Thursday, January 24, 2002

Powell’s Kathmandu Stopover

By Dharma Adhikari
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Friday stopover in Nepal during his South Asian trip comes at a time when the Himalayan kingdom is struggling with one of the most difficult times in its modern history. Powell’s visit may not produce magical solutions to the impoverished country’s many problems, but the symbolic eminence of his trip will go a long way in emboldening Nepal’s resolve in fighting the vices inflicting the infant democracy.

As much as it applies to the United States, 2001 turned out to be a terrible year for the 23 million citizens in Nepal. The country, already reeling under violent Maoist insurgency for the past six years, experienced in early June the gruesome massacre of almost all members of its royal family. A state of emergency remains effectively in place with the Army deployed for the first time to fight the insurgents since late November.

Owing largely to corruption, mismanagement and partisan squabbles, no less than seven governments have come and gone in the last ten years. With the virtual collapse of tourism, the major foreign exchange earner, economy has been in shambles. The appalling poverty has contributed to the disillusionment of the rural populace, thus inspiring many to sympathize with the insurgents’ cause.

These developments underscore the immensity and intensity of the transition in a largely traditional society. The good thing, and a surprise to many, is that democracy remains intact, though unstable. With the curtailing of civil liberties and press freedom under the recently imposed emergency, democratic breakdown has become the foremost concern for Nepalis.

Amid this calamitous context, Powell’s Kathmandu visit, the first official Nepal trip by a U.S. Secretary of State, holds special significance to both countries. The Himalayan nation, a faithful ally of the U.S., almost disappeared from the American policy agenda since the end of Cold War. The last time a high-ranking U.S. official visited the country was in 1970, when Vice President Spiro Agnew arrived Kathmandu during a critical phase of the CIA-aided Tibetan Khampa uprising in the north of the country.

Though U.S. and international pressure was instrumental in the late slain King Birendra’s relinquishing of absolute power in 1990 in favor of democracy, American support for the consolidation of democracy remained largely inconsequential. When President Clinton chose to bypass Nepal during his week-long visit to South Asia in late 2000, many Nepalis felt that the United States responded only to military muscle and economic opportunity.

Powell’s trip resonates with Agnew visit, which took place at a time when Nepal, under Chinese pressure, had deployed its army to repel the Khampa rebels. This time round, Nepali soldiers are fighting an internal war. If anything, the September 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. has made the U.S. extra-sensitive to flash points around the world. Instability in Nepal is a cause for concern for the U.S.-led war against terrorism in the region. Powell’s visit may help to send a message that struggling democracies matter, too. Powell has likened Nepal’s fight against Maoist insurgency to U.S. war against terrorism.

Indeed, the deployment of the army against the rebels was long overdue, pending U.S. and international support. Following President Bush’s example, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba declared Maoists terrorists last November and the new King Gyanendra unleashed the army. The rebellion, which has put neighboring nuclear powers China and India at unease, threatening to disrupt the delicate regional balance, has resulted in more than 2,200 deaths. Given the Maoists’ anti-America rhetoric, the Himalayan buffer nation not far away from Kabul could be another Afghanistan in the waiting.

U.S. support will be critical in winning the war against the Maoists, whose ultimate goal is to establish a communist republic atop the world. More than 60 percent of the cost of the poverty-stricken country’s development projects is covered by foreign aid, a portion of it from Washington. Nepal has asked the United States for extra financial support in addition to its $23 million annual assistance. Although the U.S. was the first donor of Nepal in the early 50s, it’s assistance to Nepal today is superseded by Japan, Germany and the Netherlands.

During his meeting with the leaders, Powell has appreciated Nepal’s support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism. He also has pledged to review aid allocation, rescinding of State Department travel warning for Nepal, and duty-free access for Nepali garments exports to U.S. Since it is mainly rampant poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment, and lack of adequate social and economic reforms that has bred the Maoist utopianism, the U.S. needs to make sure that its money goes into development projects rather than to buy guns and grenades.

American support to war against the Maoists can be disastrous, if the U.S. fails to balance its concern for regional stability with Nepal’s need of security and prosperity, and its support for military measures with human rights and civil liberties. Otherwise, there is the possibility of encouraging repression and democratic reversal. Nepal’s future lies in harnessing its immense hydropower potential. Increased U.S. investments in this sector would dramatically alter the country’s economic landscape. This could also relieve the country from aid-dependency and lead to self-sustenance.

As a country that joined the modern world community only five decades ago, Nepal is now struggling to cope with the sudden and catastrophic change that has made the course of democracy unpredictable and appalling. If the symbolism of Powell’s visit could translate into a long-term commitment, it may help endure peace and freedom in Nepal.

Citation: "Powell’s Kathmandu Stopover,"  Columbia Missourian, Jan 22, 2002, p. 5.