Wednesday, November 15, 2006

History’s Dragon Awakes from a Deep Slumber

History’s Dragon Awakes from a Deep Slumber

The lights of the city begin to fill the darkened sky, while we wrap our minds around a table of ideas, questions and humor. The day passes as we seek lessons from our history and the work that fills our lives. Colleagues have come from Nepal’s five regions to meet amid the green hills of Godavari, a bit south of Kathmandu, where we won’t be disturbed during this weekend conference.

As we drove out this morning from Harihar Bhawan, the decaying 19th century Rana palace where we have our office, we passed buses of young Maoist supporters heading into Kathmandu for their celebrations of the recent peace agreement. They gathered at Ratna Park, posters of their hero, “Prachanda” – the ‘fierce one’ – plastered all over the city.

I wonder, sitting around this emerald table cloth, as the day slips by, a mid-November chill creeping down from the nearby ridges, are we on the cusp of a remarkable historical change in Nepal or merely another false dawn for the aspirations of the struggling people of this transformed ancient land?

Of course, there is much to celebrate w/ the promised end of a ten year conflict that has kept the country in a state of suspended animation for over a decade. The wearisome fear of night-time attacks in district centers and isolated incidents in the cities has waned. The wasteful destruction of the limited infrastructure of the country may be over. The constant pressure among the rural schools to send students to Maoist indoctrinations or close them to protest the handing of local management back to communities may, possibly, at last, be over.

There is cause for hope after the Maoists and Seven Parties signed their peace accords. Yet, equally, there is cause for concern given the politicians past history of failing the Nepali people and, too often, putting personal gain & prestige above realistic compromises and sensitivity to the suffering of others.

Or, is this merely, as is said, either ‘the beginning of the end’ or the ‘end of the beginning’? We wait and watch and seek for the echoes of experience to guide us on the path ahead.

Fortunately, the past is not necessarily a roadmap to the future. We can hope that the current context -- and even the individuals -- have changed enough that they, too, are weary of the anxieties and uncertainties that this internecine conflict has inflicted upon our darkened Himalayan landscape.

Clearly, Nepal had begun the process of shedding a mottled and lengthy skin when I arrived in this once sacred Valley a quarter century ago. The final hoary breaths of a once palatial Gorkha history were drawing to an astonishing close. The creaky door of history was shutting, at last, on a formal, musty, feudal past.

Whatever their crimes, give the Maoists credit for analyzing their country’s fading moment in history and hastening a weakened and discredited system over a fin de 20th siecle mountain cliff. They may have used brutal, revolutionary means in their quest to overturn the forms of a decaying history -- but they understood that with enough pressure (cookers…), they could ensure its eventual self-destruction.

Tonight, we sit around the table discussing the structure of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) at a time when the high tide of the peace process carries the human rights violations of the nation's leaders furtively into the shadowed corners of the room.

Even as the “PEACE IN NEPAL” documents preach the values and aspirations of human rights, the reality is that the desire to find acceptable forms of a manageable peace mean that the painful facts of past human rights abuses -- possibly only temporarily -- are obscured by the hopeful headlines announcing an end to this sad war.

As night settles around us here out on the edge of the Valley, it’s easy to wonder what these national leaders, the men in whom we must place our faith, are thinking. Are they pleased with themselves? Is there a trace of self-righteousness in having come so close, at last, to their political ambitions? Or, perchance, is there equally a sense of loss of so many other's lives, of villagers who have lived in fear for so long or the women who became youthful widows and the children who have missed years of school they will never see again?

Do these large political men reflect like the rest of us? Do they wonder about the impact of their own words and actions over these past ten years? In the quiet of their minds are they able to acknowledge some of their own guilt or responsibility for the lifelong suffering of others?

Or, are these men of history for whom there is no past -- only their idealized future they see on the distant horizon. Having achieved rehabilitation and resurrection among the heights of Kathmandu political culture, are they busy scheming to gain even more power for themselves in the months ahead. Or, is this initial step towards collaboration and compromise a sincere promise of further accommodation and responsibility in the future?

Tonight, do they look out their windows and see the same darkness that I see? It’s quite black outside. Only the fragile, flickering lights of the city below -- like a valley of butter lamps, small ‘battis’ at the feet of the eternal Himalaya. Like the prayers of millions of simple souls who will never have a seat around the peace talks table. People who ‘endure’ -- in Faulkner’s famous phrase. Nepalis who walk to work or sit in crowded micros, who struggle to feed their families and dream of modest successes by which to measure their worlds.

People for whom prayer is still a form of communication.


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