New guns in an old battle

Print edition : February 14, 2003

With the United States having substantially reinforced its military commitment in Nepal, the Himalayan nation is being sucked into the vortex of a U.S.-India-U.K. military situation.

in Kathmandu

King Gyanendra.-GOPAL CHITRAKAR/REUTERS

AMERICAN M16 guns have arrived for the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) to fight the Maoist rebels. The guns have come as part of the United States' support for the fight against `terrorism' globally. It is the latest in a succession of weapon systems and transport equipment to bolster the fighting capacity of the RNA against the seven-year-old `Peoples War' led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). The move signals the strategic convergence of the U.S., India and the U.K. to contain the Maoist rebels militarily, to ensure that the "rebels don't win by violence" and that the state "doesn't lose out to rebel violence". A British diplomat said: "Our commitment still is to a negotiated settlement; militarily such a war cannot be won." However, international backing for a `war for peace' strategy runs the risk of strengthening the Nepal state's belief that it can win militarily. Also, as Nepali Congress leader Girija Prasad Koirala warned, military assistance to the RNA has political implications, for it could bolster autocratic impulses at a time when multi-party democracy has been rendered irrelevant in the country.

The Nepali liberal intelligentsia and human rights activists have warned against a dangerous military escalation of the civil war as both the RNA and the Maoists (by means of seizures of RNA equipment) arm themselves with the new-generation weapons. In these seven years the death roll has been 7,383. Two-thirds of this number constitutes those killed in the past year after the Army was deployed against the Maoists. The number of casualties can be expected to increase manifold as machine-guns, like the Belgium Minimi, are inducted. This particular gun system can shoot a thousand rounds a minute and has a range of 1 km. It can easily be mounted on a land-based vehicle or a helicopter. The RNA already has 500 Minimi gun systems, and 5,500 more are coming. In addition, the RNA has acquired from India two Cheetah helicopters and from the U.K. two M17 helicopters. It plans to expand the strength of its air wing to comprise about 18 flying machines.

What is cause for even greater concern is the pervasive national culture of impunity, making for systemic human rights violations in the course of the civil war. Already, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have raised an alarm over arbitrary killings, disappearances, torture and rape allegedly committed by members of the security forces. It is in response to international human rights concerns that British and U.S. military assistance come twined with human rights training.

Indeed, the Maoist leadership too is tactically shifting the conflict agenda and making human rights violations the central issue. In a recent interview to a U.S.-based newspaper, CPN (Maoist) chairman Pushpa K. Dahal alias Comrade Prachanda sought to appropriate the human rights platform and called upon the authorities to stop `state terrorism'. Giving examples (several of them from the Amnesty International report), he accused the Army and the police of human rights abuses against members of the public, in particular supporters of his organisation, and called for an end to these abuses as a precondition for a dialogue. Meanwhile, human rights abuses committed by the Maoists are dismissed as false allegations or explained as constituting "punishment" of informers.

The growing involvement of the U.S. in putting the Maoists on the terrorist map has prompted the top Maoist leadership to woo American public opinion actively and seek to allay fears about an `ultra' Maoist agenda and risk to individual Americans in Nepal. Ahead of Prachanda's interview, Baburam Bhattarai, the No. 2 man in the Maoist hierarchy, gave an interview to a Washington-based newspaper on December 14, 2002.

In December, the U.S. embassy in Kathmandu initiated the process of placing the Maoists on at least two of three U.S. `terrorist' lists. This move had significant implications for immigration and funding prospects. This followed the visit to Nepal of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca. She had put the Maoists on notice. "If you employ terrorist tactics, then you are in fact a terrorist,'' she said, equating the tactics of the Maoists with those resorted to by Cambodia's Pol Pot in an earlier decade.

Armed Nepalese soldiers patrol the streets of Kathmandu on December 29, during a general strike called by Maoist rebels.-BINOD JOSHI/ AP

The visit of Secretary of State Colin Powell to Nepal in December 2001 put Nepal firmly on the U.S. strategic map. The U.S. thereafter developed a military component to its development aid profile in Nepal. U.S. Congress, in its omnibus anti-terrorism budgetary supplement, had earmarked for Nepal $20 million, a sum that was subsequently reduced to $17 million. In June that year, the Office of Defence Cooperation was set up, staffed by an officer in the rank of Major. In July, a Lieutenant-Colonel was posted as a military attache to the U.S. Mission in Kathmandu. In April 2002, a high-profile team of military advisers from the U.S. Pacific Command, including a Colonel of the U.S. Marine Corps, the chief of the Logistic Plans Division and the Deputy Chief of Engineering, toured districts affected by Maoist violence in order to assess the RNA's needs. This team was followed by mobile teams that worked with ground units on matters of military tactics and human rights training.

In January 2003, a 49-member team of U.S. military experts arrived in Nepal to train for a few weeks with the RNA. According to Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Boggs, this was within the ambit of the U.S.' International Military Education and Training (IMET) facility and involved providing RNA soldiers practice in the use of M16s besides providing specialised training in handling trauma, medical crisis and human rights. "No joint military operations were planned," he said. This event coincided with the delivery of 3,000 M16 rifles. (About 2,000 more are in the pipeline.) These steps substantially reinforced the U.S. military commitment in Nepal. For the RNA, the M16 A2 is the weapon of choice because many among its troops are familiar with it from their days as members of the United Nations peace-keeping force.

About its having put Nepal on `terrorist' lists, a U.S. diplomat explained: "The Maoists obligingly provided us with a compelling rationale by acknowledging that they had killed two U.S. embassy security personnel." The criteria for such classification include threats to U.S. property, citizens and diplomatic missions. The Maoists claim that Ramesh Manandhar and Deepak Pokharel, the two persons who were killed, were spying under diplomatic cover.

In an effort to allay U.S. misgivings, Bhattarai in his December 14 newspaper interview clarified that "henceforth if any such charges are levelled against any employee, the concerned embassy would be advised before taking action". While declaring that all `tourists' were safe in Nepal, he added that as most of the facilities in the country were controlled by the Shah and Rana families, foreigners should think twice before patronising them.

The interviews given by Bhattarai and Prachanda would seem to seek to impress a Western audience by their conciliatory reasonableness. They speak of a `bourgeois democratic republic' and distance themselves from the `dark sides' of Marxist-Leninism. Prachanda demonstrates flexibility here by offering to enter into negotiations even with the `retrograde' government led by King Gyanendra. "We are ready to negotiate with anybody who is able to create a conducive environment." On his organisation's declared goal of `republicanism', Prachanda said that the people themselves could decide on the matter, by means of an elected Constituent Assembly. Bhattarai said that should the complexities of Nepal's peculiar geo-strategic position between India and China so dictate, facilitation or mediation by a genuinely neutral organisation would be acceptable.

The international community, of course, wields substantial influence on the Nepal government, especially as international donations account for nearly half the development budget. However, it appears that the Maoists too are susceptible here. In the narrative of the `Peoples War', the date September 11 altered the balance that favoured any populist Maoist surge to grab power and instead saw them agree to a ceasefire and a seat at the peace table. This time round, the possibility of Nepal getting caught in the strategic vortex of India, the U.S. and the U.K. in the war against Maoism/`terrorism', has prompted Prachanda to appeal to the U.S. to `stop interference'.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has been circumspect in the matter of locating its support for the war against terrorism in a joint India-U.K.-U.S. strategy of support for military containment, reform and development. Christina Rocca, in her opening statement in Kathmandu, drew attention to "a close and continuing dialogue with India'' and others who want to see constitutional rule and multi-party democracy continue in Nepal and the country remaining peaceful and prosperous. However, while India and the U.S. have been categorical in branding the Maoists terrorists, Britain has been equivocal on the matter and other European Union donors have been extremely wary of getting embroiled militarily. It was at the urging of Norway, Switzerland and Germany that the U.N. offered to facilitate a peace dialogue in Nepal.

For India, Kathmandu's strategic convergence with the U.S. constitutes a volte-face from its traditional policy of `keep out' vis-a-vis foreign powers. Instead, senior Indian Foreign Ministry officials now invite discussions on Nepal. The Indian Foreign Minister, who was on a visit to Nepal, was the first to affix the terrorist label on Maoists, even before the Nepali Congress government did so. Thereafter, India provided substantial military assistance and security cooperation along the open border. Indian officials warn against growing linkages between Indian and Nepali Maoists across the border. "We have a serious security concern," Indian Ambassador Shyam Saran said. He recently told the Nepali press that members of two proscribed Indian `terrorist' groups, the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the People's War Group (PWG) are visiting training camps in Maoist strongholds in Nepal. Indian Maoists are active in a belt running from Andhra Pradesh and going upwards through Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and abutting the Nepal border. The new-generation of weapons with the RNA could end up in the hands of not only Nepali Maoists but also Indian Maoists.

At a Communist Party of Nepal (UML) rally to protest against the King's takeover of executive powers by the King in October 2002.-DEVENDRA M. SINGH/ AFP

Moreover, the volatile political situation in Nepal following the King taking over executive powers on October 4 has made India particularly uneasy, for it worries that a desperate Kathmandu valley elite may do a `deal' with the Maoist leadership. One diplomatic source said: "There is a sense of desperation driving the Kathmandu valley elite's insistence on `talks' with the Maoist rebels.'' According to this diplomat, there is no clear articulation regarding the limits of "what is negotiable''. A deal that produced a government with `unreformed' revolutionary Maoists sharing power in Kathmandu could have serious security consequences for India.

The international donor community is divided over when and how to `talk'. India, the U.S. and the U.K. seem to agree about negotiating from a position of military strength. The visiting British Under Secretary Sir Michael Jay, while emphasising the need for a negotiated settlement, said: "Armed insurrection usually fails but where they win, they win because of collapse of will at the centre, often brought about by military pressure." Britain's decision to give 6.5 million in military assistance to Nepal has proved so controversial that it is now defensively insisting that its helicopters are not meant for attack. The deteriorating human rights situation could also bind Britain's hand with regard to continuing military assistance - unless freed by the terrorist label.

Nepal's crisis was exacerbated following the October 4 takeover by the constitutional monarch and the widening rift between the monarchy and the elected political parties, which have largely rejected as `illegitimate' the King's nominated government. In its efforts to marginalise the dominant political parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML), the monarchy has sought to exploit the people's disillusionment with 12 years of multi-party democracy and the record of self-seeking governments. Both the parties are mobilising mass street protests. Will it be the Maoists who eventually take over the mass mobilisation against a pro-active monarchy, ask observers.

Arguably, the King's assertion of a pro-active monarchy has undermined the 1991 Constitution and enabled the idea of a Constituent Assembly to enter mainstream political discourse. The monarchy's recent moves to appropriate, through ordinances, powers to make budgetary decisions and appoint civil servants has "grave implications for the steady erosion of the constitutional framework," said advocate Bishwa Kant Mainali. "Incrementally the Constitution is being rendered irrelevant by the pro-active decisions of the monarchy," he said. The proximity between the Maoists and the parliamentary political parties has been underscored by the fact that both advocate that the Army must be under the control of Parliament and not the monarchy.

The Indian position is that Nepal's stability rests on the twin pillars of the constitutional monarchy and a multi-party democracy. New Delhi has made no secret of its unhappiness at the King's moves. Christina Rocca too stated that Nepal's capacity to deal with Maoist violence has been "exacerbated by the distance between different political forces". But the strengthening of the King's Army in military terms does not point to the health of multi-party democracy: rather it points to the possible rise of autocratic forces.

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