In the summer of 2006, the Nepalese people celebrated the end of the country’s monarchy. After a decade-long armed struggle for democracy led by Maoist rebels, followed by weeks of peaceful protests around the country, the 240-year-old monarchy was finally dismantled. The hope among the Nepalese was that the nation was entering an era of peace and stability, equality and restoration of basic freedoms.
After a decade of struggle, however, Nepal remains one of the most fragile countries in the world. As reported in the Kathmandu Post, the country is in the twentieth percentile on the fragile states index. In the last ten years, Nepal has had nine prime ministers, with each one serving less than a few months. The main reason for this instability is the lack of political consensus on contentious issues, and the difficulty in maintaining coalitions between key political parties, such as the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninists) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The economic situation in the country is also dire, with 200,000 Nepalese men and women, aged 18-24, forced to leave for regions like the Gulf and East Asia, as economic migrants.
But, there is still hope in Nepal. Lawmakers, civil society leaders, and ordinary citizen are fighting to ensure a more just and equal society for all. Ten years after the monarchy’s fall, the process of democratization in Nepal is that of patient nation-building, one that has been particularly meaningful over the last year and a half.
A Building Political Crisis
The country’s already challenging circumstances became even worse in May 2015, when Nepal was hit with a 7.8 magnitude earthquake. The tragedy shattered hopes for economic development and rolled back the little progress that had been made to date. Fourteen out of seventy-five districts in the country were devastated. Basic infrastructure, which was already decaying, was turned to rubble. Inaccurate images suggesting the entire country had been destroyed adversely impacted the tourism industry, which is the largest source of foreign exchange and revenue for Nepal.
Following the earthquake, lawmakers, who had taken almost a decade to draft a new constitution, were backed into a corner and under domestic, as well as international, pressure to deliver a coherent document that could support post-earthquake reconstruction and recovery. The constitution was, as such, hastily drafted with minimal input from citizens.
After it was finally adopted in September 2015, several protests broke out in the Terai region and other places across the country. Protesters demonstrated against the constitution’s failure to protect the basic rights of historically underserved and underrepresented indigenous communities many of which live in Terai, such as the Dalits, Madhesis, and Janajatis, that have never received equitable representation in or government institutions.
The protests, which started on September 23, 2015, continued for months and turned ugly when neighboring India decided to support demonstrators by exerting pressure on the Nepalese government through an economic blockade of the country. India is the source of all Nepal’s oil supplies, as well as a major supplier of food and other key products such as petroleum, medicines, and construction materials (the later of which was critical for post-earthquake recovery). The blockade thrust Nepal into a quickly deteriorating economic situation, while it was still trying to recover from the earthquake. At one point, UNICEF warned that the situation in the country was so dire that more than 3 million children were under threat from various diseases.
The Challenges Facing Nepal
During the six month long conflict and blockade, forty-five citizens lost their lives as a result of government crackdowns against protesters. Human Rights Watch and other rights groups criticized the government for using force against peaceful protesters marching for basic rights.
As a result of this international outcry, mounting pressure from India, and continuing resistance from domestic activists, the government introduced amendments addressing the demonstrators’ key concerns with the constitution, namely, by providing proportional representation to minority groups in parliament.
A Corrupt System
But, constitutional amendments will not solve Nepal’s challenges, at the root of which is an age -old bureaucracy that remains rooted in the traditions of a monarchy fueled more by vengeance and retribution than a commitment to rule of law.
In May 2016, for example, one of the country’s most respected journalists, Kanak Mani Dixit, was arrested on allegations of corruption by the Commission for Investigation of Abuse Authority (CIAA) – a government anti-graft body – without evidence. One of the most vocal leaders of Nepali civil society, Dixit was later released without charge. The CIAA alleged that he had engaged in corrupt activities while serving as Chief Executive Officer at Sajha Yatayat, a privatized public transportation company, but had no evidence to substantiate the charge. Some claim that the director of the commission had a personal feud with the journalist.
Later that same month, twenty-one-year old activist, Ishan Adhikari, was arrested for smearing red paint at the office of then-Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Oli, in protest against the government’s inability to protect underserved communities, such as the Madhesis. Although the new constitution and democratic political processes were supposed to protect basic human rights, such as freedom of speech and protest, Ishan has been jailed four times for speaking out against the government’s failure to provide equality and opportunity for all citizens.
Though Dixit and Adhikari should have been protected by Nepal’s laws and legal system, they were not. However strong and well-thought out those laws and systems might be, they are worthless without the political will and culture to apply them correctly and fairly.
A Bumpy Path
Clearly, then, the path toward democracy in Nepal has been paved with numerous bumps. It has not, however, completely failed, as some pundits have suggested. Instead, it is a continuing struggle between an inspiring and young citizenry and the country’s conservative institutions.
For Nepali citizens, the task ahead is straightforward: to continue the struggle for structural and institutional reform, in order to ensure the government moves toward greater acceptance, equality, and prosperity for all. Rigorous “slacktivism” may help raise awareness about key issues, or highlight the work of activists, like Adhikari . The real challenge, however, is to get on the streets and ask for greater accountability and transparency – which many Nepalis have and will hopefully continue to do.
Nepal’s democracy is a good example for newly democratizing nations of the challenges that exist in the transitional process. What it requires is active participation, popular patience for the system to improve, and monitoring to ensure authoritarian systems and behaviors of old do not continue. Hopefully, Nepal’s democracy is not seen as a failure, but, rather, a work-in-progress that involves the collective efforts of all its citizens.