Old geopolitical rivalry in Nepal takes a new turn
0 comments | by Biswas Baral
Old geopolitical rivalry in Nepal takes a new turn: US and China could be squaring off in the Himalayan republic
On January 25 Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, the co-chairman of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), came out with a strong statement denouncing the recent US intervention in Venezuela as an ‘imperialist coup’. Most Nepalis were dumbfounded. Nepal does not have diplomatic ties with Venezuela while the US has been one of its big donors. Moreover, the NCP hardly ever talks about other countries, even in South Asia. It kept mum over developments in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, two fellow Saarc countries. What then explains Prachanda’s sudden ire? A day before his statement, the United Nations in Nepal and nine Kathmandu-based Western embassies had called on the Nepali government to honour the Supreme Court verdict on transitional justice. The court had, most notably, ruled out ‘blanket amnesty’ on human rights violations from the decade-long Maoist conflict (1996-2006) during which 17,000 people died and nearly 2,000 ‘disappeared’. Top Maoist leaders see all cases from the period as part of a legitimate war and no top Maoist leader or commander should hence be prosecuted after the fact. The international community disagrees. They believe it is dangerous to leave the wounds from the conflict untreated. It is vital that the families of those who died or disappeared get justice. The judiciary backs this stand. On the other hand, India and China have chosen to (largely) stay silent on Nepal’s transitional justice, and they had not signed the January 25 statement issued under the UN aegis. With the two big external powers of Nepal opting out of the transitional justice bandwagon, former Maoist leaders suspected the signature campaign must have been the handiwork of the US – hence Prachanda’s strong reaction in an unrelated case.
But in 2018 Prachanda’s Maoist party had formally merged with CPN-UML – led by the current Prime Minister KP Oli – to form the ruling NCP, which Prachanda and Oli now jointly lead. The Americans were furious that the co-leader of the ruling party had the gall to say something so brazen. They asked the government for a clarification. In reply, the foreign ministry produced a non-committal response, which did nothing to allay American concerns. (PM Oli later termed Prachanda’s words as ‘a slip’, even as the former rebel leader vehemently defended his statement.) Prachanda has thus sparked a serious diplomatic row between Nepal and the US. His remarks come at a time the Nepali government has been reaching out to the Americans. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo recently welcomed Nepali foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali in Washington DC, in the first powwow between foreign ministers of the two countries in 17 years. The US state department later reported that among the issues discussed were Nepal’s ‘central role in a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific’. That Nepal had agreed to discuss the ‘Indo-Pacific’ rather than the more traditional ‘Asia-Pacific’ was widely criticised back home. The American ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ is seen as targeted against China.
The Oli government tried to portray Gyawali’s visit as Nepal wanting to widen its relations beyond India and China. (Hadn’t the alleged Indian blockade of 2015-16 and China’s failure to come to Nepal’s rescue amply highlighted the need for that?). But China has always been uneasy about the American presence in Nepal after CIA-trained rebels launched a raid into Tibet from Nepali soil in the 1960s. The Indians may also be reluctant to see Nepal as a playground of Western powers. Nepali communists have traditionally railed against the ‘imperialistic’ US and ‘expansionist’ India. Given the country’s geographical fate, while in power the NCP has no option but to appear friendly to India. It feels under no such obligation to humour the US. The old communist habit of concocting a real or perceived external enemy also comes into play. Yet the recent rumpus over Venezuela suggests something more troublesome. Despite the appearance of stability in Nepal following the formation of the two-thirds communist government, the ruling party is far from a united force.