[Viewpoint] Politics on top of the world

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[Viewpoint] Politics on top of the world

The Nepalese would call the Korean Peninsula hilly rather than mountainous, since they hail from a country surrounded by mountains with peaks over 6,000 meters (19,685 feet). Eight of the world’s 14 tallest mountains are in Nepal, including Mount Everest, the world’s highest point at 8,848 meters.

The Himalayan mountain range along its northern border with Tibet is capped with snow year-round. On a clear day, the stupendous snow-topped mountains can be seen from anywhere in Nepal without the hassle of a climb. The entire country is a natural treasure.

Nepal is as rich in its cultural heritage as it is in geography. Lumbini, in the foothills of the Himalayas on the southern border with India, is the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as the Buddha. Buddhists from around the world make pilgrimages there. Hindu temples are also peppered across the nation.

The capital of Kathmandu, at an elevation of 1,500 meters, boasts architectural and cultural wealth from the monarchal period between the 12th and 18th centuries. Pashupatinath Temple, built in the fifth century, is one of the world’s oldest Hindu temples. The entire Kathmandu Valley, home to one of the largest congregations of historical monuments and shrines ever built, was named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. Nepal possesses three other World Heritage Sites.

The country should be able to live off its remarkable natural and cultural heritage. But despite a robust tourism industry, the country is stuck in extreme poverty. Kathmandu, gateway to Nepal tourism, offers a terrible first impression, with dusty air and highly congested streets.

Road signs and traffic lights are rarely obeyed. Cars, motorcycles and bicycles clunk and honk their way through the gridlocked lanes, skirting pedestrians, cattle, dogs and goats. Alleys and gutters are filthy with rubbish. Signboards sticking out from vertical poles add to the chaotic and unruly street scenes. On the whole, Nepal’s urban disposition presents a pitiful contrast to the country’s magnificent ancient treasures.

A land mass equivalent to two-thirds of the Korean Peninsula is one of the world’s most prized tourism destinations. But the population of 29 million lives on a paltry per capita income of $500 a year. The Nepalese blame politics for their hard lives. Nepal was a monarchy for most of its history, but became a multiparty democratic republic in 2008 after a decade-long civil war.

The 601-seat assembly is divided among 25 political parties, a recipe for chaos. The Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) holds the largest number of seats, followed by the pro-democracy Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). Those three parties control 75 percent of the parliamentary seats, and wreak political havoc by eternally fighting with each other.

Top government positions remain vacant after the president of the Nepali Congress rejected the appointment of a defense minister nominated by the prime minister, who is a Maoist. After a seven-month deadlock in which there was basically no government, the assembly voted in a prime minister in February, and he is urging parties to work together to complete rewriting the constitution by a May deadline.

But the parties can’t agree on anything, let alone a new constitution. B.K. Shrestha, country director of the British charity group Global Action Nepal, laments that the country is being dragged down by the power struggle among politicians. People shake their heads at the endless self-serving infighting among politicians at the expense of the poor.

Arab societies in the Middle East and North Africa are in tumult as a result of the wave of democracy movements. Despots have been unseated in Tunisia and Egypt, and similar uprisings are ongoing in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Bahrain. Despite the cost in human lives, the fervent pursuit of democracy is spreading.

Yet one can’t shake off a certain sinking feeling. Will their lives be any better if they get democracy? The hopeless democracy in Nepal provides a gloomy example.

We in Korea can’t be overly proud of our discovery of democracy. Our politics are a never-ending story of blame games, power snatches, cynical expediency and cheap - and fiscally expensive - populism. But we are free. A recent New York Times article reported that the Chinese are content with their autocratic government and think that a Western-style political system would throw their country into disorder. They don’t want to exchange prosperity with limited freedoms for democracy. I personally don’t envy the Chinese model.

*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Heo Nam-chin

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