war was surprising. About 40% in the PLA were women.

Likewise the participation of the women in the 2006 movement was significant. Now around one third of assembly delegates are women.

The present condition of women varies in cities and villages. Women enjoy quite a lot of economical, social and educational rights in the cities, whereas in the villages conditions are worse.

Nepal is home to a range of oppressed nationalities, castes and religious groups. What role are these groups playing in the changes in Nepal, and are there signs of improvement for them?

These groups are now struggling to institutionalise their rights in the new constitution, either through the constituent assembly or various other activities. They have proportional representation in the assembly, the cabinet and various government bodies.

These groups are enjoying representation in the civil service and soon in the security sector too. However, these beneficial changes are not reaching the lowest levels within these groups.

The elections to the constituent assembly this year were historic. What was the atmosphere during the elections? Was there any intimidation or fear?

Nepal had elections to a constituent assembly for the first time. Nepal waited for it for more than 60 years. The participation of the voters was more than 60%.

The election was like a celebration. Many corporate media outlets reported "intimidation" and "fear", but it was not like that.

However, some parliamentary party leaders who had betrayed the people in the past faced bitter reactions from the people in the election — some were even chased from the villages.

The changes in Nepal are dramatic and have only been won after years of hard work. What role are young people playing in this process?

The participation of the youth in the people's war and people's movement was the decisive factor in their success. The 30,000-strong PLA was more than 98% youth. More than 60% were between 18 and 25.

There are more than eight students unions that are affiliated with different political parties. Likewise, there are four youth organisations who also organise youth for movements and awareness.

The youth of Nepal, maybe, are the most politically conscious youth in the world.

Where do you see Nepal going? Where do you think Nepal will be in the future?

Nepal is still at the crossroads. The Maoists, who lead the government, are trying to start a campaign for economic progress and political transformation. But some parliamentary parties are trying hard to foil the government.

Nepal needs stability and steady economic progress. Also, the republic should be institutionalised and must be oriented to the people.

Nepali people hope for a better future.

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