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Nepal: The True Obstacle To Reconciliation

Nepal: Recognizing The True Obstacle To Reconciliation


By Madan Prasad Khanal

The Bush administration finally appears to be grasping the gravity of Nepal’s conflict. Ending a three-day fact-finding visit to the kingdom on Tuesday, U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs Donald A. Camp identified the Maoist rebels as the most serious, immediate threat to a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Nepal.

Asserting that Washington would not accept a return to pre-1990 Nepal – a reference to the three-decade palace-led regime during which political parties were banned – Camp clearly suggested that the real priority for Nepal was to ensure that the Maoists lay down arms and return to the peace talks.

On the contentious issue of military assistance to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), Camp announced a delay in a shipment of 4,000 M-16 rifles pending further moves toward democracy by King Gyanendra’s government. At the same time, the U.S. official recognized the difficulties the RNA faces in countering the insurgents’ campaign of violence.

Apart from arms and equipment, U.S. military assistance to Nepal – in place since 2002 -- has included training in such areas as the rules of engagement, investigating alleged human rights abuses and battlefield medical skills. Camp’s public reiteration of this reality stands in refreshing contrast to the strident obsession of India and Britain – the two other key sources of military support -- with the palace’s reversal of the democratic process.

Most significantly, perhaps, Camp expressed Washington’s concern at reports that Nepalese Maoist leaders were meeting mainstream politicians from Nepal and India on Indian soil. Acknowledgement of India’s double game in Nepal would go a long way toward understanding the origins, nature and scope of the conflict.

The February 1 royal takeover was undoubtedly a big step backward for democracy in Nepal. The imposition of a state of emergency, jailing of political leaders and curbs on civil liberties are indeed harsh facts of life for a populace used to 15 years of democratic freedoms. Despite the lifting of the emergency and the release of most detainees, many curbs on liberties remain in force. Clearly, King Gyanendra would be the first person to acknowledge all this as a deep wound on Nepal’s collective psyche.

As the monarch made clear during a televised address to the nation announcing the dismissal of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s multiparty government, his takeover is an unpleasant albeit temporary measure aimed at reactivating a democratic process eroded in large part by conflicts and contradictions within the political establishment. The king’s three-year roadmap begins with elections to municipal bodies within a year culminating in parliamentary elections. More importantly, though, the royal agenda envisages a thorough consolidation of the foundations of a democratic Nepalese state.

King Gyanendra has brought back individuals and institutions associated with the partyless panchayat regime, which has raised questions about his motives. The mainstream parties’ fears of an imminent return to authoritarianism are patently unfounded. Many of these individuals were associated with the palace’s efforts to bolster internal cohesion and raise the kingdom’s international profile between 1960 and 1990. Others have worked in the rural hinterland as palace-led political or bureaucratic administrators that linked local institutions with the center.

True, many of these initiatives were introduced and implemented under restricted political conditions under the partyless system. Before condemning the panchayat regime as outright autocratic, however, it would be useful to remember that many democratic processes, such as adult-franchise elections, had begun in the last decade of the partyless system.

Institutions and processes that served the nation under that system did not have to be eliminated in the quest to institutionalize multiparty democracy. King Gyanendra’s revival of the zonal administrators, for instance, is aimed at ending the administrative vacuum the politicization of local elected institutions created in the rural hinterland, which the Maoists could successfully exploit.

Clearly, the monarch is seeking a greater political role for himself. Any serious student of contemporary Nepalese politics and international trends would recognize that this desire does not stem from the king’s autocratic ambitions, as the mainstream parties and much of the media allege.

The systematic effort by the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists to sideline the palace between 1990 and 2002 was obviously aimed at ensuring their monopoly on power. The effect was two-fold. First, it allowed a virulent culture of impunity to creep into the political establishment, where democracy became an end, rather than a means. The people had the right to complain, but their leaders seemed to exercise a greater right not to listen.

Each time the king tried to admonish the government on matters of national importance, the mainstream parties construed it a “conspiracy to subvert Nepal’s hard-won democracy”. The monarchy was expected to bear silent witness to the political class’s self-serving machinations.

Second, the diminution of the palace’s political role emboldened India, which had turned the mainstream parties into willing accomplices, to pull Nepal back into its exclusive sphere of influence. Nepalese leaders began believing in Indian “blessings” more than in their own constituents’ trust. With the entire political class making a beeline to New Delhi, the Indian Embassy became a major power center. Through rampant politicization of the bureaucracy and police, the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists monopolizing maintained a stranglehold on the system.

In this stifling environment, a faction of leftists who were part of the parliamentary process went underground and declared war on the state, becoming today’s Maoist insurgents. Within the mainstream parties, voices in favor of upholding Nepalese sovereignty of were shunned. Nationalism, which the political establishment chose to define as little more than anti-Indianism, was ridiculed.

Advocates of a “constructive” monarchy, like this writer, see such an institution as a necessary bulwark against unwarranted Indian interference. In the past, to be sure, the monarchy has succumbed to Indian pressures. However, it has the best record of striving and succeeding in upholding Nepalese interests and widening the nation’s sovereign space.

In view of the political realignments in India over the last decade, the monarchy can play an even beneficial role. As the world’s only Hindu monarch, the king today retains enough influence in Indian religious and cultural spheres to encourage a moderating influence on New Delhi’s policies toward the kingdom.

Since the monarchy has proved to be the sole institution capable of winning the trust and confidence of Nepal’s powerful northern neighbor, China, it becomes essential that the crown retain a significant political role. Chinese interests in Nepal transcend the issues of Tibet and Taiwan. Chinese officials have repeatedly stated that the open Nepal-India border represents a threat to their country’s security by among other things, exposing China to drug traffickers and the worst forms of criminals. Moreover, China media in recent times have been voicing concern that an unstable Nepal could become a base for Islamic separatists active in China’s north-western Xinjiang region.

In an important sense, the king’s roadmap envisages a redefinition of Nepal’s role vis-à-vis its two giant neighbors. In view of growing economic and commercial ties between these fast-growing economies, Nepal hopes to serve as an important transit point. Of course, this would require, among other things, considerable investments in transshipment facilities and improving the quality of physical infrastructure. These could pay off significantly in the years ahead, allowing the kingdom the opportunity to exercise its economic sovereignty.

Five months out of King Gyanendra’s three-year plan have been wasted in squabbles within the narrow confines of the democracy debate. Camp urged King Gyanendra to respond to the initiative taken by political parties to restore democracy. Indeed, such reconciliation would be central to putting Nepal back on the track. However, the principal obstacles to reconciliation come from the seven-party alliance, which has Nepal’s priorities wrong.

The easiest way of restoring the democratic process would be fresh elections. For this to happen, the Maoist rebels must end their violence, lay down their arms and come to peace negotiations. The mainstream parties, which could have encouraged the Maoists to drop their threats to subvert the elections, have announced a boycott of any polls organized by the royal regime. Worse, they have invited the Maoists to join their so-called “peaceful” movement against the palace.

The contradictions are painfully obvious. The mainstream alliance demands the revival of the last House of Representatives, dissolved by the last elected prime minister exercising his constitutional prerogatives. The Supreme Court has upheld the legality of the dissolution. A political class whose endless bickering prevented a single House of Representatives since 1991 to complete its full five-year term is struggling to define how reviving the legislature would help end the conflict.

The two largest parties in the mainstream alliance simply want avoid facing a fresh popularity test because they recognize that realities on the ground have changed. The “democracy” excuse has come in handy to cover their real intentions: a return to power on the back of Indian intervention.

The mainstream alliance knows well how much violence and instability Nepalis would face when the Maoists infiltrate their movement and prompt a government crackdown. Here, too, voices of moderation within have been shunned. The revelation that elements of the Indian government facilitated consultations between mainstream Nepali politicians and Maoist leaders in New Delhi has exposed the real source of instability in Nepal.

Camp has put his finger on that source. Will he be able to encourage a thorough reassessment of America’s misguided reliance on policy coordination with India to boost peace, security and democracy in Nepal?

ENDS

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