Country profile: Nepal
Country profile: Nepal
With its ancient culture and the Himalayas as a backdrop, landlocked Nepal has long been the destination of choice for travellers in search of adventure.
One of the world’s poorest countries, it is striving to overcome the legacy of deadly 10-year Maoist rebellion.
Until Nepal became a republic in May 2008, the country had been under the sway of an hereditary monarchy or ruling family for most of its known history, largely isolated from the rest of the world.
A brief experiment with multi-party politics in 1959 ended with King Mahendra suspending parliament and taking sole charge.
Democratic politics was introduced in 1991 after popular protests, but it was extremely factionalised with frequent changes of government. The last king of Nepal, Gyanendra, twice assumed executive powers – in 2002 and 2005.
Meanwhile, Maoist rebels intent on setting up a communist republic waged a decade-long campaign against the constitutional monarchy.
The rebellion left more than 12,000 people dead. The UN said 100,000 people were displaced. Its envoy said the use of torture by government forces and rebels was routine.
When King Gyanendra’s direct rule ended in April 2006 the rebels entered talks on how to end the civil war. A landmark peace deal was agreed in November and in early 2007 the Maoists joined an interim government.
The Maoists withdrew from the government in September, demanding abolition of the monarchy. Parliament agreed to this condition in December, and the rebels rejoined the government. The Maoists emerged as the largest party in parliament following elections in April 2008, and the monarchy was abolished a month later. A new Maoist-dominated government finally took office in August 2008.
Nepal has been at odds with neighbouring Bhutan over the repatriation of thousands of refugees living in camps in Nepal. The refugees – Bhutanese of Nepalese descent – fled violence in their homeland in the early 1990s.
With the world’s highest mountain, Everest, and spectacular scenery and wildlife, the country has great potential as a tourist destination.
It also boasts a distinctive Hindu and Buddhist culture. But its environmental challenges include deforestation, encroachment on animal habitats and vehicle pollution in the capital, Kathmandu.
Most of the population depend on agriculture, and around 40% of Nepalis are estimated to live in poverty.
Foreign aid is vital to the economy and Nepal is also dependent on trade with neighbouring India.
President: Ram Baran Yadav
Mr Yadav became the first president of republican Nepal in July 2008, nearly two months after the country’s new constituent assembly had voted to abolish the 239-year-old monarchy.
He is an ethnic Madheshi from Nepal’s southern lowlands and was backed by the centrist Nepali Congress – the second largest party in parliament – as well as two smaller parties.
Mr Yadav is a trained medical doctor and has twice served as health minister. He has also held senior positions in the Nepali Congress.
The presidency is a largely ceremonial position.
Prime minister: Prachanda
Prachanda is the nom-de-guerre (the name means “The Fierce One”) of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, Nepal’s first Maoist prime minister.
The former rebel leader finally reached high office in August 2008 after the protracted political negotiations that followed Nepal’s transformation from a monarchy into a republic.
His apparently mild manner stands in stark contrast to the reputation for ruthlessness that he acquired as a guerrilla commander during a decade-long violent insurgency.
Born into a high-caste but poor farming family in the Annapurna region, Prachanda trained as a teacher but was driven to politics by the extreme poverty he witnessed in rural Nepal.
He derived his inspiration from Peru’s Shining Path rebels and dreamt of setting up a communist republic. He envisaged the erosion of class, caste and gender barriers.
He is seen as high-minded, even puritanical, with a markedly ascetic outlook.
But as talks with the government progressed – following a peace deal in 2006 that brought an end to the king’s direct rule – signs emerged that Prachanda was willing to compromise.
He said then that Nepali Maoists were not “dogmatic communists” and that he accepted that globalisation was a fact of life.
And one of his first moves after the Maoists won elections in April 2008 was to reassure foreign investors and privately-run businesses that he would not eradicate the private sector.
His main challenge now is to tackle the chronic poverty that still prevails in Nepal which, like other countries in the region, is suffering from rising food prices and high unemployment.
Prachanda is married and has three daughters and a son. His wife, whom he met through the party, is also a Maoist official, and his children all support the Maoist movement.
Nepal’s long-running civil conflict, and the efforts to suppress it, had a profound impact on the media.
Rights groups say attacks on media workers were perpetrated by both sides during the 10-year Maoist rebellion.
More recently, media freedom body Reporters Without Borders has raised concerns about communal violence in the south, which it says has forced some reporters to flee. In spite of the 2006 peace deal, Maoists “blow hot and cold” towards the media, it says.
Private TV and radio stations have flourished. The government operates radio and TV services and publishes a Nepali-language daily and an English-language newspaper.
There is a small film industry, nicknamed “Kollywood”. But Indian films are staple fare in cinemas.
BBC World Service broadcasts on FM in Kathmandu.