26 April, 2004

Behind The Smoke Screen: Human Rights in Nepal


Cover Story

BEHIND THE SMOKE SCREEN

Despite Nepal’s stiff resistance, the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva last week issued a binding statement, asking Nepal to accept international monitoring of its human rights situation. But the bigger question is whether Nepal is keen about improving its poor human rights record

BY SUSHMA JOSHI Nation Weekly, April 26, 2004

Dinesh Prasain has a gap in his teeth when he smiles. The co-ordinator for the Col-lective Campaign for Peace says he didn’t always have a missing tooth. On December 14, four men in plainclothes came and knocked on his door. “I will open the door if you show me your ID,” said Prasain, who had re-cently received death threats after writing an ar-ticle that questioned the integrity of NGOs.
The men broke down his door and started to beat him up. They asked him four questions. “Why didn’t you open the door?” “Why are you looking at us in the eye?” “Do you know Bharat Prasain?” And finally: “Where is he?”

Dinesh says Bharat Prasain, a well-known Maoist, comes from Mugitar, the same village as him in Rammechap. The social service worker, who graduated from Budhanilkantha School in 1989, says everybody in Prasain-gaon (Prasain Village) knows Bharat. But like the well-known CPN (Maoist) leader Baburam Bhattarai, nobody would know his whereabouts.


They beat him for half an hour in front of his father, who had just had a stomach operation. Then the men, who addressed each other as “Captain” and “Major,” apologized to Prasain, put his gold chain back on his neck, and shook hands with him before they left.

This kind of arbitrary violation of human rights is what made the Swiss government, half a world away, lobby intensively for a resolution that would compel the Nepal government to accept assistance through the United Nations to monitor human rights inside the country. At the 60th session of the Commission on Human Rights, the Chair from Australia made a statement on April 22 binding Nepal to accept assistance in monitoring.

“Thanks to the efforts of like-minded donors, including UK and
Canada and the determination of Switzerland,” says Marcel von Arx, advisor on conflict and governance at Kathmandu-based SDC, Swiss Agency for Co-operation and Development, “the resolution has been adopted by consensus.”

He’s not the only person who’s relieved. Nepalis living under an increasingly repressive regime, as well as well-wishers and friends of Nepal, welcome the resolution. But the question remains: will the government follow up on it pledge?

“The government has already signed around 16 international conventions on human rights,” says Prasain. “How will they monitor this new commitment?” Prasain, who was unable to press any charges against the men who beat him up because he had no evidence, is painfully aware of the loopholes in implementing human rights law.

The beating that ended with a broken tooth and a handshake is symbolic of the inconsistency that dogs the government’s stance on human rights. These moves confuse not just international observers, but also Nepal’s own bureaucrats, making the process of implementing and monitoring an uphill task.

A 25-point paper that showed commitment to human rights, hastily prepared by the government to forestall the Swiss-sponsored resolution, was a predictable case of double-speak, none more apparent than in the way it was presented.

Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, reading aloud from the paper on March 26, said that no arrests would take place at night. A day later, Home Minister Kamal Thapa went on record to say that the night arrests would continue. Tellingly, no implementing or monitoring mechanisms were included in the paper. Sushil Pyakurel of the National Human Rights Commission points out that almost a month after the paper was presented, the government has made no move to account for the whereabouts of 1,200 detainees.

The government has dealt with the dilemma of keeping its image clean in the international community by changing its spin according to the occasion. It instituted human rights cells in the Police and Army, but the cells have done only nominal work. It tried to replace the NHRC with its Human Rights Promotion Center, which diverted funds from the under-funded NHRC but has done little else.

The security forces, the main targets of large-scale Maoist attacks, are on the defensive. The Maoists recruit women, children and old people in their armed militias, making the security forces’ job difficult and dangerous. Detention facilities are in short supply, and legal proceedings rarely take place. Security forces cite logistics—the lack of detention facilities, for instance—as one reason for acts of impunity against Maoist suspects. The other is the lack of any legal or disciplinary proceedings.

Acts of impunity from the security forces have gone unchecked, with only token punishment for low ranking officers receiving high-profile media attention. Until January 2004, the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) Human Rights Cell investigated 18 cases. Only eight were human rights related. Court martial was recommended for four cases. The disciplinary action taken was in no way commensurate with the crimes committed, according to Amnesty International.

The government, which blames the insurgency for its failure to follow human rights norms, lobbied intensively to forestall the Swiss resolution in Geneva. It got help from the Americans, who put their weight behind them to scuttle the proposed resolution. “The U.S. delegate didn’t meet with us, even though delegates usually meet with NGOs,” says Mandira Sharma, a human rights activist with the Advocacy Forum. “We found out through other sources that they were planning to block the resolution. They said no documents
should come out, not even the chair’s statement.”

Since March, Foreign Minister Dr. Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, a career diplomat with decades of experience in shaping international public opinion, was dispatched by the government on a damage-control mission. In Geneva, as well as in meetings with various foreign ministers of European countries, Minister Thapa actively defended the Nepali state’s human rights record and blamed the Maoists for the continued violence.

Minister Thapa’s public relations tour came a few days too late, however—the Guardian newspaper had already termed Nepal one of the most repressive regimes in the world, along with Iraq and Israel. Amnesty International also brought out a report stating that Nepal topped the list of countries with the highest numbers of “disappearances.”

The Swiss-sponsored resolution may have passed in Geneva, but the challenge of implementation and monitoring remains. Donors, especially from European countries, have become savvy to the government’s obfuscation. “The government has said one thing and done another for far too long,” said one diplomatic source.

Others are more positive about the outcome. “What matters now is the follow-up. If we can achieve nationwide monitoring of human rights situation in line with international standards, carried out by reasonably independent body, such as the National Human Rights Commission, with the technical, financial, and staff terms of the UN system, I would be happy,” says Marcel de Arox of SDC.

Geneva is over, but a battle as significant is coming up in the National Development Forum (NDF) slated for the first week of May, when individual donors decide how much funding to allocate to Nepal.

“We are extremely concerned about the deteriorating situation of human rights in Nepal,” says Gert Meinecke, chargĂ© d’ affaires of the Danish Embassy. The Danes are one of Nepal’s largest bilateral donors. “In the long run, we cannot co-operate with a state which does not follow international norms of human rights.”

A laboratory Known As Everest

A LABORATORY KNOWN AS EVEREST

BY SUSHMA JOSHI Nation Weekly, April 26, 2004

Scientists from all over the world come to Nepal to conduct experiments which have long-term conse- quences for humanity. Few of us hear about them. One
such experiment is being conducted by three young women on Everest this summer. Angie Morey, 25, Mara Larson, 24, Lara Vowles, 22 are returning to Nepal for two months to follow up on research which will shed light on issues as diverse as Parkinson’s disease, ways in which to lessen air traffic accidents, and the mission to Mars.

Why do this research on Everest, you may ask? Everest is probably the only place in the world where people voluntarily put themselves in a temporary situation where their brain is deprived of oxygen. Cutting off the supply of oxygen to the brain can lead to brain damage, which is what happens during strokes. It would be ethically wrong to put subjects through oxygen deprivation in a laboratory to see what can happen to their brains under such conditions. Testing climbers on Everest to see what happens to people’s brains when they are deprived of oxygen provides a perfect way out of this ethical dilemma.

People with brain damage have one clear sign of it—slurred or damaged speech. At the core of the three girls’ research lies human language. The sounds that we utter everyday, along with the complex languages that weave our thoughts into ideas, are unique to human beings. No other animal has the power of speech.

Why can human beings speak and apes, our closest genetic neighbors, cannot?
This question has brought forth multiple and contradictory answers. Debates rage in academic institutions in the West about the exact origins of speech. At the heart of this debate is Philip Lieberman, a professor of Cognitive Science at Brown University. Professor Lieberman has been studying the origins of speech since the 1980s.

Professor Lieberman’s scientific curiosity about speech led him to his current research, where he looks at how damage to parts of the brain, including the subcortical basal ganglia, may be remotely monitored by analyzing the sounds of speech. In other words, he is interested in finding out how slurred speech could be the first red flag of brain damage. The National Space Biomedical Research Institute, which funds this project, will apply the findings of the research on oxygen starved brain-behavior to the 2020 mission to Mars.

Lieberman is Angie and Mara’s teacher, and he met Lara, a tour guide who leads treks in Wyoming, on a trip he made with his wife. That’s how the three girls found themselves thrown together in a common project, and now at Everest base-camp.

A team of well-known mountaineers, including Hector Ponce De Leon from Mexico and Andrew Maluish from Australia, who are trying their luck at scaling the world’s tallest mountain, have agreed to participate in the brain study for the sake of science. Discovery Channel is following them with a camera all the way up to the top, creating a cinema verite series on what it feels like to climb Everest. Six minutes of this documentary will be dedicated to the research.

“It was exciting to come and visit a place we had only seen in the map,” says Angie Morey. Last year, the research team recruited various climbing teams attempting to scale Everest to take their tests. Palm Pilots, loaded with a number of tests used by American researchers to test cognition and memory, were handed to the climbers. They were then asked to play games on the Palms at various points during their climb. Games tested the climbers’ memory and retrieval at base camp, and during various points on their climb.

The sentence comprehension tests were designed to look at changes in sequencing of thought and thought shifting. “Most people were pretty accommodating,” says Angie. There were a number of initial problems. For one, the screens of the Palm Pilots froze in the extreme cold.

This time around the researchers have brought new and improved versions of the gadgets, which will hopefully eliminate that problem. Some of the tests were much too long, and these have been shortened. Earlier, the climbers also had to divert from their trails to find optimal places to transmit their data, not the most ideal condition when you are halfway up Everest. Now they can do it from inside their sleeping bags.

The research findings too proved inconclusive, so this year the researchers are back with improved versions of the cognition tests. Further, Angie has also designed her own tests to see how our brain remembers, and also how it retrieves items previously stored in our memory.

The three women, who each bring their own strengths to the table, formed a close bond over the two months they spent in base camp last summer. Although there were some stressful times, they also had fun, says Angie. “There is a lot of downtime while climbers go up and down the mountains, so everybody has to hang out. We would watch movies in people’s tents,” she says.

The women were also recruited to become informal base camp managers after one of the teams fired their manager, and they became adept at downloading $200 weather reports from the Internet and passing it on to the climbers. They also set up a hot lemonade stand to welcome the climbers back, which made them instantly popular with the climbing crowd.

The young researchers are not averse to combining research with adventure. Mara and Angie ended up running a marathon organized for the fiftieth anniversary of the ascent of Everest. “There were about 30 Nepalis, and us,” says Mara. “We were the only Westerners, and the only women.” The marathon, which Angie completed in six hours and 48 minutes, started at base camp and went down to Namche, and then back. “I was a bit surprised,” says Angie smiling. “I was expecting my legs to hurt, but only my feet did.” Not only did the girls take part in the marathon, but this year they have official permission to climb a smaller mountain, Lobuche East, which compared to Everest is only a mere 20,000 feet high.

Scientific research of this type is done in increments, with people building upon each other’s work. Similarly, scientific funds also go a long way, with money ostensibly meant for some abstract cause rebounding for mass benefit. The Internet started out as a communications net for the U.S. military, and has now become a worldwide fixture. In a few years from now, the research on Everest may not just save an astronaut from flying his craft into the side of an asteroid. It might also provide the information to build a devise that warns a man that his slurred speech is a red flag of an impending stroke, and help devise a prevention mechanism for Parkinson’s disease.

On the Road with the Red God


Art & Society
On The Road With The Red God
Kesang Tseten’s new film captures both the Rato Machhindranath festival and the preprations accompanying the grand event in a blow-by-blow rendition

BY SUSHMA JOSHI
Nation Weekly, August 26, 2004

The sight of a priest proudly display- ing a tiny vest at the Rato Machhindranath festival has been etched into our national consciousness. “On the road with the Red God: Machhindranath” is a film recently made by Kesang Tseten. Tseten takes 110 hours of footage of various acts of human ingenuity and devotion to what seems like a lost cause—namely, the construction of an unwieldy 100 foot chariot that gets tangled up in the electric wires of Patan and tilts drunkenly as it is dragged and pushed and pulled by enthusiasts across flood-washed roads every 12 years, and where men get roaring drunk and get into fights all the way from Bungmati to Patan, and then repeat the process all the way back.

Behind the vest rests a red god, known as the Rato Machhindranath. This is the divinity worthy of all that work—painters, artisans, rope-makers and carpenters donate days of working hours to build him that sky-high vehicle. Thought to be a manifestation of Avalokiteswor, the Buddha of Compassion by some, and Shiva by others, the Rato Machhindranath enjoy a popular following. While we have all seen this god in one form or another—postcard, photograph, television appearance—what is not clear to most Valley residents is why this god in general, and his festival in particular, took on such national significance.

Tseten’s film, by carefully documenting the entire process from the beginning, brings us a rare behind-the-scene glimpse of a production involving uncountable actors and decision-makers, from the guthis of Bungmati and Patan to the hundreds of people who materialize to drag the chariot back and forth between the two cities.

The festival can appear, on first sight, to be a classic excuse to get drunk and get into a good fight. Buff young men fight each other to get on the prow-shaped steering brake. The ousted men are unceremoniously pulled off. Acrimonious exchanges involving everything from the division of meat to the dogs to assigning blame for the tilting of the chariot is apparent. Scenes of conflict abound, and after a while you begin to wonder how people even manage to get that goddamn chariot upright, let alone drag it all the way from Bungmati to Patan.

If the chariot falls down and touches the ground, bad things happen. Kings can die, royal families can get massacred, and the guthi people can mysteriously get sick and die in mass numbers. The chariot has to be rebuilt anew in the event of such a calamity. So there rests a level of national responsibility amongst all the people involved in the venture. Some measure of co-operation amongst all the different people—from the men who run alongside and swiftly put a piece of wood in between the wooden wheels to brake the momentum, to the men perched on top who give the navigational directions, to the buff young men doing the steering, to the hundreds of volunteers who pull the ropes—has to exist. And don’t forget the women who brew all that potent alcohol.

After a while, the seeming chaos and loose organization take on a logic of their own. In spite of the overt conflict, which gets hashed out at every level, it’s apparent that the co-operative nature of Newari society remains the core spirit that guides the enterprise. While it started out as a local Newari festival, the discourse on the streets makes it clear that all Nepalis think of the festival as their own. When the chariot finally makes it into Jawalakhel, the level of mass participation and work involved in the process comes to fruition. When the priest takes out that tiny vest and displays it so proudly to the country, he is not just taking out a medieval garment—he is also taking out the symbol of a process in which, in spite of the conflict that exists at every level of society, the spirit of co-operation has again triumphed over small differences and created a structure in which such a mind-bogglingly complicated event could take place.

In both a literal and a symbolic level, the festival is an analogy of any large structure, i.e., our nation-state. Conflict exists at all levels in every organization. The trick is to find a way to resolve it without major calamity. Tseten, by actively editing footage to show the reality of conflict and its day-to-day resolution, follows more than a chariot. He is following the god behind that vest—the god of compassion that can allow a society made up of diverse and heterogeneous groups of people to come together and work on a national project without getting crushed.


(Writers note: This review was written after watching the first or second edit of "Red God". The documentary was then edited several times since then, and has taken a completely new form. Apologies if it misleads the reader and documentary watcher--but as with all works of art, I think its interesting to see all steps of the creation.)

05 April, 2004

THE TEACHERS STRIKE BACK

Sushma Joshi

One hundred and fifty-five teachers have died at the hands of Maoists and Royal Nepal Army since the conflict began, a recent estimate by the Nepal Teachers Association states. Ganesh Chiluwal, head of the Maoist Victims’ Association, recently killed by Maoists in retaliation for his activism against their violence, reported 250 deaths of teachers. The numbers are probably much higher, according to observers.
On February 23, Maoist rebels abducted 44 teachers from Triveni Secondary School in Kailali district, according to the Rajdhani Dainik. The teachers were from 11 different schools, and were attending a training conducted by the District Education Office. “No one knows where the teachers are now…,” a resident said. The District Police Office has denied knowledge of the incident. Bir Bahadur Rana, District Superintendent of Police, said as late as Monday evening, “We do not know anything about the incident yet.”
The abductions may have been done to retaliate against the agreement the teachers signed with the Ministry of Education (MoE) on the same day. Five teachers’ organizations stopped their 11 month long agitation after signing a 12 point agreement with the Ministry of Education and Sports in which the government agreed to provide compensation to teachers who have been victimized, injured or killed due to the insurgency.
Teachers nationwide were on strike for 11 months, threatening not to take part in the SLC examinations if their demands were not taken into account. Security was their second-most urgent demand. All violence, murders, abductions, arrests and disappearances of teachers must cease immediately, the second point of their list of demands stated.
Bishnuprasad Adhikari, chairman of the Nepal Teachers Association from the central region, says: “The government compensates for accidental death, but not for murder. This is ridiculous. We ask that families of teachers who have been killed get compensated the same as other national workers. A tenured teacher gets insurance, plus health benefits and money for educating up to two children. These benefits should continue for the families of teachers killed in the conflict.”
The families of teachers murdered inside their homes have a difficult time certifying that their relatives were killed in the conflict. Police are often unavailable to record these deaths.
“Teachers like us need a visa to go from one village to another,” says Gehendra Raj Bista, a former headmaster of Bhawani Higher Secondary School, Paluntar, Gorkha. Mr. Bista, who taught math and science for thirty years, has dark shadows under his eyes, and looks on edge as he talks. “The Maoists came in and asked me to give fifty percent of my teachers’ salary to them. I might be able to give them fifty percent of my salary, but the entire staff’s would be around fifty thousand. So I left the village.”
Mr. Bista, who lives in the Terai now, says his brother, who was a VDC chairman, was also killed, along with a science teacher, in retaliation for three Maoists killed by the Army in the same village. The headmaster was injured in the same attack, but escaped with light wounds.
Why are teachers, public servants who usually command the highest respect, getting targeted by both sides? As the most literate and intellectual members of a village, they are suspected of being spies by Maoists, and of sympathizing with the Maoists by the Army. Schools, the location where knowledge and ideology are transmitted, often become the battleground.
Maoists recently abducted an entire schoolful of students and teachers to attend their program in Rolpa. Maoists also ask that the schools be run according to their own schedules and curricula, overriding government ones. They also ask for donations, taxes and levies, all of which can often add up to 60% of the teachers’ modest salaries. Teachers, caught in areas where there is no government presence, are forced to follow the Maoist guidelines, leaving them vulnerable to action by security forces.
Many teachers, forced out of their villages, have become internal refugees working in the capital or district centers. According to the NTA, there are 45 such teachers in Kathmandu. That number, again, is probably much higher than recorded.
Surprisingly, security was only the second-most urgent demand on the teachers’ list. The first asked that teachers working on a temporary contract for the last four years be hired as permanent teachers.
There are 28,000 teachers on a temporary contract in Nepal. Their appointment, renewed every six months, entitles them to a lower salary than the permanent hires, and none of the benefits. The process to get hired permanently requires passing an exam given by the Sichak Seva Aayog. The last exam for this purpose was held 8 years ago in 2052. The results were only announced this year.
Why are so many teachers being kept on a temporary contract? Some of it has to do with teaching qualifications. A man with a B.Sc degree is now asked to get certified. “If this continues, there will be a crisis in science teaching,” warns Bista, who says the unnecessarily beaureacratic procedure of asking teachers for teaching certificates hampers the recruitment of qualified people. Teachers who are retiring are finding out they might not get their hard-earned pensions because they are missing this certification.
Kesav Prasad Bhattarai, chairman of the Nepal Teachers Association, disagrees. “All teachers should be trained in the methodology of teaching.”
The government has also asked teachers’ to stop their political activities within the school. “Why can’t teachers have a political party for whom they vote for? That’s their right,” argues Bhattarai. There’s another side to this story, however. Teaching has come to known as a training ground for future politicians. “In Tanahun, people say that teaching for a year is the best way to get into politics. Teachers will get the support of all their students, and will be sure to win an election,” says a source. Prominent leaders like Ram Chandra Poudel and Govinda Raj Joshi all started out as teachers.
Politics rears its head again in the debate about handing schools over to communities. Even the teachers themselves admit that handing over schools to communities, as a possibility being considered by the government, would be a disaster. Schools would get taken over by the political faction currently in power, turning schools into mini-political battlefields where teachers would get hired and fired at the will of the ruling party. “If the Congress are in a majority, the Communists would not participate,” Adhikari says.
“Schools are a national responsibility,” says Gehendra Raj Bista. “Its okay to have community and private schools in Kathmandu, but you can’t have the same in Rukum and Rolpa.”
“The government said: Education for all. It committed to a free education for all till class 8. Now it’s trying to renege on its commitment,” says Bishnuprasad Adhikari. Adhikari is headmaster of Gyanodaya Public School, one of the most well-respected public schools in Kathmandu.
“There’s a lot of weaknesses in our public institutions,” says Bhattarai. “There are weaknesses in teachers, schools and our nation itself. But this does not mean we should let go of them.” Pointing to academic institutions like Pashupati, Shivapuri and Gyanodaya schools, along with the famed engineering campus in Pulchowk, which continue to attract top students, Bhattarai says, “We should strengthen our public institutions, not give up on them.”
The government, rather surprisingly, unconditionally agreed to meet all of the teachers’ demands. Teacher unions and the MoE have agreed to fill 50 percent of vacancies in schools through competition among temporary teachers, and the rest through open competition. This prompt response from the government may have to do with the upcoming SLC exams, which would be postponed indefinitely if the strike were to continue. Whether the government intends to keep fast on its promises remains to be seen. In the meantime, the 44 teachers from Kailali are still unaccounted for. If and when they return, there will not be welcomed with arches but by interrogation from the security forces.