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Nepal is a new democracy, undergoing all of those growing pains that come with trying to meld widely varied beliefs and ideals into that final definition of a “new” country.
Our first day of trekking we encountered some of these growing pains first hand in the hill town of Sivalaya. The local government had just instituted a new tax on tourists (the number one income generator in the area) – a 2000 rupee ($25) permit for trekking through the area. Knowing that this money would not be used in the community and fearing that this would diminish the number of trekkers coming through the area, a protest was called in the small town square. Signs were torn down. There was yelling. A few plastic chairs were broken. In the end, there was change.
Watching the act, I was initially skeptical, but later thought: maybe this is a democratic improvement? During the insurgency, when the king ruled supreme, the event could have easily become violent. People could have been killed, arrested, raped, tortured. If not at the protest, then possibly after. Maybe there would have been no protest at all if people had been too scared to risk their security for something as trivial as a little more economic hardship?
On this day, people were obviously not scared. This time people had walked two days just to stand in the square for 30 minutes. Just to have their voices heard. And they accomplished something. They were empowered, and perhaps that is the very essence of new democracy in action?
But doesn’t democracy imply something more than just empowerment — a certain accountability to the people? If citizens felt like that accountability was there, that they had a voice in the process, or even just that there would be some sort of financial transparency, would the event have even needed to take place? Maybe not.
In Kathmandu a month later, we found ourselves in the middle of another popular political movement, a 2 day country wide bandha (strike) instituted by a selection of political parties upset about how the country would be divided under the new democratic constitution.
In the tourist area of Kathmandu, everything progressed as normal — perfectly normal until the enforcement mob showed up. The tourist part of Kathmandu was usually off limits to political demonstrations. Apparently not today.
Even before I could hear the chanting progressing towards us from down the street, the sound of shutting gates became overwhelming. One after the other, restaurant, travel agency, money exchange, shop, and hotel owners where running out of their places to put down their gates as fast as possible. They all knew that the places remaining open risked being looted or having their windows broken.
The chanting mob eventually moved away and over the next few hours, you could see the gates slowly opening back up. At first, they would come up halfway with the owner standing outside just in case. Then another 1-2 hours later, perhaps all the way up.
In contrast to the empowerment I had seen in Sivalaya, this instead felt like a mob disempowering people. I began to wonder, was this thing that felt so different democracy in action too? A peaceful protest versus an angry mob – is one ore democratic than the other? Where is that line between democracy and anarchy? Is the power of a gang more democratic than the war? Is it more democratic than the King? I am not yet sure.