issue 179 - January 1988
The mention of Nepal to many Westerners brings to mind several images - Sherpas, Gurkhas and hippies chief among them. Together, they form a small part of the colour and complexity of the world's only Hindu monarchy, and one of its most impoverished nations.
With a fascinating blend of Hindu and Buddhist culture, Nepal is a minnow among the giants of nature and humankind. Geographically, it nestles in the shadow of the earth's mightiest mountain range, the Himalayas. In political terms it is wedged between the world's two most populous nations, China and India. An unenviable piggy in the middle of regional power politics, Nepal is dominated by India, on which it is almost totally dependent for exports and imports owing to its landlocked position and the difficulty of internal communications. India also uses it as a buffer against the giant to the north.
But it is hard to withstand the winds of unrest blowing from neighbouring Tibet, colonized by China. The recent protests against repressive rule in Tibet were viewed with alarm across the inhospitable border where Nepal's reigning monarch, the Eton-educated King Birendra, is seeking to maintain his autocratic control against considerable opposition.
In 1960, Birendra's father, King Mahendra, ended a century of political intrigue involving family dynasties by restoring executive power to the monarchy under a system replacing party politics with social representatives. Under what is called the Panchayat system, representatives from social groups comprising women, youth, adults, peasants, labourers and ex-soldiers serve under a prime minister who is answerable to the King. Students, trade unionists and banned political parties condemn the system as undemocratic and seek a return to a multiparty parliamentary democracy.
But many support it, claiming it is more suitable for a nation at Nepal's level of development and pointing to the nomination as prime minister of a low-caste, illegitimate ex-communist as proof that the system is far from elitist.
However, to the vast majority of Nepalese, politics remains a luxury. Most of the rural population are preoccupied eking out a living which has probably worsened considerably since the 13th century when the Malia dynasty came to dominate the disparate Tibetan and Indian hill tribes.
The struggle to survive in what is one of the world's most agricultural economies is not helped by the acute deforestation. With nothing to contain it, millions of tons of vital topsoil are washed away by rains each year.
With a stagnant economy Nepal is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Perversely, it is the wealthy who seem to benefit from it most. For the 60 per cent of the rural population who live below the poverty line, the only aid is the succour they receive from religion.
Sources: World Bank World Development Report 1987; World of Information Asia and Pacific Review, 1987; South magazine 120; State of the World's Children 1987.
Leader: King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev
Economy: GNP per capita $160 - one of the world's lowest (US $15,390)
People: 16.5 million
Health: Infant mortality 134 per 1,000 live births (US 11 per 1,000)
Languages: Nepali, Maithir, Bhojpuri, Tibetan, English in towns.
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