Category Archives: Nepal

Nepal & the Bush Administration: Into Thin Air

Foreign Policy In Focus

Feb. 3, 2004

Tucked into the upper stories of the Himalayas, Nepal hardy seems ground zero for the Bush Administration’s next crusade against “terrorism,” but an aggressive American ambassador, a strategic locale, and a flood of U.S. weaponry threatens to turn the tiny country of 25 million into a counter insurgency bloodbath.

More than 8,000 Nepalese have died since a civil war broke out in 1996, and the death rate has sharply increased with the arrival of almost 8,400 American M-16 submachine guns, accompanied by U.S. advisors, high tech night fighting equipment, and British helicopters.

For most Americans, Nepal, birthplace of the Buddha, and home to Everest, the world’s high mountain, is a charming tourist haven. For the native Nepalese, 42 percent of whom, according to the World Bank, live below the poverty line, Nepal is a land enchained in caste, riven with ethnic rivalries, and dominated by a feudal landlord class.

The central protagonists in the current war are King Gyanendra, who abolished an elected parliament last year, a rural insurrection, led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPNM), and a group of five political parties who found themselves out in the cold when the monarchy took over.

The Bush Administration has concluded that the civil war threatens to make Nepal into a “failed state,” and a haven for international terrorists, and has placed the NCPM on the State Department’s “Watch List,” along with organizations like al Qaida, Abu Sayaf, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Michael E. Malinowski compares CPNM leader, Baburam Bhattarai to Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Malinowski, whose track record includes service in Afghanistan and Pakistan, advocates an all-out military offensive aimed at the insurgency, recently telling the New York Times that the CPNM, “literally have to be bent back to the table.”

But it was the Nepalese government’s attempt to crush rural unrest that sparked the civil war in the first place, and virtually no one thinks there is a military solution to the insurrection. “The government forces, under the present policies, could win a couple of battles here and there,” writes analyst Romeet Kaul Watt in The Kashmir Tribune, “but will never win the war.”

The present war finds it roots in both the ongoing poverty in a nation that is 85 percent rural, and the failure of government to institute land reform measures following the restoration of representative government in 1990.

King Mahendra, father of the present King, dismissed an elective government in 1960. He ruled until his death in 1972, when his son, King Birendra, took over, eventually restoring democracy. But when conditions did not improve in rural areas, peasants began agitating against onerous rents. The government responded by sending the military into the countryside—Operation Romeo and Operation Kilo Sera II—which did little more than radicalize poor farmers, and recruit members for the CPNM.

The war, like most civil wars, has been brutal. While most of the civilian deaths are attributed to government forces, Amnesty International accused both sides of “unlawful criminal deaths.” The CPNM has assassinated government supporters and police, and occasionally bombed Kathmandu. The government has “disappeared” opponents, razed villages, and executed CPNM members and their supporters.

Over the past two years the Royal Nepal Army has beefed itself up to 72,000, but it isn’t large enough to win a war against the CPNM’s 4,000 core members, and its 15,000 or so militia supporters. In any case, most the Army is concentrated near the capital, Kathmandu.

However, with the recent influx of U.S. M-16s, Belgium FAL submachine guns, and British helicopters, the army has grown more aggressive, and death rates have climbed. The latest round of fighting was set off last August by a government massacre of 19 villagers. In the first month following the collapse of a seven-month cease-fire, civilian deaths tripled. According to the Nepal human rights group, Informal Sector Service Centre, of the 1100 deaths since the end of the cease fire, over 800 have been inflicted by government forces.

A major culprit in the escalating death rate is the appearance of modern assault rifles, the real “Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

Since 1990, more than five million people have died in wars around the globe, upwards of 90 percent of them from AK-47s, M-16s, FALs, German G3s, and Israeli Uzis. According the Red Cross, more than 60 percent of the civilian casualties are caused by submachine guns, and the United Nations Development Program estimates that small arms kill 300,000 people a year.

Modern assault rifles are far more deadly than the previous generations of weapons because they combine rapid-fire power with high velocity ammunition. The combination of “Rounds Per Minute” (RPM)—the AK-47 delivers 600 RPMs, the M-16 up to 950 RPMs—and the enormous speed of the bullets, is a deadly one. Fatalities from wounds have skyrocketed, particularly in places where medical care is primitive.

At $13.3 billion a year, the U.S. is the number one arms dealer in the world, far ahead of the Russians ($5 billion) and the French ($1 billion). The bulk of that–$8.6 billion—goes to developing countries like Nepal.

Besides killing and wounding civilians, these small, but savage wars inflict enormous indirect damage. Studies on Cambodian and Bosnian refugees by Richard F. Mollica, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, found that more than two-thirds suffered from clinical depression, and almost 40 percent from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders.

But efforts to curb the small arms trade have met stiff resistance. A recent proposal by Canada to ban the sale of small arms to “non-state actors” was derailed by the Americans, who have used such forces as an extension of foreign policy in places like Afghanistan and Central America.

Our ally in this war hardly fits the democracy profile the Bush Administration talks so much about. One of the first acts of the King Gyanendra was to dismiss the elected government of Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Dueba for alleged “incompetence.”

Kathmandu has been the focus of demonstrations demanding democracy and the reinstatement of parliament ever since, including one that drew 8,000 in late December. The Nepalese daily, Rajdhani, reported Jan. 25 that the five political parties had thrown their support behind a growing student movement, which is demanding a republic. According to Rajdhani, “The parties decided to support protests of women, labourers, farmers, intellectuals and different professional organizations as well.”

Krishna Sitaula, central committee member of the Nepal Congress Party, warned that the attempt by the King to impose an autocracy would backfire, and hinted that the insurrection in the countryside and the protests in the cities might have common ground. “Right now, the country is moving towards a republic,” he said, adding,“Maoists will give up violence and join us in the movement.” Whether the CPNM would actually do that is by no means clear.

The U.S. has once again aligned itself with absolutism in its war on “terror,” a war that is not only costing Nepalese lives, but has wrecked the economy and tanked the lucrative tourist trade. For the second year in a row, the Nepalese economy shrank.

It is also heating up an area of the world with explosive potential. Nepal borders both India and China( Tibet). Both generally support the royalist forces, but are none too happy about the growing U.S. involvement.

According to the Asia Times, last summer Indian Foreign Secretary Kanwai Sibal warned against “outside assistance” to Nepal, and the Indian press is grumbling about the U.S. ignoring a 1950 Friendship agreement—one that greatly favored India—between New Delhi and Kathmandu. Publicly India and China have soft-pedaled their opposition to U.S. intervention, but if the war expands, it could spill over into both countries. Tibet is restless under Peking’s rule, and northern India has a number of long-standing separatist movements.

The CPNM has accused the U.S. of undermining efforts to affect a peaceful settlement. On the CPNM’s website, party leader Bhattarai accused the U.S. of being “one of the chief wreckers of the peace talks.”

According to the New York Times, the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) is exploring ways to add another $14 million in “insurgency relevant” aid to the $17 million in current U.S. military aid. AID was one of the main funnels for the U.S. government’s support for the South Vietnamese regime

While it seems a stretch to compare Vietnam to Nepal, replace “terrorism” with “Communism,” and the parallels are disturbingly similar. In his book “In Retrospect,” former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara admitted that the U.S. was “wrong, terribly wrong,” about Vietnam. He recently told Doug Saunders of the Globe & Mail (Canada) pretty much the same thing about the U.S. in Iraq:”It’s just wrong what we’re doing. It’s morally wrong, it’s politically wrong, it’s economically wrong.”

One can only hope that 30 years from now we don’t read similar words about U.S. intervention in Nepal.

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Nepal-Nursing the Pinion

Foreign Policy In Focus

Feb. 7, 2005

While the U.S., India and Great Britain have sharply condemned the Feb.1 coup by King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah of Nepal, the policies of those three governments vis-à-vis the ongoing civil war in the Himalayan nation must share considerable blame for the present crisis.

Declaring a state of emergency, the King placed leaders of Nepal’s political parties, as well as Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, under house arrest. Gyanendra also suspended constitutional rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and a free press, and authorized preventative detention.

The proported rationale for the takeover was the inability of the Deuba government to end the nine-year insurgency by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPNM) and the failure to organize parliamentary elections. Nepal has not had a parliament since the king dissolved it in 2002.

But the real reason appears to be achimera, a fantasy that the government can win a military victory over the CPNM. It is an illusion fueled in large part by an avalanche of modern weaponry, plus military training, that has poured into the country from India, the U.S., and Britain.

More than 12,000 U.S. M-16s, 5,000 Belgium FLN sub-machine guns, and some 20,000 rifles from India have filled the arms coffers of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) since 2001. Britain has added helicopters armed with machine guns and rockets. The size of the RNA has grown from 50,000 to 73,000 and is due to reach 80,000 next year. If one counts the police, Royalist forces now number 138,000.

While the insurgent forces are small—4,000 core soldiers and about 15,000 supporters—virtually no independent observers believe the central government can defeat them, because the roots of the war are in the social and economic poverty of the nation.

Nepal is the 12th poorest country in the world, where, according to the World Bank, 42 percent of the population live below the poverty line. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the annual national income is just $241 per capita.

The civil war, which has claimed some 11,000 lives, has been an ugly one, the brutality of which has sharply escalated with the recent influx of arms and counterinsurgency training. Over 800 people died this past December alone.

According to Amnesty International, there has also been a “dramatic escalation” in the number of “disappearances,” some 378 in just the last year, more than in the previous five years combined.

Amnesty has called on government security forces to halt the practice and to stop blocking investigations into the disappearances by the courts and Nepal’s Human Rights Commission. Amnesty also charges widespread use of torture and extrajudical executions by the RNA and the police.

While the majority of deaths have come at the hands of government forces, both sides engage in murder and intimidation, and the CPNM has been accused of forced recruiting in the countryside.

The Feb. 1 coup was roundly denounced by the king’s foreign allies.

“These developments constitute a serious setback to the cause of democracy in Nepal and cannot but be a cause of grave concern for India,” said a statement by India’s foreign ministry shortly after the takeover. India also pulled out of a meeting of the South Asian Assn. for Regional Co-Operation in Dhaka to protest the coup, effectively torpedoing the summit.

U.S. State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher, said the Bush Administration was “deeply troubled by the apparent step back from democracy,” and called for an “immediate move toward restoring of multiparty democratic institutions.”

The British government expressed similar sentiments.

But while the King’s allies appeared genuinely distressed at this latest development, it should hardly come as a surprise. Back in early December, The Economist was predicting a coup. Citing the arming and training of the RNA by India and the U.S., the editors wrote:

“This (the foreign military aid) helps contain the Maoist threat. But it also bolsters those in the king’s camp who think that a military victory is possible and might be easier if the trappings of democracy were jettisoned. The information minister, seen as the king’s man in the cabinet, has dropped hints of a more ‘authoritarian’ government. Many human-rights activists and politicians in Kathmandu expect the king and the army to assume more direct power and, blaming the war, suspend many civil liberties.”

The Dec. 2 article was almost a blueprint for what happened Feb. 1.

On Feb. 4, Reuters reported that the RNA Chief of Staff said the coup was aimed at forcing the Maoist insurgents back to the negotiating table. As the arrest of trade union and political leaders continued in Kathmandu, the army chief said, “Now we can solely go after the Maoists in a single-minded manner without having to worry about what’s going to happen on the streets, people’s agitation.”

The comment on how to negotiate with the Maoists echoed a statement made last year by former U.S. Ambassador Michael Malinowski that the CPNM “literally have to be bent back to the table.”

The Bush Administration sees the Nepal insurgency as another domino in its international war on terrorism, arguing that the country could become a “failed state” and hence a haven for terrorists. The CPNM has been placed on the State Department’s “Watch List,” along with Al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf, and Hezbollah.

While the White House claims this is about “terrorism,” there are suspicions in the region that American involvement is also part of an overall U.S. plan to ring China with military bases and regimes friendly, or at least beholden, to Washington.

India is deeply involved in Nepal, in part because Nepal borders long-time adversary China, in part because of its own internal “war on terrorism.”

India has stepped up counter insurgency operations against what it calls “Naxalites” (India’s term for Maoist or communist insurgents) in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh.

In a speech last year, former Indian Home Minister Lai Krishna Advani said, “Maoists of Nepal are trying to create trouble in India and the central government will initiate immediate steps to launch a stringent action to end existing relations between the Maoists of Nepal and the Indian Naxalites.”

While it is true that Nepal Maoists occasionally use India as a haven, there is no evidence of any serious cooperation or coordination between any of these groups. The Indian insurgencies are driven more by local conditions than by any pan-Indian collusion with Nepal Maoists. And in any case, the groups don’t share a common ideology, political program, or even goals.

The right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which Advani was a founder, went down to defeat in the last Indian election, but there is no indication that New Delhi has altered its policies vis-à-vis Nepal or its own internal insurgent movements.

India recently arrested Mohan Vaidya in Darjeeling, West Bengal, the number three person in the CPNM, and turned him over to the Kathmandu authorities.

The CPNM retaliated by attacking some Indian-owned oil tankers near the Uttar Pradesh border, and trying to whip up a nationalist campaign that India intends invading Nepal. The Maoists have even been building fortified trenches on the border to repel such an invasion, although it is a very unlikely scenario.

The Feb. 1 coup puts the King firmly back in power, which will undoubtedly ramp up the war in the countryside. However, besides adding to the list of dead, wounded and disappeared, such escalation is unlikely to alter the present stalemate. Breaking that deadlock will be almost impossible unless two things happen:

*An immediate embargo on arms and training for the RNA by the U.S., India and Britain. While Washington and New Delhi warn that such an embargo could mean victory for the CPNM, no serious independent analyst thinks that the Maoists can overthrow the government by force of arms;

* Mediation by either independent parties, or the United Nations.

Some Scandinavian nations have already proposed UN intervention, as has the Asian Human Rights Commission. In a recent statement, the Hong Kong-based rights group said, “If no serious intervention is made at this stage by the United Nations and the international community to stop the escalation of violence, a bloodbath could easily take place while the movement of the people and news is restricted.”

It is a step which the Maoists favor, but which the U.S. and the Indians oppose. The former do so because of the Bush Administration’s reflexive hostility to the world body; the Indians because they fear external mediation might be used to address their own insurgent movements and the on-going crisis in Kashmir.

These countries have intervened in Nepal’s civil war for reasons having to do with their own internal affairs, foreign policy strategies, and political ideologies, not because any of them are overly concerned with the welfare of the Nepalese. In the name of a jihad on “terrorism,” or paranoia about their own internal insurgents, they have nursed the pinion of military aid. Can they really be surprised when that pinion finally impels the steel of a military coup?

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