Wednesday, June 4, 2003

American intervention is needed in Nepal


Overshadowed in Nepal by the gush of news of the joyful celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest is a precarious peace process of a Himalayan dimension.

During my recent visit to the country, I saw a bustling commotion of activities aimed at resolving a bloody conflict between the government forces and Maoist insurgents. More than 7,000 lives have been lost in the last seven years of civil war. Though both sides put down their arsenals after a cease-fire in January, the battle of the words has intensified.

The triangle of conflict - among the monarchy, mainstream political parties and the extremist Maoists - is at its fullest display in Kathmandu’s public circles. King Gyanendra Shah, who assumed all executive powers after an unceremonious ouster of popularly elected Premier Sher Bahadur Deuba in early October 2002, has some of his handpicked Cabinet members making vigorous PR rounds in the local press in favor of a constitutional monarchy. The mainstream political parties, disgusted by regressive acts of the monarch, are waging a massive agitation against the king, demanding the reinstatement of the dissolved Parliament. The Maoists, with their agenda for abolition of monarchy and the establishment of a republican communist state, have surfaced publicly for the first time since the insurgency started in 1996.

For the majority of 25 million citizens, the euphoric formalization of a constitutional monarchy and a multiparty democracy in 1990 promised peace, stability and progress. Unfortunately, governmental corruption, mismanagement, a worsening economy, stagnant development efforts and slow pace of reforms during the decade have almost ruined the country, one of the poorest on the planet. The resultant hopelessness has helped to further the cause of the Maoists, who maintain considerable support among rural masses.

The public, long accustomed to the swinging moods of the feuding power bloks, remains mostly skeptical about any progress in the peace process, though many hope and plead for a settlement of some sort.

Such a breakthrough is plausible this time around. Until mid-2001, the world largely remained unmindful of the Nepali turmoil, taking it perhaps as just another Third World imbroglio. After the Shakespearean tragedy of June 1, the year when then-Crown Prince Dipendra allegedly mowed down the entire immediate royal family in a fit of rage, the international community woke up to the bizarre events in the Himalayan kingdom.

Then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, drastically changing U.S. foreign policy priorities.

Since then, joining the European Union, the United States has openly and often aggressively voiced concerns about the political developments in the kingdom. Even the neighboring countries of China and India, historically often at odds with one another about their overtures to Nepal, have begun to put subtle pressure on Kathmandu to resolve the problem through dialogue. There is no love lost between China and the Nepali rebels. The Maoists disparage what they call China’s "revisionism," and Beijing backs Nepal’s efforts to crack down on what it dubs "anti-government guerrillas."

The U.S. interest in the problem - manifested in its security and development aid this year amounting to some $70 million, exchange of military personnel and frequent visits by U.S. dignitaries, including Secretary of State Collin Powell in late January 2002 - has emboldened the government in its fight against the insurgents. Secret meetings have also taken place recently between U.S. Embassy officials and rebel leaders. The Maoists have softened their rhetoric. In view of the "changing geopolitical realities," as the insurgents’ ideologue Baburam Bhattarai put it, they opted for a dialogue and appear ready to compromise on many of their demands, including monarchy and a republican state.

But the rebels, who have in the past killed two security guards at the local U.S. Embassy and condemned any foreign intervention, have again questioned U.S. motives behind declaring the Maoists "terrorists" in mid-April by the Department of State - ironically, after the Nepali government withdrew this tag in an effort to open up the dialogue.

The U.S. concern about Nepal is based on the fact that the country might turn into a "failed state" just like the former Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in the neighborhood, "a potential haven for terrorists," in the words of U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Camp. The suspected links of Maoists with other South Asian extremist groups sharing similar violent agendas have also become a cause of concern.

Another is the regional conflagration - the likely spillover effect of the war on the Nepali diaspora of some 7 million scattered in India, Tibet and Bhutan. Only last week a Maoist party was launched in Bhutan, and India already has several of them.

The U.S. role in helping resolve the problem is important and inevitable. The United States, unlike the regional heavyweights China and India, has the means and capacity to be a neutral facilitator, if not a mediator. The neighboring powers, always suspect in the eyes of each other, would rather avoid directly meddling in Nepal anyway. The Times of India, a mainstream Indian daily, for instance, noted with urgency last week that "any headway towards ending the insurgency appears unlikely without Washington pitching in."

The U.S. role, however, is desirable to the extent that Washington wishes to pressure both the government and the rebels to sort out the problem through peaceful dialogue. The conflict should not be seen in terms of the war on terrorism. Nepal’s root problems lie in the malfunctioning of democracy and the lack of timely reforms. The country needs helping hands from its friends in the West to help nurture its democracy that could not have been there in the first place without their strong backing.

Citation: “American intervention is needed in Nepal,” Columbia Tribune, June 3, 2003. URL: