Murari Sharma: Messengers of death on bikes

Messengers of death ride motorbikes in Kathmandu, a Nepali capital-based friend told me recently.  This is the reflection of a lawless country where breaking the rules is the norm.

A motorbike driven by a young man hit Padma Raj Subedi, 79, one of the finest men of Nepal and a former secretary to government, and killed him in Kathmandu. Subedi joined the statistics of victims of such accidents, which run in to thousands every year in the valley.

He was an exemplary father, a great mentor and a noted philanthropist. As a father, he trained and guided his children to the road of success. My close relative, he mentored me and thousands like me. His friends came to for support and advice. By supporting many charitable causes, he reached out to the wider community.

In addition, he was also a highly regarded former secretary to the Nepal government. He worked in various districts for many years, winning the hearts and minds of the local people, and rose to become a secretary. A mild, careful, and amiable person, Subedi was a clean and successful administrator, second to none.

At work or in society, he never did injustice to anyone. Yet, he suffered reckless injustice at the end of his career and his life.

The Girija Prasad Koirala government did Subedi gross injustice by firing him in 1991 when he was Secretary, together with other civil servants. Though he had dealt softly with the pro-democracy activists during the Panchayat days, some of Koirala’s cronies had linked him to the recently toppled system. The decision to fire him and many others was blatantly unjust, and the court reinstated most of them.

But Subedi’s appeal dragged on endlessly until his age for retirement arrived. Though Koirala apologized, publicly, for his ill-advised decision, the irreparable damage was already done.

Another injustice, from a young biker, took his life. Reportedly, a reckless young biker sped up and hit Subedi from the front when he was crossing the road through the zebra crossing near his home, sending the victim flying down to the black-topped road. He was rushed to Annapurna Hospital where he breathed last shortly.

Although pedestrians are supposed to have the right of the way at zebra crossings, two-wheelers, three-wheelers, and four-wheelers in Kathmandu invariably claim this right over the people on foot.

In the capital city of Nepal, the bikers are the main culprits in traffic accidents and related deaths. They create traffic jams by filling every inch of road and preventing other vehicles from moving. They do not observe the one-way rule or the lane rule where they apply.

Worse, by usurping the footpaths to drive and park their bikes and by driving through one-way streets and the pedestrian-only bridges, they routinely endanger the life of road user. And they speed up when they see people using the zebra-crossing to traverse the road.

The bikers cause the majority of accidents, including those that kill. The number of traffic accidents, according to the Traffic Police, has increased by 280 percent over the last 10 years (from 1989 to 5568 accidents). Forty percent of the victims are pedestrians.

Why are the bikers and drivers so reckless in Nepal? This is what happens in a lawless country run by criminals.

Understandably, bikes are inexpensive to buy and operate and quicker to get from point A to B. Therefore, the rise in their number in Kathmandu over the last couple of years has been phenomenal. According to one figure, 70,000 bikes were added to Kathmandu, which has a population of slightly above one million, in the last six months or so alone. The sheer increase in the volume of traffic is bound to shoot up accidents.

But that does not give the bikers the license to be reckless. Neither has the government, on its part, done much to make the roads of Kathmandu safe.

It has not put traffic lights, not built footpaths in many places, and not maintained the roads well. Over the last three years, it has demolished the houses and walls to widen the city roads where they are narrow, but not an inch of them has been rebuilt. To make the worse, it has allowed water and sewage, and telecommunication companies to dig the road and leave it unbuilt.

So, Kathmandu has turned into the hell of mud in the wet season and the bowl of dust in the dry season, seriously affecting the health of millions its denizens.

What is more, traffic police let the rule breakers literally get away with murder while making a fast buck whenever possible. Appallingly, all deaths on the road are treated as accidents, letting the deliberate perpetrators of the crime also off the hook. No wonder, if a biker or driver hits and wounds a pedestrian, he would come back and kill the victim, so he can get away with the minuscule mandatory fine and avoid the expenses of the victim’s treatment.

Therefore, a sizeable number of traffic accidents are not accidents but revenge killings.

Unfortunately, Subedi has become one of the 41 percent pedestrians that lose their lives in traffic accidents. He was the innocent victim of the reckless driving and lax enforcement of weak government rules in Kathmandu. If his death injects a sense of responsibility in the bikers and drivers as well as the government, his murder, though unjust and callous as it was, would do some service to the people of Kathmandu.

But I doubt that it would happen. If Nepalis learned from experience, we would not have been where we are today.  So the bikers will remain the messengers of death on the streets of Kathmandu for many years to come, and the Nepal government will continue muddling through, while politicians and bureaucrats line their pockets from the miseries of common people.

So messengers of death will continue riding motorbikes in Kathmandu and the lawless country will continue sinking into deeper chaos. In other words, the sad death of Padma Raj Subedi, a great loss for his family and Nepal, may not change anything other than padding up the traffic death statistics.



Murari Sharma: Whiter Syria

US President Donald Trump ordered the US military to lob 59 Tomahawk missiles into the President Assad-controlled Syria after it was alleged that the Assad regime used chemical weapons to kill nearly 80 of his enemies and innocent Syrians. It has put Washington and Moscow on the collusion course once again and made Syria’s future a lot more uncertain and more precarious than ever before.

If you thought the Cold War is over, think again. It has resurfaced in several countries, including in Ukraine and Syria. In Syria, President Baser al-Assad is trying to hold onto power with the support of Russia and Iran, while the West is trying to remove him with the help of Syria’s Sunni neighbors. In an effort to scare off the rebels, the Assad regime allegedly used chemical weapons in the rebel-held territory, inviting Trump’s missile strikes.

But the facts are not straightforward, though. In politics, they seldom are. International politics lacks factual basis further under the thick cloud of nationalism and national interests. While Western powers have implicated the Assad regime, the other side has blamed the rebels for using the chemical weapons. Independent verification is difficult to achieve more often than not. The Western narrative has covered the global media.

The reaction to President Trump’s order to strike Syrian military facilities has been mixed. The majority of Americans (51 percent) have welcomed the attack. The minority have doubts about the attack that does not have any strategy or goal behind it other than one-time punishment for the Assad regime. Similarly, world opinion is divided as well, especially because the strikes took place without UN authorization.

Former US President Barack Obama had desisted from engaging in military action against the Syrian regime for the lack of a good option. The American people are not eager to put the boots to the grounds abroad. Airstrikes alone would not push President Assad out, the American goal from the beginning. It appears President Trump has waded into Syria without any strategy, unless one is on the anvil as we speak.

Even if there was a strategy, it would be difficult to implement if Trump is indebted to Moscow for his election. Trump would be unwilling to move aggressively if Russia, which is supporting the Assad regime, had indeed helped him get elected to the White House. Congress is investigating the Russian interference in the US presidential elections.

Russia has fully supported the Assad regime with airpower and logistics. If  Russians helped Trump into the White House, Trump would think twice before he does anything to rub Russian President Putin the wrong way. An angry Putin will certainly spill the bins, leading to the ouster of Trump through impeachment. Trump would be stupid to stir such a firestorm.

And the pointers are not good for Trump. Trump himself publicly had called on Russians to hack into his opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails during the presidential campaign. He has made conflicting claims about his meeting with Russian President Putin in the past: He has met with Putin and not met with Putin.

Trump’s advisers have been in cahoots with Russians. His first National Security Adviser Flynn resigned due to his Russian connections. Paul Manaford, Trump’s former campaign manager with deep connections with Russia, is planning to register as a foreign agent, according to the Guardian.

Even a reckless maverick like Trump would not want to shoot himself in his foot.

That makes Syria’s and Assad’s future all the more uncertain. Assad will be difficult to remove because of the support he is receiving from Russia and Iran. The West, which is supporting the rebels, would not rest until Assad is gone. Unfortunately, the American airstrikes have emboldened the rebels without intimidating Damascus, Moscow and Tehran.

This means further escalation in the conflict, more bloodshed and more misery for the Syrian people, and more devastation of the country. Using force to change the regime of another country is wrong no matter who does it. If a situation warrants a humanitarian intervention under international law, then it must be swift and effective, so people do not have to endure unnecessarily prolonged misery.

The American airstrikes are wrong on the first count and do not meet the test of the second requirement. Yet the present occupant of the White House launched the one-time attack. This twitter master has often been whimsical and irrational so far. Until proven otherwise, there is no evidence that he is going to be consisten this time around. So the Trump’s airstrikes will make the Syrian conflict worse, with no end in sight.

That is indeed sad for the Syrian people, the rest of the world, and humanity as a whole.

Murari Sharma: Dahal’s visit — a damp squid in Beijing

Although bilateral visits at the top are always significant at some level, not all high-level visits justify the time and resources invested in them. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s long-awaited visit to Beijing in March 2017 was one of such visits.

Dahal took a detour to Beijing from his address to the Boao conference in Hainan. His Hainan visit is a separate issue in its own merit for another time. So I will focus only on his Beijing visit here.

High-level visits are meant mainly to introduce leaders to each other, to help resolve the existing problems between countries, to announce or ink major breakthroughs, or a combination of all three. Dahal’s China trip turned out to be a damp squid because it achieved none of those objectives.

The introductory visits often happen when a new leader takes office. In that sense, Dahal’s trip was not exactly introductory. First, the visit took place eight months into his office. Second, though he met with President Xi Jinping, Dahal did not meet his counterpart, Prime Minister Li Keqiang. Third, this was not the first time Dahal visited Beijing to meet Xi.

Dahal did not resolve any outstanding issue with China. China’s proposal to replace the 1956 treaty is hanging fire in Singh Durbar for years. So is China’s One belt, One road (OROB) initiative with which Beijing wants to enhance its connectivity with other countries in the region and beyond. Nepali mandarins are sleeping over these proposals, fearing that signing on to them could rub India the wrong way.

On the Nepali side, there are commercial and grazing issues, none of which has been resolved during Dahal’s visit.  Dumping of Chinese good has been a problem across world markets. Nepal is not immune to it. Movement of goods and people between the two countries through their shared land border remains a perennial issue. At many places, Nepali farmers face obstruction and bullying by their counterparts and local Tibetan officials when they take their herds for grazing to the other side under the agreement between the two nations.

No new breakthrough was inked or announced during Dahal’s Beijing visit, either. No major new MOU on OROB could be signed despite Beijing’s repeated efforts for the last couple of years; no high-level visit from China was assured; no new aid, trade or investment pact was signed worth the ink or agreed to other than 1 million dollar Chinese assistance for the local elections in Nepal, a pittance.

All this proves that Dahal’s China visit was a damp squib for the country. But Dahal projected the visits as a great success, which it was personally for him. He used his visit partly to wash off the public image that he was New Delhi’s stooge.

However, for the keen observers of Sino-Nepal relations, the Nepali prime minister’s visit this time only reinforced his irreparable leaning towards New Delhi. Take Xi’s advice to Dahal that he and Nepal should enrich their relations with India further, for instance.

This was the advice Xi’s predecessor had given to Nepali leaders during the 1989-90 economic blockade of Nepal by India. It was right in the context of the day. But not today. It only reflects Beijing’s growing frustration with Kathmandu. It should be noted that Xi cancelled his Nepal visit in 2016 for the same reason.

Faced with America’s China containment policy, now China is seeking to expand its role in the world and in the region as well. The OROB initiative, Asian Infrastructure Bank, and increasing security cooperation, above and beyond aid and trade in the past, are some of the examples of this desire. But the Nepali leaders have refused to take big strides in these areas, causing deep frustration in Beijing.

What is more, Nepal has taken steps back from the time when Prime Minister KP Oli had reached out to China to mitigate India’s chokehold on Nepal’s politics and economics, in the wake of the five-month long blockade after Nepal promulgated its new constitution in 2015 ignoring India’s efforts to delay it. Oli had signed several agreements and understandings, including the trade and transit treaty, which would have given some wiggle room for Nepal without substituting Indian supplies. Beijing has taken Nepal’s such bait-and-switch as opportunistic and against Chinese interest.

While Nepal should not back any scheme designed against its neighbors, friends and allies, seeking new sources of supplies for itself serves our vital national interest. All our neighbors and friends want peace and progress in Nepal in their own terms. Therefore, Nepal must do what is best for itself.

But it seems that Nepali leaders put their outside backers first, and above Nepal. Otherwise, they would have pursued a balanced foreign policy, in which Nepal’s interest would come front and center, while respecting its neighbors’ interest whenever possible.

In this context, Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s Beijing visit has nothing to write home about as far as the country’s vital economic and political interests are concerned.