BRIEF HISTORY OF BRITAIN’S RELATIONSHIP WITH NEPAL
Interview with Ambassador Hall
The history of relations between the United Kingdom and Nepal span two centuries, dating back to Great Britain’s colonial rule in India. A brief war between the army of the British East India Company and the Kingdom of Nepal took place from 1814 to 1815 when, in the south, Gorkha forces encroached upon British territory. Nepal, which had continuously expanded its boundaries since King Prithvi Narayan Shah’s consolidation of Nepalese territory in the late 1700s, now overplayed its hand. The British troops ultimately prevailed and a peace agreement resulted in Nepal losing nearly a third of its previously claimed territory. The Anglo-Nepal War officially ended with the ratification of the Treaty of Sugauli (1816). Thereafter, a British Representative was stationed in Kathmandu in a large compound provided by the Nepalese government.
Relations between the two countries took a major step forward in 1852 with the visit to the United Kingdom of Jung Bahadur Rana, the Prime Minister of Nepal, whose family went on to rule as hereditary prime ministers for one hundred years. Jung Bahadur Rana believed that Nepal’s interests were best served by close and friendly relations with the United Kingdom, and in 1855 signed a new treaty with the British government in India, covering issues such as extradition and the legitimacy of Rana autocracy.
One of Jung Bahadur Rana’s successors as Prime Minister, Chandra SJB Rana, signed a new Treaty of Friendship with the United Kingdom in 1923, thus further formalizing relations between the two countries, and changed the status of the British Resident to Envoy.
It wasn’t until India’s independence in 1947 that the British Envoy became, for the first time, a full Ambassador. Although the Rana dynasty of Prime Ministers ended in the early 1950s, with the reinstatement of the Shah monarchal dynasty, amicable relations between Great Britain and Nepal continued to the present time. In the 21st century, the United Kingdom is one of the most significant providers of development assistance to Nepal.
THE IMPACT OF GURKHA WARRIORS
The remarkable degree of Rana loyalty to Great Britain—or subservience, as some claim—was founded in Great Britain’s keen interest in Nepal’s human resources: specifically, its famed Gurkha warriors. As early as the 1815 Anglo-Nepal War, the British took note of the inherent military value of the Gurkha troops in the Nepalese army, and began recruiting them to serve as mercenaries in its imperial army.
The value placed in Gurkha soldiers was amplified in 1857, when the Sepoy Mutiny in north India erupted—an uprising in which Indian troops serving in the East India Company's army rebelled. Nepal’s Prime Minister Jang Bahadur Rana dispatched 15,000 troops to India to suppress the rebellion in support of the British. He personally marched with 9,000 of his troops and helped give the British a crucial victory in Gorkhapur and Lucknow, which proved decisive in terms of allowing England to consolidate its imperial hold on the subcontinent.
Then, during the World War I and World War II, Nepal came to the aid of Great Britain. The Rana Prime Ministers not only permitted the British to recruit unlimited numbers of Nepali youth, but also actually mobilized all the powers of their office to push those out to join the British army. 160,00 troops were offered in World War I. 200,000 joined the British army in World War II. Approximately 45,000 Gurkhas lost their lives fighting for the Allied forces.
Today, Nepal continues to be the source of recruitment of Gurkha soldiers into the British army, though on a much smaller scale.
Dunham’s Interview with UK Ambassador to Nepal, Dr. Andrew Hall OBE
Born in 1950, Andrew Hall has exhibited a longstanding interest and understanding of Nepal. During his school days, from 1977-78, he spent a year undertaking research in the Langtang region for his doctoral thesis on the social anthropology of Nepal. In 1980, he joined the Diplomatic Service as a specialist on South Asian affairs. From 1995-2003, he was stationed at the British Embassy in Kathmandu as Deputy Head of Mission, First Secretary and Consul.
In 2006, Dr. Hall became the British Ambassador.
DUNHAM: I’d like to begin with Nepal’s relationship with its southern neighbor, India. In the past, prior to Indian independence, this was closely aligned with Great Britain’s relationship with Nepal. It seems to me that, never before, has a good working relationship between India and Nepal been more important, particularly in light of the ongoing peace process. And yet within the state of Bihar, which borders Nepal, lawlessness prevails and persists in compromising that peace process. There is also to issue of the Maoist relationship with the Indian Naxalites, the Maoists’ brothers-in-arms. What can the British government do to help with the serious issue of insurrection and lawlessness in both countries?
AMB. HALL: It’s certainly true that the relationship between India and Nepal is an ancient relationship. It is of enormous importance in every field you can think of, really-- in terms of Nepal’s economy, in terms of its development, in terms of Nepalese politics. Nepal is a security buffer zone between India and China. However you look at it, India has a great many interests in Nepal and, of course, Nepal is very closely aligned with India in all sorts of ways. A very large population of Nepalese works in India. Many have migrated to India. Their relationship is a very strong one. It has some of the frictions, no doubt, that big neighbors and small neighbors often have, but I don’t think that affects the fundamentals of it.
As to the specifics about the Nepalese Maoists and the Indian Naxilites, it’s an interesting relationship but not necessarily a smooth one. Nepal’s Maoists have followed a rather different path. They now argue that the way, ultimately, to people’s power is through the parliamentary route—the elections route. I think probably many Naxalites still don’t buy that argument. They are still pursuing their own path and, you know, causing a lot of mayhem in many Indian states-- tremendous problems. As I understand it—and it’s not really for me to speak-- but as I understand it, the Indian government is tightening up its security arrangements. It’s pursuing a much more coordinated policy in trying to deal with Naxalite violence over the border and I understand that they are also looking at tightening up along the Indian-Nepal border so that there is less potential for, not just revolutionaries, but extremists, criminal gangs—you know, people who are causing trouble—to try and prevent that free movement, while, at the same time continuing to allow what is a great benefit, really for both countries, which is a fairly open border.
DUNHAM: You indicated that the Naxalites might not be so happy with how things are changing in Nepal with the Maoists. What about the Maoists’ own cadres, who are sequestered in these cantonments. The longer they are there, I think, the more discontent they are bound to grow. Have you heard anything along these lines?
AMB. HALL: It’s certainly true that an important aspect of the peace process, which has not really been addressed yet, is what to do about these cadres—thirty-thousand plus—who are sitting in seven main cantonments, and then twenty-one smaller satellite camps scattered right across the middle hills of Nepal. Everybody knows that, as part of the peace process, their future has got to be addressed. There are various ideas, which have been kicked around as to how you might address their future, but there has been no concrete discussion, as far as I know, yet, between the Maoists and between the Nepal army, the Nepal police, government, and the seven-party alliance. They all need to sit together, really, and think more widely about what sort of security sector they need in the future and in re-crafting the security sector. How will you bring in a certain number of those combatants into the armed forces and into the police? How will you then find jobs or provide training to those who are not fitted for a military career to reintegrate them into society? So that’s a debate, which is yet to begin. In the meantime, there is, I think, a potential for the people to get restive sitting there in those cantonments. I hear the conditions are not particularly good, just in terms of their facilities. They’re living in tents. They don’t have proper water supplies, proper sanitation, proper health care. So I think it is a big task for the government to do, just in terms of making the conditions livable in those camps. In terms of what the cadres sitting there actually think about their future, that’s extremely difficult to assess. I mean, I think many of them are expecting that the process of security-sector reform will provide them with opportunities in the future and that they will be able to move on. But it’s clear also that many of the people in the camps probably shouldn’t be there. They are either under age, or they are child soldiers, or they were recruited after the peace agreements were signed and, therefore, should not have been recruited and should not have been put into the cantonments. So ideally, what we would like to see, I think, is for the Maoists to quickly identify those people and start weeding them out of the camps. Because that would take a number of thousands of people out of the picture straight away and simplify the whole process of caring for the remainder, and then ultimately integrating them.
DUNHAM: What about the size of Nepal’s army? Does Nepal require this big of an army?
AMB. HALL: That’s the debate they’ve got to have. You know, that’s why all parties have got to sit down and think more widely about the security sector. And, you know, when I put that to people, they say—and it’s fair enough: “We’ve got a lot of more urgent priorities at the moment to deal with.” First of all, there’s just the managing of arms and managing the army and that is what the UN is here to do at the moment—the UN Mission in Nepal. Then elections: They have to prepare election policing. The law and order situation in many parts of the country is not good. The police need to be focusing on the immediate issues that confront them. So I think it’s been quite difficult for people to really begin this kind of wider debate about the future. And it’s probably not for us to say where that debate should go. They will have to work that out for themselves. I think, in the course of those discussions, you can think of various models that might apply. You might actually see the size of the armed forces increase briefly while you are integrating some of the combatants, before you begin a reduction process to bring it back to whatever size you decide is appropriate for Nepal’s needs.
DUNHAM: What about the accountability of the police, the military, in comparison to a year ago. Has that improved? Is there any change?
AMB. HALL: It depends what you mean by “accountability.” I think there is a shift going on in terms of the army, and a very important shift there. What we need to do now is to help them institutionalize that. Of course they are no longer a Royal Army. They are no longer accountable to the king, as they were in the past, and they have entirely accepted that they do now fall under civilian government and are accountable to that government.
DUNHAM: They have entirely accepted that?
AMB. HALL: They have accepted that principle. But what they don’t have is an institutional structure, which can really underpin that. There is a national security council, but that meets infrequently, if at all. There is the National Security Council Secretariat, which, as I understand it, is not functioning in the way such an institution would in the United States or the United Kingdom. There is a Ministry of Defense, but it is an extremely small ministry of defense, which, again, does not function in the way that we imagine a modern ministry would do; acting as the articulation between the government and the armed forces in all sorts of ways, in terms of giving policy direction, allocating resources, and all the things you would look to for the ministry to do. So the UK is actually helping on a project to strengthen and build up the Ministry of Defense as part of that institutional structure.
DUNHAM: What is the project?
AMB. HALL: It’s actually, first of all, to put forth the ideas. It’s not a project in terms of putting a lot of money into it. We don’t have the funds to be able to do that. But in terms of helping them to rethink how a ministry should function—how you would bring civilians and military officers together within the ministry, as happens in our country—to work side by side, so that there is a much clearer idea between the two parties of the needs and constraints of both the bureaucrats and the servicing officers. It’s developing the role of the ministry, so it’s much more clearly a policy-focused role answerable to the Minister of Defense-- able to articulate that link between the politicians and the top brass of the military. So there’s work like that that can be done to underpin the institutional structures, I think.
And in terms of the policing, there’s a slightly different question there. They have always been under the Home Ministry. There hasn’t been any particular change in that respect. But again, I think there is probably some scope for the police to be thinking about their longer-term role. If they are not kind of in the front line—as they were for so long—of a civil conflict, should they be looking much more toward a community-policing role? And what does that imply, then, in terms of your manpower, in terms of the training you require, in terms of your structures? Again, we have a small project with some police advisors, who are here just at the moment, to stimulate thinking. That’s what we can do. We have a lot of experience of things like this. We had to rebuild our own police force in Northern Ireland at the end of the conflict there. So we hope that we can draw on that experience in ways that will be helpful to the Nepalese security sector.
DUNHAM: You mentioned earlier about the child soldiers that are among the people who are in the Maoist camps. One of the things that I’m most interested in is the role of the youth in Nepal. There are over 60% who are under the age of 30, and yet you don’t really see any young representation in the government. Most of the leaders in the government are quite old. As I’ve been going around the country and talking to young guys in the Bhutanese camps, young guys who are Maoists, or just young guys who are trying to get a decent education here and find a job---
AMB. HALL: Yes, yes, yes—
DUNHAM: --to find a way. One of the unifying factors is that most parents can’t offer their children a promise of any kind of better future. A lot of young people just want to bail out and if they can, they will. And then the issue of young girls: Girls sold and shipped down to the brothels of India and all these things. How do you regard the potential problem of youth being not addressed in this country?
AMB. HALL: You’re right. It’s an incredibly young population here, as it is in much of South Asia. What I haven’t yet detected is enough focus by the politicians, by the leaders, perhaps, on how to develop the economy, how to develop the young people’s future. There is a tremendous attachment to education here. It’s amazing. Even in the most remote areas, you’ll see the kids all beautifully turned out every morning with their satchels and their schoolbooks going off to a little village school somewhere or another. But there’s more we can do in terms of strengthening the educational system. But at the end of that, you know, people have got to be able to come out and they’ve got to be able to find a job, which is suitable for their abilities. They can’t all work on the land, as has been traditionally the lot of 80 or 90% of Nepalese. Those days are coming to an end when the farms will support the family—and that’s as far as your outlook went. People now need jobs in the service sector, they need jobs in industry, and Nepal is creating too few opportunities so far in those sorts of areas. How can it do more? Well, peace is a great step on the way. I think it’s been very difficult over the last few years to attract any sort of investment into the country. And the reverse of that has been a great exodus of people. Nepalese have always migrated in search of better opportunities. They’re one of the most mobile nations in the world, actually. You find them all over the globe. Large numbers of them have settled in India and the surrounding countries: quite a few in my country and quite a few in the United States. Many go for temporary work in the Gulf countries as well, and then send their money back to their families at home. So there is a sort of safety valve there, you know, because of this great mobility: They can go elsewhere and find work. But that is not, you know—other than the remittances that come in to help the economy—but that’s not really building a solid economic base for this country, which is where I think the government really does need to focus its attention.
DUNHAM: And it seems that not to address the youth, is inviting them to listen to more radical views. If you don’t have a job, if you don’t have any future, you’re just turning 18 and someone says, “Here’s a gun. Let’s go feed into your anger,” it’s an attractive prospect for angry young men.
AMB. HALL: (nodding) You’ve got very little to lose.
DUNHAM: And economically, it’s counter-productive. Let’s talk about economic reforms for a moment. Obviously, they are crucial in Nepal. According to the business community, time after time the Maoist have committed acts that undermine business confidence—that trade union militancy is also a problem.
AMB. HALL: It’s true that, over a long period of time, the Maoists, I think, have deliberately targeted business interests in this country. Ironically, since the peace protest began a year or so ago, in some ways life got harder for many businesses, particularly the ones based in Kathmandu, which, previously, had been somewhat sheltered from Maoist influence. But with Maoists now much more part of the urban system and gradually coming into the government itself, it was left open—lots of rich picking. People who may be Maoists or people who use the Maoist label, or just ordinary criminals, have all been all too quick to exploit this. One constantly hears tales of outrageous demands on business for so-called “donations”, contributions to party causes. There are many cases of union clashes where Maoist unions have tried to take over a particular business and run it themselves. The effects are seen there in the figures and the decline in the garment industry and the carpet industry, which are two of the mainstays of Nepal’s exports. So far the Maoists have not been good for business. We are encouraging them very strongly to be realistic about this. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t both be in the government demanding resources for all sorts of social projects and development projects that they need to carry out, but at the same time be undermining the business system in this country. So business itself here has to stand up for itself—that will certainly help rather than just submitting to demands, wherever they come from. I think business has got to be better organized in terms of addressing legitimate union demands and workers’ demands. There isn’t currently any wide system of wage bargaining or, you know, the sort of normal mechanisms that you would expect to find where business and unions ccould talk to each other. So they could be developing those institutional structures. The government needs to provide the proper rule of law. Business people need to know that if they’re threatened or intimidated, they can actually go to the police and expect some response, some action out of the people. All of that will help to develop business confidence and, hopefully, start bringing in some more investment.
In terms of the British investments here, there are not enormous economic interests. It falls into a number of sectors: A couple of big multi-nationals who operate throughout this part of the world at present; some smaller tourism companies—it is an important tourism destination for people from the UK—a number of trekking/mountaineering companies operating here.
There is a lot of potential for the Nepalese economy in energy. And that, I think, is where, the government should be very seriously focusing its efforts and, where again, the Maoists have got a role to play in, you know, helping to bring in the external expertise and investment that the country would need to really kick that off. But Nepal is undoubtedly sitting on one enormous source of energy and that is hydropower. Nepal has fantastic unexploited, untapped river resources. On its doorstep, it’s got an economy in India, which is booming, growing at 9% or so a year now—desperate for more power, more electricity. Nepal has got a ready export market there.
Somewhere further down the track, there is a lot of interest and potential for oil and gas as well. You know, the initial seismic studies suggest that the border areas along the Bihar borders may have oil-and gas-bearing strata down there. If that were to become good, that would be fantastic in way of boosting the Nepalese economy. But to really get to work on those things, you need peace and you need the rule of law. Nobody has really been able to go and investigate or start building major power plants or whatever in the last ten years because of the conflict. Even now, it’s very difficult for them to go and do the preparatory work that they need to do—for example, seismic exploration for the oil and gas—with the Terai bubbling away, constant strikes, all sorts of gangs operating down there, and the lack of confidence that the rule of law prevails. So there is still more work to do, I think, in terms of just security issues, to get that big investment coming in.
DUNHAM: I talked to Mr. Himalaya Rana the other day—very charming man—and he said, “The government of Nepal is always fond of talking politics, but they never want to talk about economics. And this is one of the main problems in Nepal at this point.” Do you see that in the years that you have been here? Do you see an absence of addressing these basic economic issues?
AMB. HALL: I think that is very true. As we were saying earlier, it’s an intensely political society and people do love talking politics and thinking politics and so on. But it does seem to leave out of the equation the other incredibly important half. You know, what is it you all are fighting for if you are not actually building to make an economy to make something worth fighting for? And I do see the absence of that kind of discussion going on. Of course, within restricted circles—the business circle or the banking circle, or of course the people who are engaged in that—but in terms of the wider political consciousness, there isn’t a sense of, “This is what we think we should be doing with the economy; this is how we think we should be creating jobs, bringing in investment, developing our natural resources” you know, all those different areas. There is no wider sense of how to do that.
DUNHAM: How do you bring forward that voice?
AMB. HALL: I think that there are various ways in which you can strengthen the business voice for a start. There are ways you can focus political parties on some of these issues. There are a number of interesting projects going on at the moment to develop political parties’ inner democracy: the way in which they can articulate why the demands and why the interests and so on, rather, as they seem to have been in the past, quite narrowly focused around a very few interests. A number of donors are working on projects, which will help to do that. You can strengthen the wider business environment and I think for people like the World Bank and the IMF, who are trying to do that—strengthen the financial structures and systems and so on to make the whole thing more robust—to tackle issues like corruption, to help to make business more accountable in the country. All of those things contribute to that environment, where business can be more successful.
But so far, how you generate a wider debate with the ordinary citizens about the economy is not entirely clear. This may be a gradual process since, by the whole transition of a previously very rural population, which has really not had to look too far beyond the farm gate, whereas, increasingly the next generation is moving to the cities, is becoming a more urbanized society and so on. As communications improve, too—in the time I’ve known Nepal—a fantastic change in the country, from the time when the postman came on foot and took him a week to walk to deliver letters, if you were up in the mountains somewhere, to even remote areas having access to mobile phone, to the Internet. There will be a dirt road and bus service that will bring them down to a town within a matter of a few hours, rather than a few days. So it’s a society that is changing rapidly in terms of both its integration, its consciousness of what is going on around it—which, in many respects is a good thing, in some respect, of course, it throws off new demands—much more rapidly people are aware of disparity—they are conscious that some people are doing well and they feel they are excluded or marginalized or whatever, and that makes a more volatile and difficult political environment for the parties and the government to manage.
DUNHAM: When you talk about disparity—which do you think are the most important issues: the ethnic disparities, the caste disparities—you can divide up Nepal just about anyway you can imagine—geographically, according to religion—but how important do you think the ethnic disparities are these days.
AMB. HALL: All of the disparities are very important and it would be very hard to set one against another. And it does, at the end of the day, come back to Nepal being such a poor country. I think that the disparities are thrown into such high relief because everybody is poor and everybody is struggling for a few more crumbs from a very small cake.
And what the Maoist conflict has sort of thrown up over the last few years is much more debate, much more awareness of the fact that, so far, it’s been a highly centralized society, both physically, geographically, in terms of Kathmandu’s centrality, in terms of power—which has always been focused here—in terms of economic opportunities, and so on. More and more groups have become aware that the Maoists have contributed to raising their awareness of their exclusion from those opportunities. There isn’t actually fair access for all, in this society. And that is what is fundamentally behind the whole Jana Andolan, the People’s Movement, that we saw last year: The sense that there needs to be a transformation, there needs to be a new deal, which brings in all Nepal’s citizens in a fairer way.
The way the political process is moving at the moment, the spotlight shines for a little while here on the Madeshi population, which lives down in the Terai on India’s borders—or it shine there on what they call Janjantis, who are the hill tribes—or it shines on the Dalits (or the untouchable groups)—or women’s issues, and on and on and on. Because all those groups feel that they have not had, actually, voice—they have not had a fair share, they have not had access to power, so they all need to be addressed. That’s a difficult challenge for any society, any government to deal with. Hence, the importance of the Constituent Assembly: It is this demand for a Constituent Assembly, meaning an opportunity, which they feel they’ve always been denied over the last 60 years or so of history, to sit down and write their constitution from scratch, rather than anybody dictating or saying, “You’ve got to be this sort of society, or that sort of society.” There should be an open debate that all voices should be heard. And they can write themselves a new charter for government, for citizenship and so on.
Now how they address all of those issues of exclusion, of marginalization, will be part of that debate, which may run a year or two before they finish the new constitution. But clearly, there do have to be ways found of both satisfying ethnic interests, as well as looking at those who have been discriminated against on other grounds. For example: low castes, untouchable castes, and so on. There, you are talking about some very fundamental issues of culture and history and society, which have been that way for hundreds or thousands of years. All of our societies do face issues of equality and how to produce and implement greater equality. Here, more than in most places, it’s going to be a big challenge to go through that social transformation.
The first step though, surely, is to give people legal rights and to start enforcing those rights. Now, over the last few years, Nepal has done a certain amount, in terms of legal rights, of citizens, protection, of minors, of action against child trafficking—a number of the abuses that do take place. The legislation is on the statue books. Where they tend to fall down is on the implementation of these laws. People are not adequately trained, there isn’t a network of social workers, there aren’t necessarily dedicated police units specialized and trained in these areas, whatever they may be; the court system is not particularly responsive, it takes a very long time to bring actions and so on. So for all those reasons, people may say, “Look at the statute book and write something protective here” but, in practice, of course, people don’t feel that—that’s not their daily experience.
So that’s the first step: Let’s implement the legislation Nepal’s got. Next step, let’s look at tightening that—at how you create a more level playing field for all these diverse groups. And it is a fantastically diverse society.
DUNHAM: This is a time, isn’t it, when Nepal needs to get it right. It’s not a time to rush into anything. It is going to take time to hear all of these people who have grievances and who have had them for, perhaps, hundreds of years—allow them to get it out. This is the time for that, don’t you think?
AMB. HALL: Yes. Yes. But to what extent should that happen before the election, when there really isn’t a forum for that debate? And so what we’re seeing at the moment is individual action by all sorts of interest groups, holding strikes, holding protests, barricading the government in its offices, or whatever tactic it may be. If the government starts trying to deal with them one by one by one, then I think that road leads to chaos, too. The only forum that I could see working, and hence its importance, is the Constituent Assembly, provided the elections are seen as credible, as being free and fair, and as being representative, so that everybody feels that their voice will actually be heard in the process. Now I think that a lot of the churning and turmoil we are seeing politically at the moment is people suspecting that, perhaps, elections, assemblies will not be representative. So they want to get their word in fast, now. But that’s a fair point about representation because, of course, it does need to be representative. But I don’t think now is the time for them to be trying to address these deep-seeded issues. That’s the work of the assembly. Let’s form a good assembly first, then address the issues. So the government’s message needs to be, really, “Clm down, hold on, we haven’t forgotten your interests; we haven’t forgotten what the people’s movement was all about. This assembly is how we will address it.”
By the way, there’s a big need for voter education. I don’t think a lot of citizens in this country really have any idea what “constituent assembly” means. You know, fair enough, why should they? It’s a novel concept. It’s never happened here before. It’s the sort of thing that might happen once in a generation. But, before you hold those elections, you should have to explain the basics to your citizens as to what they are going to be out there voting for. It’s not just a regular voting for a political party to form a government, as in the old way they are familiar with. So, there’s all that that’s got to be done.
DUNHAM: We’re talking about the impatience of the people, the datelines that have come and now probably have gone, and the hopes: How big a role does cynicism play in all this? A lot of the people I’ve talked to, from all walks of life in Nepal, have accumulated a great deal of cynicism toward whatever is being said by whichever party. It seems to me that all party officials have a lot of catching up to do in order to, somehow, shift that around. Everyone seems to be watching with a jaundiced eye. Do you see that?
AMB. HALL: It’s a fair point. Yes. In terms of people’s impatience that we were talking about, it’s partly that image of riding the bicycle. The peace process is a bit like keeping the bicycle upright. So I think people fear that it would be all too easy to get distracted unless you keep setting yourself clear targets and deadlines and so on and that’s why they’ve done it over and over—some have been unrealistic—unless you keep doing that, the bicycle is going to start to wobble— maybe it’s going to fall over because not everybody wants to see elections take place necessarily and not all interests will be served in that process. So it just gives an opportunity for spoilers to come in and throw things off course. So I find the impatience, the urgency, the desire for direction absolutely understandable. But, at the same time, they have to temper it with realism as to what can physically be done when you’re organizing a major national event like an election or whatever.
In terms of political transformations, I think it can be said that Nepal has only gone halfway so far, in what has been a tremendous upheaval. An upheaval that has been brewing over many years, which had its first people’s movement way back in 1990. A pretty reasonable constitution was written after that, a pretty reasonable democratic system was put in place in the 1990s, not that it proved good at delivery. And not that proved particularly stable, because parties repeatedly failed to win sufficient majorities, the governments were short-lived, they didn’t have time to deliver anything in particular to the people. So although there was a lot of talk and hype about democratic forms, democratic delivery was not most people’s experience. And I think that’s where that degree of cynicism, that rather jaundiced feeling comes from. We’ve heard it all before: Lavish promises, democracy, we’re going to bring in new institutions, you’ll all have votes, you will all have voice, and things will be marvelous. They will be miles better.
People were given unrealistic ideas in the early days of the transformation. And they’ve become jaundiced at hearing those messages over and over again, and not really seeing the results on the ground.
So the key question, now, is how can they do better, how can the parties do better at delivering?
DUNHAM: Earning their trust.
AMB. HALL: Yeh, yeh. No, I think people have got a right to expect that of their political leaders. They set forward a program and asking for your vote, then you expect something at the end of the day, or a sincere effort to deliver it, even if real life may throw things off course here and there. So that process of transformation is still only half complete. We do need to see more work by the political parties in terms of developing and articulating their own visions of the future, in terms of selling it to the people, then in terms of following through and making sure it happens.
I’m hopeful that they are proceeding in the right direction, because I think everybody’s perfectly aware of the mistakes of the past, where false promises or unrealistic promises were made, and the need not to commit those mistakes again.
But although you can change the language and change the rhetoric, changing the structures and changing the mechanisms is not that straightforward of a business. You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. You’ve got a certain sort of civil service, which has grown up in a certain context. You’ve got a certain range of non-governmental organizations, which also deliver services to some degree. You’ve got a business community, which works in its particular fashion. But actually, all these parts of society—they all need to go through their own transformation, I think, to become more effective at actually delivering to the citizens. And we are talking about a very big revolution there, which is not going to happen over night.
DUNHAM: If all attempts to stabilize fail, if the Maoist ratchet up strong-arm tactics, if Terai unrest goes unabated, is it possible that a significant number of Nepalis would look longingly toward the locked gates of the royal palace?
AMB. HALL: That’s a very doomsday scenario you outline there, which I hope will not come to pass—I don’t think will come to pass. I think, on the contrary, Nepal is moving in the right direction. It’s very easy for those of us who are living through the day-to-day ups-and-downs to look more at the downs—the glass half empty—rather than to focus, perhaps, on what has been achieved in the last year. A year ago they were fighting a civil war. There seemed to be no end in sight to it. Nobody could see a way through. And it’s really been astonishing: In the course of twelve months, we have seen a signing of a comprehensive peace agreement; we’ve seen an agreement with the United Nations, which people didn’t think was going to happen either, to actually monitor the peace agreement and to monitor the elections; we have seen an interim constitution drawn up and the prospects of elections ahead of us to take us into the next phase of the political process.
Tremendous achievements. I don’t see that being unraveled. I can see it being bumpy, as it has been bumpy over the last twelve months at various points. You know, trying to keep eight parties all pointing in the same direction, all working together while they govern the country through this interim phase, is by no means a straightforward task. Yeh, there will be squabbles and fights and splits and disagreements on the way forward. This may lead, as we were saying earlier, to frustrations by people who want to have a clear sense of direction and timelines and so on. But I don’t think we are going to see a situation where the political parties cease to cooperate with one another—where we see any party walking away from the peace process itself. I don’t see that they’ve got realistic alternatives. Nobody wants to go back to conflict. They know there is no popular support to return to conflict. So by hook or by crook, they have to make the current process work and to take it forwards. So I think we will see that process continue.
You refer to the monarchy. They have a big decision ahead of them at some point and this should be the role of the constituent assembly, I think, as a representative body as to what sort of State do they want to be in the future. Do they want to continue as a monarchy? Do they want to become a republic? There has been a huge amount of public debate over those issues. There’s been a lot of rhetoric flying to and fro.
Not quite so much serious consideration of, first, the pros and cons of a monarchy as a unifying stabilizing factor with a long history behind it—or, the other side, if you are going to become a republic, what sort of republic—there are many many different models. And I suspect—everyone I talk to who supports a republic has got an entirely different mental picture in his or her mind as apposed to everybody else. We can be looking at the United States or we can be looking at France. You can be looking at India or you can be looking at Bangladesh. I mean there are just many republican models. That debate hasn’t really started yet. And perhaps, that’s something they should save for the constituent assembly. Ultimately, it’s a choice for the Nepalese people, themselves, have got to make—what will they regard as that symbol of the nation, that unifying figure who will have that role we all look to for a head of State to provide, be it a hereditary choice or be it a democratic choice or be it an appointment—there are lots of different ways of choosing.
DUNHAM: Do you think there is an emotional need for—if nothing else—an ornamental monarchy? Or do you think they are ridding themselves of that need?
AMB. HALL: If you look at the opinion polls that have been done—and some reasonably good ones in the last several months—it’s interesting to see. When you’ve got a reasonably broad sample base, it’s interesting to see that you’re still getting more than 40%, probably not much over 50%, but somewhere in the 40-to-50% who say they were still sympathetic toward the monarchy, particularly if it were a ceremonial or constitutional monarchy. So it seems that there is a significant degree of popular sympathy or acceptance of that institution. And that’s fair enough. But at the same time, you know, I think there has been quite a shift in the Nepalese psyche in many places—particularly in more urban or mobile societies amongst the better educated and so on, who perhaps are more disposed to question the role of the monarchy than, perhaps, a previous generation thirty years ago would have been, when it was just taken, more or less, taken for granted that that’s how things were.
Now people are questioning, I suppose, and they are saying: “What actually works for us? What do we need? What are the disadvantages or the advantages of different systems?”
So it will be an interesting debate.
DUNHAM: Because the king was always regarded as an avatar of Vishnu, as far as I understand it, there are more conservative Hindus who are rallying behind him, because of this notion. Is there a significant conservative Hindu group that could become more radical or more militant? Is there a danger here of that?
AMB. HALL: I regard that as rather unlikely and particularly in a society like Nepal where, traditionally, they have been extremely tolerant. I mean, you have a tremendous spread of beliefs and practices here: Hindus, Buddhist, Muslims, Christians—a great variety, on the whole, have gotten along with very little, if any, frictions. So I’m not sure that it’s the sort of issue stirs up—
DUNHAM: Fundamentalists is what I’m trying to say—
AMB. HALL: Yeh, extremists of whatever sort are just not prominent in this society. Now I’m sure, you know, amongst conservative Hindus, there will be some people deeply concerned. They may look across their borders to others equally who feel that to be the world’s only Hindu monarchy is really something worth protecting and preserving. But I would have the impression that, in Nepal itself, this is a fairly small number who feel passionately about it.
DUNHAM: If you don’t mind, I’d like to shift the conversation to the ongoing problem of Bhutanese refugees. Was it 1990 when the Bhutanese refugees first started spilling into this side? Would you mind recounting what your experience was during that time and what you saw?
AMB. HALL: Yes, I happened to be posted here in the British Embassy in 1991, soon after the problem emerged. I was the number two in the embassy in those days. We started receiving reports that people were coming across the borders and nobody at that stage was clear at all as to what was going on, or why, or exactly where they were even coming from. And we went down to eastern Nepal on a few occasions to see what the situation was like. As it transpired, these were people of Nepalese ethnic origin, settled in Bhutan, settled in Bhutan for varying lengths of time. And this, of course, has been one of the great issues, one of the great arguments: Were they really Bhutanese citizens because they had been living there for generations, perhaps, as many claimed—or were they very recent migrants who, because of the freedom of movement within the whole region, had settled in Bhutan recently and were not really entitled to Bhutanese citizenship or residency rights—
DUNHAM: Excuse me, these were people who had settled in southern Bhutan?
AMB. HALL: Yes, by and large in southern Bhutan. I mean you do find Nepalese in all walks of life and in many different parts of Bhutan. But, it’s true, the vast majority had settled in the rather warmer, lower-lying lands in the southern hills of Bhutan, rather than in the high mountain areas—as they have settled in Sikkim, as they have settled in Arunachal Pradesh and other neighboring states. There is a Nepalese population spread right across the Himalayas, beyond the actual borders of the State of Nepal. So, no particular surprise that these people were living there. The issue was: whether they were Bhutanese citizens and entitled to live in Bhutan, or were they not? Bhutanese authorities at that time decided that these people were not entitled citizens and many of them were pushed out of the country with very little warning—given, really, a matter of hours to gather their belongings together and just told to depart.
Many of them were bussed across the dividing patch of Indian territory and literally, just dumped across the border inside Nepal where people were not expecting this issue to suddenly erupt. No preparations had been made. No international agencies were geared up to handle a refugee crisis. For a while, people were pouring across in the hundreds and the thousands and the total, in the end, was probably about a 100,000 people who, over the course of maybe 18 months or so, were forced to shift from Bhutan into eastern Nepal.
In the early days, the conditions were extremely primitive. I remember visiting the region seeing people just living in riverbeds, some had a few bits of plastic sheeting to cover themselves; they had to kind of forage the land for whatever they could find. Actually, of course, the aid agencies and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees started to move in, started to provide assistance and, gradually, proper camp facilities were constructed for these refugees, where, essentially, they remained for last 15 or 16 years. There have been a number of rounds of dialogues between Bhutan and Nepal. That dialogue has not yet produced any clear way through the problem. Discussions about who might be entitled to be repatriated back to Bhutan have gone on, but no Bhutanese has been repatriated back to Bhutan yet. And, in the meantime, something like a third of the people in those camps were born in those camps; they’ve known nothing but refugee life, which is a very sad waste of human life really. And so it is an issue that does need to be sorted out. There are new prospects now because a number of countries, including the United States in particular, have offered to resettle significant numbers of those refugees. So I think many people are now looking to that as the most hopeful option for the future. But it’s unlikely that more than a handful will ever return to Bhutan. Let us get the rest resettled in those countries, which have been generous enough to offer them new homes.
DUNHAM: There is the argument that it’s great that the Bhutanese refugees have the option to leave these camps and go to the United States, Australia, Canada or wherever, but it doesn’t solve the problem of future refugees coming across the border--additional Nepali-speaking Bhutanese being forced to exit by the king of Bhutan.
AMB. HALL: That’s a hypothetical problem, really. I mean, there’s no reason to believe that it is likely to be an issue. I think the assumption would be that those who came in the early 1990s, were the ones who had been identified, in Bhutanese terms, as illegal settlers or migrants or whatever—whatever the truth of the argument, which in individual case has not yet been thoroughly examined—those who brought their paperwork and the verification process is still not complete to try and establish the rights and the wrongs. But those who were sent out then—the so-called illegal migrants and settlers—why would there be any reason to expect there would be another drive to do that now. It seems to be unlikely. Bhutan, as far as I know, has not signaled concerns or worries about an illegal migration problem at the moment?
DUNHAM: Whatever happens with that issue, sooner or later, it seems to me, that India has to come into play more than they have. It seems that they have remained adamantly offstage. But Bhutan looks to India, right? I mean, this is the real situation. Do other countries ever try to encourage India to address this problem more openly?
AMB. HALL: Well, I think it’s our view, anyway, that any country, which can be helpful to this situation, we would encourage them to be helpful.