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Where It Is A Crime To Be A Nepali

Where It Is A Crime To Be A Nepali

By Krishna Singh Bam

LAST week’s frenzied consultations among Nepalese opposition leaders, Maoist rebels and Indian officials in New Delhi triggered extraordinary interest because of an unusual fourth participant. James F. Moriarty, the Bush administration’s chief diplomat in Nepal, flew in for discussions with the American Embassy in the Indian capital. He emerged to raise the stakes by urging King Gyanendra to make “tough decisions” in the days ahead.

The much-expected news conference announcing the anti-palace agreement between the mainstream parties and Maoist rebels did not materialize. Details of the understanding trickled in, as top leaders continued to insist they had visited Delhi for medical treatment. According to the broad contours available, the Maoists have agreed to lay down their arms under international supervision, join mainstream multiparty politics and abide by the popular mandate resulting from an election to a constituent assembly. The Maoists, for their part, have maintained a deafening silence on the conclave.

King Gyanendra, on an extended tour of Africa and the Middle East, has shown no intention of cutting short his visit. It seems future rounds of talks between the parties, the rebels and their facilitators will be necessary before a clear picture emerges.

Berated for lack of sensitivity to the country’s problems while in power, the mainstream parties have exhibited great magnanimity. In an effort to promote peace and reconciliation in Nepal, they have been trying to mainstream a group whose deadly wrath they have incurred for almost a decade. Ordinarily, the urgency of this endeavor would demand that Nepalis not second-guess the motives of all those involved.

The timing of the consultations and the open involvement of Moriarty, who until early last week was publicly opposed to accepting the Maoists as a legitimate political force, raise serious questions. Have the parties sufficiently assured the U.S. government of the Maoists’ full faith in peaceful and democratic politics? Or did Moriarty want to personally witness the contents of a putative mainstream-Maoist accord lest it harm American’s interest? If so, is Washington playing its own cards under the much-vaunted façade of consensus with New Delhi and London on Nepal’s deepening crisis?

China Written All Over

The New Delhi consultations have been widely – and not without good reason – described as a response to Nepal’s role in having China associated with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) as an observer in exchange for Afghanistan’s full membership.

Afghanistan’s membership in the body had been mooted for several years. Of course, opinion within the region was divided depending on who was in power in Kabul. India’s enthusiasm for Afghanistan’s membership grew exponentially with the installation of the Hamid Karzai government following the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taleban regime.

A fellow landlocked nation, Nepal has not suffered a fraction of the foreign-inflicted death and destruction Afghanistan has seen. Moreover, it’s hard to think of another country that has had to endure both Soviet and American bombs in the lifetime of a generation. Nepalis want to avoid the fate of Afghanistan at all costs. Nepal’s opposition was not to Afghanistan’s membership per se but to any pick-and-choose mechanism sought to be imposed by one member.

Although Kathmandu was in no position to acknowledge it, the real objective was to dilute India’s influence in South Asia by roping in China – an objective shared by Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, not to mention Pakistan, which have been similarly alienated by unwarranted pressure from the largest SAARC member. Much of the post-summit discussions have focused on this fact to the point of obscuring another geopolitical shift in the region.

A Greater Game

Afghanistan will remain in full sight of the United States for the foreseeable future. While the country has been part of the State Department’s Bureau of South Asian Affairs, Washington has envisaged a wider role for Kabul in the emerging geopolitical landscape of the region. The Bush administration wants to expand the South Asia Bureau to include half a dozen of the former republics of the Soviet Union from the European bureau, according to The Washington Post. These countries are Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkemenistan.

The main reason, according to The Post, was the thinking in the State Department that the "stans" have a lot more in common in terms of culture, religion, customs, language and drug smuggling, with South Asia than any other region. Left unsaid was the fact that by shifting the geopolitical locus of South Asia closer to Kabul, the United States could widen its foothold across strategically important Central Asia. Three of the five former Soviet republics drawing increasing American interest share borders with China.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has proposed career foreign service officer Richard Boucher, the longest serving assistant secretary of state for public affairs, to head the newly structured South Asia bureau. Boucher served as U.S. Consul-General in Hong Kong during the handover to China in 1997 and has had a tour of duty in Taiwan. He is considered a strong China hand. Half of the countries envisaged under the purview of an expanded South Asia Bureau have borders with China. Clearly, Kathmandu’s role in securing the inclusion of Beijing as an observer in SAARC was bound to be seen as a greater offense by Washington than by New Delhi.

The China threat, to be sure, has not taken the form of the anti-Soviet hysteria of the Cold War. Under the surface, however, some of the currents are more virulent. The Chinese economy has had a degree of influence on Washington and the wider western world few Soviet leaders could have contemplated. When a Chinese firm sought to buy the American oil company Unocal earlier this year, the Americans went berserk over threats to their national security to the point where the bidder pulled out.

The headlines the Chinese currency’s “overvaluation” makes on the front pages would make Mao Zedong squirm in his mausoleum. The dollar-euro proportion in which the Chinese would prefer to keep their massive foreign currency reserves is scrutinized with the detail Kremlinologists once read Moscow tea leaves. China’s military modernization, space program and diplomatic engagement with governments Washington denounces have fueled fears.

Neocons And Containment

Amid the rancor in which it took office in 2001, the Bush administration expounded its worldview with remarkable candor early on. In the eyes of the neoconservatives that began to dominate U.S. foreign and defense policy, China posed the greatest challenge to American global superiority and needed to be contained. The tensions between the U.S. and China over the American spy plane forced to land on a Chinese island, Taiwan and the missile defense program are easily forgotten in the post-9/11 environment. (Moriarty, a political counselor at the U.S. embassy in Beijing was credited with urging a moderation of Washington’s early belligerence, a policy shift deemed instrumental in resolving the spy plane dispute.)

The reality that the underlying tensions remain was illustrated by President Bush, who cited Taiwan’s record of democracy to cite the mainland to empower its people, on the eve of his trip to China last week. Bush’s abandonment of diplomatic etiquette perhaps illustrates the compulsion of a weakening presidency to shore up its neoconservative base. (Interestingly, Moriarty pops up here, too. In late 2003 when President Bush publicly chastised Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian for planning a referendum on whether to ask Beijing to renounce the use of force against the island, he drew a fiery response from the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. The group criticized Moriarty, then Asia director for the National Security Council, for authoring a dangerous policy shift. Like any seasoned bureaucrat, Moriarty must have learned his lesson well. In such circumstances, the Chinese government could hardly have been tricked into seeing Moriarty’s arrival in Kathmandu as a U.S. overture.)

Although much of Bush’s talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao focused on economic issues, the political content was hardly missing. By putting Mongolia, situated between China and Russia, on the presidential itinerary, the White House made its intentions clear. So much so that a New York Times editorial over the weekend spoke of an emergence of Cold War-like spheres of influence.

Tilt And Tragedy

For Nepal, there is a sense of déjà vu here. During the final months of his life, King Birendra had decided to strengthen Nepal’s political and economic ties with China in an effort to correct the tilt toward India that had developed under a decade of multiparty democracy. Relations between Nepal, the world’s only Hindu kingdom, and India had plummeted to their nadir under the government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

China, which had displayed remarkable candor in the early 1990s in recognizing Nepal’s traditional ties with India, shifted gears by the end of the decade. Senior Chinese leaders began describing Nepal’s open border with India as a security threat to their own country. The escape of the Karmapa Lama – the third ranking leader in Tibetan Buddhism – to India via Nepal raised Chinese concerns. The escalation of Maoist terrorism led China to strongly denounce any attempts to associate the Nepalese insurgency with the name of the founder of the People’s Republic. Nepalese Maoist leaders, for their part, grew more strident in their criticism of what they considered Beijing’s repudiation of Mao Zedong Thought.

Chinese Defense Minister Chi Hoatian arrived in Kathmandu in a hastily arranged visit. Military contacts between Nepal and China grew in frequency. The Chinese government honored King Birendra by inviting him as the chief guest to the first session of the Boao Forum, the Asian equivalent of sessions in Davos, Switzerland. During Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji’s visit to Nepal in May, the palace forced Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to sign an accord on building a second road link between China and Nepal, citing its importance to the underdeveloped northern districts of the kingdom. Koirala responded by ordering a blackout in the official media of salient portions of Zhu’s speech at an official luncheon. Those portions, predictably, spoke of the monarchy’s role in fostering Nepal-China ties.

The palace’s decision to build closer ties with China was not popular with the Americans. India, already angered by the monarch’s shrewdness in taking the Supreme Court’s advice to effectively veto a citizenship bill passed by parliament that would have given millions of Indians Nepali citizenship, had a powerful ally against the palace. At least two prominent members of Nepal’s current council of ministers had then voiced concern over how Washington and New Delhi might respond to the palace-led assertion of Nepalese independence. Barbara Adams, a Nepal-based American writer, had written an impassioned column cautioning readers about signs of growing American military presence in the kingdom. Beyond that, Nepalis were blissfully unaware of the portents.

We continue to hear a lot about how then-Prince Gyanendra was mysteriously away from Kathmandu on the night of the massacre. However, few remember how the U.S. and British ambassadors had gone on an unscheduled sojourn with the prince after persuading the Indian ambassador to return to Kathmandu. Throughout the night of the massacre, CNN stood by its story that one brother of the king was alive, while Indian TV channels insisted that the entire royal line of succession was wiped out and the Maoists were about to take over the palace. (Perhaps Rabinder Singh, the senior officer of India’s spy agency RAW who defected to the United States last year, could shed some light on the Indian side of the story.)

In the media frenzy, we lost track of other significant details, including a deal to buy German guns pushed by the Koirala’s family which Crown Prince Dipendra had vetoed citing poor manufacturing standards. What about the series of political consultations Crown Prince Dipendra had begun with younger Nepalis? What about reports that King Birendra had begun assuring prominent Nepalis in his final days that he had lost patience with the eternally squabbling politicians? Until the evening of the palace massacre, it is instructive to note, the political conversation focused on Prime Minister Koirala’s thinly veiled assertions that he was finally about to become the real leader of Nepal.

King Gyanendra, long cast as a palace hardliner opposed to his brothers democratic reforms in 1990, was burdened by negative public perceptions of his only son, Paras. The fact that Paras, a controversial figure at the center of a number of scandals, including his killing a popular musician in a car accident, escaped unhurt from the palace carnage and his mother took only minor bullet injuries helped those within the country and abroad who wanted the monarchy – albeit a grievously injured one – to continue.

Where did their calculations go wrong? Did the new monarch, mindful of the lowest depths of popularity he had already hit, decide to exercise the independence his late brother had begun? In retrospect, the palace massacre merely delayed that much-needed correction in Nepal’s foreign- and security- policy imbalance.

Shifting Alliances

The options are obviously shrinking for Washington and New Delhi. They have begun thinly disguised attempts to drive a wedge between the palace and the army. “We understand your need for modern weapons and training,” the argument goes, “but your supreme commander in chief’s behavior is preventing us from helping you.” Senator Patrick Leahy was blunt in urging the military to choose between the palace and the people. Others in Washington and New Delhi may have been less outspoken in conveying that message, but its resonance is unmistakable.

At one level, the Indian government’s overtures to the Nepalese Maoists – which New Delhi officially considers terrorists -- can be viewed as stemming from enlightened self-interest. Indian Maoists, who enjoy close ties with their Nepali counterparts, overran a major prison in Bihar state last week, freeing hundreds of inmates and rattling the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Maoist groups are active in at least nine Indian stats.

Ideally, as an Indian, you don’t negotiate with terrorists. But when the stakes are high enough – such as the hijacking of an Indian airliner shortly after takeoff from Kathmandu in 1999 -- you free their jailed comrades and put them on the plane together with your foreign minister to secure the freedom of your fellow citizens in Kandahar. Stakes is a term we have been hearing with greater frequency from Indian officials in recent days.

As for the Americans, whose much-hyped victims of Maoist terrorism were Nepali staffers at the embassy, the land of Mao will remain the greater threat. Nepal’s Maoists may be on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, but that time-tested dictum has prevailed: Your enemy’s enemy is your friend. In Nepal, it has become a crime to be a Nepali.


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