Last week’s edition of this paper carried a report on the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte. In it, investigative reporter Rameshwar Bohara painted a bleak picture of how a country known for its vibrant civil society and long struggle to restore and protect democracy is now threatened by a populist president who boasts about having shot people.
Duterte is among a new breed of elected despots who use populist slogans to get to power and proceed to dismantle the rule of law and democratic institutions. Bohara warns that the Philippines holds important lessons for Nepal where a retreat to authoritarianism is a real possibility.
Fed up with crime, corruption and the stranglehold on politics by an entrenched business elite, Filipinos voted overwhelmingly for Duterte. The president’s preferred method of dealing with drugs and crime is through encounter killings. More than 5,000 people have been killed under Duterte so far, and human rights groups say most of them are innocent or minor offenders.
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This is why it was ominous to hear Makwanpur police chief Lokendra Shrestha announce recently that he would use ‘encounters’ to rid his district of crime. He told businesspersons and media that he had a carte blanche from Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa to shoot on sight. Nepal Police’s role in criminal investigation has now been taken over by the Home Ministry. On Monday, an alleged gangster was shot in an ‘encounter’ in broad daylight in the capital.
Indeed, Minister Thapa (a former Maoist guerrilla commander himself) has been going beyond his ministry’s mandate to crack down on bus syndicates, lethargic road contractors, and even sidewalk vegetable and meat vendors. The criminal investigation and legal process are bypassed as suspects are taken straight to jail – presumed guilty until proven innocent. There may be some support for this from people sick of syndicates and swindlers, but it has eroded the rule of law, demoralised honest policemen, and flouted due process.
The Home Ministry’s over-reach has been taken by many as yet another worrying sign of an authoritarian tendency in the united Communist government, which with its new Madhesi partner now has more than two-thirds majority in Parliament. Prime Minister Oli obviously has to balance his former party’s democratic values with the Maoists who have never formally abandoned violence as a political tool, and never apologised for conflict-era excesses.
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Gangamaya Adhikari, the mother of a teenager allegedly abducted, tortured and killed by the Maoists, is on the third week of her fast unto death at Bir Hospital. Her husband Nanda Prasad died three years ago during their prolonged hunger strike, and his body is still in the hospital’s morgue. She resumed her fast on Republic Day, when the government got a presidential pardon for Bal Krishna Dhungel, a Maoist convicted of a murder during the war.
The Maoists are hoping that by merging with the relatively-clean UML, they can wash the blood off their hands, and keep transitional justice in limbo. That plan may very well work. However, this has engrained a culture of impunity, and the idea that anyone can get away with anything. Thus, corruption in all three organs of government is eating away at the state structure from within, dashing hopes that last year’s elections would ensure accountability and good governance.
There are other examples this week of the Communist government bristling at free speech. Information Minister Gokul Banskota closed down a NTV program after the anchor grilled him about his asset declaration. And Pushpa Kamal Dahal, angry at media reports of his landlord being the main defaulter on road contracts, warned journalists they were getting too big for their boots.
The Nepal Communist Party’s election promise of ‘stability’ is becoming synonymous with ‘absolutism’. And ‘prosperity’seems to apply only to office-bearers. We already see evidence of this at the municipality and rural levels where contractors elected to office are plundering natural resources. And in Kathmandu there is tendency to make high-profile populist crackdowns without due process, with no followup.
The Cabinet is expected to approve new guidelines under the National Integrity Policy which, as we reported here in a previous issue, sound draconian and so broadly worded that anyone can be taken in for anything. The code of conduct for INGOs, aid agencies and foreign missions appear to be intended for control rather than cooperation. All this is being justified in the name of stopping religious conversion, protecting national unity, and removing corruption.
A government really serious about controlling organised crime would go after the Biplab faction of the Maoists who tried to violently disrupt elections, and in the past months have been terrorising, extorting, and confiscating property throughout the land. The comrades are being allowed to do whatever they like by their erstwhile comrades in government.
As we report from Province 2, it is an irony of our times that a federal state that was supposed to devolve power to local elected assemblies is now more centralised than ever before. In fact, today power is concentrated in the hands of only two men: PM Oli and PM-in-waiting Dahal.