Patrice Riemens on Sun, 30 Apr 2006 11:09:54 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Brendan O'Neil on Nepal democracy and the West...

(thanks to/bwo Teotonio de Souza/ Goa Research Net mailing list)
(my previous post, Jane Jacob's Obit, was thanks to/ bwo roger Keil and
the INURA mailing-list- sorry for late credit)


Nepal: now that's what I call democratisation

Why are those who bang on about bringing 'people power' to foreign lands
so ambivalent about the people demanding power on the streets of Nepal?

by Brendan O'Neill

For the past two weeks youthful protesters fought running battles with th e Royal
Nepalese Army and police, demanding an end to the autocratic rule of King
Gyanendra. An 18-day general strike virtually paralysed the small Himalayan nation
and brought Gyanendra's kingdom to its knees. The protesters defied stringent
daytime curfews and did their best to dodge the army and police's 'shoot-on-sight'
policy (which claimed 14 lives) in their desire to see the King ousted and
democracy installed. So why did many in the West either remain silent about these
mass protests, or go al l ambivalent about them? Why did Western officials and
thinkers who talk endlessly about 'regime change', 'democratisation' and 'change
advocacy' in foreign affairs view the Nepalese protests with disapproval, even

The protests reveal two things: first, that people still desire
self-determination, to be treated as autonomous adults rather than as big kids who
need a caring King, or anybody else for that matter, to look after them; and
second, that this is not the kind of 'people power' many in the West have in mind
when they talk about enabling democracy in far-off lands. Western leaders and
commentators like the idea of people power until it involves real people demanding
real power - then they come over all panicky and squeamish. They like to
'encourage good governance' and install 'people participation programmes' in
various African, Eastern European and Asian states, but they balk at the sight of
thousands of people demanding their democratic rights.

The protests have not only exposed the isolation of a clapped-out and archaic
Hindu monarch - they have also exposed the West's empty rhetoric on democracy and
its fear and loathing of the masses.

At root these were protests for self-determination. Nepal is a strange and
unstable kingdom; it is the only Hindu state in the world, ruled over by monarchs
who fancy themselves as reincarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu. Until 1990 it was
an absolute monarchy under the executive control of the King; then King Birendra
initiated political reforms which created a parliamentary monarchy, with the King
as head of state and a prime minister as head of government. Things have remained
deeply unstable. As one report says: 'No Nepalese government has survived for more
than two years, either through internal collapse or parliamentary dissolution by
the monarch.' (1) In 2001, King Birendra, his wife and several other members of
the royal family were shot dead by Birendra's son. For the pas t 10 years there
have been clashes between royalist and government forces and Maoist guerrillas
demanding an end to the monarchy. It was under the pretext of crushing the
guerrillas that King Gyanendra unilaterally declared a state of emergency in
February 2005, shutting down parliament, placing elected ministers under house
arrest, and assuming all executive powers.

The protesters have sought to overturn this backward state of affairs. One
protester declared: 'The King is like the foreign people85he thinks we are
ignorant temple-dwellers, that all we need is food and God and to be ruled.' Here,
we can glimpse the protesters' demands: they reject both the idea that people
should be happy with their lot, and also old backward notions about God-appointed
monarchs knowing what's best. 'We know that Gyanendra is not a god, that he is
just a man and that we can end him', said another protester (2). Many of the
protesters are young and Westernised - people in their late teens and early 20s,
many of them professionals, who talk about watching MTV and wishing to earn a
decent disposable income. These will be the children of the Nineties, that brief
period when there was something approximating democracy in Nepal, who wil l not
stand for a return to the arbitrary rule of Kings. There is an admirable fury to
their protests.

Western officials and policymakers view it differently. For all their talk about
supporting democracy around the world they have spent the past two weeks trying to
put a lid on the Nepalese protests, encouraging the King and the various political
parties (most of which, to some extent, support the anti-monarchy protests) to
come to a compromise that will 'end the crisis'. The Bush administration and the
Blair government pose as the deliverers of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, yet
they said little about the pro-democracy protests in Nepal. In fact, they viewed
them as deeply problematic. US diplomats put pressure on the parties to accept the
King's offer at the end of last week to name a new prime minister, even though
this would have left the King with the power to dissolve parliament.

The British ambassador to Nepal, Keith George Bloomfield, also encouraged the
parties to accept this compromise; protesters branded him as 'naive' and told him
to 'mind his own business' (3). (Bloomfield was also put in the awkward position
of having to cancel a planned celebration for his own Queen's eightieth birthday
at his Nepalese Embassy because, as one report from India put it, 'Right now, a
lavish bash, with Nepali ministers and bureaucrats as guests, would not gel with
the Nepali people who are demanding the abolition of the monarchy.') The UK
Department for International Development has a programme in Nepal that encourages
'change advocators' and 'pro-poor stakeholders' to take more control. Yet since
the protests broke out, DfID officials have hidden from view; this, clearly, is
not the kind of 'change advocacy' they have in mind.

Britain and America's intentions in relation to Nepal become clear when you
consider that both have offered military assistance to the regime in recent years.
According to Amnesty International, in the year prior to the King's coup Nepal
received 20,000 M16 rifles from America and small arms from the UK. It is reported
that two Islander fighter aircraft supplied from Britain to Nepal in 2004 have
been used in attacks on Maoist guerrillas and also civilians in Maoist-controlled
territory (4). Britain and America want stability over democracy in Nepal. Before
the King overthrew parliament that meant supplying military assistance to crush
the armed opposition; following the King's coup, which was condemned by Washington
and London, it has meant US and UK officials leaning on the King and the parties
to strike a deal. These interventions, where Western officials have sought to
dampen the protests by pushing the politicians into a relationship with the King,
give the lie to the Bush and Blair governments' claims to be international
warriors for democracy. Their idea of 'democratisation' is in fact little more
than posturing, designed to boost their own moral authority rather than install
anything like democracy around the world.

Whether the King's concession will satisfy people's desire for more choice and
control remains to be seen.

Even commentators who are critical of Bush and Blair and sympathetic to the
protesters have described the protests as a 'crisis' which only democracy,
assisted by a better kind of international intervention, can resolve. This gets
things the wrong way around. Instead of seeing the protests as an attempt by the
Nepalese to build a democracy, some commentators see them as a violent and
destabilising outburst which 'installing democracy' might put an end to. So Isabel
Hilton in the Guardian criticises the interventions of America, Europe, India and
China for being 'inglorious', and suggests that these external powers should
encourage democracy instead, since 'only democracy can end the crisis in Nepal'
(5). Here, democracy is discussed as a kind of appeasement for the masses - not as
something they earn and shape themselves, but as something graciously provided to
them in order to keep in check their potentially unpredictable behaviour. More
radical commentators look to the language of the past to describe and justify
events in Nepal. Tariq Ali, unable, it seems, to see what is new and different
today, says the protests are 'refreshingly old-fashioned' (6).

And consider the contrast between Western media coverage of these protests and its
coverage of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2005 or the Rose Revolution in
Georgia in 2003. Those events were immediately described as 'revolutions' and
celebrated in newspaper columns and breathless TV reports. In truth, they were
largely stage-managed affairs, often orchestrated by Western intervention. They
may have involved large number s of people taking to the streets and attending
pro-democracy pop concerts, but they would best be described as the consequence of
Western pressure t o replace one dubiously-elected political party with another.
They were media events, too, staged as much for the international press corps as
to put pressure on the incumbent regimes. The Nepalese protests, by contrast ,
were massive, often vigorous, and they took place regardless of whether o r not
photographers were there to capture them. Yet they have been largely ignored by
newspaper columnists, or referred to as a 'crisis'.

It seems that many in the West are far more comfortable with carefully planned
'revolutions' that last a few days and which win the support of the US State
Department and the UK Foreign Office, than they are with the fury of masses who
have had as much as they can take. It seems to me that some in the West are even
more comfortable with suicide bombings than they are with mass protests like those
in Nepal. Acts of individual and nihilistic terrorism, such as those by
Palestinians against Israel or by a handful of disgruntled men from Leeds, seem to
have been discussed more sympathetically than the Nepalese protests have been (and
to have receive d as much, if not more, media coverage). There is a kind of
vicarious pity and self-indulgent empathy for suicide bombers who apparently have
no choice but to kill themselves and a few civilians; they are seen as victims of
powerful forces understandably lashing out. Yet a more meaningful lashing out by a
mass group of people that might have real consequences - that is viewed as
something scary and suspect.

The protests exposed to ridicule King Gyanendra. He has now announced that he will
restore parliament - certainly a step in the right direction towards democracy,
though whether this concession will satisfy people's desire for more control and
choice in their lives remains to be seen. The protests also exposed the West's
flimsy attachment to democracy and its fear of mass and unpredictable actions.
What really unnerved Western officials and commentators was that they felt they
could not meaningfully influence events in Nepal; instead of sitting in some plush
committee room devising and enforcing a 'governance plan', they were reduced to
watching the protests and wondering how they would end. UN secretary general Kofi
Annan called for the 'transfer of power in a timely, orderly and responsible
manner' - that's how they like things to be done, in an orderly fashion and to a
clear deadline, probably to be followed up by annual reports on targets reached
and developments made.

Our leaders cannot handle the messy business of real people in Nepal loudly
demanding some real power over their lives. Yet this is what struggles for
democracy look like. It may not be pretty, but it can be pretty inspiring.

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