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Sanjay Upadhya: Nepal - Stealth of Nations

Nepal: Stealth of Nations

By Sanjay Upadhya

Predicaments gripping the fourth player in Nepal's deepening conflict are gradually coming to the fore, as the first three continue their struggle for predominance with greater determination.

While much of the world condemned King Gyanendra's Feb. 1 takeover of full political powers, China, Russia and Pakistan chose to view it as an internal matter. The working alliance among the other three external principals – India, United States and Britain – to prevent Nepal from total collapse, which predated the palace takeover, appeared to be holding strong.

Recently, however, two indications of the difficulties the international community faces in promoting, peace, democracy and development in the strategically placed kingdom have emerged. Earlier this month, an Indian online magazine reported that the United Nations had developed a plan to administer Nepal for one year.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was said to have cleared the arrangement with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Under the plan, the U.N. would lead the way toward restoring democracy in Nepal by keeping its constitutional monarchy and mainstreaming the Maoist insurgents. The U.N. mission, envisaged along the lines of the ambitious 1993 operation in Cambodia, was prepared by India and co-sponsored by the United States, Britain and Belgium, according to

The plan involved King Gyanendra's transfer of executive powers to the United Nations. During this period, the world body would implement 20 mega development projects in remote Nepalese districts, revive police institutions to restore public confidence in them, and hold free and fair internationally monitored elections. The Royal Nepalese Army and the Maoists would agree to a ceasefire.

On the surface, at least, the plan represented a win-win situation for all three internal players -- the monarchy, mainstream parties and Maoists. Specifically, U.N. involvement provided the rebels with enough cover to return to the negotiating table, a demand they have been making in recent months. also noted that U.N. involvement would stanch fears of an Indian takeover, a highly sensitive issue in the kingdom. Since three of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – assuming that France would articulate the European Union's policies -- were involved, the other two, China and Russia, would be hard-pressed to object to a noble endeavor allowing Nepalese politicians and people to rebuild their country.

The disclosure gained added credibility as it came at a time when Lakhdar Brahimi, special adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was visiting the kingdom. The enthusiasm, however, was deflated the following day when the United Press International, the only major international news organization that reported on the subject, quoted U.S., U.N. and Nepalese sources denying knowledge of any such proposal. Brahimi, too, at the end of the visit said he felt the Nepalese people were capable enough to resolve their conflict.

Since no response was issued by India, a major architect of the plan, chose not to issue either a retraction or confirmation. As a trial balloon, though, the report continues to soar high.

A second, and perhaps more ominous, proposal doing the rounds involves Washington D.C.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED). During her visit to Nepal in May, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca reportedly told senior opposition politicians that Washington would promote democracy in the kingdom through the NED.

The entry of the NED, which has made headlines through its recent role in the "color-coded" revolutions in Central Asia, has raised alarms in Nepal's two giant neighbors already uneasy with Washington's rising profile in the kingdom.

China cannot be unaware of the NED's relationship with its ethnic Muslim Uighur minority. Beijing, moreover, views the NED-inspired "tulip revolution" in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan as part of a U.S. strategy to contain China. Chinese and Turkish properties were singled out for looting and arson in Bishkek on the eve of the protests that drove President Askar Akayev from power in March.

Beijing had been very successful in persuading Akayev, using investment, foreign aid and military-political support as leverage to check the Uighur diaspora. Under the NED-driven new regime, Beijing fears Bishkek might be inclined to support Uighurs across the border. In the past, Chinese media have reported Beijing's concern over the possibility of Uighur separatists operating from Nepal. The presence of the NED in the kingdom also raises the specter of an aggressive U.S. involvement on the Tibet issue.

Although India would appear to be less ill-disposed to an NED role in Nepal – that, too, to promote the kind of democratic freedoms New Delhi itself advocates – sections of the country's security and military establishments appear alarmed. New Delhi is particularly worried about possible NED meddling in its turbulent northeast, where several violent insurgencies have been raging over the past five decades.

According to one estimate, more than 200 NGOs are operating in some of the seven states in the region. "A number of them have sought security clearance for projects on subjects unheard of in areas where such studies neither appear relevant or feasible, according to sources in New Delhi," according to the Asia Times.

Over the years, Christian missionaries have been increasingly active in the region. New Delhi is also deeply concerned about large-scale illegal immigration into the northeastern states from Bangladesh – which Indian media and analysts consider a hotbed of rising Islamic fundamentalism.
Any overt U.S. interest in such a volatile region brings back bitter memories among Indians who recall a study prepared by the Special Operation Research Office of the Washington-based George Washington University. The objective was to conduct sociological research in India's northeastern states as well as Bhutan and Sikkim. That study was seen as a precursor to "Project Brahmaputra," which some Indians saw as a CIA-devised effort to isolate the region from the rest of India.

Although the plan never got off the ground, it has left lingering suspicions. The strong response to U.S. Ambassador David C. Mulford letters to the chief ministers of Assam and Nagaland last year, offering the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation's assistance to investigate the serial blasts in the two states, had roots in that mindset.

Tom Daschle, the former U.S. Senate majority leader, is currently on a fact-finding visit to Nepal under the auspices of the National Democratic Institute, an affiliate of the NED. His conclusions are expected to provide the basis for the next stage of NED activities.

The larger point here is unmistakable. If the conflict in Nepal escalates to the point of threatening regional security, external powers would scramble to act regardless of traditional ideological considerations. The United States, after all, supported a Cambodian opposition alliance that included the Khmer Rouge in an effort to build a counterweight to the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh. New Delhi, for its part, has already opened its own channel with Nepalese Maoists, whom it had designated terrorists months before Kathmandu had.

"Once external power centers exert their influence to this extent in a country's conflict, the costs of the resolution of the conflict far outweigh the benefits," Narayan Khadka, a prominent member of ousted prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's Nepali Congress (Democratic), wrote recently in The Kathmandu Post. Similar forebodings have begun to appear more regularly in media commentaries reflecting virtually every political persuasion. Will they be heeded in time?


Sanjay Upadhya, a Nepalese journalist based in the United States, has been a Fulbright Scholar at New York University


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