Tibet Archaeology

and all things Tibetan

Flight of the Khyung

October 2007

John Vincent Bellezza

Moving Right Along
I have been going from one major project to the next; that is, from strength to strength. I might as well do as much as I can while the time, energy and inclination is there. Life does not often afford any of us second chances at missed opportunities.

I remained in Nepal until the end of September working on my new book until the very last minute. When I arrived in Kathmandu in late July I thought the formatting of Zhang Zhung would take two or three weeks, not the eight weeks it actually required. My friend, the well-known Tibetan historian Robbie Vitali, warned me that my initial estimate was woefully inadequate and, yes, he proved correct. I have mailed a hard copy of Zhang Zhung and the digital files to Professor Ernst Steinkellner who receives them on behalf of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Hopefully the book will be published by the beginning of the near year. It is now at the print ready stage. I am very much looking forward to this milestone.

At least everything is on track professionally. I have been working on my catalogue of archaeological sites since June as well. This project is generously supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies. Recently, I selected the 1920 photographs of archaeological monuments that will accompany the write-ups of around 400 sites (my photo archive contains nearly 30,000 images of Tibet and the Himalaya). They will now have to be digitally scanned to the stringent requirements of the Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library. I plan to have this job done in New Delhi.

Nepal in Freefall?
My two months in Nepal were a time of much political turmoil. Right now the Terai is embroiled in violent civil conflict. The situation is grave with people dieing on a daily basis. What can be done to stop this great tragedy?

The tropical Terai region (once covered in dense malarial jungles) is where 2/3 of the nation’s population lives and about 2/3 of the total grain output produced. Needless to say, this large southern tier of the country is strategically and economically vital to the well-being of Nepal. Unfortunately successive governments (over many decades) have taken the Terai for granted believing that all roads lead to Kathmandu. They do not. Even the Maoists failed to sufficiently understand the importance of the Terai to their armed struggle. They did not canvass the region intensively enough to build up a dominant popular support base there. Consequently, the reach of their cadres in the Terai is seriously circumscribed. Witness the rise of Madeshi parties. These ethnically-based factions tend to look south for their cultural sustenance rather than north towards the middle hills heartland of Nepal. Their disagreement with the Maoists is complicated and wide reaching and will continue to play itself out unless adequate measures are instituted.

In 1990 so-called multiparty democracy took hold in Nepal. Due largely to incompetence and corruption governance suffered badly and murmurings could soon be heard all over this mountainous land. In 1996 the Maoists began their violent campaign against the government. This ushered in a period of extreme violence (over 15,000 have been killed) that has blighted civic society ever since. As is well known, both sides in the conflict are guilty of egregious human rights abuses. With the Maoists joining the government in 2006 and finally taking up ministerial posts earlier this year, it seemed as though there was a chance for national reconciliation. Now that they have pulled out of the government this looks less likely and once again despair is the writ of the day.

As is always the case in such political uncertainty it is the common man who suffers. Nepal has been in virtual economic limbo these past seven years. The infrastructure is crumbling, development projects are indefinitely put on hold and violent crime has reached alarming proportions. The economy staggers along mainly on the backs of the merchant classes. Individual citizens are taking the initiative keeping commerce alive and most of the population fed. Even the international tourist industry is thriving (visitors are allowed to go about their business and are welcome by all sides). Nevertheless, macroeconomic regulation and planning require a responsive, functioning government and there is not much sign of that. Simply put, long-term growth is not possible in the present context.

The monarchy is largely discredited in the eyes of the Nepalese people, the panchatantra ‘democratic’ parties have proven unable to govern and the Maoists are not well trusted. Nepal is slowly descending into chaos. In order to pull back from the abyss all concerned must first acknowledge the root causes of this huge mess. In 1769 Prithvi Narayan Shah marched into the lush Kathmandu valley founding the modern state of Nepal. The Shahs and Ranas and their cohorts ruled unchallenged until 1990. While they brought stability to Nepal, their regime was exclusivist and aloof. The Tibeto-Burman groups were largely left out of the power equation and their cultures and way of life marginalized. Even the urbane Newars (the indigenes of the Kathmandu valley) felt hard done by the ruling elites, those who practiced another religion and spoke another language. Perhaps with a strong monarchy the situation would have been different. Royal-sponsored modernization and prosperity could have been the antidote to ethnic apartheid. But it was not to be. Nepal entered the late 20th century helter-skelter compounding the old historical injustices. The late King Birendra, an affable and gentle man by all accounts, proved unable to bring his country into the modern era, letting his political apparatus ride roughshod over the people and their legitimate interests. The massacre of most of the royal family in 2001 only added to the sense of gloom and desperation. The current monarch, Gyandra, enjoys only limited support and is outright despised by the Maoists. Increasing numbers of the panchatantra elites even believe it is time to end the monarchy in Nepal and make the transition to a modern republic.

In 1990 there was a real chance for a new era to dawn had the politicians put the interests of Nepal before their egos and bank accounts. Now it is difficult to see how the situation can be stabilized, let alone democracy take root and spread in Nepal. The nation is splintered and the various political factions have little in common on which to base a recovery. Nepal is rudderless in a sea of gigantic neighbors who, frankly, have managed to run their own domestic affairs in a much more efficient manner. Are we then looking at the demise of Nepal as a sovereign state? I think it is still too early to know but this is a real possibility should the political situation continue to deteriorate. One alternative the chattering classes are pondering is the rise of a strongman (savior) who wields power by whatever means is necessary to bring the country back from the brink. This is not a pleasant option to contemplate, nor is there any such figure waiting in the wings who could take the helm and rule by decree.

The only viable option is for the political leaders to rise above their petty personal and party interests and put the country first and foremost, doing whatever is needed to steer clear of annihilation. This means forging economic and political links across the entire spectrum of Nepalese society in a fair and equitable manner. In short, those in charge must work for the repair of the country without even a hint of personal or communal self-interest. They must toil with every ounce of their strength like a man struggling to stay afloat in a roiling sea. Prodigious infusions of goodwill and consensus building by all wielding power could buy the country desperately needed wriggle room. In the long run, however, the grooming of impeccably honest and brilliantly competent individuals who embody Nepal’s ethos of nonviolence is the only hope. I speak of leaders who serve the nation with every heartbeat, breath, and drop of their wealth with unwavering determination, great skill and deep compassion. And they must operate within the confines of a progressive modern state. This is Nepal’s only salvation. You say that this is not very realistic? Then, I say to you, there is not much chance of Nepal surviving in the coming decades. Either the country rises to the monumental challenges facing it, fielding the very best people it has to offer, or it will perish. The Monarchy, Maoists and politicos are indeed facing a stark reality. If their track record is anything to go by the future looks bleak.

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