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Reality of democracy exposed in Nepal's coup

April 1, 2005

Dear Family and Friends,

King Gyanendra's decision to dismiss the government and suspend people's rights on Feb. 1 has transformed Nepal overnight from a constitutional to an absolute monarchy and has turned the country's 1990 constitution into a meaningless document, negating years of struggle by the Nepalese people to form a multiparty democracy. While Gyanendra deserves all of the condemnation he has received since his Feb. 1 coup by human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and others in the country as well as the international community, Nepal's political parties must also share the blame for their own demise and that of democracy and human rights in the country; for during the 15 years in which various political parties held the reins of government, they failed to meaningfully respond to the needs of the people as Nepal remains one of the poorest nations in Asia. Instead, Nepal's politicians over this 15-year period sought to use their political position to enrich themselves.

Sadly, this scenario is familiar in many countries in Asia. Candidates often view the electoral process as merely an investment as they seek to attain a seat in the country's legislature, and hopefully later a cabinet position, from which they can inflate their bank accounts and recoup their financial investment that has been spent to bribe voters and fund a small army of thugs to intimidate their opponents. In these types of "democracies" prevalent in Asia, self-interest is much more powerful than public interest; public service becomes private service. In fact, Nepal's king used corruption to partly justify his coup, and the Maoists, whose defeat the king used as another explanation for his grab for power, have built their movement on the backs of people's poverty that was not effectively addressed under multiparty democracy. Consequently, the notion that legislators, prime ministers and presidents represent the interests of the majority of their people, most of whom are poor in the region, is confined to a theory of democracy but not the reality of democracy as it is widely practiced in Asia.

Nepal's multiparty democracy, however, was not the only loser on Feb. 1 but also people's rights as the king abrogated everyone's constitutional rights to freedom of expression and assembly and the media's freedom of the press. These rights, of course, must be immediately restored to restrain the nation from plunging into an orgy of violence. Otherwise, valid concerns that innocent people will be killed and injured in the crossfire between government security forces and the Maoists will materialize into reality. The abolition of these rights creates the conditions for a reign of lawlessness to establish itself and with it a descent into violence and anarchy. Violence though will only declare a "winner" temporarily after the loss of much life. In the end, the issues that spawned the violence, that engendered the Maoist insurgency, such as poverty, still need to be resolved through discussion and the political will to bring about change. The present denial of people's rights though prevent this exchange of ideas from taking place and instead lift up violence as the only option. The false ideology that "might makes right" only leaves many people dead - more than 11,000 individuals at the present time since the civil war with the Maoists began in 1996.

In theory, democracy and human rights mutually reinforce each other with democracy offering a political system with checks and balances and an independent judiciary for the latter to be realized and a respect for human rights providing the political space for the former to be fully exercised. Thus, as Nepal's political parties rightly clamor for the restoration of people's rights and attempt to organize protests for the reinstatement of the constitution and multiparty democracy, it would be wise for them to reflect on the meaning of democracy. They must concede that the present denial of their civil and political rights has roots in their apathy toward promoting and protecting the socio-economic rights of the Nepalese people; for when the king dismissed the government, the people did not flock to the streets to protest his move. And why should they? In their eyes, they had lost nothing.

With Peace,

Bruce Van Voorhis

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong Kong. He serves as a writer and editor with the Commission.

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