The decade-long Maoist insurgency in Nepal killed thousands, displaced more than 400,000 people, and destroyed more than $1.5 billion in infrastructure. Progress toward peace has been slow; a peaceful democratic future for the country requires active citizen participation. Live radio has emerged as an effective forum for engaging youth, encouraging discussion of public issues, and diffusing tensions among religious and ethnic communities.
The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Accord between the Nepalese government and Maoists was a critical turning point in the country’s history and an opportunity for USAID to support a peaceful transition to democracy. The Nepal Transition Initiative began working in August 2006 to support the transition to peaceful democracy through community, infrastructure, communication, and training grants.
The grants program was designed to spread awareness about the electoral process and to increase local level engagement and participation in the peace process. The project focused on radio as a medium of communication that can help bridge the daunting geographic boundaries of Nepal, promote public dialogue and participation, and effect positive change. A few achievements of grantees are described below.
In 2007, with project assistance, Antenna Foundation Nepal launched a live, national toll-free call-in radio show, Nepal Chautari, which allows listeners to ask questions of guests or voice their opinions. Listeners share their thoughts with government officials, political and civil society leaders, opinion-makers, and national planners. The interim constitution, alternatives to transportation strikes, democracy within political parties, and the meaning of inclusive democracy have been discussed. Guests have included the deputy prime minister, a former chief election commissioner, and political party leaders. The project funded the program for 18 months; it continued with the support of private foundations.
To encourage youth in the Eastern Terai (southern plains) to engage positively in the peace process and in their communities, the project supported a radio station, B FM, to launch a program called Yuva Aawaz (Youth Voice). In a weekly live call-in show, youth were given a forum to debate national and local issues on topics ranging from the national debate on federalism, to the realities of migrating overseas for work, to employment opportunities for recent college graduates. Panelists, including local-level government officials and business leaders, were invited to give youth an opportunity to talk directly with decision-makers. The programs were held at college campuses and youth clubs. On one of the last shows, the local development officer decided to create a government fund to sponsor 100 local youth to learn business skills and receive small loans to start a business. The officer told the station manager he would not have known about this need if it were not for Yuva Aawaz.
In the transition to peace, long-oppressed ethnic and religious groups have vocally and sometimes violently demanded that their rights be guaranteed under the new constitution. This has meant an increase in tensions — groups have protested with roadblocks and market closures. The Terai region continues to bear the brunt of these protests. In Siraha District in the Terai, clashes between Tharu and Madhesi communities became increasingly violent. The government imposed a curfew, as leaders of both groups escalated the violence by encouraging their followers to attack the others.
Radio station Samad FM in the Tharu community had recently completed a USAID Office of Transition Initiatives capacity-building program designed to help community members understand their role in Nepal’s transition to peace. Station staff stepped forward to defuse the Tharu-Madhesi situation. They convinced leaders of both groups and members of the local government to discuss the issues live on the radio. Less than 30 minutes into the program, the leaders agreed to call off the attacks, and the government lifted the curfew.
“Through our program with (USAID), we recognized the frustrated mindset of local youth and we knew we must act to stop the situation before it got worse. Tensions were so high, and we felt that dialogue was the best way to solve the problem,” the station manager later said.