Heinz Bongartz has been working for Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) for more than 30 years and until recently headed the FES office in South Africa. Before that he was also resident representative of FES in Kenya, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Uruguay and North Macedonia. More than 25 years ago he started FES’s work in Nepal. Many of our partners still speak highly of him and even called him “the founding father of FES in Nepal”, so we wanted to learn more from him about how it all started.
FES Nepal: More than 25 years ago, as resident representative of the FES office in India, you initiated the opening of the new office in Kathmandu. How did you experience the country back then? Maybe you can share one lasting memory of that time?
Heinz Bongartz: Actually, I had been in Nepal long before FES opened an office there. First, I travelled to Nepal in 1977 as a 20-year-old student. Kathmandu and Pokhara were “musts” on a journey to South Asia. I fell in love with the people and the country. I also visited Nepal a few more times before I started my job as FES representative in New Delhi in the early 1990s. During a year of research at the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta in 1979/1980 I visited Nepal almost every month.
Officially, the FES Office in Kathmandu was opened on November 2, 1995. I had been working for FES in New Delhi since 1989. From the early 1990s myself and my dear colleague and friend Dev Raj Dahal had developed very close contacts to Nepali politicians, trade unions, academia and civil society organizations. Especially trade union leaders and some leaders of the Nepali Congress had already been in contact with FES in the past. I should also not forget to mention that the German Ambassador in Nepal at that time, Martin Schneller, was very supportive to our idea of opening an office in Kathmandu.
I had the impression that at that time, in the wake of the democratization in Nepal, they counted on us for support. There were high expectations how FES would support the Nepali Congress (NC). Especially after lifting the ban on political parties in April 1990, we had some quite open meetings. The NC Troika was not always speaking with one voice, though, but our major counterpart at that time was KP Bhattarai, also known as Kishunji, then party president, who played an instrumental role in the struggle for democracy.
My lasting memory from that time was my tea meeting with Kishunji early in the morning in his house to discuss not only politics. And of course, the weather-related difficulties to reach Kathmandu, I will never forget. I would always travel with four tickets: Delhi-Kathmandu and Kathmandu-Delhi with both Indian Airlines and Royal Nepal Airlines as you never knew which flight would get cancelled!
Once I had to travel from Patna to Kathmandu by land for an important conference, a journey of about 350 km. First, I ended up at the wrong border crossing, where foreigners were not allowed to enter Nepal. From there I went by train to Raxaul, but when I finally reached there, the border was already closed for the night. The next morning, I crossed the border by a tanga (horse cart), but there was no flight and no bus going from Birgunj to Kathmandu. At the end, I rented a car which had to come from India to pick me up, it broke down in the middle of the night somewhere in the mountains on the old road to Kathmandu. Finally, I reached the Yak and Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu the next morning, one hour before the conference was to be opened by me with the Prime Minister as chief guest.
FES Nepal: What was your impression of Nepalese politics during the first years and how were you seeing the role of Social Democracy for the future of the country?
Heinz Bongartz: During and after the Democracy Movement from 1990 the Nepali people were very optimistic and full of hope for the future development of the country.
In the first elections after the end of the Panchayat system – a partyless form of governance introduced by King Mahendra in 1960 that ended the first democratic period in the country – in 1991 the Nepali Congress won the majority, its party programme was based on social democratic values and ideas. FES tried to support the democratic development. FES tried to strengthen civil society organizations, and worked very closely with the Tribhuvan University, the most distinguished Nepalese University based in Kathmandu. In these early days of FES in Nepal, a number of small booklets were published to foster the public discourse. And of course, series of workshops and seminars on several aspects of democratic development were organized. Because during those times, there were not many opportunities for a public debate, our events were always well attended, and the proceedings were discussed in the newspapers.
However, due to internal conflicts, NC could not consolidate the inter-party and parliamentary democracy. On top of that the economic situation was also getting worse and people became impatient. That prepared the ground for the Maoist movement, growing stronger and stronger, and when they launched the “People’s War” in 1996 the democratic future of Nepal seemed to fade away very fast.
FES Nepal: What were the major areas of work in the early years and what is your idea of the role FES can play in supporting societies like Nepal?
Heinz Bongartz: FES activities in the early years were focused on political education, as Nepalese were fighting for it, the democratization process had to be successful. A second field of activities was international relations, especially relations with India and Nepal’s role within the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC). With Dev Raj Dahal we worked very closely with the Nepal Foundation for Advanced Studies and the Tribhuvan University and published number of booklets to foster the public dialogue on development.
Besides the national programme for democracy support in Nepal, FES worked in a regional project called Shaping the Future of South Asia, a track 2 diplomacy project with cooperation of academia, media, trade unions and politicians of all SAARC member countries. Since the secretariat of SAARC was based in Kathmandu, Nepal became a sort of centre for this project. Another consideration was, that whereas India and Pakistan were in a permanent conflict, it was easier to get the relevant people from both countries together in Nepal than anywhere else. The project which was the South Asian adaptation of the famous Cecchini Study The Costs of Non-Europe culminated in a document, the Kathmandu Statement signed by the SAARC member countries in May 1994.
FES Nepal: You have been part of FES for many years: What are the main differences of FES today compared to the times when you started with your work in Nepal?
Heinz Bongartz: That is an interesting question. The whole world has changed in the last 25 years and so has FES. I started working for FES in 1988, when most of our programmes were focused on the national level. In the meantime, the Cold War ended, Germany was reunified, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia dissolved, apartheid in South Africa ended, there has been a lot of turning points of historic proportions. All these events had an impact on the work of FES.
Now in 2021, we live in an almost completely globalized world. The role of regional and international cooperation became more and more important. We try to find global solutions for global problems now and we support the cooperation and exchange in global networks.
FES Nepal: Thanks Heinz, for sharing some memories and insights. And be assured: You are always welcome in Nepal!
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.
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