Crisis in Kathmandu

By Joseph Lawlor, MURP ’16 & International Practice Pathway Fellow

In the final weeks of my internship I visited Nepal to attend a workshop on gender in development work. It was a great event – I connected with researchers from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, the Netherlands, and France. Getting there, however, makes for a better story than the event itself.

If you don’t follow Nepali politics, here is a little background information. Nepal has been attempting to adopt a constitution since 2008. The constitution is contentious, to say the least. Recently the Madhes, a politically disenfranchised group living in the Southern low-lying Terai, have been protesting what they see as gerrymandering, intended to dilute their political power further.  The Madhes have long been underrepresented in Kathmandu, and have developed a vocal protest movement as well as a political party. Currently the political situation is very tense.

I entered Nepal on August 25th. The headline of the paper that day read, “Protesters in Western Nepal Kill Police with Spears, Axes.” Further, “Police officer Ram Bihari Tharu was also burned alive by the protestors…” As I read I thought to myself, “fortunately, I am in far Eastern Nepal.” Unfortunately I was still in the low-lying Southern Terai region and was planning to travel across the country by bus to reach my final destination, Kathmandu. This was not going to happen.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have gladly marched with the protesters. Even with my limited knowledge of the situation, it is clear to me they are indeed being cheated by the political elite that run the country. Though as a 6 foot white American man, my identity betrayed me. No Madhesi wanted to see me standing with them. I called my co-worker, a local Nepali named Aditya, and asked for his help.  Aditya is very well connected throughout Nepal – he comes from a wealthy tea farming family and has many uncles who are government ministers. Some of my other coworkers in Hyderabad even call him, tauntingly, “The Prince of Nepal.” Surely he could get me from the border to Kathmandu. Right?  Kind of.

“Joe,” he said, “if you value your life you will not travel by land through Nepal.” Not exactly the words I was hoping to hear. (Just to clarify, most of the time this is not the case. The protests were escalating at the time. I found the rest of Nepal to be one of the most welcoming countries I have visited. Any other time I could have easily taken the six hour minibus for $10 to Kathmandu.) Aditya connected me with a family travel agent and I paid for, possibly, the most expensive 45 min flight from Birtamod to Kathmandu ever. More than the rest of my Nepal expenses combine, to fly. Aditya explained it as something like supply and demand multiplied by the tourist tax – it was literally the only way to Kathmandu.

Onward I went; I didn’t want to miss the workshop. At the airport I saw a bus of farm workers unloading across the street, axes and pitchforks in hand. Across from them was a group of military police suiting up in riot gear for the protest. I guess I’m lucky I made that flight.
Thank you to the Bergman Fellowship at UCLA for making this trip possible. Special thanks to Aditya for his help navigating Nepal.

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