A Dangerous Delegation Of American Diplomacy
A Dangerous Delegation Of American Diplomacy
By Madan P. Khanal
For the world’s sole surviving superpower increasingly criticized for its brash unilateralism, the United States has exhibited a peculiar trait in delegating its Nepal policy to India. Allowing Indian perceptions to guide American policy on the kingdom would be counterproductive to the overriding imperative of strengthening security and stability in South Asia.
For the last nine years, Nepal has been fighting a violent communist rebellion aimed at overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a Maoist republic, which has claimed over 12,000 lives. During most of these years, democratically elected leaders were in power. Infighting, corruption and mutual distrusts bred political instability. Nepalese saw 10 prime ministers in the 12 years after the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990. For each incumbent or aspirant, the Maoist insurgency became a tool for political aggrandizement. This chaos proved to be conducive for the Maoists, who gradually expanded their control over the rural hinterland.
Lawlessness reached a point in 2002 where the government failed to hold general elections or engage in peace talks with the Maoists. In the circumstances, King Gyanendra had two choices: give up power to the insurgents and allow Nepal to become another failed state, or take direct control of governance in an effort to pull the nation back from the precipice. Obviously, the first option would have been easy for the king. Fortunately, though, he decided to fight the terrorists.
After sacking the last elected government on Oct. 4, 2002, for its failure to hold elections, King Gyanendra reached out to the political mainstream to build national consensus. The parties, which refused to recommend a common candidate for prime minister, went on to hurl roadblocks in the peace process under way with the Maoist rebels.
The obvious pretext was the king’s reversal of democracy. But these leaders were working at the behest of the Indian government to perpetuate instability in the kingdom. Indian analysts themselves have been complaining against New Delhi’s penchant for pitting the monarchy and the political parties against one another in an effort to advance its security and economic interests in the kingdom.
After three royal-appointed prime ministers failed to hold elections, King Gyanendra took direct control of government on February 1. In the midst of international condemnation, the royal regime is making a final attempt to prevent Nepal from becoming the next “killing fields”.
To be sure, the risks presented by a Maoist takeover in Nepal extend beyond the region. Maoist leader Prachanda has described his “People's War” as “a totally new 21st century war [also against] the evil of the imperialist world, the hypocrisy of so-called democracy that a superpower like the U.S. represents.” (TIMEAsia, April 25, 2005). He is reported to be in favor of building alliances with Islamic terrorist organizations, Latin American left-wing groups and anti-globalization movements in a grand effort to foment a world revolution.
This can no longer be dismissed as a far-fetched scenario. The Maoists have made clear their intention to impose a one-party “people’s republic,” collectivize agriculture, “reeducate” class enemies, and export their revolution to neighboring states. The humanitarian ramifications of such a regime would be immense, reminiscent of the nightmare brought upon Cambodia by Pol Pot.
India, which declared the Maoists a terrorist group before the Nepalese did, has begun secret talks with the rebels. Over the years, the insurgents have received training and weapons, if not directly from the Indian government, then certainly through sympathizers in India. Top Maoist leaders have been moving around freely in India. An unintended consequence from this interaction is the revitalization of India’s own disparate Maoist movements. At least nine out of India’s 28 states are facing left-wing insurgencies.
Out of sheer national-security concerns, the Indian government seems to be making a separate deal with one faction of the Nepalese Maoists, led by chief ideologue Dr. Baburam Bhattarai. The Prachanda-led majority faction evidently views this development as another instance of India seeking to manipulate events in order to further its own interests.
With a little more assertiveness, the United States can play a valuable role in ending Nepal’s crisis. The prerequisite for such a role would be to embark on a Nepal policy that is independent of India’s. In recent weeks, US Ambassador to Nepal James F. Moriarty has been articulating a nuanced approach. In Washington’s view, the Maoist insurgency remains the primary driver behind instability. Suspension of the democracy, on the other hand, cannot be sustained indefinitely. Far-reaching political reforms devised by legitimate political forces could pave the way for the Maoists to join the political process. Among Nepal’s international allies, Washington’s understanding of the ground realities appears to be the most realistic. However, continuing public statements from Washington on how the US government was coordinating its policies with India and Britain serve to undermine the efficacy of those policies.
There is no reason for the United States to work in deference to India on Nepal. Washington’s relations with Kathmandu predate the creation of India. The earliest recorded official contact between the United States and Nepal took place on June 10, 1910, when William H. Michael, the American Consul General in Calcutta, notified the Government of Nepal that Nepalese imports would be subject to the minimum tariff terms under the most recent American tariff legislation. This was a full 37 years before India became independent. The United States and Nepal established diplomatic relations in 1947, months before India’s emergence.
Allowing India to determine U.S. policy on Nepal would be much more than a disservice to this illustrious history. It could be counterproductive to Washington’s objectives of preventing the creation of failed states where terrorists groups can hope to find succor. India’s real political interest in Nepal is to maintain its political and economic dominance through the perpetuation of instability.
For this, the Indian government has several tools. By painting Nepal as a den of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, accused of fomenting instability in Kashmir and northeastern states, Indians has sought to hit both neighbors with a single stick. While blaming Nepal as an underworld haven, India refuses to point out that a large part of that underworld is Indian.
In the late 1980s, when the Nepalese government bought anti-aircraft guns at throwaway prices from China, India reacted severely to what it considered a breach of its interpretation of treaties with Nepal. In reality, New Delhi was infuriated by Kathmandu’s audacity to exercise independence on matters of national security. India blocked all transit points but one on its border with Nepal. Delhi then arrogantly argued that it had upheld its international obligations by keeping open that single transit point.
Along the border, India has built dams and other structures that cause havoc in Nepal. The Nepalese government has protested against these in the past, to little avail. To this day, some Indian leaders lament their government’s failure to acquire Nepal when it had a chance to do so. India’s political interests in Nepal are hardly compatible with those of America, which seeks to build a strong and prosperous Nepal that would have a beneficial effect on South Asia.
India’s economic interests in Nepal have gone to the extent of challenging American investment in the kingdom. India’s refusal a few years ago to grant duty-free access to photographic papers produced by Kodak in Nepal forced the company to pack up and leave. This decision came as a shock especially since India had initially supported the joint venture.
Nepalis recall with pride the support the United States has extended to the kingdom in its effort to strengthen political and economic independence from India. When Nepal was struggling for membership of the United Nations in the face of successive Soviet vetoes, the United States was at the forefront of support. The U.S. government has helped the kingdom in almost every area of development. Nepal has been one of the principal beneficiaries of the Peace Corps ever since the program was established. These volunteers, many of whom speak perfect Nepali to this day, have risen to top positions in the American government, business and other important sectors. President Ronald Reagan’s enthusiastic endorsement of Nepal’s proposal that it be declared a zone of peace remains another milestone in bilateral relations. President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 support for the Nepalese military’s effort to eradicate Maoist terrorism is but the latest chapter in the annals of a blossoming relationship.
With such good will, national recovery should not be an impossible task. Nepal can hope to restore tourism as the backbone of the economy. The country’s vast hydropower potential can be harnessed to meet growing demand in northern and southern neighbors, China and India. Nepal has the infrastructure to develop into a major transit hub for trade between the two Asian giants. Younger Nepalis, who understand that the future belongs to knowledge-based societies, are becoming qualified members of the global pool of software professionals.
Admittedly, sustainable development cannot be envisaged in the absence of full democracy. King Gyanendra has promised to reactivate the democratic process within three years. Plans are under way to hold local government elections within a year. It is very critical that the international community support this endeavor. Indeed, this may be the last chance for Nepalis to achieve true independence.
To many in the United States, it would perhaps be difficult to contemplate full support to the royal regime amid continued political detentions and media restrictions. The king’s actions, however, must be seen in their proper context. The existing restrictions are aimed at preventing India-inspired elements from fomenting further unrest. The threat of the Maoists infiltrating political protests by mainstream parties is something the government cannot take lightly.
It is important to note that the internal situation is gradually improving. Since the king lifted the state of emergency on April 29, Nepalis have been witnessing a gradual relaxation of restrictions. Newspapers, once among the most vibrant in the region, have begun criticizing the government’s behavior and policies. The Royal Nepal Army has committed itself to protecting and respecting human rights. By law, soldiers must abide by a code of conduct. Those who fail to do so are being punished for violations of human rights.
Nepal is struggling to restore peace and stability to accelerate the restoration of a fully functional democracy as soon as possible. It needs – and deserves -- the vital support of the United States, which has made the spread of democracy a key underpinning of its foreign policy.