John McDonald

Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

I will talk about Nepal. Now this is a country with its history going back for 5,000 years, and it was an absolute monarchy for all of those thousands of years until 1990. In 1990 people power again, 10,000s of thousands of people demonstrated in front of the palace for 50 days, urging him to shift from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy based on the British model, and he did. They wrote a new constitution with freedom of press, freedom of religion, and all that good stuff. The problem was that the country was inexperienced and made promises to the people that they couldn't fulfill. A left wing group of the Communist party broke off just a handful of people, and called themselves Maoists. They went out into the villages and got support because they were doing some of the things that the government had promised to do but hadn't done.

But then for some reason, they started becoming violent. We were invited in 2 years ago by two local Nepalese NGOs in the human rights field to see if there was some way to impact on this Maoist problem. We got some funding from a German foundation and for ten days we listened. We visited 70 different people from all levels of society. They have a caste system in Nepal that is unconstitutional, and has been since 1964, and also under the new constitution. It was brought in by the Hindus 3,000 years ago and has been around ever since. Out of the 25 million people in Nepal, 5 million are untouchables. I finally learned that after my third visit, I finally got it together, because no body talks about this. The base reason for the conflict is that the Maoists went out in to the poor villages in the mountains where poor farmers are all untouchables and they treated them like normal human beings, 50% of their supporters are women who for the first time in their lives are treated like normal human beings. The root cause of the conflict in Nepal is the caste system

Q: What a tremendous lesson to learn.

A: That's right, it is a powerful one. We met with the untouchables on the first occasion and we met with all levels of society, including two former prime ministers, women's groups, youth groups, lawyers, journalists, and representatives from all political parties. What they wanted was help in training in conflict resolution skills. We went back a month or two later and we trained 28 people for a week in a hotel about an hour outside of Katmandu so they couldn't go home at night. We had all groups represented, untouchables, women leaders, youth leaders, politicians, business leaders, and one lawyer who was connected with the Maoist community.

What we did, besides the many skills that we gave them, we made them recognize that they did not have to wait for the government to act. Now think about that. 5000 years of absolute monarchy, and only a decade of a constitutional monarchy, which hadn't really sunk in. They just waited, they didn't do anything, and we took the blinders off. We empowered them; they didn't have to wait for the government to act. This is a powerful lesson.

The next thing they did realizing that they could now do it, they created their own NGO in peace and conflict resolution, which they all joined. We have an institutional base now. On the third visit, last October, we went back with more money from the funders, and we trained a second group for two weeks, this time to be trainers. We trained trainers to go out into villages with these new skills and new ideas. The same thing happened with them; we took the blinders off. They were now empowered to do things that they never dreamed that they could do. The lesson there is a very important one for communities that have been degraded for all this time.

Each time I went back I had meetings with the untouchables, and on my last visit I met with a group of 25 of them. I learned that out of the five million people, 1,000 have broken through the barriers through the years to have an education. They have never held an elected office in any level of society, so I told them that they have to become visible, they have to form your own political party. You have 5 million potential members--you can become a major influence. You have to be on the radio, the TV, in newspapers; you have to have a presence. Publicize your concerns, it is unconstitutional when they put you down, you are free but you don't know it because you haven't ever tried it. I really stirred the pot on that one.

Q: Now that sounds more like an advocacy role.

A: It absolutely was. I didn't do that in the training. I did that working with the group of untouchables. We don't train advocacy, that's not in our field, but in this instance I converted with that group only and tried to get them to recognize that they had the power to change, and they could begin to build and have a voice in their own country, which they hadn't ever dreamed that they could have before. So that's my story. We are going back next summer when we get more funding and we are going to focus on trauma and healing, especially women who were traumatized by the Maoist killings.

Q: Is your pitch from the IMTD as appealing as the Maoist pitch?

A: Time will tell. They are still having problems there, but they currently have a cease fire. We actually proposed a training program, which I couldn't get any funding for, to take two people from each of the three main political parties and Maoists to another country to have a dialogue of about what the conflict was really about, and that is when I was really going to push the whole concept of the untouchables and the whole caste system.

A little side story, one of the groups that invited us in the first place, really bright, PhD Nepalese, very proudly should me a report on what had happened with this violence. He actually had a list on one of the pages of the people that had been killed, Maoists and police, by caste. I was having lunch with him and said, "Did you know that this is unconstitutional?" He said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "that it is unconstitutional because the caste doesn't exist officially." He looked at that paper and said, "Oh my god, you are right." He was a Brahman and had never thought about it. It has been engrained and it will take a century for this to disappear. I am starting this process but it is going to take a long, long time but it has to happen. They contend that they are a democracy. They are on paper a democracy, but not in the minds and not in the hearts. That again is an example that you have to change the way that people think before you can get action.