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Nepal: Shadows Of The Empire

Nepal: Shadows Of The Empire

By Sanjay Upadhya

KEITH Bloomfield, the British ambassador in Kathmandu, has been the most consistently vocal skeptic of King Gyanendra’s attitude toward democracy. Lately, his own has been called into question. Until last month, His Excellency was critical of the royal government for having presented democracy “as something that has to wait until the Maoists have been dealt with militarily, where there is no room for moderation and compromise.”

After King Gyanendra announced that parliamentary elections would be held by April 2007, Bloomfield switched gears. He now asserts that elections would be irrelevant until peace is restored – an eventuality that would rest, at least partially, on a military component.

Institutionally, it must be difficult for the British ambassador to adjust to his government’s increasing marginalization in Nepal. After all, the British Resident – as London’s top representative used be called then – led a parallel power center from 1816 to 1947. (The writings and documents of the second resident, Brian Houghton Hodgson, remain an important source of research material not only on the kingdom but also Britain’s policies.)

After the end of the Raj, the British envoy became for the first time a full ambassador. But diplomatic representation had to be divvied up with independent India. Along with the loss of real estate in a prime location in Kathmandu, Britain’s role was substantially reduced. As a principal aid donor and through links continuing from the recruitment of Gurkha soldiers in the British Army, London has considered itself a major stakeholder.

For Bloomfield, the constriction of his government’s role was accompanied by an erosion of his own. In 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed a special envoy, Jeffrey James, to help resolve Nepal’s crisis. Clearly, this was not a reflection on the ambassador’s ability or willingness to represent London.

James, for his part, affirmed that his mandate was to coordinate Britain’s efforts for peace and development in Nepal and hold consultations with its other international partners on how best to support the country.

In retrospect, if the special envoy played any significant role, Nepalis didn’t quite get the chance to experience it. James’ routine pleas for reconciliation between parties and the palace easily could have been conveyed by Bloomfield. By the latter half of his tenure, the only interest James’ arrival in Kathmandu seemed to spark related to whether he would get to meet King Gyanendra.

When James’ tenure ended earlier this year, Bloomfield regained the full spotlight as Britain’s top representative. Alas, he did not have much to add. After Britain joined India in halting military supplies to Nepal to protest King Gyanendra’s takeover for full executive powers on February 1, the palace cold-shouldered Bloomfield for months. After deposed prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba was convicted on corruption charges, Bloomfield wrote him a personal letter of support, which conveniently found its way to the press. His criticism of the royal regime’s policies has been so sustained that the Nepalese foreign ministry simply stopped summoning him to lodge a formal protest after the second time.

Bloomfield, to be sure, brings impressive credentials with great relevance to Nepal’s problems. Having worked for the Overseas Development Administration and the Ministry of Defense, he has a special understanding of two crucial areas for Nepal. He was deputy head of mission in Algiers during the convulsion triggered by the Algerian government’s annulment of an election that Islamic radicals were poised to win. So he knows how elections could be part of the problem. But, then, that was a case of invalidation of the popular mandate.

As head of the Counter Terrorism Policy Department in London for three years, he was actively involved in another issue of interest to Nepal. If Bloomfield refuses to equate the Maoists with terrorists who bombed the London Underground in July, he is certainly not shooting from the hip. But, then, neither the Irish Republican Army nor Al Qaeda has been going around blowing up bridges, hospitals, communication towers.

The British presidency of the European Union has catapulted Bloomfield into prominence, especially during the recent mission of the “troika”. If the EU thinks Nepal is on the verge of political collapse (codeword for state failure), Bloomfield must have played a major part in articulating such concerns.

Indeed, perpetual poverty and conflict in states where governments fail to fulfill the basic needs of the people can lead to mass hopelessness and despair. These nations could become havens for terror too dangerous for established states to tolerate.

Could Nepal be the testing ground for the “defensive imperialism” propounded by Blair’s onetime foreign policy guru, Robert Cooper, to bring order and organization out of chaos?


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