I’ve settled into a comfortable life in Kathmandu. I have all the comforts necessary and more. My daily routine seems safe: work, home, the occasional trip to the store. But every now and then, I am jolted with the realization that this country is a ticking time bomb.
On my typical walk home from work yesterday, I went up the hill towards New Baneshwor – a busy market area with stores and restaurants lining one side, and the massive Binendra International Convention Center on the other. I’ve become accustomed to walking along the sidewalk next to the convention center that is guarded by army personnel carrying rifles and batons. There seemed to be a few more uniforms than usual, and the reason became apparent rather quickly. A group of 30 or so protesters walked up the busy street, dodging busses and motorbikes coming the opposite way. They were holding signs I couldn’t read, but there was one sign that had a picture of a man adhered to it. Considering the size of the group, I didn’t think much to stop and ask about it.
As I continued home on the main road, I noticed that there were fewer and fewer cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks (three-wheeled public transportation vehicles), and buses on the road as I walked. As the vehicles became fewer, they were replaced by mobs of people walking the opposite way as me, mostly young men roughly between 17-22 years of age. Soon enough, the four lane road was completely empty of vehicles, and only groups of yelling men remained. I couldn’t understand what they were yelling about, but the mob didn’t seem particularly organized. I saw a few yelling and chasing a motorbike that had mistakenly entered the road. Scanning the faces of the passengers, they didn’t seem scared, despite the situation.
I was a little concerned about the fact that there were groups of young men yelling things I didn’t understand all around me. The commuters on their way home that were sharing the same sidewalk as me didn’t seem particularly nervous. I took their lead. But as I continued to walk, I saw a few meters ahead a bus that was stopped in an awkward position in the road. As I got closer, I saw that all the windows had been smashed, and the body of the bus beaten. Just as I got next to the bus, a group of army in full riot gear walked past me. They were following the mob that had just come by. I saw them staring at the broken bus, and I wondered what they were thinking. Were they gripping their weapons a little tighter?
I had read in the newspaper that morning that there was going to be a transit strike, and I assumed that this was the reason for the men, the yelling, and the broken bus. But I couldn’t handle not getting confirmation and more information any longer. I tried to look for a less menacing face in the crowd. The army guys were out of the question. Finally, I asked in my broken Nepali, “Ke bhoyo? (What happened?)” to the next man who walked by me. I was lucky. He was a university student studying English. He explained that this was the transit strike, and there had been a man that was killed today in another non-related protest to this one. This explained the smaller protest in New Baneshwor. All these forces collided at 6pm Wednesday evening to complicate the already chaotic Kathmandu rush hour.
Further up the street, there were fewer mobs, but the road was blocked by three busses stopped strategically to prevent the traffic flow. But along the sides of the road, life was continuing on as usual. Venders had their goods laid out on the ground. People were standing around and chatting. These contradictions were confusing.
The transit protest ended today, as the Bagmati Zone Transport Entrepreneurs Coordination Council (try to say that three times fast) called off the strike. However, another protest has emerged to replace the transit workers today. Pro-Hindus against the secularization of Nepal started to block streets and burn tires in the road this morning.
Because of the civil movement that brought down the king, protests have become easier to organize. Police and the army merely observe (with weapons, of course), and the prohibitions against gathering in certain areas have been dropped. COCAP has certainly benefited from this, and has used it to the advantage of their cause. (But they certainly don’t destroy property or threaten people who happen to pass by.) However, with all the competing voices across Nepal, the political issues it is currently facing, and the tensions caused by poverty and lack of opportunities, this new freedom has created in some ways more instability in Nepal. I am left to wonder if these protests are a replacement for talks and diplomacy. The problems many of these protests create disturb the daily lives of ordinary Nepalese trying to get to school, work, or home. But until peace and democracy is fully established, is this the price Nepal will have to pay?
Posted By Lori Tornoe Mizuno (Nepal)
Posted Aug 3rd, 2006