Thursday, 24 September 2009

Book Review: Contemporary Themes - Peace and Conflict

Source: New Spotlight Newsmagazine (September 25 - October 15, 2009)at P 22 (Reviewed by Bipin Adhikari)

Hira Bahadur Thapa, Selected Essays on Foreign Relations (Kathmandu: Asia Publications Pvt Ltd, 2009) (Soft Cover Price Rs 175)

Hira Bahadur Thapa's Selected Essays on Foreign Relations is the latest book in town on diplomacy, peace process and contemporary international issues. It is a collection of 54 newspaper essays published by Thapa between July 2007 and June 2009.

As the author notes, this period has been of historical significance because it covers the time when Nepal entered into UN facilitated peace process by ending a decade long Maoist People's War. Between August 2008 and May 2009, a career diplomat, Thapa also served as the foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. This further afforded him a vantage from where to discuss issues important to Nepal in its peace process and foreign relations.

The subjects covered in this compilation range from preventing the peace process from collapse, the challenges of ongoing recruitment of national army and the combatants of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), to the extension of the mandate of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). Some articles defend human rights, plead for establishing a culture of accountability, and stress healing the wounds of the Maoist conflict. Many of his articles have analysed the UN peacekeeping efforts, expansion of the Un Security Council membership, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation and the theme of collective security.

Some articles deal with the problems of South Asia. There is no common theme, but they include expectations in fifteenth summit of SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) nations, deepening Nepal Sri Lanka ties, enhancing Nepal China economic relations, fighting terrorism, and cultivating relations with neighbours. He has also devoted two articles on Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.

The book is useful to anybody who wants to understand Nepal's diplomacy, peace process and contemporary international issues over the period covered by the author. Thapa is a moderate analyst in most of his opinion pieces. Almost each essay has certain prescriptions to the concerned sector. He is futuristic in his outlook. This makes his approach valuable.

At places, the author does not hide his sympathy for the Maoist movement, and its leaders. One can also note that he is not critical about the Maoist "People's war" which is said to have claimed approximately fifteen thousand lives, and derailed the democratic process by threatening parliamentary elections. Notwithstanding this criticism, the author has matured understanding of the issues that he has picked up for op-ed contributions.

The author could have considered writing an introductory chapter with a view to provide top up to each article. He could also have divided all these 54 articles in four or five broad themes, giving each theme a defined perspective. A reader who is not aware of the chronological development of Nepal's politics may at times find difficulties in putting some of the essays in perspective.

Bishnu Prasad Poudel & Hari Bansh Jha (eds), The New Dynamics of Conflict in Nepal (Kathmandu: NAC-SSA, CETS & FES, 2009) (soft cover, price not disclosed)

This is a new book on the topical issue of conflict. It got this shape following a two-day national seminar held in November 2009 on "The New Dynamics of Conflict in Nepal: Challenges and Opportunities." The seminar focussed on the post-conflict situation in the context of new armed groups creating law and order problems in the country, particularly in the Terai region, where killings, abductions, and extortions have become very common. It includes papers presented by Dev Raj Dahal, Bishnu P. Poudel, Hari Bansha Jha, Manish Thapa, Chandra Kishore, Som P. Pudasaini, and Dinesh Tripath, in the area of their specialization, and has a brief report of the seminar at the end. The editors pinpoint in the preface of the book that "if the situation is not handled carefully, the country might plunge into a long term civil war.

The book has a Foreword from the Rt Hon'bleVice-President of Nepal, Mr Parmanand Jha. It is a handy, useful work for anybody on the theme. None of the papers, however, adequately cover the India factor in the conflict dynamics of Nepal.

English-Nepali Glossary of Federalism Terms (Kathmandu: IDEA/Forum of Federations, 2009) (Soft cover, price not disclosed)

This is the first Glossary of basic terms used in the federalism discourse produced in Nepal. It offers definitions for some 300 federal terms and their translation into Nepali. The experts involved in developing it, have tried to give not just the basic understanding of each term, but also contextualize it in ways that help understanding of the Nepalese readers. Federalism as a form of government in which power is constitutionally divided between a central (national) government and sub-national (state, provincial, regional) governments is very new to Nepal. In this concept, both levels exercise some powers (rather than power being exclusive to the central government or the sub-national governments), and produce a shared government based on a written constitution. While Nepalis are debating a possible constitutional arrangement in this regard, this Glossary, as the publishers have pointed out, can help them understand and use the terms in proper perspective. It tries to address the need for clarity in the use of words or terms that have been central to any political discourse in this regard. By default, it will also help in the standardization of Nepali constitutional terminology. Finally, this Glossary may also prompt the critiques to suggest appropriate alternative translation for some terms in this Glossary which are still difficult to understand in Nepali (for example, aayatanko arthlabh for economics of scale, and bharit pratinidhitwa for weighted representation).

Suitable books for review may be sent to:Bipin Adhikari

Thursday, 10 September 2009

A History for Everybody

Book Review: Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (London: Vintage Books, 1997)Bipin Adhikari
Source: New Spotlight Newsmagazine, September 11-24, 2009)

It is unconventional to review a book after twelve years of its publication. Many readers may consider such a book no longer worth a review. But some books deserve a special treatment. Jared Diamond's 1997 science book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is one of them.

Diamond is one of the most remarkable contemporary scholars of the United States. In this book, he seeks to explain Eurasian hegemony throughout history - and the reasons behind it. The question before him is - why history unfolded differently on different continents over the last 13 thousand years? Is it because, as racists usually equate, some people are superior to others? He answers the question in four parts.

In Part I, from Eden to Cajamarca, Diamond explains what happened on all the continents before 11,000 B. C.? Then he deals with how geography molded societies on Polynesian islands. After that he explains why the Inca emperor Atahualpa did not capture King Charles I of Spain?

Part II deals with the rise and spread of food production. It is here that he analyses the roots of guns (military superiority), germs (capacity to control diseases) and steel (powerful organizations), and geographic differences in the onset of food production.

Then Diamond discusses about the causes of the spread of food production and unconscious development of ancient crops. Completing this he poses three important questions: why did peoples of some regions fail to domesticate plants?; why were the biggest wild mammal species never domesticated?; and why did food production spread at different rates on different continents?

It is in Part III that Diamond explores the course of development from food to guns, germs and steel. This is an equally substantial part of his study. Here he provides references on the evolution of germs, writing, technology and of government and religion.

In Part IV, Diamond brings in the histories of Australia and New Guinea. He also refers to the history of Austronesian expansion. The histories of Eurasia and the America have also been compared with each other. The last item here is the history of Africa - the question being how 'Africa became black'.

Jared Diamond's answer to the biggest question of history – why history unfolded differently is environmental not racial. For example, differences in the availability of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication have been one of the important factors in the evolution. Another difference had to do with the shapes and orientations of the continents. As such, Diamond argues that the gaps in power and technology between human societies do not reflect cultural or racial differences. Rather they originate in environmental differences powerfully amplified by various positive feedback loops.

Diamond holds that even when cultural or genetic differences have favored Eurasians (for example Chinese centralized government, or improved disease resistance among Eurasians), these advantages were only created due to the influence of geography and were not inherent in the Eurasian genomes. As a result, the geography of the Eurasian landmass gave its human inhabitants an inherent advantage over the societies on other continents, which they were able to dominate or conquer.

No doubt, the book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a short history of everything. Diamond has hundreds of references from ecology, archaeology, genetics, linguistics and various historical case studies to prove his thesis. Still his study does not pay adequate attention to the historical variables of the Arab and Asian regions, which have significant contribution to what is known as civilization. One can also observe from the sideline that he has generalized too much when arguing his case. But, with all these comments, it will be difficult for anybody to counter his conclusion in significant ways. This is the most readable special work on the history of mankind.

Suitable books for review may be sent to:Bipin Adhikari