Tonight’s debate is the 4th one in a sequence which started with January 2017 “Night of ideas”, about landlocked developing countries, followed in June with “time for action” on the same theme; this year, 2018, being the 50th anniversary of May 68’s so-called revolution, we wondered if imagination had taken the power and tonight we look at “current interactions between multicultural Nepal and the international civil society” as one example of the power of imagination.
All these debates have been organized in an exciting spirit of collaboration between Nepal Economic Forum, Alliance Française de Katmandou and the French Embassy, with the occasional support of Institut Français based in Paris. This time, we had to rely on our own means, which restricted us to this cosy hall of AFK, but I am sure many more people are watching us live on the internet.
So what is the common thread between these debates? While reflecting on landlockedness, we had to face this reality: it is so much easier to build empires and powerful economies when you have a wide flat territory with fluid connectivity. Nepal, being graced with the highest mountains and the deepest valleys in the world, no oil and two giant countries as neighbors, it has to be much smarter than the others to find its way to independent development.
The French 16th century philosopher and economist Jean Bodin proclaimed “Il n’est de richesse que d’hommes” - there is no richness but humans. More recently, after the oil shocks in the 70s', one official slogan said “la France n'a pas de pétrole mais elle a des idées” - France doesn't have oil but it has ideas. Nepal has no lack of humans, of a very sophisticated fabric and producing ideas, and I would like tonight’s debate to reflect on that.
Nepal has been for all times in contact, if not intricate, with India, China, Tibet, the Muslim world and through it even Western Europe. With a French sense of plurality, historically we would call this region “les Indes” – the Indias, encompassing what today is called South Asia, and Nepal within.
Nepal managed to avoid outright colonization but it was deeply influenced since the 19th century by the British in their strategy of protection-domination. Later, during the cold war, Nepal couldn’t avoid being exposed to the rivalry between superpowers.
Attached to its political independence, not willing neither being able to isolate from all the surrounding struggles, it has succeeded at being friends with all of them, preferring soft power to hard power. The Himalaya's attraction, outstanding religious and cultural heritage, tolerance towards the Westerners, whether being luminaries or spaced out crazies, who flocked into the valley starting from the 60s’ gave Nepal the opportunity to keep away from most of the tragedies which were happening in Asia at the same time. Isn’t it a success of inter-culturality?
Still, cross cultural relationships are not a guarantee for lasting peace and happiness. People have to feel comfortable in their identity to benefit from them; if not, there is a risk of conflict when some fear that they will lose to others.
In the past, conflicts have time and again erupted all over the world from material concerns. One king would invade a weaker country to grab its land, its resources, its workers, its factories, or to expand its own population, etc. Class struggle has not been different: an impoverished and dominated class would fight the rulers to get more money, means of production etc. What we can see in our globalized world is more and more a different kind of imbalance leading to conflicts no less bloody than those of the past : multicultural frictions sometimes leading to wars, including civil wars the way we have seen in the Balkans and arguably maybe in Nepal as well ?
As the world has become a “global village” (Mac Luhan), the villagers not necessarily do well with each other. For example, in France there has been a long trend of resistance towards the power of Hollywood and overall Anglo-American influence. We tend to consider as legitimate to protect our own brand of culture against the financial power of bigger or better organized rivals, because culture is part of our identity and we would feel deadly weakened if it was suppressed.
We can see in many other countries, including in Europe, similar reactions : nationalism vs globalization as recent elections have abundantly displayed here and there. Many people think: “How can we feel comfortable with people who don't look like us, who don't master our language, who practice alien religions, etc.? We must protect our identity; promote our traditional language, religion etc”. These are common reactions which can easily lead to intolerance, fanatism and xenophobia.
Let me come back to Nepal and quote Lama guru Gyaltsen, who is struggling to preserve in Mustang the Tibetan tradition which has been suppressed next door : “Without cultural identity, nothing remains of the people”.
Nepal has been the kind of country which views diversity of identities as richness, not a threat and it is highly commendable for its tolerance.
Indeed, preserving cultural identity doesn't mean closing the doors to the outside world. As scientists like Jared Diamond show, peoples historically disappeared not because they were too much exposed to the outside world but because they were not enough. They lacked the enrichment of their culture, technologies, languages etc that the others could have brought them and perished in ecological catastrophes due to their ignorance.
To briefly conclude, we must strike the right balance between protecting our cultural identity and enriching it with what other cultures can bring to us.
In the French view, cultural diversity must be promoted, as required by the “UNESCO convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions” adopted in 2005. The organization of a debate like the one we have tonight reflects that aspiration.
Let me thank all the panelists today, starting with my friend Sujeev Shakya, chairperson of Nepal Economic Forum, Akankshya Tyagi, founder of Social Friendly, Alize Biannic, professional ballet dancer, Sameer Khatiwada, economist at ADB, and Swosti Rajbhandari Kayastha, curator and museum and gallery professional.
Excerpts of opening remarks by French Ambassador Yves Carmona