In 2006 I accidentally went on holiday to a revolution, as you do. Nepal overthrew its King while I watched and it was pretty humbling.
I wrote about what happened, including a piece for Broadcast which is sadly no longer online, so I’m repeating it below, for some context. I can see parallels between what’s happening in the Middle East right now and what happened in Nepal in 2006. So here’s my top tips on turning brutal repression into a successful revolution!
I interviewed a lot of people for the Broadcast piece and found out much more than I could fit into the article. Here’s the things that really stuck in my mind about how it all happened:-
- No matter how big and how loyal your security forces, it’s a simple truth that they can’t keep a much bigger population in check if that population is united against you. The bravery of the independent media, and of ordinary people, was what mattered in defeating the King.
- FM radios were crucial – they were the only source of outside news for most of rural Nepal. Even in Kathmandu, whenever there were demos, you could see groups of people in the street huddled round a tiny radio trying to hear what was happening. There needs to be a media which is telling the truth and which can actually reach most of the population.
- Ordinary people recognised the contribution the FM stations were making and were immensely loyal. The King sent the army to shut down one FM station. They broadcast what was happening and local people came out and surrounded the station, stopping the army from attacking.
- At an earlier point the King cut off telephone, internet and mobile for the whole country. He could do this by getting a small number of corporations to obey him. He couldn’t do this to the FM stations.
- The King’s actions became more and more extreme, outraging more people, and his control started to crumble. As this happened more and more people felt brave enough to actively join the people’s movement and you could feel it snowballing.
- One story always brings tears to my eyes (I heard this from many people but have not seen it documented): As things were getting worse, a senior aide to the King went into a bank to cash a big cheque. The bank clerk, trembling, looked him in the eye and said, ‘No, I’m joining the strike right now’. The King took punitive action against the bank. This was him losing his grip, the next day all the banks in Nepal had joined the general strike.
- This story made me realise that the King’s control depended upon his having the army and the police obey him, which partly depended on him paying them. There’s a limit to how much cash even a mad, autocratic King keeps under his bed. A bank clerk can bring down a government.
- In one huge demo the families of local police officers – the Mums and the Dads and the Grandparents – positioned themselves at the front of the demo. They were saying, ‘come on, are you really going to beat us and shoot us?’ Eventually he could control less and less of even the security services. They are made up of ordinary people after all.
- One night the King finally recognised he couldn’t hold on to power and appeared on television to say he was reconvening parliament. I can still remember how the hairs on my arms stood on end as I listened to the cheers across Kathmandu. That night thousands of people went to the headquarters of the independent TV station, Kantipur TV, and were celebrating outside chanting, ‘We love you Kantipur’.
What UK media would you use your body as a human shield to save from the army? Which would you march across the capital in the middle of the night to sing your praises to? Panorama? Sky News? The News of the World?
Three cheers for Al Jazeera. Three cheers for Kantipur and the other brave journalists in Nepal. I wish more British journalists would remember what they could be.
Broadcast article: The press and Nepal’s revolution
It’s a strange thing to find yourself in the middle of someone else’s revolution. An accident, of course, but you can’t help feeling it smacks of carelessness.
I’m a former researcher, of course I’d checked Nepal out. Autocratic King, protests planned but a common occurrence, tourists guaranteed safety by both rebels and security forces. Sounded alright to me – after all, you wouldn’t want to go somewhere BORING on holiday…
I should have realised I’d underestimated as my plane left Heathrow. I opened my Guardian to find a double page photo of burning tires and riot shields, captioned ‘Kathmandu’. What I actually thought was, ‘Damn, Mum reads this paper, she’ll have kittens. Silly old Mum!’ When I landed a curfew was in force, although Westerners were semi-exempt. I wasn’t that comforted by the big sheet tied to the front of the airport bus with ‘TOURIST ONLY’ painted on it. The ‘So don’t shoot!’ was implied.
Within days it was obvious things were escalating, but where to? People talked about wanting democracy. As the security forces fired on another set of peaceful protestors, the word ‘republic’ echoed more and more. And armed troops were on every street corner. I felt uncomfortably aware of being on the other side of the media. No inside track any more. I hoovered up local newspapers, quizzed Nepalis and fellow tourists.
I was puzzled by the boldness of the media. There was direct criticism of King Gyanendra, reporting of deaths, corruption and brutality. I’d been expecting a China-style docile press. I was puzzled, but I was bloody glad of it.
Later RB Khatry, of the FNJ (Federation of Nepalese Journalists, http://www.fnjnepal.org) told me it hadn’t always been like that. The King seized total power on Feb 1st 2005 and immediately suppressed the media. Every newsroom in the country had a soldier with a gun censoring what was written or broadcast. Over 100 newspapers were summarily shut down – some for months, some permanently. Many journalists were arrested, but then so was the Prime Minister, the cabinet, other politicians, human rights activists, lawyers, basically anyone who might have objected.
Jagat Nepal, acting chief journalist at Kantipur Television, Nepal’s biggest channel, told me about working under such censorship. Jagat sometimes stumbles over his English, ‘I can’t find the words.’ ‘Take your time’, I said. ‘No,’ he shook his head and sighed, ‘I mean even in Nepali I can’t describe it. This thing was happening and we couldn’t mention it. Like it’s secret! Everyone knew that the phone networks had been cut off, they saw demonstrations in the street, soldiers, arrests, but we couldn’t mention anything! There’s a military coup in the country and The Kathmandu Post had an editorial about socks, can you imagine?’
Some media pushed against it. Magazines deliberately ran with blank spaces to show they were being censored. At Kantipur TV, the censor saw the voice over script, but not the package, so they started to use, ‘soft words with hard pictures’. Kantipur is the largest media house in Nepal – the biggest TV channel, newspapers and radio stations. ‘We had it easier – they could suppress local newspapers completely.’ Gradually, this resistance, along with the FNJ’s campaign for press freedom, and international pressure, started to generate a bit of elbow room. The media started to tell people what was happening and, crucially, to tell them about the burgeoning opposition.
Everyone told me that the independent media, especially Kantipur and the FM stations, had been crucial in the size and reach of the movement. In a country where most are illiterate and millions live several days walk from the nearest road, broadcast media is vital. And where 30% exist on less than a dollar a day, FM radio is the only information source for many. The FM stations have an intimate relationship with the communities they serve. After one station was attacked by the army, local people guarded the office to prevent a repeat.
Over a year after the King’s coup I blithely boarded my plane. Nepal was six days into general strikes and the King’s brutal reply. Everything was snowballing. Doctors, lawyers, banks, supreme court and Home Ministry staff, everyone had joined the strikes. An estimated 5 million Nepalis took part in demonstrations. Even James Moriarty, the US Ambassador, warned the King he could end up leaving the country clinging to the outside of a helicopter.
Parts of the media reported all this, despite harassment, denial of curfew passes, beatings, arrests and worse. It was bizarre to watch the Kantipur Television news and then the ‘official’ news on Nepal Television. One showed demonstrations, curfews and dead protestors, the other made no mention, and lead with a story about a Maoist arms cache. I found myself wondering if the King could possibly believe that anyone (except for CNN) was buying his version of reality.
Immune in my tourist bubble I could still feel a grim mood growing on the streets. At demos, Kantipur staff covered up their logos to stop police baton charging them. Soon, Nepal News crews were covering their logos to avoid harassment from protestors.
After 19 days of mass protests, violently suppressed, the King, too late, addressed the nation at 11.30 at night. Through gritted teeth he described his love of democracy and agreed to reconvene parliament. I heard the cheers echoing across Kathmandu and joined the street celebrations until 3am. ‘We won, we won!’ people cried. The next day, Jagat told me, crowds gathered outside their building chanting, ‘We love you Kantipur! Hurrah for democracy!’
Nearly 1,000 journalists were arrested, 83 tortured and 18 murdered in Nepal in the last five years. The brave broadcasters I met here changed the world for the better – just like we all imagined when we were teenagers watching ‘Press Gang’ (or ‘All the President’s Men’ for our older or more serious viewers). My wacky science shows suddenly felt a bit stupid. I asked Jagat and his colleagues if they had a message for UK journalists. They said they wanted to learn from journalists in the west, with their longer tradition, how to protect and promote democracy. I looked at my feet and told them they could probably teach us a thing or two.
They also said, thank you for the support, especially the mission from the International Federation of Journalists, which made a big difference. They would never forget it.