Nepal, a harbinger of things to come

29 May, '08

Nepalese republic bornCongratulations to the Nepalese nation on their joining the modern democracies voluntarily. Congratulations on declaring themselves a republic, one in which the promise is held for a better and more inclusive way of life.

239 years under absolute monarchist rule came to an end yesterday and Nepal became yet another of the Himalayan countries to eschew monarchist rule to one of the people. Even the last country which prides itself by measuring their success by happiness rather than the more usual product has instigated democratic rule by parliament.

If these are not indications that due to the whole world opening up and for people to realise that windows of opportunities are passing them by as they are beholden to undemocratic and despotic rule, and for those despots also to realise that their days are numbered regardless of the futile machinations they adopt to subjugate their people, the better it will be for everyone concerned and the more peaceful the transition will be.

We in the Gulf – and the larger Arab world too – constitute the last bastion of absolute rule. I predict that within this generation we shall see intrinsic changes to how our countries are governed by the sustained introduction of democratic systems in which the populace will have the ultimate say in how our countries are run. If the current rulers do not make plans themselves to inaugurate that change, I am fairly sure that plans will be made for them to exit the scene of power, instituted not only by their very own people, but by world opinion and pressure too.

It is the cusp of a new era, one with its own dynamic which is unwitnessed in human history. If not handled properly, there will be a lot of chaos which will whittle away our energies needlessly.

It’s time for responsible governance.

Will our people rise to the challenge and grasp at this opportunity, or will we continue to descend into the nothingness we have so far existed in? Or should we just wait for yet another promised saviour who will remove our shackles and lead us to nirvana, while we ourselves make further excuses to condone our continued incarceration.

Congratulations to the people of the Democratic Republic of Nepal. May you live for ever.

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  1. Mahmood, I share your basic sentiment, but would caution as well. For one, Nepal still has a long march ahead of it. The Maoists have made a lot of promises which one hopes they will in fact carry through on, but moving from an extremely brutal insurgency movement to good governance that benefits the masses is going to be very tough.

    More broadly, it’s just not true that “We in the Gulf – and the larger Arab world too – constitute the last bastion of absolute rule”. There’s obviously a spectrum of degrees of absolute rule in the Arab world, and so too around the world, but if one wanted to make a list of countries with systems whose degree of repression and absolute rule is roughly on par with the spectrum in the Arab world, we get quite a long list that encompasses a large portion of the world’s population: Russia, China, Belarus, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Myanmar, Laos, Angola, etc. This is just on a strict political scale, if we get into countries where oligarchy is a serious problem even in the presence of a surface democratic system (i.e., places where there are votes, but in practical terms the 90% poor of the country have almost no rights versus the 10% wealthy who control and manipulate the system), we can grow an even far longer list with places like the Philippines, most of Latin America (though now with many places like Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador and such in a populist backlash which is aiming to represent the poor majority but doing a pretty lousy job of making truly sustainable change), Nigeria, the Congo (if you don’t think they belong in the first category, though generally it is just the ultimate failed state), etc. Heck, I even argue that with its deep, deep structural economic problems, extremely screwed up media and campaign finance systems, and now combining with a ripening of the fear-mongering military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against, the United States is actually slipping dangerously close to looking more like a rich-poor divide oligarchy of fear. Not inevitable, but not impossible either.

    The revolutions of the 20th century around the world brought about a lot of new republics that overthrew old monarchies and colonial rulers, and most of those produced plenty of ink on paper about rights and freedom, but most of those brought about simply new forms of dictatorship or oligarchy. So, best wishes to the Nepalese, one hopes and prays for their success, but let’s not believe the Mideast is the last bastion of problems, the world is full of them still. And for Nepal and the world a long road ahead still lies in waiting.

  2. mahmood says:

    and that road must be trod in order to reach equilibrium.

    I am not suggesting for a minute that by rubbing the lamp of democracy that wondrous genie will materialise and everyone will live happily ever after. What I am attempting to convey is that the basic relationships between the ruler and the ruled have inexorably changed due to the opening of the world due to advances in communications technologies which opened up the windows through which people compare their lot with those who enjoy a better life with plenty of opportunities not hindered by personal relationships or the distance from those who rule. Rather, opportunities are grabbed and executed by the tenacity and creativity of the person without those hindrances.

    I know that Nepal will probably go through hell before they reach their nirvana, and I fully realise that they can end up being like Egypt, Zimbabwe and others with despotic octogenarians whose grip on power is much more fierce that even death can’t prise their fingers off those seats, but at least there is hope that now they have a blank sheet. It’s up to them to write what they will on it. I hope that with the world how it is now, and all of its eyes on that part of the world, those who are newly in power will ameliorate the differences and studiously work toward achieving a better life for their citizens.

  3. I only wish I knew more about Nepal to comment more intelligently 🙂 From what little I understand of the place, it certainly seems they have a real – if difficult – chance to turn a new page. A genuinely populist movement has come to power and all but fully overthrown the old system, with the death knell not being a final military purge so much as a negotiated end, with other political parties still in the system. Venezuela found itself in a similar situation with Chavez the past decade, but one thing Nepal has going for it that has tripped up Chavez is that they thankfully *don’t* have oil. A massive resource which brings cash to the government without responsibility to the people is always political poison. Not having that will hopefully ensure that the Maoists have to answer to the needs of the people, and hopefully the ugly violence of the Maoists over the years can at least now have the positive side-effect of ensuring sufficient skepticism in the country as a whole to keep them honest in power and willing to play the political game rather than go back to insurgency when the inevitable political back and forth gets rolling. All that from my limited understanding of the place, feel free to correct if any of my assumptions are off base.

    As for the broader global picture, I’m not sure. No doubt communications have made a huge difference, but dictators and oligarchs are finding ways to adjust and manipulate those as well. When we remember that half the world has never even made a phone call (I’m quoting an old London tube advert factoid there, but I believe it probably still holds given the massive growth of poverty and slums around the world), it’s kind of hard to see how the Internet really affects people’s lives to the point of being able to change the system. What I am actually far more impressed by is local activism such as that seen in recent strikes and labor activism in the region (South Asian workers in Dubai, Ghazl al-Mahalla workers in Egypt, Basra Oil Union, etc.). People who challenge the structures of repression in a very pragmatic manner. One could certainly argue the Basra Union has used international communication links to their advantage, but Egyptian strikes and South Asian workers are very much local affairs (as is the Iraqi oil union, just saying they’ve added a bit more international flavor) and I am sure they harbor few illusions about being able to reach out across the world and gather support that can actually tip the balance.

    What I’m saying is that while I hope what you are saying about communications can really make a difference, I think in practical terms state security apparatuses are simply catching on and learning how to adapt (witness Egyptian state security detaining and beating the snot out of people who organized the recent facebook protests – classic “cell breaking” technique used against activists who didn’t seem to fully realize what they were up against and that technology as they employed it wasn’t the shield they might have thought at first), and that it’s good old fashioned ground-level organization and activism (perhaps occasionally aided by communication and technology) that really is needed for big time change. The Maoists in Nepal got to power after many years of ground-level violent insurgency among the poorest of the poor, not really do to modern technology. Now, I certainly don’t want violence to be the path, but I’m just saying hard grass-roots work is still the path, and that communications and technology are at best simply ancillaries to change.

    Geez, I’m too long-winded, sorry about that.

  4. I agree with the above that, now that Saddam has gone, only Syria and perhaps Libya make a decent case to get into the club of world’s worst dictatorships. I guess you can include Saudi Arabia, too, because of the social restrictions that fall particularly on women. However, compared to North Korea, Myanmar, and until very recently Turkmenistan, most Arab regimes are really enlightened.

  5. mahmood says:

    I don’t mind your long windedness especially when it enlightens me further! Thanks for your thoughts.

    I agree that practical ground-level and grass roots movements are needed to effect change. I also agree that the majority of the world now do not have access to technology, I was actually reflecting that information and communication technologies have the potential to effect change here in that they aid in passing the message upward much faster.

  6. Ahmed12 says:

    Before we go pushing for pure democracy and the full will of the people of who they could choose to lead this country, dont forget the shocking lack of education and understanding of Bahraini people when it comes to choosing the right person for government, purely based upon elections which so far failed in bringing up star candidates or MP’s who are worth 1BD to be in that chair at the parliament. Before that happens, we need to educate EVERYONE and we need to have people from the private sector to move themselves into government positions, and purely single out anyone with any indication that he/she is Islamic/religious in any sense. I would rather have an Atheist who fixes up my neighborhood and let me live normally with electricity and water coming in, more jobs coming up and the currency in a healthy state rather than a freak Islamist with psycho thoughts of kicking gay people outside the island (bastard MP’s what a waste of their time and ours!)

    Mahmood, I am sorry but before we move in the direction of Nepal, the citizens of Bahrain need to be more civil (as opposed to freak out and burn tyres all over the island because their brother went to jail) they need to separate religion from state and economy, they need to be pure in their choise of a candidate for parliament. You are however probably right in that I also do predict that within a very close few years we will have a non-AlKhalifa PM, but before that happens, lets get our own acts and education and priorities straightened!


  7. forzaq8 says:

    i think the gulf countries are farther than you think

    out of Qatar/Bahrain/Kuwait/Saudi/UAE
    only Kuwait and Bahrain vote for a parliament , and the majority in those countries ( even you mahmood ) consider them to be dragging us down and away from the path

    while UAE , Qatar have no parliament but are making huge strides , which is making more and more people less believing in democracy ( ever Saudi is making huge steps )

    and if we look further than the gulf states , we see sryia , Lebanon , Egypt , Algeria and Tunis we can see how democracy is doing there ( yes i know these are considered dictatorship but for a lot of people they see them voting and practicing democracy )

  8. Sam says:

    No doubt communications have made a huge difference

    ICT has been brought up quite a few times. I just thought Id would add to that and say that air transportation has equally made this world allot smaller.

    We once used to sail the high sees for weeks on end to step foot on foreign land, experience new cultures, landscapes, and people. These very same personal discoveries now take a few hours! I think air transportation has massively influenced social development on a global scale.

  9. mahmood says:

    Yes I think these new technologies do make a big difference, but maybe not as big as I initially thought. My thinking now that it may affect the people who do have access to higher education and of the bracket of society who can afford such avenue. Those in turn might trickle down that experience to those who can’t, especially when you consider that a very high percentage of those in the Arab and Muslim worlds are actually illiterate.

    Could that (last part) be also the biggest factor in how the Muslim world is kept as we currently are? In that, “education” is given from the pulpit to illiterates?

    A lot to think about, to be sure. In either way, I am convinced that exposing people to different cultures and teaching them to be tolerant of those cultures rather than judge them through their own circumstance will lead (is leading) to a new world order.

  10. Ahmed12 says:

    It’s amazing how we live in extreme times. there are people who belittle the other sect, yet the King builds (in his own name as well!) a mosque for the main purpose of having 2 sects (actually all sects) of Islam to pray under one roof. There are also people that would die to be in the front-lines in Palestine killing Jews, yet the King has appointed female Jewish person to be Ambassador, not to forget him appointing a Shiite to Ambassador as well (China). I am really wondering how strong are the people’s toleration to this? Historically it has been the case in general sense in Bahrain, but will these acts make it last longer? That would tell you the lasting of a constitutional-monarchy system I would think. it’s a tough call considering UAE/SA/Qatar/Kuwait don’t have the chances in hell they would be flipping their political system anytime soon, considering on top the huge government reforms occurring for each country.

  11. Top-level tokens such as Ahmed12 mentions are nice and all, but real change does require changes at the grassroots level. I’ll leave Bahrain specifics to you Mahmood, but in general the problem seems to be that while rulers in most countries will say nice “we are all one, kum-ba-ya” in public statements and to their Washington overlords, their practices on a more practical level involve turning people against each other, whether on a sectarian, class, political, regional, or other level. That way the president/king/great leader gets to have their cake and eat it too: they sound nice and “liberal” and “moderate” to Washington so that their guns, mercenaries, and money keep flowing to keep them in control, while they keep their own people too divided to actually get real reform flowing. Ideally the rulers would be more enlightened and actually help instead of hinder development of national and regional consciousness so that people’s creative abilities and enthusiasm would be channeled towards positive development (on all levels) instead of fighting each other and hanging on for dear life. But even in the absence of such good rule, I again argue that it is grassroots resistance to such divide and conquer which will be needed to really move things forward. We see the way sectarian-minded folk, aided by the ruling despots so long as they don’t get too strong, manage to organize, but this only worsens things. What is needed is boundary-crossing grassroots organizers to demand labor rights, human rights, political rights, fairer wealth distribution, etc. In an ideal world the “system” and the “masses” are both working towards those goals and peaceful evolution occurs. In reality, not just in the arab world but throughout the world and history, the masses generally need to go through a long struggle to wrench their rights from leaders one meager drop at a time.

  12. Tanya Degano says:

    Democracy is not the best form of government…nor is it suitable or applicable to some cultures…monarchies will always be superior in some cultures…i don’t see where congratulations is due…but interesting article….i guess being a member of a group that believes it is discriminated against you would see the uprooting of a monarchy as a positive thing but please take the time to look around at all ur neighbours that have removed their monarchies…Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran…they are ALL worse off now than they were before they became “republics”

  13. mahmood says:

    It’s not about sectarianism Tanya, what it is about is basic human rights.

  14. Jim Evans says:

    Interesting comments in the thread but going back to your original congratulations to Nepal – not so sure. The Maoist leaders in Nepal – Prachanda and Bhattarai will be far less democratic than any monarchy once they get their feet under the table – I smell Mugabe. The King is dead long live the King(s)

  15. mahmood says:

    That’s a worry, to be sure Jim. But as we are looking into the future with a relatively blank page, the hope is they will grasp this opportunity and do good by their people. Their parliament is over 560 persons strong so I don’t think that the “leaders” would have that inordinate amount of sway on it. But time will tell and I hope they do good.

  16. Jim Evans says:

    Mahmood, I share your hopes but not your optimism. This is not a peoples revolution. The Maoists have intimidated their way into power with indoctrination, bullying, abduction, extortion, assault and murder. Many villagers are terrified of getting on the wrong side of the local apparatchiks and their Maoist youth (or was that Hitler Youth) organisation, the YCL. Nepal badly needed reform but not at the price of having water supply cut off simply because villagers didn’t vote for the party. I really hope I am wrong.

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