Ex-diplomat optimistic about Nepal's future

Annemarie Spahr lived and worked in Nepal for more than 30 years (swissinfo) Billi Bierling

A former Swiss consul to Nepal is hopeful about the political situation in the kingdom, in turmoil since the Maoist insurgency began eight years ago.

This content was published on November 24, 2004 - 12:16

Annemarie Spahr, who lived and worked in the capital Kathmandu for more than 30 years, told swissinfo that in some areas government forces and Maoists were able to co-exist peacefully.

In the latest violence, ten Nepalese troops were killed in an ambush by Maoist rebels northeast of the capital, Kathmandu, on Sunday.

The attack, which comes ahead of a January 13 government deadline for the rebels to start peace talks, brought the number of people killed last week to at least 70.

Spahr said major Swiss aid projects were largely unaffected by the turmoil, and that Switzerland was looking to become involved in peace efforts.

The 82-year-old aid worker also said that despite governments all over the world having issued travel warnings for Nepal, she had never personally felt threatened by the Maoists.

swissinfo: How do you feel about coming to this country as a Swiss tourist? Do you feel yourself in danger?

Annemarie Spahr: No, I don’t feel threatened at all, and even though there are Maoists in Kathmandu you cannot spot them.

I think Kathmandu is actually a peaceful place within a war zone. However, many locals do not like going out at night and shopkeepers don’t feel at ease as there is a lot of looting going on. But, as a tourist, I feel safe.

swissinfo: What do you think about the Nepalese government? Is it doing enough to solve the Maoist problem?

A.S.: No, and it actually seems that there is no government here at all. Instead of negotiating with the Maoists the government seems to be fighting among itself.

The population still hopes that the situation might improve but many people I spoke to would like to reinstall the one-party system, which was in place before 1990 when the king was still in charge.

swissinfo: The population seems to be very unhappy with the current government, but how do they feel about the Maoists? Do they support them?

A.S.: Generally, they hate the Maoists because of the atrocities they are committing, but there are parts of the country where both government forces and Maoist rebels live peacefully side by side.

In fact, there is a Swiss agricultural project in one of the districts controlled by Maoist forces and it is going ahead without any problems.

I have not been there myself as I am afraid that my visit could have repercussions on the people who live there as I bring foreign money and the Maoists don’t like that.

swissinfo: But how can this Swiss project work if the Maoists do not like foreign money to be handed over?

A.S.: The reason why that particular project is working so well is that it is exclusively run by Nepali people.

The Maoists have demanded money but Helvetas [the Swiss charity that runs the project] said the project would be stopped if money was handed over to the Maoists. Since then the rebels have let the farmers get on with their work.

I have discussed this with many people in Switzerland and we think that the Maoist leaders have other things in mind than atrocities but they can no longer get through to the people at the bottom – and the people carrying out the atrocities have no education at all.

swissinfo: Switzerland has many aid projects in Nepal. Do you think the country is generally “over-aided”?

A.S.: When I first came to Nepal the government did not know what it wanted. The aid workers actually told the country what to do, and often they would do the wrong thing or put aid projects in the wrong areas. Sometimes the foreigners also offended the local people, as back then nobody took much interest in the customs of the country.

One Swiss project, for example, taught the Nepalese how to make cheese but nobody in Nepal actually wanted to eat cheese. The locals did not like it as it smelled too much, and I would say that a very small percentage of the Nepali people eat cheese nowadays as it is too expensive. It is mainly produced for the tourists.

swissinfo: Could Switzerland or another country help Nepal sort out its political situation?

A.S.: Yes, of course. A Canadian project is currently trying to create peace but I don’t know how well they are doing. I think we need to get down to the grassroots and support the people not by giving money but by giving moral support.

Switzerland is not yet involved in the peace process but the Swiss development agency is looking for a peace-building adviser, so I am sure Switzerland will soon get involved.

swissinfo: What would you like to see happen in this country?

A.S.: Of course I want peace, and I hope that Kathmandu will be able to preserve its heritage sites. Some of the temples here are already falling to pieces and not a lot of aid money goes towards preservation.

But all in all I think there is hope for this country - we just have to be patient.

swissinfo-interview: Billi Bierling in Kathmandu

In brief

Annemarie Spahr lived in Nepal from 1962 to 1990. She first arrived in Kathmandu with the Swiss charity, Helvetas.

She held the post of Swiss consul to Nepal for about seven years and was a close friend of the late king Birendra and his wife, who were brutally murdered by their own son in 2001.

Now based in the Swiss village of Turbenthal, she works with the Swiss-Nepalese Society in providing aid.

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Key facts

Switzerland has been providing aid to Nepal for 40 years, focusing on forestry, road building and vocational training.
The Maoist insurgency in the Himalayan monarchy started in 1996, with the rebels fighting to impose a communist republic. Around 9,500 people have been killed.
In November the top rebel leaders called on donor countries to pull funding.

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