Monday, June 27, 2011

India and China wrestle for influence in turbulent Nepal as civil war fears rise

As the Himalayan nation of Nepal struggles to find a political solution to years of civil war, the country has become a battleground for strategic influence between its two giant neighbours, India and China.


As the Himalayan nation of Nepal struggles to find a political solution to years of civil war, the country has become a battleground for strategic influence between its two giant neighbours, India and China.

All the indications are that China is winning as it employs far more deft tactics of diplomacy, and economic and military aid than its rivals in New Delhi.

India, in contrast, has on several occasions been exposed as using the kind of heavy-handed and hectoring tactics it employs all too frequently when dealing with its junior partners in the South Asia region.

This is more than a popularity contest between Beijing and New Delhi among the power brokers of Kathmandu. Nepal and its 30 million people occupy some highly strategic geography between India and Chinese-occupied Tibet.

This is a region where New Delhi and Beijing have several unresolved territorial disputes and there are regular skirmishes. Both countries are upgrading their roads, railways and airstrips along their borders so as to be able to move their armies swiftly to the front if need be.

Nepal became particularly fertile ground for Indian and Chinese rivalry after November 2005, with an agreement to end the country's decade-long civil war in which Maoist insurgents battled the forces of a corrupt and dissolute monarchy.

Elections early in 2008 for a 601-member Constituent Assembly led to the end of the monarchy.

King Gyanendra was replaced by President Ram Baran Yadav as head of state.

But there has been almost no progress in drawing up a new constitution since then. That work was meant to be completed within two years. But there was a political vacuum for the first eight months as assembly members made 16 failed attempts to select a prime minister.

They were then given a yearlong extension to the end of May this year, but they only met eight times for a total of 95 minutes.

President Yadav has now given the assembly a further three months to come up with an outline constitution. But few expect to see any significant developments by the end of August.

The euphoria evident among ordinary Nepalese when the civil war ended has collapsed into disillusionment and even hostility toward the assembly. Many fear a return to conflict.

That's not an irrational anxiety. One of the problems is nearly 20,000 Maoist fighters who are in camps across the country, but who should have been integrated into the national security forces.

All sorts of unresolved details have hindered this integration. The other main party in the assembly along with the Communists, the Nepal Congress Party, is understandably not keen on holding new elections while its main political rivals still have a large standing army.

And the Communists are not a unified force. There is a good deal of squabbling and jockeying for position among the various Maoist factions.

These days, of course, Beijing is not a great supporter of Maoism and, ironically, had good relations with King Gyanendra while New Delhi supported the reformist Congress Party.

But since the 2005 ceasefire, Beijing has sent a steady stream of military aid to Nepal including, most recently, a $20-million package announced by the chief of the general staff of China's People's Liberation Army, Gen. Chen Bingde, during a March visit.

In 2008 Beijing and Kathmandu announced the building of a 770-kilometre-long railway from the Tibetan capital Lhasa to the Nepalese border town of Khasa.

This is due to be completed in 2013 and China is also looking at building six new cross-border highways.

While China has been extending its military and economic bonds with Nepal, India has been fumbling.

New Delhi backed the military in a spat with the Maoist-led government in 2009. It then ignored the universally good advice to never quarrel with people who buy ink by the ton.

New Delhi got into an argument with Nepal's largest newspaper publishing company over "unfriendly editorials," and blocked the transit of newsprint to the media group.

Some members of the assembly have claimed Indian officials have threatened them with various forms of retribution if they don't vote the way New Delhi wants.

China has been careful not to directly provoke India, but is very happy at New Delhi's discomfiture.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Maoist Party Backs Marxist Party PM Candidate

3 February 2011
Profile: New Nepal Prime Minister Jhalanath Khanal
By Joanna Jolly
BBC News, Kathmandu


After more than seven months as a rudderless country without a prime minister, politicians in landlocked Nepal have elected a new leader.

Jhalanath Khanal, the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal - Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), won a clear majority of votes in parliament after he gained the backing of the Maoist party.

In doing so, 60-year-old Mr Khanal - the youngest of seven siblings - has become the 34th Prime Minister of Nepal.

Born in the south-eastern district of Ilam in 1950, he has been involved in politics for over three decades.

In 1990 and 2006, he played a role in the pro-democracy protests against the monarchy which finally led to its abolition in 2008.

Mr Khanal became an MP for the Ilam constituency after elections for Nepal's constituent assembly in 2008.

A year later, the former information and communications minister was elected chairman of the CPN-UML party.

This is not the first time he has stood as candidate for prime minister.

Mr Khanal was also nominated during the country's previous attempts to elect a new leader, which ended on Thursday after 16 failed votes.

Addressing parliament before the election, he said it was crucial for political leaders to consolidate the progress made since Nepal's 10-year civil conflict between Maoist guerrillas and the army ended in 2006.

"We must move ahead very quickly or once again be plunged into crisis," he told reporters.

"Parliament's main task is to draft the new national constitution and I can assure you that we will achieve that under my party's leadership of the next government."

Political disagreements
The deadline for writing the constitution is 28 May. Mr Khanal will also have to deal with the issue of the future of more than 19,000 Maoist fighters.

Mr Khanal must hold different factions together if he is to succeed
Under the peace deal signed in 2006, they should either be integrated into the national security forces or return to civilian life.

Political disagreements over how to handle this issue has held up the peace process.

Last month, the United Nations mission charged with overseeing the process withdrew from Nepal after the country's political parties did not extend its mandate.

The disagreements over how to handle this issue has held up the peace process. Last month, the United Nations Mission in Nepal (Unmin) - charged with overseeing the process - withdrew from Nepal after the country's political parties did not extend its mandate.

Analysts say another major challenge for Mr Khanal will be to keep his CPN-UML party behind him.

Many of the party's members distrust the Maoists and have been arguing against joining hands with them.

Similarly, it is still not clear if the influential Nepali Congress party - which helped elect Mr Khanal's predecessor Madhav Kumar Nepal to the post of prime minister - will join a coalition led by him.

Talking to the BBC on Thursday, Nepali Congress President Sushil Koirala blamed the CPN-UML of betrayal, insisting that his party will remain in opposition.

Mr Khanal becomes pilot of the ship as it enters choppy waters.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Security Information for U.S. Citizens in Nepal

From: "US Department of State Warden Message"
Date: May 7, 2010 9:21:43 AM CDT
To: "US Department of State Warden Message"
Subject: Embassy Kathmandu Warden Message - May 7, 2010

The Unified CPN-Maoist Party has been carrying out nationwide strikes since Sunday, May 2, 2010. The U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu has been closed since May 3rd and will likely remain closed until the strikes are lifted. Large demonstrations and traffic disruptions continue to occur around Kathmandu and throughout the country. These strikes, or "bandhs" as they are referred to locally, have been successful in completely shutting down vehicular movement and businesses. As of May 7, 2010, the political situation remains deadlocked and we are unable to predict when the strike will conclude.

Supplies are running short in some places and travel has been disrupted throughout the country. Businesses and public transport have been severely affected. Essential supplies are dwindling and the strike has made it difficult or sometimes prevented supplies from being replenished. U.S. citizens are encouraged to stock adequate supplies of water, food, fuel, money and medication. Shops and markets are allowed to open for several hours each morning and evening. Some hotels are concerned about not being able to provide adequate services to tourists in Nepal. While the demonstrations have been largely peaceful, there have been sporadic clashes between the Maoist demonstrators and counter-demonstrators and security forces. U.S. citizens are strongly urged to avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations and to avoid traveling by wheeled transportation, including buses, cars, and bicycles. U.S. citizens are advised to monitor the situation closely on local media outlets and to stay in your homes or hotels and not move throughout the area unless absolutely necessary.

Please remain cognizant and aware of your surroundings and what may transpire. We wish to remind U.S. citizens that even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence. U.S. citizens are therefore urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of any demonstrations.

The Nepal Tourism Board is running tourist buses to and from the international airport, which remains open. It is difficult to travel within Nepal except by air and some domestic flights also have been disrupted.

For additional information, please refer to “A Safe Trip Abroad.” U.S. citizens living or traveling in Nepal are encouraged to register with the U.S. Embassy through the State Department's travel registration website. The Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu is located at Maharajgunj. The telephone number is 977-1-4007200, 4007201. The number for after-hours emergencies is 977-1-4007266, 4007269. The fax number is 977-1-4007281. The Consulate’s e-mail address is and its Internet web page is U.S. citizens should also consult the Department of State’s latest Country Specific Information for Nepal and the Worldwide Caution, both available at Up-to-date information on security can also be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the United States or, for callers outside the United States and Canada, a regular toll line at 1-202-501-4444. These numbers are available from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday (except U.S. federal holidays).

Thursday, May 6, 2010

“Unsustainable” is the word that springs to mind when one thinks of the future of Katmandu.

The main wait in Nepal, at present, is for an end to the nationwide general strike that began on Sunday. The Maoists, who led our Constituent Assembly until losing their coalition partners last year, have trucked tens of thousands of party cadres into Katmandu to enforce the strike. They are trying to stage what they call a “people’s movement” to form an all-party government — with the Maoists in control.

Katmandu has come to a halt as bands of Maoists brandishing sticks march through the streets ensuring that government offices and businesses stay shuttered. Schools are closed, households are running out of food, and even money is in short supply, since all the banks are closed. Tempers are flaring. It would not take much for people’s discontent with the strike to tip into civil unrest.

Even before the strike, the country had entered an advanced state of entropy. Unable to meet demand, the Nepal Electricity Authority rations power. Most neighborhoods get only about 12 hours of electricity, mostly after 10 p.m. People must seek out alternative sources of energy, or conduct much of their work outside of normal hours. Electric kettles, ovens, freezers — even lights — are a luxury that most forgo. People carry flashlights at night and read by candlelight.

The other utilities are similarly overstretched. Katmandu’s mains fill with water only once every six days, for about three hours — often at two in the morning. Homeowners must scramble to fill their tanks then, or else truck in water from expensive private companies. The telephone networks are always busy. Calls do not go through or are reduced to gibberish: “I can’t hear you. Can you hear me?” The city’s air is rank with dust and exhaust; its rivers are open sewers that pedestrians scurry by, noses covered.

There are too many vehicles for the few tortuous roads. In the place of public transport, fleets of private vans career from stop to stop with their hapless, nauseated passengers. The existing health care facilities do not meet the needs of the three million residents. There are few jobs. To add to the insecurity, an earthquake — a big one — is long overdue. “Unsustainable” is the word that springs to mind when one thinks of the future of Katmandu.

Bad as this is, it is not the worst of Nepal’s woes. Since long before the strike, we have been waiting to discover what kind of country this is to become. Nepal was promised a new constitution in 2006, when the decade-long Maoist insurgency ended with an agreement between the insurgents and the democratic political parties to make a new Nepal, a federal democratic republic that would replace the autocracies, monarchies and struggling democracies of the past.

This Assembly has, since then, set 11 thematic committees to work drafting legislation. Unfortunately, some of these committees have drafted parallel (and irreconcilable) laws, leaving key issues unresolved. Should the new Nepal be an Indian-style parliamentary democracy or a Chinese-style party dictatorship? Should the Supreme Court be independent, or subject to parliamentary review? What should be the boundaries of the federal states, and how should these states share power with each other and the center? Should executive power reside with the president or the prime minister?

All this — and more — is undecided. A final draft of the constitution is supposed to be submitted by May 28. The deadline will obviously be missed.

And so, instead of waiting for something as constructive and exalted as a constitution, the Nepalese are waiting for more mundane things like for the strike to end, for electricity and water to return.

--Manjushree Thapa is the author, most recently, of the novel “Seasons of Flight.”