Mustang and politics! Not exactly the words you hear in the same sentence all that often. After all, anywhere from Kalopani to Kagbeni to Khinga, it conjures images of exotic life in the high Himalaya – caves and cultures being traversed in exchange for tourist dollars.
And yet, Parliamentarians from the three most prominent political parties did head to Mustang on April 28 to hear the people’s thoughts on local development and the much-vaunted but delayed Constitution.
Constitution Assembly (CA) Member Lucky Sherpa (CPN-UML) from Solukhumbu sympathized with Mustang, a district that shares similar geographical terrain with her own. Mustang CA Member Tashi Syangbo Gurungseni (CPN-UML) concurred and emphasized that the northern areas beyond Jomsom are deprived of basic amenities.
During their two-day interaction, the Parliamentarians listened to community members, and local civic leaders described their expectations of the new Constitution as well as expressed their frustration on the CA’s inability to have it yet materialized.
The theme continued the following day at the Open Public Debate, Samayojan, where citizens were prompted to share their thoughts and ask questions before receiving responses from the lawmakers.
The audience was composed of an unexpected mix. Lamas, traders and residents had learnt of the event via committees they were involved with in their respective villages, from Baragaon in Lower Mustang to Chhonup in Upper Mustang. The locals, especially women, have become informed citizens as they have been encouraged to communicate directly with central-level leaders.
For a district that has been deprived of development but exposed to the international community – as those in the tourism industry do travel to America and Europe – and with a literacy rate of 61%, while the national average remains at 54%, their awareness, concerns and eloquence in speech probably come as a little surprise.
Chhampa Nawang Gurung, an Amchi or a traditional doctor, claimed the Constituent Assembly was taking far too long to draft the new Constitution. Another local woman was far more outspoken as she openly accused Parliamentarians of taking power and abusing public resources. She challenged them to write the Constitution or leave their positions altogether.
As the panel defended itself, claiming 80-90% of the work was done and that it was inappropriate to blame all 601 Members when just a few were the real obstacles, some seemed convinced while others were not.
CA Member Dinanath Sharma, also UCPN-M spokesperson, explained that countries like India and South Africa had not placed deadlines for their constitution drafting and added, “If we need more time, we’ll have to take more time.”
CA Member Chandra Bahadur Gurung (CPN-UML) too defended the case for an extension.
On the other hand, CA Member Minendra Rijal (NC) said, “If the CA cannot give ample evidence of progress in the Constitution-making process, then we might have to go for a fresh election.”
In candid conversation with the audience, each visitor privately expressed his or her distress at learning that there may yet be another extension, and they appeared defeated as they admitted that they had no option but to accept reality.
As the public, including Gurungseni, questioned the state’s reluctance to promote Buddhism, Rijal described his speaking to the Untied Nations Secretary General, Ban ki Moon about promoting Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, as an international heritage site when he served as Minister of Culture.
Rijal also explained how the priorities of Mustang did not differ from those districts elsewhere: that Nepalis all over the country sought water, electricity, road, health and education. As one attendee, Tashi Choephel, later privately commented, “The state has considered the plights of Mustang. But what weakness has been present in all this is, well, the country itself is weak.”
The people of Mustang, especially its women, expressed concern that they would be deprived of development and growth if political instability continued.
Attendees at the programs were pleased to have national-level leaders present in their hometowns, even if they did not always have flattery to offer. Based on repeated comments, it was obvious that the people of Mustang, not unlike the people of Nepal at large, are frustrated with the incumbent Parliament and flustered as to options available. It seemed only appropriate that if the people were to be disappointed, they deserved to express themselves directly to those responsible for their collective frustrations. Granting the public the opportunity to express their concerns and to be informed directly by the CA as to the progress made and problems faced - is key at such a critical juncture of Nepali history.
The political leaders were invited to observe the press meet and public debate in April 2011, organized by Media Initiative for Rights, Equity and Social Transformation (MIREST) Nepal through the assistance of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Kathmandu.