Leon Sultan

January 3, 2008

To most people in the West, the South Asian nation Nepal conjures up images of a tranquil and idyllic “Shangri-La.” But after almost 10 years of a civil war that, according to a 2005 National Geographic report and other sources, claimed some 12,000 lives, the Nepali people are just beginning to put their lives back together.

Nepal transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a democratically elected parliamentary monarchy in the early 1990s. The early years of the democracy were unstable, and in the late 1990s a faction of the Communist Party split off and initiated an armed struggle. Angered by government corruption and inaction to correct a very unequal distribution of wealth, their goals were to overthrow the government, oust the king and establish a Communist “people’s” republic. They called themselves Maoists, and gained inspiration from Peru’s Shining Path movement. The first few years of the conflict saw only sporadic violence, as the movement slowly gained momentum in impoverished rural areas

I lived in Nepal in 2001-02, just as fighting between Maoist rebels and government forces had begun to intensify. During this time, the conflict went from pockets of resistance to a full-scale civil war. But with both sides having signed peace accords in the spring of 2006, I wanted to see first-hand what the current state of affairs was. Nepal is listed by the UN as one of the 49 most severely under-developed in the world. Classified due to its markedly low per capita GNI, an over-reliance on an agricultural economy, and low levels of literacy, health care and life expectancy. In terms of development, Nepal is more similar to many sub-Saharan African countries than to its powerful neighbors China and India.

The Road To Rural Development

This summer, I traveled throughout Eastern Nepal, a remote region covering the foothills of Kanchendzonga, the third tallest mountain in the world. Throughout my travels, I found that people were looking toward the future, and that “development” was the main word that was on villagers’ lips. Although it is hard to generalize about the mood of an entire country, majority of rural subsistence farmers seemed hopeful and optimistic, yet jaded by hard living, war and a corrupt government.

In the village of Lungthung, in a building made of stone and mud, two men sat drinking Thungba, a local millet beer, through long bamboo straws. The smoke from their cigarettes mingled with the aroma of buffalo meat sizzling in oil. The men talked of a proposed road that would finally connect their village to the district center, so that they’d no longer have to walk for two days to reach a hospital.

Outside of Jaubari, at a Chautara (Nepali resting place), a 16-year-old boy lay on his back, staring up at the twisting and curving branches of a 200 year-old Pipal tree. He had been carrying a 170-pound bag of concrete powder mix, which will help to complete a micro-hydro power project and bring electricity to his village.

At a public water tap in Tapethok, women gathered to fill containers, wash clothes, and converse. The topic was the satellite phone that had just been installed in a neighboring village. They wondered when their village would follow suit, and discussed ways to work together to gather the funds to make it happen.

Hiking through the districts of Dhankuta, Sankhuwaswaba, Taplejung, Panchtar and Ilam, I got the feeling of being on the frontier, of seeing an area on the verge of some major changes.

Eastern Nepal has been a frontier-like region for centuries. Originally settled by the Limbu people over a thousand years ago, Tibetan nomads and traders crossed the high mountain passes from the north about 300 years ago. They settled in villages at high elevations where they built monasteries, herded yaks, and planted potatoes. During Nepal’s unification, the local Limbu rulers were allowed to keep regional power so long as they agreed to pay tribute to King Prithvi Narayan Shah in Kathmandu. After unification other ethnic groups, including Bauns and Chhetris migrated to the area from western Nepal, bringing with them the Nepali language and the Hindu religion.

Attempting to escape Kathmandu, I was almost caught up heading east. In what is currently the protest du jour in Nepal, the highways are blocked on an almost daily basis. I was warned by my Nepali friends not to go, told that I’d regret it, pleaded with, but after two weeks in Kathmandu, I had had enough and needed some mountain air.

Deep In The Country

Under cover of night I boarded a local bus and made the trip down out of the mountains surrounding Kathmandu and into the flat southern region of Nepal known as the Terai. Early the next morning, I changed buses and headed North again into the Himalayas foothills at Dharan. As I found out later, the road on which I traveled was shut down merely hours later that day.

Driving up through the middle hills, the villages along the road were dusty and dirty. While the roads have been well engineered, labored over, and well built, their impact on the towns has been ignored. Road towns that have the facilities to feed and house only the local population have found themselves overrun by hundreds of people passing through every day. For all these new visitors there is nowhere to throw trash, nowhere to eat, and nowhere to go to the bathroom. The temporary solutions to these problems have been hastily prepared. The results are unsightly. It feels like being in a mini Kathmandu, with its polluted water, dirty streets and exhaust filled skies.

After reaching the last stop, I strapped on my pack and headed towards Taplejung Bazaar, a three-day walk. Away from the road the towns are quaint, cleaner and less populated. In the lower hills, by the rivers, men plowed rice paddies with oxen while women transplanted bright green shoots into the freshly plowed, flooded terraces. In the higher hills thick mists enveloped moss covered trees, and leaches found a pleasant snack attaching themselves to my ankles as I walked past. The summer monsoon means debilitating heat and occasional torrents of rain at low elevations, with the high areas experiencing a never-ending moistness, a fog that even San Francisco residents would find intimidating.

Visiting this area again after five years, I couldn’t help but take stock of what had changed. I wondered how the civil war had affected the region. My hope was to find lots of positive developments; my fear was that the war had wrecked havoc, turning the area upside down. As it turned out, neither my hopes nor my fears were warranted.

Uncertain Prospects

The district of Taplejung is much as it was five years ago, with a few notable exceptions. During the civil war villagers were often forced to feed the Maoists rebels and make “donations” to the cause. They were also interrogated by the military and, if suspected of being Maoist collaborators, had their homes over turned. Young unmarried men in the district had three options: get married and quickly have a baby (to be exempted from military service), leave, or be conscripted into the Maoist “People’s Liberation Army.” There were many villages with no young men, as everyone had gone either to Kathmandu to find work or further their education, or to work as a laborer in Malaysia to escape military service. Based on several first-person interviews I had with local people, most say forced conscriptions are still happening.

Aside from a few new bridges here and there, the biggest addition to the area above Taplejung Bazaar is satellite telephones. Sometimes privately funded, sometimes provided by NGOs, their addition has made it possible to communicate with family members and relatives outside of the village without the 2-3 days walk to the bazaar. There were also several semi-completed micro-hydro projects, as well as a great deal more solar panels on individual homes.

Throughout my travels, I’d heard many stories of Maoist activities and how the Maoists had affected people’s lives. Yet I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet with and talk to any Maoists. From what I’ve read of their literature, they’re interested in ushering Nepal into the modern industrial economy, despite the fact that their actions during the war had done much to subvert the development activities of the government and NGOs. I had become steadily intrigued by their anti-status quo, anti-elitist, “people’s republic” vision of Nepal’s future (rhetoric that resonated with some rural people I spoke to) and now that they had laid down their weapons, I no longer had to fear the threat of the forced donation. I decided to visit the Maoist district office, so I headed to Ilam.

I met with two young men in their 20s. One was a vice chair of the Young Communists League (the YCL is a controversial organization that often operates as a non-commissioned vigilante squad); the other was the Ilam Maoist students union secretary. They spoke in broad and vague terms about the future of a Maoist-controlled Nepal. They also spoke in concrete terms about their proposed land re-distribution program, industrialization, and economic reforms. Most of what they said sounded very solid and well thought-out. Unfortunately, their policies to date are coercive and do not allow for any other vision of Nepal besides theirs. This is still evident as all towns in Taplejung had Maoist posters, yet the people who hung them did so because they were ordered to, not because they believed in the cause.

As we wrapped up our three-hour discussion, I offered to make a 1000-rupee donation. Ironically, the Maoists turned down my offer, since their supervisor wasn’t there to write me an official receipt. I put the bill back into my pocket, stunned.

Next For Nepal

What happens next? The government is building roads in Eastern Nepal as I write this, stone by stone. Villages are becoming emptier and emptier, as a generation of young Nepalese seeks opportunity in Kathmandu and abroad. A frontier can only remain a frontier for so long. Eventually roads will crisscross the massive Kanchendzonga foothills, a damn will harness the waters of the Tamur River, and the Internet will bring the latest YouTube video clips and Justin Timberlake mp3s to villages at 10,000 feet. Development is a double-edged sword, in Nepal’s case, they’ve sampled the sharp edge already. So the questions remains: where will the people will take their republic from here?