Category Archives: History/Politics

Royal Massacre, 11 Years Later…

I wanted to highlight an old post today.

P mentioned to me that I should write something about the Royal Massacre since 11 years ago today it took place. I wrote about this a while ago, so please excuse the recycling, but I think it’s an important enough topic to rehash.

Hope you are all well. I promise even though I have been quiet, I’ve been doing a lot of writing…

So now we are up to the point where Birendra, grandson of Tribhuvan (who re-took the throne), is now king. He began his reign in 1972 after his father Mahendra’s death.

King Birendra

Birendra was the first Nepali monarch to receive a formal education, studying abroad in India, the UK, Japan and even at Harvard University (from 1967-1968). Upon his return he married Aishwarya Rana (yes from that Rana family) in 1970 and had three children: Prince Dipendra (1971), Princess Shruti (1976)  and Prince Nirajan (1977).

Royal Family: King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, Princess Shruti, Prince Dipendra and Prince Nirajan

He ascended to the throne as an absolute monarch, inheriting a country with banned political parties, and ruling through the panchayat system. In 1990 a series of strikes and pro-democracy riots broke out across Nepal, and due to this Birendra eventually agreed to become a constitutional monarch. He appointed a Constitution Recommendation Commission, and November 9, 1990 the new constitution was approved by the Prime Minister.

However quarrels continued leading to the Nepali Civil War between the Maoists and government forces between 1996 and 2006 (a post all of its own).

Which leads me to the massacre.

I’m not sure if we will ever really know what happened the night of June 1, 2001. Much like the American conspiracy theories of who assassinated President Kennedy, different theories about the Royal Massacre abound. The fact of the matter is—the Nepali Royal Massacre was the largest slaughter of a royal family since the shooting of the Romanov family during the Russian Revolution.

The more widely known story: Prince Dipendra was a bit of a troubled youth. Prone to drinking with a keen interest in all things military and a short temper. Not long before the massacre, Dipendra had been arguing with his parents over the choice of his bride. Dipendra wanted to marry his girlfriend Devyani Rana (also a member of the Rana family). Dipendra’s mother was against this match (due to the historical animosity between the king’s family and the Ranas… although Queen Ashiwara was also a Rana, so I’m sure I’m missing part of the story…) Tempers flared.

Dipendra and Devyani

On the night of June 1st much of the royal family gathered for an evening together including uncles, aunts and cousins. Missing from the party was Prince Gyanendra, younger brother to the king and potential heir (if Birendra and his two sons could no longer perform the duties as king).

Following an evening of heavy drinking, and still angry at his family, Dipendra was upset when he was scolded by his father for “misbehaving” at the gathering and told to leave the party. An hour later Dipendra showed up dressed in military fatigues with an MP5K and M16 and started shooting up the room, killing his father, sister, uncle, aunts, and a few other family members while wounding several others. His mother and brother escaped the room but confronted the prince in the garden, where he killed both of them, shooting the queen multiple times in the face (it was so badly damaged that her face was covered with a mask for the cremation ceremony). Before any guards arrived Dipendra turned the gun on himself.

Prince Dipendra survived his suicide attempt for three days, and was proclaimed king while in a coma. He died on June 4, 2001. While Dipendra lie in his coma his uncle Gyanendra (remember, the one conveniently missing from the party?) maintained the deaths were an “accident” but once Dipendra had died full blame was placed on him.

The country went through a period of national mourning—many people including P’s dad—shaved their heads as a symbol of death in their family, since the king was the “father” of the nation and revered as a god. The country was already embroiled in a civil war, and now they were without a symbolic figurehead.

Some people in Nepal suspected that Gyanendra was responsible for the massacre, and that Dipendra was blamed so that Gyanendra could take the throne. He was third in line to the throne (after Birendra, Dipendra and Prince Nirajan) and had been conveniently out of town during the party. It’s true that his son and wife were at the party and were wounded, but both survived (his son with only minor injuries). Feeding these rumors is the allegation that Dipendra was mortally wounded by a gunshot to the left side of his head, while he was right-handed, casting doubt on whether the injury was self-inflicted.

Gayanendra wearing the Nepali royal crown

Two survivors have publicly confirmed that Dipendra was the shooter, but many Nepali people still consider it a mystery.

Gyanendra assumed the throne and was king until 2008 when he was forced to abdicate due to social pressure and rioting.

Now people have their theories—but I was at the former Royal Palace in the summer of 2009 and went on a tour with the daughter of one of P’s family’s neighbors whose father used to work at the Palace as a food taste tester (I know, one of those strange connections). The suspicious thing is—when Gyanendra took over as king he dismantled the house in the garden where the massacre took place—brick by brick. All that is left is an outline of the house on the ground. A few bullet holes still mar parts of the garden wall but everything else is gone. It makes me wonder what he was hiding.

If you are interested in more information, the BBC had a documentary on the massacre, which you can watch on Youtube in five parts:

“The Engima of Bhutan”

I’ve written about Bhutan before in the post “Gross National Happiness” and Ethnic Cleansing, but I wanted to mention the country again as it recently featured in a great Nation article. I highly recommend the read as it maps out the history of the ethnic Nepali expulsion from the country.

Header from the Nation article

I hadn’t connected the dots before, but it was mentioned in the article, that the deportation of the Nepali population started in 1992– right around the start of the ethnic cleansing and killings in the Balkans, and continued through the  US military blunder of the “Battle of Mogadishu” (of “Black Hawk Down” fame) in 1993, and the Rwandan genocide of 1994 (gosh– the early ’90s were some harsh times).

No wonder much of the world hasn’t heard about the forced removal, albeit largely “brutal violence” free, of 80,000 people–15 percent of Bhutan’s population of 550,000. When competing against the more high profile, flashy news stories of the day, it was probably easy to forget a quiet mountain kingdom tucked in the far corner of the globe.

Recently an American couple moved to town (the husband is attending the same university as P). They arrived in Massachusetts by way of Bhutan, as the wife was offered a teaching contract in the country after finishing her cultural anthropology master’s degree. It’s been interesting to compare notes on our various experiences in lesser traveled to Himalayan nations.

She is now working with a local refugee organization that helps newly arrived Iraqi and Bhutanese (of the 108,000 Bhutanese in Nepali camps in 2007 50,000 have been resettled in the United States). I’m curious to hear more about her experiences with the refugees. I wonder what their thoughts are about interacting with an American who was able to travel and live in a country that they are no longer welcomed to return to or even visit.

“Nepal’s Stalled Revolution”

There was an interesting article in the NY Times today– I wanted to share. It reminded me of a conversation I had at work the other day with an immigration lawyer my boss and  I had dinner with. I bolded the parts I found most interesting…

(Full text below)

Op Ed By Manjushree Thapa

I was at a dinner party in Kathmandu when a journalist friend looked at her cell phone and made a joyous announcement: “Mubarak’s gone!”

“Really?”

“He left Cairo for Sharm el-Sheikh. The army’s taken charge,” she said. No one at that Feb. 11 party, neither the foreign-educated Nepalis nor the expatriates who call Nepal home, had any connection to Egypt. Yet the victory felt personal. A bottle of wine appeared and we toasted Egypt.

As protests spread in Bahrain, Yemen, Iran and Libya, what is emerging as the “Arab Spring” continues to resonate here. Just five years ago, the world was watching Nepal as it now watches the Mideast and we had our dreams of democracy.

“I don’t know why, but I love to see people revolting against their leaders,” Jhalak Subedi, a magazine editor, wrote on Facebook.

“We Nepalis, we grew up with political movements,” he explained over a cup of coffee. He had came of age amid student politics, was even jailed in 1990 for his activism. “Despite all our movements, we still haven’t been able to have the kind of change our hearts are set on,” he said. “I think that’s why we feel so happy when we see change taking place elsewhere.”

We also approach world events seeking correspondences between our history and that of others. India’s struggle for freedom from British rule inspired Nepal’s first democratic movement in 1950. Forty years later, our second democratic movement was energized by events farther off: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

Our third and most recent movement took place in 2006, when democratic political parties and Maoist rebels united against King Gyanendra Shah, ending a 10-year civil war. Millions of Nepalis participated in nonviolent demonstrations in a show of support. Nineteen days after that, the king relinquished power; two years later, a newly elected Constituent Assembly abolished the 240-year-old monarchy with a near-unanimous vote. With the democratic political parties and the Maoists vowing to work together peacefully, a “new Nepal” felt attainable.

Five years later, it still has not taken shape.

Instead, we have learned that it is easier to start a revolution than to finish one. Overthrowing the monarchy was difficult, but institutionalizing democracy is harder still.

Our democratic parties are inexperienced, deferring to “big brother” India on all matters political. But India has backed an inflexible policy of containing the Maoists. And the Maoists have also been unwilling to compromise, holding on to their 19,000-troop army and their paramilitary group, the Young Communist League, and refusing to turn into just another political party.

The result has been a bitter polarization between hard-liners of democratic and Maoist persuasion.

The May deadline set for finishing our new constitution is less than 100 days away, but the document remains in rough draft. The will to complete it — among the democratic political parties and the Maoists, as well as in India — appears to be wholly lacking.

And now Kathmandu is rife with rumors that the Constituent Assembly — the country’s only elected body — will be dissolved through a military-backed “democratic coup.” Equally dismal scenarios in the public imagination are a return to civil war, the escalation of localized conflicts or the rise of the criminal underworld.

Whether or not the worst comes to pass, it is clear by now that the democratic political parties and the Maoists prefer to prioritize their own struggle for power. They have left it to us to find our place in the world.

This, we increasingly do by leaving. Unable to earn a living wage at home, up to 1,000 Nepalis are estimated to leave the country every day to work as migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and elsewhere in the Middle East and the Far East, often under very exploitative conditions. As many as six million Nepalis live in India, and hundreds of thousands more have migrated to the developed world. In London and New York and Toronto, Nepali is now spoken on the streets.

“Those who could lead a new movement — you could call it the Facebook generation — have left the country,” says Mr. Subedi.

And there is no single tyrant against whom to direct a movement. What we have in Nepal is a “ganjaagol,” a mire.

“The thing about movements,” Mr. Subedi says, “is that at a certain point, the ordinary person experiences power. Beforehand and afterwards, nobody pays him any attention. But at a certain point, the ordinary person feels his own power.

“That feeling,” he says, narrowing his eyes. “That feeling … .”

He does not complete his sentence, but we both know what he means. So many Nepalis have experienced this giddy sense that change is possible.

For now, we watch others in the Arab world feel their power. We wish them well, and worry for their safety, and share in their victories.

They inspire us. They make us feel wistful, and also a bit envious.

“The Last Royals”

When it is quiet during my lunch hour, I sometimes like to shut my office door and watch documentaries that are streaming on Netflix. The past few days I was busy during lunch, so yesterday I thought I’d microwave my leftover rice and egg curry, put my headphones on and watch a National Geographic program called “The Last Royals.”

The description of the 50 minute show was “Though royalty has governed nearly every civilization, revolution and democracy have taken an enormous toll on the power of crowned heads across the globe. National Geographic offers an inside look at four enduring monarchs.” The cover of the film had a picture of Price William and Harry, so I figured it would mostly be about England, (I shamefully admit I thought I’d watch the program because my interest in the British royal family has been piqued by the William/Kate Middleton wedding—I know, guilty pleasures!)  but actually a sizable portion of the film was surprisingly about Nepal. (Later on I realized the expanded info mentioned Nepal, but I didn’t notice it when I started watching).

The film was put together by an American who came from the perspective of “Hey, America got rid of the British monarchy hundreds of years ago, and I’m happy with that. Why does England still have a fascination with the Royal Family?” (and by extension, what are some of the other monarchy situations around the world.) The film then looked at four monarchies—UK, Buganda (Uganda), Nepal and Tonga–offering different perspectives on why a culture did/did not feel the monarchy was important.

The UK monarchy was shown as a type of happy middle ground—the royals are more or less used for ceremonial purposes but don’t really have a governing role. People like them because they feel they represent tradition and culture, and many enjoy having them as national icons; however others find the royals’ use of taxpayer money as outrageous and their national symbol status unnecessary. The narrator transitioned by asking, “If they royals were deposed, would people miss them and ask for them back?”

Then he brought up the example of the Kingdom of Buganda (in present day Uganda), and how in the ‘60s the king was exiled from the country by the Idi Amin led military. Effectively the monarchy was dead in Uganda, but 30 years later, after Idi Amin was gone and the violence subsided the Bugandan people wanted the monarchy back, and the late king’s son was asked to return from exile. His role is purely ceremonial, but he uses his celebrity status to garner support for public interest projects like wells, schools, health programs, etc. It discussed how the monarchy was a powerful cultural institution, and a way to keep ties to tradition, and was useful in rallying the people and creating cultural cohesion. Thus it was ultimately shown as a positive example.

The next transition was supposed to be the “crisis” example—and what better crisis than the Nepali royal massacre of 2001? It gave a brief overview of what happened, and the controversy over succession rights (king was supposedly killed by the heir to thrown, should that heir, an apparent murderer, become king? And if he didn’t survive his injuries, the next in line was also rumored to have had a role in the massacre, should he be king?) As part of filming, the documentary crew interviewed Gayanendra, the late king’s brother who became king when Crown Prince/King Dipendra died. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in an English language interview before, so it was interesting to hear what he had to say. I was surprised to find him articulate. In my mind I always imagined him as a bumbling bad guy.

Next the film moved to Tonga, to give an example of a monarchy that was still culturally important, yet had too much governing power and whose people, or at least some of the people’s representatives, wanted a change. One politician leading an anti-monarchy campaign stated that the king could still be a figurehead, but it was time for more democratic representation. The king and his role had to be modernized for the new millennium.

Ultimately the film returned to Nepal and started talking about the Maoist insurgency and how Gayanendra not only took over the monarchy during the grips of a familial crisis, but a political one as well. Knowing the history, and knowing that ultimately Gayanendra’s actions after taking office and during the Maoist surge on Kathmandu together with his his unpopularity with the people ultimately led to the end of the Nepali monarchy in 2006, it was very interesting to hear the commentary on the potential future of Gayanendra’s rule in a documentary made about a year or two before the Hindu monarchy disappeared. In this case it truly was “the last royal.”

So I thought I’d share. Although I found the British royals part of the documentary kind of dull, it was interesting to learn more about Buganda and Tonga, and ironic to hear about the Nepali monarchy knowing now that it no longer exists.

The Royal Massacre

I realize that yesterday I mentioned the Royal Massacre, and that it shouldn’t be something just mentioned in a footnote—like, ho hum, Royal Massacre. A while ago I was writing about the general history of Nepal and got to the point where the Royal family of Nepal took back the reins of power from the Rana family in the 1950s.

So now we are up to the point where Birendra, grandson of Tribhuvan (who re-took the thrown), is now king. He began his reign in 1972 after his father Mahendra’s death.

King Birendra

Birendra was the first Nepali monarch to receive a formal education, studying abroad in India, the UK, Japan and even at Harvard University (from 1967-1968). Upon his return he married Aishwarya Rana (yes from that Rana family) in 1970 and had three children: Prince Dipendra (1971), Princess Shruti (1976)  and Prince Nirajan (1977).

Royal Family: King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, Princess Shruti, Prince Dipendra and Prince Nirajan

He ascended to the thrown as an absolute monarch, inheriting a country with banned political parties, and ruling through the panchayat system. In 1990 a series of strikes and pro-democracy riots broke out across Nepal, and due to this Birendra eventually agreed to become a constitutional monarch. He appointed a Constitution Recommendation Commission, and November 9, 1990 the new constitution was approved by the Prime Minister.

However quarrels continued leading to the Nepali Civil War between the Maoists and government forces between 1996 and 2006 (a post all of its own).

Which leads me to the massacre.

I’m not sure if we will ever really know what happened the night of June 1, 2001. Much like the American conspiracy theories of who assassinated President Kennedy, different theories about the Royal Massacre abound. The fact of the matter is—the Nepali Royal Massacre was the largest slaughter of a royal family since the shooting of the Romanov family during the Russian Revolution.

The more widely known story: Prince Dipendra was a bit of a troubled youth. Prone to drinking with a keen interest in all things military and a short temper. Not long before the massacre, Dipendra had been arguing with his parents over the choice of his bride. Dipendra wanted to marry his girlfriend Devyani Rana (also a member of the Rana family). Dipendra’s mother was against this match (due to the historical animosity between the king’s family and the Ranas… although Queen Ashiwara was also a Rana, so I’m sure I’m missing part of the story…) Tempers flared.

Dipendra and Devyani

On the night of June 1st much of the royal family gathered for an evening together including uncles, aunts and cousins. Missing from the party was Prince Gyanendra, younger brother to the king and potential heir (if Birendra and his two sons could no longer perform the duties as king).

Following an evening of heavy drinking, and still angry at his family, Dipendra was upset when he was scolded by his father for “misbehaving” at the gathering and told to leave the party. An hour later Dipendra showed up dressed in military fatigues with an MP5K and M16 and started shooting up the room, killing his father, sister, uncle, aunts, and a few other family members while wounding several others. His mother and brother escaped the room but confronted the prince in the garden, where he killed both of them, shooting the queen multiple times in the face (it was so badly damaged that her face was covered with a mask for the cremation ceremony). Before any guards arrived Dipendra turned the gun on himself.

Prince Dipendra survived his suicide attempt for three days, and was proclaimed king while in a coma. He died on June 4, 2001. While Dipendra lie in his coma his uncle Gyanendra (remember, the one conveniently missing from the party?) maintained the deaths were an “accident” but once Dipendra had died full blame was placed on him.

The country went through a period of national mourning—many people including P’s dad—shaved their heads as a symbol of death in their family, since the king was the “father” of the nation and revered as a god. The country was already embroiled in a civil war, and now they were without a symbolic figurehead.

Some people in Nepal suspected that Gyanendra was responsible for the massacre, and that Dipendra was blamed so that Gyanendra could take the thrown. He was third in line to the thrown (after Birendra, Dipendra and Prince Nirajan) and had been conveniently out of town during the party. It’s true that his son and wife were at the party and were wounded, but both survived (his son with only minor injuries). Feeding these rumors is the allegation that Dipendra was mortally wounded by a gunshot to the left side of his head, while he was right-handed, casting doubt on whether the injury was self-inflicted.

Gayanendra wearing the Nepali royal crown

Two survivors have publicly confirmed that Dipendra was the shooter, but many Nepali people still consider it a mystery.

Gyanendra assumed the thrown and was king until 2008 when he was forced to abdicate due to social pressure and rioting.

Now people have their theories—but I was at the former Royal Palace in the summer of 2009 and went on a tour with the daughter of one of P’s family’s neighbors whose father used to work at the Palace as a food taste tester (I know, one of those strange connections). The suspicious thing is—when Gyanendra took over as king he dismantled the house in the garden where the massacre took place—brick by brick. All that is left is an outline of the house on the ground. A few bullet holes still mar parts of the garden wall but everything else is gone. It makes me wonder what he was hiding.

If you are interested in more information, the BBC had a documentary on the massacre, which you can watch on Youtube in five parts:

“Gross National Happiness” and Ethnic Cleansing

WordPress featured  a blog posting on Bhutan today, and since the tiny Himalayan country was also a topic of conversation at dinner the other night, I figured it was time to bring it up as a post. I must admit, I am not an expert on this topic, but I’ll try my best to explain.

Before I moved to New England, I knew very little about the country of Bhutan, but I admit it intrigued me. I had it on my list of places to try and travel to some day. I knew it was a fairly isolated state (the government strictly regulates tourism and travel), that it had a monarchy, that Buddhism was the prevailing religion, that the citizens of the country were required to wear traditional Bhutanese clothing, and that rather than measuring the GDP the king measured the GNH– Gross National Happiness. Who wouldn’t want to live in (or visit) a country that measured national happiness? It must be a happy place, right?

Tell that to the 100,000+ ethnically Nepali Bhutanese refugees living in camps in Eastern Nepal!

Ethnic Nepali Bhutanese Refugees at the camps in Eastern Nepal

I started learning more about Bhutan when the city I currently live in became one of several resettlement centers in the United States. The US government has agreed to bring 60,000 (ethnic Nepali) Bhutanese refugees for resettlement. Australia, Canada, Norway, Netherlands and Denmark have agreed to take most of the remaining population from the camps in Eastern Nepal (which have sparked its own issues, I’ll mention this later).

Due to the resettlement process, I occasionally see older people in Nepali dress walking down the road when I drive around town. Since many from the resettled population are older and have limited English language skills, the local Nepali student population has become active in helping the Bhutanese families transition to their new home. P and I have driven vans of refugees to a nearby temple for festivals, and some of our neighbors have been much more active—having dinners, organizing donations, acting as medical translators for health visits, and participating in outreach activities.

I found this nice synopsis of the cause of the refugee situation online (taken from “Cultural Orientation Resource Center Refugee Backgrounder booklet on Bhutanese refugees”):

The great majority of Bhutanese refugees are descendants of people [of Nepali origin] who in the late 1800s began immigrating to southern Bhutan—lowland, malarial-infested regions shunned by the Druk Buddhist majority—in search of farmland. There they became known as Lhotsampas (“People of the South”).

Contact between the Druk in the north and the Lhotsampas in the south was limited, and over the years, the Lhotsampas retained their highly distinctive Nepali language, culture, and religion. Relations between the groups were for the most part conflict free. Under Bhutan’s Nationality Law of 1958, the Lhotsampas enjoyed Bhutanese citizenship and were allowed to hold government jobs.

In the 1980s, however, Bhutan’s king and the ruling Druk majority became increasingly worried about the rapidly growing Lhotsampa population. Concerned that the demographic shift could threaten the majority position and traditional Buddhist culture of the Druk, Bhutanese authorities adopted a series of policies known as Bhutanization, aimed at unifying the country under the Druk culture, religion, and language. The policies imposed the Druk dress code and customs on the Lhotsampas and prohibited the use of the Nepali language in schools. Nepali teachers were dismissed, and Nepali books were reportedly burned. The government also established new eligibility requirements for Bhutanese citizenship that disenfranchised many ethnic Nepalis, depriving them of their citizenship and civil rights.

When the Lhotsampas began to organize politically to protest the policies, the authorities declared the activities subversive and unlawful. Some Lhotsampas became activists in the Bhutanese People’s Party, which called for Bhutan’s democratization. Smaller ethnic communities also began to advocate for a more democratic political system. In 1990, large-scale protests led to violent clashes with the police and army and to mass arrests. Ethnic Nepalis were targeted by the Bhutanese authorities, who destroyed the Nepalis’ property and arrested and tortured activists. Individuals were forced to sign so-called “voluntary migration certificates” before being expelled from the country. In December 1990, the authorities announced that Lhotsampas who could not prove they had been residents of Bhutan in 1958 had to leave. Tens of thousands fled to Nepal and the Indian state of West Bengal.

Many of the refugees that are now resettled in the US have been living in refugee camps in Eastern Nepal for 15+ years. The entire story can’t help but tarnish (for me) the quaint idyllic picture the Tourism Council of Bhutan likes to paint of the government and country, and the idea of “Gross National Happiness.”

In addition, since Nepal has its own civil conflicts, political instability, and infrastructure problems, many Nepali citizens are also looking for a way out of the region. Since six countries have promised to resettle the Bhutanese refugees, there have been instances of fraud where Nepalis have tried to take advantage of this benefit by disguising themselves as Bhutanese refugees and applying for resettlement. Needless to say the process can be messy.

Lastly, when the refugees finally make it out of the camp, life is still not easy. The economic hardships in the US have also hit the refugee population. NPR had an interesting profile on Bhutanese refugees who can no longer find work after their resettlement stipends conclude, even when they are willing to do the most menial of jobs.

So much for “National Happiness.”

For more information:

Cultural Orientation Resource Center: Refugee Backgrounder booklet on Bhutanese refugees
Wikipedia: Bhutanese refugees
Wikipedia: Bhutan
Human Rights Watch: Nepal- US Offer to Resettle Bhutanese Refugees Sparks Tensions
NPR: Bhutan’s Reluctant Turn From Monarchy
NPR: Gross National Happiness Measures Quality of Life
BBC: In Pictures- Refugees use photos to tell their story
BBC: Bhutan celebrates its sense of nationhood
BBC: Bhutanese Refugees Start a New Life

Nepali Constitution Discussed in Boston

If anyone will be in the Boston area this Sunday (unfortunately we won’t) there is an interesting event going on at Harvard. We were forwarded this flyer and asked to pass it along:

There is supposed to be a short presentation, an experts panel discussion (professors from Harvard, Dartmouth and Mr. Bhoj Raj Pokhrel, the former election commissioner of Nepal), group discussions and finally a synthesis of all the discussions from throughout the day. If you are interested in attending, or want to learn more please visit: http://boston-yuwa.org/

Earthquakes

I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about earthquakes.

As we have all watched the devastation in Haiti over the past two weeks, it is hard to imagine the terrible destruction and chaos that has descended on this small (historically, politically, and environmentally) unlucky nation. The weekend before the quake I was re-reading a few of my favorite Edwidge Danticat books after enjoying her beautiful and sad memoir “Brother, I’m Dying” about her Haitian childhood. After immersing myself so completely in these stories about Haitian culture, history, and people, it made the photos from the news so much more vivid and horrifying. In fact, yesterday I read in a New Yorker piece that one of the characters from her memoir, her elder cousin Maxo, was crushed when his house collapsed upon him. My heart and sincere warm wishes go out to those affected by the quake.

The fault splits Pakistan and Nepal in half

Earthquakes take on a scary new reality when you know people from Nepal. The entire country is situated above the point on the earth’s surface where the Indo-Australian tectonic plate is actively being rammed beneath the Eurasian plate, causing, for millennia, the Himalayas to be thrusted ever higher into the sky.

Many parts of the South Asian region are prone to tremors. The only two times I have ever felt an earthquake in my life was during a six month period that I lived in North India. One earthquake was almost unnoticeable, I felt the earth shimmy while I sat on the stone steps of an old Jain temple. At first I thought I was feeling dizzy from dehydration until people from outside the temple told us what had happened. The second time the shaking woke me up in the middle of the night, although I was too confused from sleep to know what was happening. I didn’t put two and two together until later that morning when I read about the quake in the newspaper.

So when events like the major earthquake in Haiti, or the 2004 tsunami, create headlines across the globe, they rekindle the very real and possible fear in people that something like this could (and unfortunately probably will) happen in Nepal someday. My friend KS (who was in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami, but luckily not on the coast) watches the news and shakes her head, “Our country sits right above the faults. We are overdue for a big quake. It makes me so nervous.”

The last major earthquake to hit Nepal was in 1934, when almost 20,000 people were killed. Without many roads or infrastructure, it was difficult to get to outlying villages. Additionally, over 25% of residential homes in Nepal were lost and a number of great landmarks and national treasures were destroyed.

The remaining Dharahara tower of the pair that once stood before 1934

I was reminded of this when I traveled to Nepal for the first time. P’s family took me to Dharahara, a tall white tower built in 1832 by the prime minister Bhimsen Thapa for his niece Queen Lalit Tripura Sundari. He built Dharahara next to a similar tower that he had earlier built for himself which was eleven stories high (2 stories higher than Dharahara). The two towers survived a large earthquake in the 1830s, but I was told that Bhimsen’s tower was destroyed in the 1934 quake, leaving only two of the eleven stories behind as a reminder of everything that was shattered in 1934.

As with Haiti, many of the buildings in Kathmandu are made of concrete and cinder block, with very little “earthquake proof” reinforcement. Additionally, the population of the Kathmandu valley has literally exploded in the past decade due, in part, to villagers flocking to the city in the hopes of escaping the Maoists/army violence in the countryside. Since the KTM valley is pretty well defined topographically, the city doesn’t have a lot of room to expand outward. Thus people are claiming more space for themselves and their families by building upwards—now you sometimes find very skinny tall houses to save on space. A quake of significant magnitude has the potential to absolutely devastate the densely populated city.

Also similarly to Haiti, political turmoil, lack of current infrastructure, a small national airport with one landing strip, and few roads leading to current medical facilities could further complicate rescue efforts. At least Haiti, as an island, allowed medical ships from the US to medi-vac severely injured patience to overcrowded floating navy hospitals. Landlocked Nepal would have to fly victims to India or Pakistan, if anywhere at all.

Looking at the pictures in Haiti reminds us all how fragile and delicate life can be. A reminder that isn’t always pleasant to think about.

Sari Soldiers

While on the topic of recommending things… a friend in Canada recently went to a documentary film festival and saw this film: “Sari Soldiers.” It looks really interesting. It doesn’t seem to be available on Netflix yet, but if I can find it and watch it, I’ll let you know how it is. The trailer is below:

Return of the Kings

Part III on my brief series on Nepali history… we left off with the Rana regime in control.

In 1936 a movement against the Ranas began; it was quickly crushed but revolution was in the air. By 1946, the Nepali National Congress was established by Nepali exiles in India, and in 1950 the Nepali National Congress merged with the Nepal Democratic Congress to launch an armed movement against the Rana regime.

King Tribhuvan

The Congress parties had won an ally in King Tribhuvan, who was ready to free the powerless Shaw monarchy of Rana influence and on November 6, 1950 he escaped to the Indian embassy in Kathmandu with Crown Prince Mahendra and his grandson Birendra (the second in line for the thrown). Birendra’s younger brother Gyanendra (he will become important later on in the story) was left as “king” in the real king’s absence and served for several months between 1950 and 1951.The royal refugees were flown to Delhi and within days an orchestrated armed insurrection flooded across the border into various regions of Nepal. In what would be an eerie window into the future with the Maoist insurgency, battles raged for several months between the rebels (at this time pro-king) and the government troops (pro-Ranas). On February 7, 1951 peace was brokered between the King, the Ranas and the Nepali Congress at the “Delhi Compromise.” King Tribhuvan was able to triumphantly return to Nepal and an agreement was made to set up a constituent assembly to create a democratic constitution.

Tenzing on the summit of Everest... photo taken by Hillary

It was around this time that Nepal’s borders were again opened up to the outside world and the Rana policy of isolationism ended. On a side note… prior to Nepal opening it’s borders all Everest expeditions had been attempted by the Tibetan side of the mountain, and none had been successful. On May 29, 1953 New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Nepali Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, making the historic ascent from the Nepali side.

Unfortunately, political rivalries stalled the democratic process, and in 1955 King Tribhuvan died without a constitution in place. His son and heir apparent, King Mahendra, was not as diplomatic as his father and rather than help the fledgling constitutional monarchy, he used politics to assert himself as an absolute ruler under the “Panchayat” system. Political parties (including the Congress party that helped to bring the monarchy back) were banned, and many were jailed or fled to exile in India. Defectors attempted to regroup in India, and with the covert support of the Indian government, they planned a renewed rebel insurgency- but this time against the king. However, nothing more than small skirmishes took place, and when China invaded India in 1962, the Indian government could no longer antagonize a buffer state so close to the other massive rival nation. Nepal’s insurgency funding from India swiftly ended and this led to a thirty year period of absolute rule by first Mahendra, and later his son Birendra.

King Mahendra

In the midst of this continued political turmoil was the birth of the Nepali communist parties. Although all political parties united in the 1950s to help overthrow the Rana regime, the first communist movement emerged during the 1947 strike of workers at a cloth mill in eastern Nepal. The leader, Man Mohan Adhikari was a member of the Communist Party of India, since there was no Nepali communist party at the time. Man Mohan’s contemporary, Pushpa Lal Shrestha, was serving as secretary of the Nepali National Congress when he grew disenfranchised with the party and decided to start his own communist party. By 1948 he had already translated and published the Communist Manifesto into Nepali. Although the party was not welcomed in the Panchayat system, it slowly gained support from people in the countryside who felt discriminated against by the caste system of the Hindu Kingdom and who continued to feel the poverty from the Rana years.