Monthly Archives: May 2012

Nepal forms caretaker government pending new elections

Published in the Los Angeles Times. With Mark Magnier. 



KATMANDU, Nepal — Nepal announced the formation of a caretaker government Tuesday and settled into a tense calm after a weekend constitutional crisis led the prime minister to call elections, some four years and several shaky governments after the country set out to write its crucial, if elusive, national blueprint.

But it wasn’t clear whether the caretaker government would survive until the Nov. 22 election, after three allies left the ruling coalition Monday amid calls for Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai’s resignation.

The political crisis was sparked when the deadline to draft a new constitution passed Sunday as parties battled over whether to divide states along ethnic lines under a federalist system, an issue that has led to violent protests in recent weeks.

Many minorities feel their interests have been undermined for centuries by a cabal in and around the Katmandu Valley and see the constitution as their best opportunity to right perceived wrongs.

Nepal, wedged between India and China, abolished its Hindu monarchy and became a republic in 2006 after a decade of armed conflict but has lurched from one political crisis to the next ever since.

“If the constitution is delivered without ethnic federalism, I’m sure it will result in conflict,” said Ram Devkota, 32, a member of the elite priest caste from Katmandu, the capital. “I am Brahmin, but I understand that the ethnic minorities must have some rights now. They have been historically oppressed and enslaved. That’s why they are angry.”

Others say the idea of dividing states along ethnic lines is unworkable given that different groups migrated to different areas — notably Nepal’s southern Terai region — at different times bearing different claims.

“I don’t know how you set boundaries in a population that’s so mixed up,” said Smruti Pattanaik, a research fellow at New Delhi’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a think tank. “But the issue has become intense. Every group feels this is their last chance.”

Though a November election could help break the impasse and lead to a consensus on the thorny federalism issue, it’s more likely the stalemate will drag on, analysts said. They note the deep-seated divisions between low and high caste communities, ethnic groups, poor farmers and wealthy Katmandu residents, and Maoists and those sympathetic to the former monarchy.

“On principal, a fresh election is a good thing,” said Hari Phuyal, a Katmandu-based lawyer and host of a public affairs TV program. “But the reality could be very ugly.”

Most hurt by the political muddle — and among the most disenchanted — are Nepal’s poorest citizens, as local government slows to a crawl, economic development is delayed, and disputes are settled by political thugs rather than courts.

“What will this constitution do for me?” asked a farmer from Nepal’s mid-western Bardiya district who asked not to be identified. “Will it dig my fields? Will it cook my rice?”

Though Bhattarai’s ruling Maoist party has gotten much of the blame for the latest crisis — for, among other things, failing to consult with other parties before calling the elections and for dissolving the Constituent Assembly charged with writing the constitution — there’s more than enough blame to go around, some say.

“All the major parties are at fault,” said S. Chandrasekharan, New Delhi-based director of the South Asia Analysis Group. “It’s been a total failure.”

That said, there are modest signs of progress on Nepal’s winding road to democracy. Former Maoist guerrillas have been largely disarmed and integrated into the armed forces, another hugely contentious issue. And weeks of protests, strikes and violence surrounding the ethnicity debate seem to have eased, at least temporarily, said Sarah Levit-Shore, the Atlanta-based Carter Center’s representative in Nepal, although this may be out of collective exhaustion.

Ultimately, however, the same politicians embroiled in endless power struggles could be Nepal’s best hope for resolving the crisis.

“The credibility of the parties is seriously damaged,” said Anagha Neelakantan, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Katmandu, “but they are the ones who have to revive this process. They need to demonstrate commitment and work together, and give people a reason to trust them again.”

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NEPAL: Undocumented residents excluded from state services

Published by IRIN.

KATHMANDU, 17 May 2012 (IRIN) – Some 7 percent of Nepal’s almost 27 million people may lack citizenship documents, excluding them from government-funded services.

“This is the central document of existence in Nepal,” said Hari Phuyal, a human rights lawyer in the capital, Kathmandu. “The denial of a citizenship certificate means the denial of access to the state, which means these people are stateless.”

Not having citizenship documents means being blocked from government jobs and pensions, driver’s licenses and passports, as well as government-run programmes like secondary school exams and health services. Bank accounts, land inheritance and the right to vote are also out of reach.

People in communities far from district administration offices, where citizenship certificates are processed, often do not understand the importance of obtaining these documents. Even when they do, they may lack the identification required to apply for a birth certificate, which starts the process.

Cases involving Dalits – members of the so-called “untouchable” caste – number in the tens of thousands, said Hast Bahadur Sunar, the National Citizenship Project Coordinator at the Dalit NGO Federation in Nepal.

“When I went to apply for my citizenship at age 16, I was told I need to register my caste as my surname or I could not have one [citizenship certificate],” Prakash Bishnu Karma,* 23, a farmer in the Far West Region of Nepal, told IRIN.

He declined because he did not want to face caste-based discrimination every time he produced his identity card. “My caste is not my name, but it is the name my father and his father were forced to register with the government when they were young,” said Bishnu Karma, referring to a historical state practice.

“In the past eight months alone, we have identified over 14,000 people who lack citizenship certificates,” said Sunar. The reasons include not owning land – and therefore not having proof of residency – absent fathers, and name-based discrimination.

Gender barriers

Nepal’s Citizenship Act of 2006 allows children to inherit their parents’ citizenship, but in practice mothers cannot pass on citizenship unless they can prove their husband has died or abandoned them, both of which expose them to social stigma.

Many Dalits in rural areas are extremely poor and the men often migrate for work. “Without a father, people can’t register as a citizen,” said Sunar.

“This blatantly discriminates against women,” said Sabin Shrestha, executive director of the local NGO Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD). “This is particularly harmful at this point in Nepal’s history, when men have died or disappeared in Nepal’s recent conflict, or migrated to support their families and not returned.”

decade of civil war between former Maoist fighters and the government, which killed more than 14,000 people and displaced another 200,000, ended in 2006 with a peace deal that is still being implemented.

FWLD knows of 127 women thus far who have gained citizenship for their children, including some who were willing to list the fathers as “unidentified”, which “invites a lifetime of stigma for mother and child”, Shrestha said.

Call for inclusivity

After six years of political deadlock, the recently announced unity government faces a constitution-drafting deadline of 27 May. Activists hope the long-awaited constitution will boost rights guaranteed in existing laws. If not, the problems related to obtaining citizenship documents to confirm what is usually regarded as a birthright could multiply.

“We have people without access to citizenship now who will marry other people without citizenship, and give birth to children who have no chance at getting a citizenship certificate,” Shrestha pointed out.

A recent meeting of the country’s four largest political parties agreed on a new federal structure with 11 provinces. Lack of an inclusive citizenship policy may presage political instability, said human rights lawyer Phuyal. “[Nepal is] about to institute a new federal structure. [The government] is redrawing lines and re-assigning people to new districts or provinces. You can expect difficulties when millions of these people have no state identity to begin with.”

*not his real name

Squatter settlement evictions begin today in Kathmandu

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Patient Courage: A Leader for Nepal’s LGBTI Students

Published in Wave Magazine.



Standing in the courtyard at RR Campus in Kathmandu, Roshan Mahato looks relaxed and proud. This, just 7 years ago was the spot where he was teased and harassed so badly by his peers that he transferred to another college. Today, the president of Nepal’s LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) Student Forum, Mahato is a familiar face on campuses around the country. The change, he says, took time and patience – with others and with himself.

Born in a small village in Chitwan, Mahato recognised from an early age that he felt different from most of his peers. These feelings, he describes, “made me want to leave the small village, and made me willing to do it at any cost.”

During high school, he moved to Kathmandu and worked at a hotel cleaning toilets. In 2007, he saw photos of Blue Diamond Society’s Gai Jatra LGBTI pride parade on Durbar Marg. “I was afraid, but so curious. I didn’t have a vocabulary for how I felt. I thought maybe this was it – that these people felt the same way.” Months later, he joined a casual discussion group at BDS. This, he says, is where he started surprising himself.

During that meeting, the BDS staff member asked if anyone wanted to share a personal experience or story. The room sat silent for several minutes, and then Mahato spoke up.

“I talked about feeling different. I talked about being interested in other boys and I explained the frustration of not having the words to describe all of these,” he recalls. Unsurprisingly, the group reacted by supporting him. “This felt very strange but very good,” Mahato explains, “I’d had this conversation, told this story so many times in private, with other friends who are gay, but the reaction from them was never positive. It always spun off into fear.”

After he moved to Kathmandu, Mahato made plenty of gay male friends. They would meet online and chat on anonymous forums, or in discreet tea shops in the city. But their conversations were almost always punctuated by two points; no one can know about this, and marriage to a woman was certainly in the future.

Three months after he came out to the small group at BDS, Mahato surprised himself again. At a public event about LGBTI rights held at Kathmandu’s World Trade Centre building, Sunil Babu Pant approached Mahato before a session on the experience of gay men in Nepal. “He asked if I wanted to participate, if I wanted to speak up,” says Mahato. “I said yes but was terrified throughout my entire speech. The magic moment occurred when everyone clapped for me.”

Pant founded Blue Diamond Society in 2001. The organisation now has CBO affiliates in nearly 40 districts and has made contact with over 400,000 people across the country who identify as sexual and gender minorities, or LGBTI. It’s courage like Mahato’s, Pant believes, that has made such growth possible.

“In the beginning of BDS, we struggled to retain members,” Pant explains. “Whenever new people came to meetings, the others would literally hide in the closets and only come out with their faces covered.”

Mahato’s public coming out as a BDS volunteer and young gay man gave Pant confidence that the younger generation of LGBTI people would be bold and help the rights movement by living their lives openly. Almost immediately, Mahato felt the effects.

“I got phone calls and text messages for the next three days,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, I had dozens of new gay friends. They all wanted to meet me and ask me questions. But mostly, they wanted to know how I told my family.” Soon, Mahato was casually counseling gay men in Kathmandu on everything from sexual health to coming out to friends and how to respond when families insist they get married.

Along with this private attention, Mahato slowly became a target for media attention and, with that, the leadership of student organisations at Tribhuvan University, where he was enrolled in sociology program. A newspaper article about “the gay student at TU” outed him to his brother, who is a police officer in the Tarai.

“He reacted really positively,” says Mahato. “His first action was to call me and tell me he was proud of me being brave and open, and his second action was to call Sunil and thank him for making Nepali society safer for his brother.”

Mahato’s other brother, a school teacher in Chitwan, was just as supportive. Nonetheless, he says he continued to get phone calls from his mother asking him why he wasn’t married yet.

“It’s difficult to explain to her,” he says. “She’s illiterate, she hasn’t travelled much, she’s just worried about my life not falling into the pattern she thinks it should.”

Mahato fends off such questions by saying he’s too busy with school and work, that he’ll get married when he finds the right person and that he doesn’t need anyone’s help. “I will, I think, get married,” he says smiling, “because I think same-sex marriage law will come in my lifetime, and I’ll find the right guy.”

Mahato is now a popular public figure in Nepal’s LGBTI rights movement. He’s represented the organization at conferences in New Zealand and the United States, and is the founding president of the Student Forum, which now boasts nearly 200 members. But these successes are balanced with the reality of daily life for gay men in Kathmandu.

“Most of my gay male friends are not open about it,” he says with a sigh. “It can be confusing for me. Sometimes I’m really frustrated with them when they complain about not enough gays being out but sometimes I’m completely compassionate because I know the pressures they face to get married to women, start families, and live a conventional Nepali lifestyle.”

Pant believes it’s this kind of courage that will bolster the LGBTI rights movement in the future. “Rallies and protests are important,” he says, “but the bravery of individuals like Roshan has enormous impact as well. People should follow his lead.”

And people are. “Roshan’s leadership among students made it clear that helping LGBTI students feel welcome and safe needed to be a priority for us,” says Shailendra Sharma Gaudel, president of Nepal Student Union for RR Campus. Three months ago, Gaudel’s student union successfully lobbied the college administration to allow third gender students to use the gender-neutral staff toilet.

“When people say there are not enough openly-gay leaders in Nepal today,” explains Mahato, “I’m not sure how to respond.”

Patience has to match courage, he believes: “I understand the fear.” Now 28 and working on his Master’s thesis, Mahato says the phone calls from his mother about marriage arrangements have stopped. His message to others: “It might feel like you’re alone or your family is particularly conservative. But that’s why we have support groups – formal and informal – around the country. Join us.”