BY KUL CHANDRA GAUTAM
Imagine employees at a major hospital in Paris, London, New York or Tokyo suddenly closing their own hospital, including its emergency ward, intensive care unit, and all essential services, and forcing all patients to move out to seek treatment elsewhere. No matter what the grievances of the employees, there would surely be great public outrage. This would be headline news splashed across the world.
On 21 July, 2011, a Maoist-affiliated labor union closed and padlocked Kathmandu’s Kist Medical College Hospital, forced all patients out, even from its ICU, emergency ward, maternity and pediatric wards, etc. After the closure of the hospital, employees were seen singing and dancing to celebrate their feat.
It certainly was not headline news in the Kathmandu press which has been mesmerized by the power struggle inside the top leadership of the UCPN-Maoist. There was no public outrage. People assumed that it was one of those ´normal,´ regular trade union activisms.
It shocks me to think how Nepalis have become so numb and conditioned as to accept such inhuman, extremist behavior, allowing it to go unremarked.
I worked with the United Nations in Cambodia in 1973-75 during the period leading up to the capture of Phnom Penh and the rest of Cambodia by the Khmers Rouge, and have followed events there closely ever since. I get nightmares when I think about what happened there in the Khmers Rouge’s efforts to create a ´New Cambodia.´
In their effort to dismantle the old, feudal, capitalist, imperialist-dominated order, and to establish a new, progressive, nationalist, socialist order, the Khmer Rouge closed all schools, abolished money and private property, emptied all cities and forced their inhabitants to go to the countryside. In the process they killed nearly two million of the country’s seven million people. Among those brutally killed and disappeared were 15 out of my 18 fellow Cambodian UNICEF staff.
The population of the capital city of Phnom Penh had swelled to three million during the war. Within a week of the arrival of the Khmer Rouge the population went down to 300,000. The able-bodied people were forced to march to the countryside. Hospitals were emptied, even patients in ICUs, emergency wards, women who had just delivered babies and old folks who could barely walk were forced out.
Of course what happened at the Kist Medical College Hospital was in a much smaller scale than anything comparable to Cambodia, but watching the news brought back to me the haunting memory and images of Phnom Penh of April 1975, as portrayed in the film Cambodia’s Killing Fields.
I still cannot believe what I saw on the television screen the evening the Kist Hospital was emptied. The fact that such barbaric actions can take place in the capital of Nepal in the 21st century – and the authorities, the civil society as well as the aware people at large tolerate it without any show of public outrage, fills me with distress. To regard such an action against a hospital and its patients and staff as simple trade union activism is a shocking example of how anesthetized we have become in recent years to accept anarchy and extremism.
We all know the larger UCPN-Maoist leadership has been very busy in recent weeks with its own internal ideological conflicts and power struggle. Perhaps the party leadership had nothing to do with what happened at Kist Medical College Hospital. But the fact that the Maoist-affiliated fraternal organizations feel free and bold enough to carry out such activities with impunity is in itself a frightening phenomenon.
Regardless of the merits of its ideology, the UCPN-Maoist is supposed to be a disciplined political party. The organization is the leading member of the current government and its leaders occupy key ministries including Home Affairs and Health. Just two weeks ago, this very government promulgated an instruction saying that hospitals and schools are to be considered zones of peace and cannot be forced to close as part of any general strike or demonstrations. But the Maoist-affiliated employees’ union at Kist Medical College Hospital blatantly violates the government order, and proudly proclaims that it does not accept the government instruction as valid and legitimate.
Has discipline and order broken down within the Maoist party?
Consistent with the “gentleman’s agreement” reached among political parties that led to the signing of the 5-Point Agreement on 29 May 2011, UCPN-Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ordered all Maoist security personnel providing special security to the party leadership to report to designated cantonments and surrender their weapons for storage there. That order, endorsed by the party’s Standing Committee, was reinforced by the party’s military commander Nanda Kishor Pun. But a large number of the armed guards have refused to accept the order of their Commander-in-Chief and Supreme Commander. And yet, this issue which is so vital for the conclusion of the peace process has been glossed over by the opinion makers.
Has the chain of command broken down among Maoist combatants? How can a supposedly disciplined military establishment defy the orders of its designated commanders? If these personnel can defy their own party leaders´ and commanders’ orders, how can one be sure that once they are ´integrated´ with the Nepal Army, they will follow instructions from its commanders, whom they have considered as their enemy in the past? If the ex-combatants refuse orders of their own commanders, what are the chances of the Maoist working for genuine ´civilian supremacy,´ much touted by the UCPN-Maoist during much of 2009-10?
Leaders of a youth organization affiliated with the ruling CPN-UML party attack and injure a journalist in a case widely publicized by the media. The attackers are known and proudly proclaim they have the protection of the party leadership and cannot be arrested or prosecuted. Indeed, the government is unable or unwilling to apprehend them. This too is seen as ´normal´ in today’s Nepal.
Reports from many districts, and even at the village level, confirm that members of local ´all-party mechanisms´ divide up government budget allocated for development activities among themselves, and there is fierce competition, often involving intrigue, intimidation and violence to manipulate and win contracts for local development funds among contractors affiliated with the major parties — the UCPN-Maoist, CPN-UML and Nepali Congress. Payments are often made on the basis of fictitious project completion reports. This is a matter of wide public knowledge – and is considered ´normal´.
These are just a few examples amidst a tsunami of distressing events that confirm the rampant impunity and absence of rule of law in the land and the lack of public outrage in reaction. If these were isolated incidents, perhaps we could ignore them as regrettable, and exceptional events do happen in many countries. But these seem to be part of the new norms of our ´New Nepal.´
There are, of course, many good things happening in Nepal as indicated by our respectable record in achieving quite a few of the Millennium Development Goals. There are many inspiring examples of individuals and institutions doing exemplary work recognized all over the world – from CNN Hero Anuradha Koirala of Maiti Nepal; Magsaysay award winner Dr Sandruk Ruit of the Tilganga Eye Hospital; and the 50,000 female community health volunteers who deserve much of the credit for progress in dramatically reducing maternal and child mortality in Nepal.
But the spread of anarchy and extremism, glorification of violence, criminalization of politics and political patronage of corrupt, immoral and criminal activities – and their growing public acceptance as “normal” — is deeply worrying. Such a trend will deny us the progress that individuals like Ms Koirala and Dr Ruit are striving to bring to Nepal.
Increasingly, the ordinary people’s yearning is for law and order, delivery of basic services and good governance, while the political leaders and activists of all parties are consumed with endless debates on models of federalism, electoral system and forms of government. The dissonance between the concerns of ordinary people and preoccupation of political elites seems to be widening.
Experience of many other countries shows that when such dissonance reaches a certain threshold and there is a generalized breakdown in the rule of law, either a country moves towards becoming a ´failed state´ or some dictatorial system of the ultra-left or extreme right emerges promising to ´save´ the country. Nepal has not reached that threshold yet, and hopefully we never will. But the time has come for citizens to reject extremism and anarchy as ´normal´ and for political leaders to take note.
Published on Republica, 2011-07-23