April 15, 2008
Last Sunday, during a nationally aired discussion of whether President Bush would attend the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing, Stephen Hadley, President Bush's National Security Adviser, repeatedly and erroneously referred to Tibet as “Nepal”. Said Mr. Hadley, “The president thinks that the way to address the issue of Nepal is not by a statement that you are not going to the opening ceremonies…what he is doing on Nepal…” and so on. Five times Hadley spoke of Nepal, meaning “Tibet”, and five times the interviewer, George Stephanopoulos, either didn’t deign to listen or didn’t see the big deal in correcting the jarringly obvious mistake. Even the producers glued to their offstage monitors apparently didn’t get it.
Click here for youtube download
Hadley is not a moron. Somewhere in his memory bank, Hadley knows that Nepal is an independent nation recognized by the United Nations while Tibet is an ancient civilization that was colonized and subsumed by the Chinese in the 1950s. But the sloppy speechifying which stood uncorrected by prominent newsman (who, after all, gets paid to exploit such blunders) points to a far deeper, systemic and ominous problem in the United States. America’s complacency with dodgy Asian geography is, in fact, one of the reasons the 21st century will be Asia’s century, not America’s. Asians have their globes dusted off, their bifocals squeaky clean and their attitudes greedy and fine-tuned for getting the fine print right.
Why should Americans give a damn about Tibet or Nepal?
Since 10 March 2008, when a few score of Tibetan monks peacefully gathered to protest the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Lhasa uprising against Chairman Mao’s communist invasion, echoed by Tibetan refugees demonstrating in Nepal, (Tibet’s neighbor to the south), the two civilizations have exhibited the extent to which, historically, Nepal and Tibet have been linked to one another and, in turn, have forced fluctuations within the political stances of neighboring China and India, the Goliaths of Asia. This was further thrown in to relief on 10 April 2008, when Nepal held its historic elections. The Maoists caught the world off-guard by emerging as clear-cut victors -- a landmark change in government that will effect not only the domestic political landscape, but will force shifts within pan-Asian foreign policy as well. If America expects to be a player in Asia in the 21st century, it had better bone up on the jigsaw pieces of China, Tibet, Nepal and India – all distinct yet interlocked societies – an ineluctable quartet of mosaics that cannot move away from one another and, as a result, will increasingly add to the dynamics of 21st century politics.
Two links for basic history on Nepal and Tibet:
1. For an historical analysis of Tibet’s plight since communist China’s 1950s invasion by communist China, read my piece written for the Harvard South Asia Journal .
2. For a look at the history behind Nepal’s current political situation, read my article: "Nepal's Political Situation" .
BUT WHAT’S HAPPENING IN NEPAL AS OF 16 APRIL 2008?
HOW WILL NEPAL’S NEW GOVERNMENT AFFECT INDIA, TIBET AND CHINA?
WHERE DOES THIS PUT THE UNITED STATES?
Immediate results of the elections.
The intense desire in Nepal for a change has resulted in its former Maoist guerrillas securing a landslide win in the historic constituent assembly election. The constituent assembly will not only write a new constitution, but has already promised to abolishing the 240-year-old monarchy.
Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala's Nepali Congress (NC), which won the last general election in 1999 and enjoyed the support of the international community, has now been defeated decisively, having managed to wrest only 32 seats. The Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), once the second largest party in the country, is running third with 29 seats. (These figures are as of April 15.)
One of the major surprise elements of the election, is the emergence of women, who came away with almost 10 percent of the seats in the constituent assembly. This may not seem like much to Westerners, but it is a huge victory in a country stagnated by an ancient patriarchal society consistently dismissive of women’s rights. Not surprisingly, most of the female victors come from the Maoist party. (During the civil war, 30% of the Maoist cadres were women.) Also, the Muslim community got its first woman representative as the debutant ethnic party, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, saw its contestant Karima Begum win from the Terai plains.
In general, the twice-postponed election also saw the rise of ethnic parties from the Terai. The Forum won 21 seats (so far) while another new Terai party, the Terai Madhes Loktantrik Party headed by former NC minister Mahanta Thakur, captured seven seats.
As it became increasingly clear that the Maoists would lead the next government, congratulations poured in from the diplomatic community. The ambassadors of India, Japan and Norway, as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special representative for Nepal, Ian Martin met with and congratulated Maoist leader Prachanda.
The United States
Although the United States has recognized the Maoists’ victory, Washington is caught in a political cul-de-sac. The State Department still lists the Maoist Party as a terrorist organization – something that, according to former US president Jimmy Carter, should be rectified at the earliest possible date. So far, the State Department has issued a neutral position: "We look forward to the formation of an assembly that reflects the will of the Nepali people, ready to begin the important work of framing a constitution that addresses their needs."
Indeed, some of the staunchest critics of the Maoists are now predicting that the elections will force the former rebels to behave, in exchange for a chance to rule the country. That the Maoists will use the polls to try and seize power once and for all is a “stereotypical and unrealistic fear,” according to David Pottie, associate director of the democracy program at the Carter Center. American Ambassador Nancy Powell predicted that the Maoists would be “constrained” by the logic of parliamentary politics even as they tried to assert their ideological agenda. Rhoderick Chalmers, Nepal head of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said, "My gut feeling is that this victory will make the Maoists more and more of a responsible party…They now have a tremendous burden of expectations to deliver on their promises, and they are intelligent enough to realize they can't do it on their own."
Tibetan Refugee Community in Nepal
For the 20,000 Tibetan refugees left stranded in Nepal, the Maoist victory has been very bad news. Maoist Chairman Prachanda, the presumed leader of the new government, has assured the press that he will not tolerate any funny business from Tibetans. "The Nepalese government will never allow other powers [read Tibetans] to conduct activities against China by using Nepalese territory." What the refugees most dread now is the extent to which the Maoists will not tolerate their position.
Even so, yesterday, armed police detained at least two-dozen Tibetans trying to protest in front of the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu, the first anti-China protests since the election last week. And today about 80 Tibetan protesters, many of them young monks and women, were arrested while staging an anti-Beijing demonstration in Kathmandu. “We will continue our protests until the Chinese suppression of Tibet ends," one protester shouted as he was put in a police vehicle.
China's policy towards Nepal has not been ideology-driven insofar as Beijing kept in view the imperatives of inter-state relations almost up until King Gyanendra was forcibly ousted in 2006. But since then, Beijing has swiftly adapted to the emergent democratic forces in Nepal with great pragmatism and forged working relations with all political parties, including the Maoists. China's interest in Nepal has increased almost exponentially.
According to Jiang Yu, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, “China is happy to see the smooth Constituent Assembly Election in Nepal. Nepal is China's friendly neighbor. We respect the Nepalese people's choice of their social system and development road in line with their own national conditions. It is our sincere hope that Nepal can realize political stability and economic development at an early date. China will continue to provide assistance to Nepal within its own capacity.”
But the recent unrest in Tibet has added a further dimension. Tibetan activists in Nepal have been particularly strident. And as noted above, on this issue the Chinese will never release their grip, whoever is in power in Nepal.
It’s likely that Prachanda will attempt to maintain equidistance between India and China in political terms. But when it comes to China, Beijing is certain to pounce on any anti-Chinese sentiments in Nepal, given the strategic criticality of Nepal’s northern border. Nepal’s border is, after all, key to Tibet's security and stability. Ideologically, if China's current Central Asia policy is anything to go by, Beijing will continue to flex its muscles at Nepal when it comes to the “Three Evils: Terrorism, Religious Extremism and Separatism.” According to China’s Evil Meter, the Dalai Lama is the ringleader of all of the above.
The Maoist victory has made Nepal’s conservative military establishment uncomfortable, to say the least. Traditionally loyal to Nepal's Hindu monarchy and, until recently, fighting the Maoists in a 10-year civil conflict –at least 13,000 people were killed during the guerilla war – the army has adamantly resisted the suggestion that they absorb Maoist ex-rebels into its ranks.
"Our stand is that politically indoctrinated people cannot be taken into the national army," one general recently said.
Will Prachanda have the upper hand in this debate? What if the army is forced into an untenable position? Could not they revolt and stage a coup backed by the more traditional political parties? As has been proven in the last week, anything is possible in Nepal. It’s probable, however, that at this juncture, Prachanda is unlikely to play his cards too aggressively. Instead, the Maoists are likely to take their time over the integration of their fighters into the army.
"I don't think the Maoists want to stir up that particular nest of hornets... or make a powerful enemy of an armed force," said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times.
But here’s another possibility: One of my personal sources told me yesterday that behind-closed-doors discussions between the Maoists and the military are currently hammering out a “face-saving deal” in which a least a few senior members of the former rebels will be given “suitable ranks” within the military. Whatever the outcome, this particular situation remains a particularly sensitive and potentially explosive one.
Prior to the election, Delhi was obviously lukewarm about the prospect of an outright Maoist victory. The Indian establishment has traditionally worked with the Nepali Congress, a party that belly-flopped in the polls last week. One of India’s major concerns is the prospect of the Maoists galvanizing revolutionary movements within India. Like everyone else, Delhi didn't anticipate a tidal wave of support for the Maoists in Nepal. But how likely is it that Prachanda will actively engage in the exportation of Maoism into India, at least in the near future? If there is a risk for New Delhi, it lies with its own Maoist insurgency, active in more than dozen states. "Maoists in Nepal have their hands full, and they have an agenda for their own country," said Ajai Sahni of New Delhi's Institute for Conflict Management. "But it will be a tremendous encouragement to Indian Maoists."
One way or another, Delhi has found it’s diplomatic feet. On 14 April, Foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee welcomed the Maoist win as "a positive development".
Indian politicians have often grumbled, in terms of their relations with Nepal, that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In some respects this is true. Nepalese political parties of every persuasion have tended to fan anti-Indian feelings whenever it served partisan purposes. (Although in many cases it was well deserved.) This cycle, intensified by the revolving-door Nepalese governments since 1990, has resulted in a lot of hard feelings on both sides of the border. The Maoists, too, have at times taken advantage of Nepal’s general distrust of India. And yet virtually every Nepalese party has, at one time or another, accused India of sponsoring the Maoist insurgency. In trying to deconstruct this Indo-Nepali labyrinth for myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that anyone who says they can make sense of it is a damn liar.
The Maoists' biggest challenge – after decades of corruption and ill governance -- will be to deliver on the changes they have promised and that Nepal desperately needs. Education, healthcare, development and social justice are likely to top their agenda. Now that they have achieved legitimacy, they know they cannot bring prosperity to Nepal without the support of India, its main trading partner and donor and the source of its fuel.
Prachanda said yesterday that the 240-year-old monarchy will be abolished sooner rather than later: “I think within one month all these things should be cleared and I hope and I expect that within one month we will organize the first meeting of the first assembly and that first meeting should abolish the monarchy,” Prachanda told NDTV. Noting that the issue of ending of monarchy has already been incorporated in the interim constitution, the Maoist leader said all parties have agreed on it.
He discounted the view that there could be a demand for ‘ceremonial monarchy’. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think that from within the constitutional assembly there will be any kind of opposition because all parties have already taken their position against monarchy in favor of the republican system,” he said.
Senior Maoist official Prababkher chimed in: "We may not declare a republic on the first day of the first constituent assembly meeting. Declaring a republic may take a few days, but there is no doubt it will happen."
The king will not leave willingly. And no doubt he is still hoping for a last minute comeback. Although other mainstream parties have agreed with the Maoists to sack the unpopular King Gyanendra, some politicians have taken the stance that Nepal should keep some kind of monarch as a symbol of the neutrality of the country sandwiched between Asian giants China and India.
If King Gyanendra is kicked out of the palace and left vulnerable to a host of legal actions brought against him, where would he flee? The most likely refuge would be India. Reports have come out that he is considering the Sikar district of Rajasthan, home of his daughter-in-law Himani — wife of Nepal’s crown prince Paras Bikram Shah. (If the reports are correct in stating that secret negotiations have already taken place with India, it may be likely that Karan Singh, scion of the erstwhile royal family of Kashmir and Congress leader, may have had a role in it.)
There are other rumors as well. One friend, who has access to the inner circle of royalists, told me that the king isn’t the least bit worried. Gyanendra believes that a close read of last December's amendment reveals that ending the monarchy and creating a federal republic are to be done at the same time – and that could take a very long time. The theory goes that there will be plenty of opportunities in the interim for the whole question of the monarchy to be revisited – with a softening of feelings for the Shah dynasty.
Time will tell. But in the meantime, let us hope that American officials and ABC television personalities will learn to publicly distinguish the difference between Nepal and Tibet.