An Illusion of Peace
Prof. Dr Brian Cobb
“We lived many lives in those swirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves any good or evil; yet when we had achieved, and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took from us our victory, and remade it in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win but had yet to learn to keep and was pitiably weak against age. So we stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace” It was written not in the present-day Nepal bulletin 1919 by T. E. Lawrence in the wake of the disastrous Treaty of Versailles. The victorious Allied powers, France, the UK and the US, imposed fatal, punitive conditions on the Germans that laid the foundations for Hitler’s rise and World War II.
Fortunately, the Allies learned a lesson. At the end of World War II, the next generation of leaders helped rehabilitate Germany and all of Europe, resulting in a stable and peaceful political order. The lesson is that vindictive, harsh strategies are counterproductive. Generating anger and hatred only lead to future violence and instability. And yet, I see Nepal going down that road today. Some of my ideas, such as my suggestions in 2004 that the parties negotiate with the Maoists directly, that the palace needed to be sidelined for peace for republicanism and that the country is demilitarised, has been finally adopted. So I’d like to be heard again.
The current strategy of imprisoning the Maoist cadres in conditions barely suitable for animals sows the seeds of future instability. The Maoists are not evil or mad; they are young people who saw their only hope of having better lives in revolution. The attitude of the Nepali elite and the international community is selfish, arrogant, immoral and doomed to failure. To imprison them in ramshackle Guantanamos, where the climate and disease, rather than the CIA, do the torturing, is most unwise.
Since returning to Nepal, I’ve seen so much. I’ve had experiences of government officials and party higher-ups trying to shake me down for bribes to be allowed the privilege of helping people experiencing poverty. I’ve seen how corruption denies medical care and economic development to low-income people and how the elites keep them in misery to attract donor funds they divert for their use, leaving the masses to suffer.
I’ve often seen high-caste doctors put their presumed inferiors aside to die of neglect and heard they’re sincerely felt but racist justifications. If anything, it worsened in the wake of the second Andolan. The elites think the people took to the streets to elect them, not to regain democracy to select a better leader; they fail to realise that public support for parties and politicians is relatively weak, which is vital for democracy.
I hear these same elites condemning the extortion and violence of the Maoists, uncaring and uncomprehending that the politicians and bureaucrats extort more and cause more suffering. Is there any moral difference between a Maoist who shoots someone and a Health Ministry official whose corruption condemns many more people to death and hell? No, there is not. So it’s time to drop the hypocritical self-righteousness and accept that Einstein was right when he told us, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of thinking that created them.”
It has been the structural violence, oppression, caste discrimination, exploitation, greed, corruption and arrogance of the Nepali elites that has given rise to the Maoist movement, and the same people with the same ideology are now setting the stage for continued instability in their relentless quest for short term gains in money, power and fame. They are trying to crush the Maoists as a mainstream political force by imposing hardships on their cadres, punishing them instead of rehabilitating and marginalising their leaders.
Young people who have become inured to violence and lack any prospects for education, jobs and improved living conditions will resort to crime in the short term and revolution in a slightly longer time. They will be a scourge. But are their demands unreasonable? Not at all. While it is correct to call upon them to renounce violence and intimidation, it is essential to understand that they must be brought into the mainstream for this to happen.
The airport is the only institution in Nepal today that inspires hope in the youth. Nearly all of them dream of going far away, to a place where their caste doesn’t consign them to be treated like animals, where they can go as far as their talents and hard work can take them. They are bitter and pessimistic about Nepal. Now this brain drain is suitable from the perspective of the elite because it takes away the most thoughtful and ambitious. It could be better for the economic development of the country. Still, past democratic governments have not pursued development because it’s easier to rake in donor funds than the proceeds of private industry and easier to manipulate impoverished masses than a prosperous nation.
The rush to re-establish the status quo ante politically contradicts the demands of the people’s movement. It will yield a short-term bounty for the elites but to the detriment of Nepali society and the nobility. The parties delude themselves into thinking they have the support of the majority, who view them with distrust and disgust. Many of the nation’s youth are voicing support for the Maoists as a political force because, whatever their past misdeeds, they are the only ones with a vision and an inclusive philosophy. Unless the other parties make room for newer, more honest and competent leaders, they will defeat when elections are finally held.
In his insightful Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, the Bangladeshi economist and father of the microcredit movement, Dr Mohammad Yunus, said, “Peace should be understood humanly − in a broad social, political and economical way. Peace is threatened by unjust economic, social and political order, the absence of democracy, environmental degradation and human rights.
Poverty is the absence of all human rights. Poverty’s frustrations, hostility and anger cannot sustain peace in any society. To build stable peace, we must find opportunities for people to live decent lives.” He stated, “I believe we can create a poverty-free world because poor people do not create poverty. It has been created and sustained by the economic and social system we have designed for ourselves; the institutions and concepts that make up that system; the policies we pursue.”
Articulating some noble sentiments, as the interim government has done, is deceptive and futile when the mechanisms of government are as corrupt and inefficient as Nepal’s. Implementing these worthy ideas by the current bureaucracy would be a miracle on par with the creation of the universe. Rapid, widespread and fearless corruption control must precede all else.
The unjust social order must dismantle. It is an unpalatable but undeniable historical truth that nowhere and never has an oppressive elite suddenly undergone simultaneous and radical character transformation; only when discredited persons and ideologies are replaced has progress occurred. It is also a gross distortion when the oppressors seek to portray themselves as victims and label inclusiveness “caste warfare.” Although nearly all the elites are upper caste, most upper castes are non-elite and exploited.
For example, the recent political charade of offering increased access to severely inadequately staffed and equipped district hospitals without real health care reform merely reveals the cynicism of the political elites. An excellent place to start rebuilding as Nepal struggles to move from medievalism to modernity is with the education and rehabilitation of the Maoist cadres. It would be an exercise to understand Dr Yunus’s sound principles and get beyond conventional zero-sum thinking. It would be a good investment in the future of Nepal and the right thing to do.
It was the youth who brought the monarchy to its knees. The martyrs and Andolankari were overwhelmingly students and working-class youth. For the older men who watched the people’s movement on their colour TVs to emerge and attempt to recreate the dystopia they created in the name of democracy will not do. Nevertheless, a new society is possible, as history proves. And the youth of Nepal, the major stakeholders in its future and its demographically most powerful voting bloc should expect no more than this and be content with no less.