In Nepal, a typical work week is six days to make up for time that may be lost due to an unexpected bandh. A common form of political protest in South Asia, bandhs are becoming somewhat ordinary in Nepal, often causing major cities like Kathmandu to reach a complete standstill.
During a bandh, no one is expected to open shop, including schools, or drive on main roads. Attempt to break the bandh, and you risk having rocks thrown at your windows, tires burned, and your car set on fire. As a result, streets are nearly deserted except for demonstrations and a small number of people on foot. Main roads, normally filled with the sounds of beeping motorbikes, are almost silent.
I know this, of course, because the Maoists declared one Monday.
Members of the Young Communist League (YCL) and other Maoist organizations ordered an all-day bandh after learning a local Maoist leader had been killed. Rumors circulating Kathmandu suggest that Youth Force, the younger wing of the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) party may be responsible. The police, people are saying, may have helped cover up details.
This came after an uprising Sunday night between Maoist supporters and Nepalese police. While searching for a taxi that night, the AP fellows and I caught a glimpse of police in the street with large shields protecting them. Peering to get a better look, a man on the street told us there was a fight. We later learned it was a riot.
I didn’t hear about the bandh until the next morning, just 15 minutes before I was supposed to have my first day at the South Asia Partnership. Shobha, my contact there, wouldn’t be able to pick me up, so I would be starting on Tuesday.
I wanted to see what was going on. The caretaker of our guesthouse said it was safe to walk, especially for tourists. For some reason, the bandha doesn’t apply to tourists. It only applies to Nepali people, including those on bikes. Yesterday, demonstrators burned the bicycle of a doctor attempting to get to the hospital.
Meera, Jess and I went into the city on foot. There was an eerie quiet on the streets. More people were out than I expected but it wasn’t as lively as I remembered from the day before. I barely recognized Thamel, a popular tourist neighborhood, because it was so deserted. Most of the shops, including hotels, had metal shutters pulled down to protect their windows. It reminded me of parts of DC.
On the way to Thamel, we saw Maoist supporters carrying red hammer and sickle flags. One man carried a large one that he put on display in the center of a major intersection. A woman being transported in a rickshaw was carrying five. In both instances, I wish I had taken a photo, but was nervous since we seemed to be the only tourists out. I wasn’t sure how demonstrators would react, but I later learned that photography is fine. Next time, I’ll have some of my own photos to show you. And since I’ll be here more than two months, there will be a next time.
The current political situation in Nepal is very complicated. I must admit, the more I learn about it, the more confused I am. People that I have spoken with in Kathmandu are frustrated. Every party has promised change but the government is so corrupt that when a new party takes power, nothing happens. Money that could be going towards development programs, they say, is often spent providing a “life of luxury” for its leaders. Children are frequently kidnapped from schools as a political tactic. Strong leadership is lacking and a political career is equated with being a criminal, so few people are willing to step up.
Earlier this year, Maoists threatened a ten-day bandh. This would have been incredibly destructive to Nepal’s economy, particularly for those individuals who rely on a day to day income. Fortunately, it only lasted a day. In times like this, it is hard to see what the future holds for the people of Nepal.
Posted By Isha Mehmood
Posted Jun 17th, 2009