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Gagan Thapa's Arrest Highlights Disturbing Parallels

Seeing Chile in Nepal

by DANIELA PONCE

My friend was arrested on April 26. His name is Gagan Thapa. He is not a murderer or a thief, but a student leader, who, despite significant risks to his life, has been fighting to restore democracy in Nepal.

I am Chilean. Gagan is Nepali. Despite the distance between our countries, Gagan and I have a lot in common. I too became a student activist during a democratic transition, in Chile, a country that made the term "disappeared" famous because of the ability of Augusto Pinochet’s government to make a person disappear from public view without trace. If they turned up at all, they often turned up dead.

I met Gagan through several years of work and graduate research on the student movement of Nepal, and realized that we share a common cause: a devotion to human rights, freedom of speech, and freedom of political expression.

Now Gagan is in danger of joining the list of what we in Chile called the "desaparecidos." The "disappeared." And I am seeing Chile in Nepal.

I was expecting Gagan’s arrest. It was just a matter of weeks, maybe months. When King Gyanendra assumed executive powers, appointed a royalist cabinet, and declared a state of emergency in early February, Gagan became one of Nepal’s authorities’ most wanted political leaders. Although many of his friends had been trying to convince him to find refuge in India-including me-he had refused over and over citing his need to be "where the people are."

The king had compelling reasons to dislike him. Last year and the year before, Gagan and his student organization, the Nepal Student Union, mobilized thousands of students to pressure the palace to restore democracy. The pressure heightened after a student protestor was shot dead by the police in April 2003. Gyanendra had dissolved the parliament and sacked the elected government in 2002. He had been ruling through prime ministerial appointments since then.

Gagan and another student leader was also arrested back then. Around the time, I was in Nepal, conducting research on political violence against civilians in Kathmandu, Butwal, and Bhairawa. Last year I returned to Nepal and conducted over a hundred interviews with student leaders and activists on the emergence and development of the student movement.

In a recorded interview last year, he told me about his ordeal and what it triggered: "We were attending an event and the police came and said: ‘we have an arrest warrant for you two guys.’

‘For what?, we asked them.’ They said, ‘for chanting slogans against the king.’ And the very next day, the press runs that the government had filed sedition charges and that we could be jailed for ten years because of this new law. And the students reacted. The students come to the streets. Thousands and thousands of students and I think, that was the day the real movement for a republic started."

Students, for the first time in Nepal’s history, became very vocal in calling for the end to the monarchy and the establishment of a Nepali republic.

King Gyanendra was facing two fronts of opposition: The students and a violent Maoist-inspired insurgency who had gained vast control of rural Nepal. Therefore, Gyanendra’s complete takeover was not a surprise. The monarch said that he was forced to take this action because the government failed to protect Nepal from the growing guerrilla group. According to data available, since 1996 the conflict has cost the lives of more than 11,300 people. Of this number, 9,300 have been killed since 2002 mostly by security forces. Nepal holds world records in human rights violations in the context of this war.

After the palace’s coup, once phone lines and the internet was restored after days of being cut off, I got this message from Gagan: "Daniela, I’m safe till now, the army personnel have raided my home several times, the process is on, they often harass my family members, I have been underground from that very day, the case is that I’m not afraid to face the challenges, but you understand there is no rule of law, and no one knows the fate of imprisoned leaders, I prefer to fight for freedom from outside the bars, I want to do something that matters."

He was right to fear arrest. The palace’s state of emergency strips Nepalis of their human rights and civil liberties. Amnesty international estimates than more than 3,000 activists had been detained since the royal coup. Arrests have increased in the last few days too.

Former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has joined the ranks of those under arrest, having been detained for refusing to appear before a the royal anti-corruption panel. Gyanendra is using his personally appointed "corruption" commission to punish political enemies while members of the royal family remain untouched.

Security officials also arrested five opposition leaders from a meeting in Dilli Bazaar. Ironically, at the meeting they were discussing the need for the king to negotiate with the political parties with transparency and consistency; the need for political parties to unite and speak with one voice; the need for the scrapping of unconstitutional bodies (such as the royal "anti-corruption commission" that sidelines the constitutional corruption commission); and the immediate release of leaders under house arrests or activists in jails.

Gagan was hauled off by security officers after a pre-dawn raid on his safe house in Lainchaur where he had been staying underground. An effort had been made to arrest him earlier at an anniversary celebration at the Nepali Congress office in Sanepa, but he’d managed to flee. He had recently been seen addressing a few corner meetings in New Baneshwor. Also caught in the raid at Lainchaur were fellow student leaders Subodh Acharya and Sandesh Adhikari.

The former ministers may end up being kept in detention, may have medicine withheld, and may suffer from poor conditions. But their lives are probably not in danger. Gagan and other student leaders, who are more outspoken and known to support a republican system, are in graver danger.

Gagan always expressed deep interest in learning how Chileans had brought down Pinochet’s dictatorship. He was also captivated by the legal case against Pinochet and the movement for international jurisdiction.

Now he is in danger of sharing something else in common with many Chileans who dared to speak out against dictatorship ­ he could become one of the "disappeared." Nepal is currently the country with the world’s highest number of disappearances.

Chileans know very well what it means to be among the "desaparecidos." We also know very well what it means for a dictatorship to have the open or tacit support of the U.S. India and Britain, as well as other European nations, have termed the king’s takeover as ‘undemocratic’ and expressed deep concern for the human rights situation in the country. They rightly suspended all military aid to Nepal. Yet unlike their allies, the U.S. has continued to support King Gyanendra’s army, the RNA, which Human Rights Watch has classified as "one of the world’s worst violators of human rights." In Chile, Pinochet was able to commit his crimes because he counted with U.S. economic and military support.

The Hindu Himalayan Kingdom is my daily reminder that dreadful dictatorships exist in the world, and that those of us who live outside their borders in fact support them if we consent to being mere spectators.

Yet Nepal is also a reminder of the inspiring people who challenge these dictatorships. Gagan is one of them. He wrote this not long ago: "What we need urgently is an international call, the response from the governments are not everything, civil societies, individuals like you can make a difference, so please give us your hands. We need you in the fight for freedom."

His words speak now for themselves.

DANIELA PONCE is a Chilean student who graduates this year from American U’niversity’s School of International Service with a master’s in Peace and Conflict Resolution. Her thesis is on the student movement in Nepal. She works at the Institute for Policy Studies, mostly on Chilean issues.

This essay originally appeared on Freenepal.org.