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!”
“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.
By Manjushree Thapa, the author, most recently, of the novel Seasons of Flight.