Nepal: Where The U.S. Can Make A Huge Difference
By Krishna Singh Bam
The alarm expressed by the U.S. government last week over the possibility of an alliance between Nepal’s mainstream opposition parties and Maoist rebels against King Gyanendra has put Washington’s stand on the kingdom’s crisis at odds with India’s.
The fact that India has been using the Maoist insurgency to further its own aims in Nepal has not been lost on key Americans. Peter Burleigh, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for instance, wondered not too long ago how senior Nepalese Maoist leaders so easily accessible to Western reporters based in India could evade Indian security agencies.
The U.S. has forcefully affirmed that the Maoists could not be considered a legitimate political force until they enter into peace negotiations with the government in good faith, abandon their weapons, and come into the political mainstream. Whether this marks a belated recognition of the futility of Washington’s effort to coordinate policy with New Delhi on Nepal remains unclear. It does provide an opportunity for the United States to help Nepal restore peace and stability and become a truly free and prosperous democracy.
The U.S. statement came days after seven U.S. Congressmen urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to devise a coherent policy on Nepal. In an October 28 letter, the Congressmen urged Rice to call a high-level intra-agency group to "discuss, develop and implement" the strategy to address the situation in Nepal.
As the congressmen stated, a package of diplomatic intervention, economic development, and restoration of civil security is urgently required to pull Nepal out of the quagmire. For the last eight months, the United States, like much of the world, has urged King Gyanendra to embrace democratic governance. The royal government has announced municipal and parliamentary elections within the next two years. However, the mainstream opposition parties have threatened to boycott the elections and forge an alliance with the Maoists. Mid-ranking members of the opposition alliance privately suggest that their top leadership is guided and goaded by India.
Let there be no mistake. Nepalis are a realistic people. They recognize that India is a giant neighbor that could extend great benefits for Nepal. However, the all-round subjugation India has enshrined as its policy on Nepal has posed a major hurdle. From imposing patently unequal treaties on Nepal to encroaching the kingdom’s territory, India has not been a very credible partner. Worse, Indian leaders blame the aggrieved Nepalis for the misfortune gripping the kingdom. Other South Asian countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka – not to speak of Pakistan – have been complaining of this heavy-handedness.
What Nepalis really desire is the opportunity to exercise unencumbered the sovereign rights they are entitled to as an independent nation. Throughout its 237-year history, Nepal has been cognizant of the sensitivities of its other giant neighbor, China. Despite Nepal’s traditionally close multi-faceted ties with India, the kingdom cannot ignore the imperative of mutually beneficial cooperation with the Chinese. If Nepal, for instance, deepens transport links with China by building roads, it could help ensure cost-effective supply of food grains to perennially deficit areas in the north. Why should India view every Nepalese move to deepen ties with China as a brandishing of an anti-India card?
The Nepalese aspiration to consolidate its independence and sovereign rights will only deepen in the years ahead, regardless of whether it remains a monarchy or becomes a republic. For several years now, the United States has taken the misguided course of forging its policy on the kingdom in consultation with India. This has raised the suspicions of China, needlessly heightening tensions in an already volatile region.
Few believe that the Maoist rebels can be defeated militarily. Fewer still quibble with the grievances they have brought to the fore. Despite their fiery rhetoric, the Maoist leadership recognizes the impossibility of mounting a total victory against the present government. The question of whether they can sustain a radical hardcore communist government in this day and age becomes irrelevant.
Since many of the Maoist strings are being pulled across Nepal’s southern border by mid-level functionaries in the security and intelligence establishment in India, there is a real fear of continuing chaos. U.S. policymakers must not lose sight of the fact that sections of the Indian establishment have been instrumental in forging a mainstream-Maoist alliance against the palace. Recent Indian media reports are sufficient to establish the extent official Indian connivance in crafting this unnatural alliance.
There is enough historical evidence to suggest that India’s purpose is not to ensure peace, stability and democracy in Nepal. It is to weaken the kingdom to its core and fulfill India’s decades-long desire of bringing the last independent Himalayan kingdom under its diplomatic and security umbrella. India annexed the former kingdom of Sikkim in 1975, after engineering political strife. Although still a nominally independent kingdom, Bhutan has handed over its foreign and defense policies to India.
Ever since Nepal opened itself to the rest of the world in the 1950s, the United States has proved to be a true friend in word and deed. Washington provided firm support to Nepal’s effort to become a member of the United Nations, an initiative caught in successive Soviet vetoes. It has assisted Nepal’s development in such vital fields as health, education, transportation.
Legions of Peace Corp volunteers have lived and worked with ordinary Nepalis. Many former volunteers currently occupy senior positions in U.S. government, business and academia and remain strong friends of Nepal. As the United States strives to advance peace and democracy around the world, it is in a unique position to help Nepal strengthen its sovereignty.
For most Americans, King Gyanendra’s dismissal of a multiparty government and takeover of full executive powers on February 1 has brought the restoration of democracy as the prime imperative. Important as this endeavor is, it must not obscure Nepal’s aspiration to gain full sovereignty. By crafting its own policy on Nepal, based on shared values and decades-old ties, the United States can make a huge difference.