April 27, 2011
“I would be the last person to launch and run a political party. I have no desire, no interest and no intention.”
Few leaders in Nepal have drawn more interest and controversy than the recently retired Chief of Army Staff General Rookmangud Katawal. He received military training in Nepal, India, Pakistan, the United States and the United Kingdom. In 1988 he became the Chief Military Personnel Officer of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon. A graduate of the Indian National Defense Academy and the Indian Military Academy, he holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Nepal's Tribhuwan University and a Masters Degree in National Defense from Pakistan's Quaid-i-Azam University. General Katawal is also the Distinguished International Honor Graduate of the US Special Forces Course, and earned the coveted Gideon in the U.S. Ranger Course. He is also a graduate of the Army Command and Staff College, Camberley UK, the Senior Command Course, India and the National Defence University, Islamabad, Pakistan. In 2006, he was appointed as Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) of the Nepalese Army. But the pivotal moment in his career came when he fiercely resisted group integration of Maoist rebels into the National Army after Prachanda became prime minister. Prachanda sacked him but, shortly afterwards, the President of Nepal overrode the decision and ordered General Katawal to resume his tenure as COAS. This resulted in Prime Minister Prachanda's resignation and a general collapse of the government.
DUNHAM: The last time we met was in 2009. The burning issue then was the integration of the army. Two years later it is still the pivotal issue. It’s a quagmire. In your opinion, how close are the political parties to agreeing on the terms of integration?
KATAWAL: This is a very complex issue and it’s going to remain so for foreseeable future, I suppose.
The army was the one institution that never wanted to become a part of the problem. The army always wanted to be part of the solution. That is why, right at the beginning, once the negotiation was reached, once the comprehensive peace agreement was signed, the army started making plans...quietly…because we knew that the army would be in the forefront of the debate and the discussions.
We we had a little team and they started to work with various options. Many options were given, quietly, to all political parties, to the diplomatic missions, to our own people, and it even went to the Maoist leadership – all through different channels, particularly through the UN.
We knew that the Maoists would not accept those options because their agenda was fixed. Eventually, the options presented by the army – there was some confusion in it, because, as far as I know it, the former Prime Minister asked the army to make a plan – a political plan, not the army’s plan. So the army presented one in confidence. It was not intended to be brought out in public. It should have been the last resort so that the army, as a last resort, could engage the combatants witha view to make the peace process a successful one.
But the politicians made the plan public. And I heard that the present Defence Minister [Bishnu Paudel-UML] said, “I know nothing about it. The army has not given us any written documents. Neither have we asked the army to make one.”
He said it publicly just a couple of days ago. As far as I know, it was presented in the Prime Minister’s residence, in confidence so that the politicians should have something to maneuver without quoting the army. The trust was betrayed at the political level.
Now, another thing is – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – that this is a struggle between two ideologies. We should never forget that. Unless and until the Maoist party changes their manifestos…if you read the manifestos of all three leaders, it’s the same thing. The objective is the same. It’s something like the story of the ox and bull. The objectives are the same. No changes. It’s a question of timing only.
Another thing to consider is some of the rhetoric in the Maoist Manifesto:
Tactical flexibility for strategic rigidity
One step forward, two steps backward.
Grab your back to smash the head.
Make good use of the useful idiots.
They are saying these things openly and, if you analyze these things, what they are saying “make use of the system we are in.” The government, the street, and the Constituent Assembly or the Parliament. Make use of it. For what?
To reach their goal. They have stated it in their manifesto very clearly…and unless and until that they change, and unless and until they change their rhetoric, their activities, their conduct, the people are not going to trust them. That is one thing.
Another thing is that as long as you maintain your armed elements as your private strength to coerce and intimidate others and the public at large, it would be difficult for the public to come out openly to challenge them, or to accept or trust them. That is what is lacking right here and now. And that is what should be understood by the national political parties, the security agencies and the international community.
That is why I said recently in Japan – and I said it last year during a festival here, where journalists came over here –I said, “The people of Nepal have to make a choice. The choice between being the North Koreans or the South Koreans. You want to live under a system that you have in North Korea, or do you want to live and prosper with the system you have in South Korea?” And I said, “I, for all the problems, I would go for the South Korea system.”
It’s as simple as that. I don’t think that the North Pole and the South Pole will ever meet.
A few minutes ago, you described the situation as a “quagmire”. Yes, we are in the Catch-22 situation right now. The politicians will have to be mature enough to draw a red line and say, “Ok, enough is enough.” Which means, the only two national documents that we have today in this country are the Interim Constitution and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. So these are the two documents and whatever is written in there, and whatever was promised and whatever was signed by everybody, including the Maoist leadership -- it has to be implemented. Unless it is implemented, the peace will remain an illusive one and the people will remain suspicious. That’s how I see it. Whatever you agreed on, whatever you have signed, and whatever you have promised publicly, privately, even in the Constituent Assembly, in the Parliament, in the international community, you have to implement it. It is the Maoists who are the ones not implementing it.
For example, they should have dismantled their YCL within fifteen days. They should have returned properties, lands, whatever, within fifteen days. They should have come out openly to integrate according to the peace agreement within a period of six months. And it has been clearly stated in the peace agreement that those who were willing to integrate into the security agencies, they would have to established standards. Notice, it does not specifically name the army. It says, “security agencies.” “Probable integration in the security agencies.” It is very clearly written. Now, forgetting that, if people start talking about seven-point agendas or four-point agendas, they are really talking about agendas between two individuals. Two individuals to decide the fate of 27- 28 million people. It would be almost impossible for the people of Nepal to trust this.
It is a deficit of trust, that’s what it is. The politicians have to come out and take decisions openly in order to implement the agreement that they have made in the past.
DUNHAM: In terms of the integration process, I remember two years ago that you pointed out that there was something that was not being discussed enough: Alternatives to pushing the ex-rebels into the security forces. I don’t have my notes, but you said, “What if you offer these young men and women an opportunity for an education? What if you offered them good jobs, perhaps foreign jobs – there were a lot of different ways that one could rehabilitate them and offer them a brighter future, other than being transferred into the army, the police or armed police. Is anybody talking about that now?
KATAWAL: No. No one is talking about it because their aim is different. They have a fixed agenda. That’s what I said: The army would like to remain away from the political motivation, the ideological indoctrination. That it is the only interest of the army – that it remains a national institution separate from the political interference. It should be operated through a law that is made by the elected parliament. There’s no question about it.
But then, if you are trying to integrate one of these combatant groups, owned and maintained by a political party, what about the other armed elements that we have? They would also claim the same thing because a precedent would have been set. Also, the army would be vulnerable because the army is the only institution that can, I hope, stabilize the situation if any thing goes wrong. And things could, at any time, go wrong country. You know what the condition are here. That is one thing.
Another thing is that I still believe and I will keep on believing that the boys and girls who are in the cantonments, they are almost prisoners of some of the leadership. Right now. They are frustrated. They want to come out of the camps as quickly as possible If, without any imposition or pressure, they were given a choice, the vast majority of these boys and girls would like to go to schools, colleges, and campuses. They would like a better future. They would like opportunities -- a wide gate opening up for them of various opportunities once they are educated. They could go to America, or the UK, or Tokyo or anywhere and they could sit for competitions and win the competitions, once they were educated. Once they were exposed.
What are they going to do if they are brought into the army? What do they get? You see it in your country, in America, in the UK, in France, even in India – it’s very difficult to get cadets and cadres and recruits to join the army. There’s hardly any opportunities in joining the army. You have no family life. Look at the young [American] boys and girls going to Afghanistan and Iraq and all these places. And tomorrow, I can’t promise that they won’t go to Libya. That is the kind of life they live.
As for Nepal, the [ex-rebels] have had enough of it, these boys and girls in the cantonments. Besides that, if they are given an opportunity and if the government helps them, they would choose to go to Malaysia, or Dubai or Korea or anywhere else where there are better opportunities.
And the proposed [aid] packages: If the government give these to them, many of them would like to go to their villages and settle down with a family. Many of them would like to go to urban areas to open up, say, a little wholesale shop or tea house or coffee house and do their own business without any interference, without any fear…as free citizens in a free country.
I am sure that the vast majority of them would just like to leave the cantonments and do their own thing because they have lost about 14-15 years of their lives. Who’s going to return that to them? And they know it by now. What have they got to show for 14-15 years? Right now, what they have been given is 5,000 rupees a month, and even that too, I am told by the [Maoists] commanders who came to see me, they are really only given 3000 rupees. And I was told that, at one point, 3000 to 5000 wanted tocome out of the camp in groups, provided they got security and two guaranteed meals per day. I told the commanders, “It’s a bit late. I should have been still in office to do that. I could have done that for you then.”
Later, however, I did make a request to the concerned authorities – this was after my tenure. They told me, “No, it may violate the peace process.”
So that is the degree of frustration the ex-rebels have.
DUNHAM: The other aspect of the young people who were entrenched in the Maoist fighting for so many years, is the YCL. Recently, the Moasits announced the formation of a new group, The Youth Volenteers. Here’s a question: What is the real difference between the Youth Volunteers and the YCL?
KATAWAL: Maybe the YCL has become a little out of control. Maybe they have become more corrupt. Maybe they are not handing over money they had collected to give to their leaders. So they need another group of people comprised of the sincere and honest ones from the YCL to form a hardliner group, so that their eyes are fixed on the coming elections, the constitution making, the future government. They have fixed agendas. And they are very clear and they have contingencies. So that’s why they are trying to form all this.
DUNHAM: Well, if they are trying to distinguish the out-of-control YCL members from the ones that they can control, if that’s what you’re saying….
KATAWAL: No, the YCL have been criticized and they have become too much corrupted in the eyes of the people. Their reputation is quite bad. So the Maoists need someone else, another group, that could present a better reputation to influence the next elections.
DUNHAM: But, my question is: Is the Youth Volunteer just another name for the YCL? Is it a publicity stunt?
KATAWAL: Yes. The aim of both groups is the same. The Maoists needed a new name. That is why I mentioned the Maoists’ phrase, “tactical flexibility for strategic rigidity.” And that is where it can be seen. They have to offer a presentable face for the public.
DUNHAM: Do you think the people are going to buy that?
KATAWAL: People are quite aware of their tactics now. It would be very difficult to convince the people now. But then, people in Nepal are so docile – you know that. And of course, they need someone to stand in front of them to lead them, to motivate them, to influence them, to “talk the truth”.
But if political leaders keep on talking only in “ifs” and “buts”, then people become confused, and that’s the situation we have right now. We are not telling the people the truth.
For example, they say we can still make the constitution [by May 28]. Hey, damn it, this is impossible. There’s only one month left now. It takes about three to six months to go to the people to endorse the drafted constitution. Sir, tell me: How can 601 persons write a constitution with the conflicting diversities that they have in the Constituent Assembly? The vast majority of them do not know what a constitution means or what it’s all about! Some of them don’t even know how to write their name, to make a signature! And you expect them to write a constitution?
And even in the drafting committee, there are 63 people, …hey, that’s an impossible number. If the constitution were written on time, why should America have Madison and Jefferson? Why should India have Dr. Ambedkar? [Here, the general is saying that a small team is needed to write a constitution; he cites the American and Indian constitution writers as successful examples]. If America had gone through the same process that we have gone through by electing 601 writers, the American constitution would have never been written. Madison and Jefferson were chosen because [the founding fathers] knew that these men were the most capable of keeping in mind future generations – of writing a constitution that would be practical for the American people.
I don’t believe that 601 people can write a constitution that would be acceptable to everyone. Even today, our leadership keeps on telling us that we’ll write a constitution [on time]. What kind of constitution? They don’t say! Is it a democratic constitution or a so-called “People’s constitution” as the Maoist want? Like I said, the difference between North Korea and South Korea.
Recently, when I was in Washington I asked whether Nepal was under American radar or not? I didn’t know. “If Nepal was being watch by America,” I said, “make sure that you don’t have another Hamas or Hezbula maintaining Nepal, because the ones in the Middle East are plenty!”
That’s why I say, “Choose between North Korea and South Korea.” It’s time we make a choice.
The politicians are talking about what happens after the constitution comes. I’m saying that even if the constitution comes, other groups will tear and burn it the next day. I can guarantee you that. And if the constitutions come, tell me, would there be two guaranteed meals per day for every Nepali on the day the constitution is ratified? Would there be new roads, new bridges, new buildings, new campuses, schools, colleges? New hospitals? New TVs? New cars? Continuous electricity? No load-shedding? Will the Melemchi Project be completed on time? [This is a reference to not having adequate drinking water in the Kathmandu Valley.]
It’s not going to happen.
So why keep on telling the people the bitter un-truth?
Every time: Empty promises.
Every time: Rhetoric that doesn’t deliver.
Why keep on lying to the people?
Let’s talk about the 1990 constitution. The politicians used to say, “this is one of the best constitutions in the world. And the best in South Asia.” Why, in retrospect, was that constitution unable to deliver? What kind of constitution are we expecting? If there are people from Mars and people on the moon, are they going to come here and write a constitution with golden words? Will the constitution turn the Karnali, Bheri, and Kosi Rivers into petrol? Will it turn the Himalaya into gold? It’s not going to happen that way.
What the Constituent Assembly would do is jumble up words from here and there, from all of the old constitutions – from the 1960s, 1990s, whatever – and they’ll end up writing the same thing. What difference is that going to make? What will the people get?
Why keeping on lying to the people? People are so frustrated that now they are looking for alternatives. The degree of desperation in Nepal is too much.
The only thing is that they have not yet found someone to enforce the law and to call a spade a spade – someone to bring all the culprits, the murderers into custody and start investigations.
I say collect some good people who are well known, who can write a constitution – ten or fifteen people – ask them to write a democratic constitution. And then, with that constitution go for a fair election acceptable to the international community. But before that, all the weapons in the cantonments and the weapons held by other elements have to be handed over to the State. And the boys and girls from the cantonments have to be taken care of. Only then can there be fair elections. And if the people of Nepal choose the Maoists as the largest party, there is no problem! Let them rule the country.
DUNHAM: In terms of writing the constitution, something that bothers me is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear definition of what sort of federalism is going to be employed. It seems to me that it hasn’t been clarified. Should not that clarification be realized before the writing of the constitution?
KATAWAL: Sir, as far as I know, in America, before they started writing the constitution, the [founding fathers] decided on the terms of reference to write the constitution. That’s what happened in India, too. That’s what happened here in Nepal when they wrote the 1990 constitution. The lines were drawn. The terms of reference were established.
But right now, here in Nepal there are no terms of reference for writing the constitution. There are no pre-established guidelines.
What kind of federalism…and why? What are the merits and demerits, the advantages and disadvantages of a federal state? How many states? It has not been decided. And on what grounds is it to be decided? Is the kind of federalism to be found on communal grounds, on religious grounds, on language grounds…on what grounds? Or should the federalism be determined on the grounds of geography and resources?
As far as I understand it, in a nutshell, what the people of Nepal are really looking for is not federalism, but rather decentralization. They are probably looking for the decentralization of the delegation of authority: equal distribution of natural resources, equal opportunities in all national mechanisms, national institutions – including the people of Terai. That is what they are looking for. I don’t think that they are looking for federalism – particularly for the federalism that the Maoists are talking about.
DUNHAM: You mentioned the Terai a moment ago. The Terai has a very porous border of 1800 kilometers and the security lapses are off the charts down there. There are over 100 identifiable armed groups down there. There’s no accountability for the crimes being committed. There’s a real sense of a lack of law and order down there. What’s the best the way to address this, right now, today, in a meaningful way. The constitution-writing process could go on and on. But in the meantime, the Madhesi area and the problems arising from there need to be addressed now. What can or should the government of Nepal be doing?
KATAWAL: I think the best or only solution for this problem is enforcement of law. Keep the law enforcement agencies out of politics. And what I would like to say is that you have to collect all of these law enforcement agencies and ask them, “Who can do the job? This is the law: Who can enforce it?” Whoever says, “I can’t” then let them go. Whoever says, “I can do it”, then let them do and make them prove it. That would be the major part of the solution because that is what is lacking right now in Terai. These days, most of the time, under the protection of the political parties’ leadership, all of these criminal activities are being conducted with impunity.
As a result, the people are suffering.
Law has to be enforced, that’s the first thing. And, of course, there has to be coordination between the local government on the other side of the border. Also, the security agencies, here, in Nepal, have to be as coordinated locally. If there is a well-coordinated effort, there would be no problem that couldn’t be solved. It was being solved in the past!
DUNHAM: What about the willingness of the Indian government to coordinate?
KATAWAL: Here’s what I think about the Indian government: If sincerity and honesty are shown on this side of the border, without any political agendas, I am sure they will have to cooperate. If our people are suffering from lack of law and order, the Indian people are suffering from it too.
Look at the new Chief Minister of Bihar. Look at what he has done in the last couple of years – how he has changed the face of Bihar. He was able to enforce the law. He was able to build trust between the government and the governed. And that is the beauty of democracy. It’s a question of establishing that trust.
Here, on this side of the border, trust is lacking. There’s a big gap between the governed and the government. And when I say “government”, I am including all the security agencies. Trust must be built up. The gap has to be bridged. And that can be bridged only when you start setting examples of enforcing law. Whoever, wherever it is, however high the position is that you are talking about, once you set an example, people will slowly starting trusting you. And they will start giving you information.
DUNHAM: Could the trust be increased in Madhes if there were a larger percentage of security forces who were from the Terai region? In the past, when I’ve been down there interviewing Madhesi leaders, one of their main complaints is that they are under-represented in the security forces. This is one of their grievances. Is that not a legitimate complaint?
KATAWAL: It depends on which political party is talking about it. In any security force around the democratic world, you just cannot accept someone on a proportional basis, just because you want it. You have to have certain criteria laid down by the State. Applying for a position in security is an open competition. It’s a free competition. Anyone who is able, can get through it. There is no bar to any community, caste, religion or any regional groups. That is what happens in America and that is what happens in all democratic countries. That has to be accepted. But in order for it to work, of course, the government has to make sure that it is fairly done and the educational system has to be in place to make sure that every community, however downtrodden it is, can get that basic education, so that that person is able to sit for that competition.
DUNHAM: A basic education opportunity doesn’t exist in Madhes.
KATAWAL: No. These people feel in so many ways – and rightly so – that they have not been included. But in the name of inclusion, you just can’t bring in anyone into the security forces and make him an officer or a soldier. A Nepali citizen has to meet the criteria, just like everybody else, as equals. But for that, of course, the education, which is the basic foundation that needs to be given to every citizen. The people in Terai probably need it more it than in other areas.
But even this feeling of under-representation…I don’t think that it is on a mass level. It is only on some of the political levels – the leadership levels because they want to make some issues. I’m confident that the people of Terai do not want “one Madhes, one Pradesh.” They want equality – fair distribution or equal distribution. They want equal access to national resources, national institutions, national mechanisms that can be given only by the education. That is my understanding and I believe in it.
DUNHAM: Let’s stay with the young people for a minute. 60% of the population IS under the age of 30. It’s an extremely young demographic. They find it extremely difficult to find meaningful employment – jobs that can offer them a brighter future. There’s the issue of brain-drain in Nepal. So many young people want to leave. So many young people never come back. What can be done to reverse the situation?
KATAWAL: Create jobs. I remember, in the 1930s, during America’s Great Depression, the American government built roads, bridges, and employed almost all the citizens. The government kept them busy and engaged and paid them so that they had two daily meals almost guaranteed. We need something like that, here, in Nepal: engaging the younger generation who are fleeing the country. If the government has a definite plan, I don’t think that should be a big problem. There are so many projects going on here, in this country. And yet, there are so many foreign workers coming into Nepal and finding employment – doing the same thing that our people could be doing.
When I was in America recently, I went to eight different places where there were Nepali communities and told them, “Once you reach a certain level of education, you must come back to Nepal.” And many of them asked me, “ Sir, what do we do when we return to Nepal? No industries are running, no factories are running, no projects are running, no development works are allowed to be done, so what do we do? Here, at least – although we have no time for ourselves – we have two guaranteed meals and we can live in peace. There is law here and it is enforced. We want to go back to Nepal, but nothing is guaranteed in Nepal. What will happen to us? We will become unemployed and, everyday, we will have to pay extortion money, protection money.”
That was the answer that was given to me. That is why you don’t find the younger people in the villages or in the towns. There is no enforcement of law, no development work, no schools, no factories, no industries running right now.
And it’s because of the unions. The unions want more pay, but they don’t want to work. How can you give them more pay when there is no job and the business can’t make money? It’s as simple as that.
I was recently in Japan, visiting some of the factories there. People want to work more because they know that if they work more, they will make more. And the factory will make more and when the factory makes more, the employers will pay more to their employees.
But here, the union people don’t want to work. They want to disrupt the factory every day. But they want bigger salaries. That’s not possible. So this attitude has to be changed. The government has to be strict enough to enforce the law.
DUNHAM: If I were an entrepreneur, thinking about investing money in Nepal, I would be hesitant because of lack of law and order. Why would I risk my money in Nepal?
KATAWAL: Sir, even Bill Gates or the Ambanis do not have money to waste. They would invest only in a place where they would get the benefit. And that benefit has to be lawfully assured. Only then will they come with money. In a country like Nepal, right now, there is no one who is foolish enough to invest money only to see it wasted.
DUNHAM: I’d like to return to the army for a moment. I’ve heard criticism over the years that the size of the Nepal is too large. The question comes up, “Why do we need 96,000 troops in Nepal?” What’s your response?
KATAWAL: It’s a very valid question. But. There’s a big but.
Look at the situation in the country right now. You know quite well what is happening in this country. If there is any institution in this country that can still keep the country united – in one piece and stabilized – it is the Nepal Army. There is nothing else. Even so, many politicians have been trying to drive wedges to destabilize the army – not only that, to see the army dismantled and destroyed so that there would be no obstacle left to prevent them from achieving their goal. If the army is somehow destroyed, this country could fall to pieces.
When I was the Chief of Army Staff, I gave written documents analyzing when it would be the right time to for the army to be “right-sized”; I don’t say “down-sized’. It needs to be done. Every country needs their army to be right-sized.
Look at England today. They are again reducing their troops, although they are still fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. I’ve said many times, the right time for Nepal to right-size the army would be [after certain things transpired].
First, the national security plan has to be formulated and recognized and should be acceptable to everybody. What is our national security, considering the external and internal threats? Theses considerations are always going to be there. It’s the same for every country, large or small. And in today’s world, you don’t fight a war. You just present deterrents. And if that is the case, then what kind of army does Nepal need? Do you need a political army or do you need a professional army? The army needs to be separate from politics. It must remain within the law. It must remain within its own professional boundary. There’s no question about it. Having said that, you decide your external and internal security plan, taking into consideration armed-groups, affairs of elections – once everything is done, once democracy takes firm root, and the democratic government starts functioning, and rule of law is established, and when the people are confident enough about the government, that would be the time when experts should sit down and consider the right-sizing of the security forces, including the army. Not now. It’s not the time.
DUNHAM: What about the portion of the military involved in non-military activities?
KATAWAL: Yes, there are 13 or 14 infrastructure projects that the army is involved with. The army is not sitting down idly. The Fast Corridor project [a new road connecting Kathmandu to central Terai], for instance, has been taken over by the army. The army is called when everyone else fails to tackle a project. The Tamakoshi Hydropower Project: the army was brought in when no one else could do it; the army completed it within the given time. During last year’s flood [of the Koshi River], when all the roads in the eastern sector were closed, it was the army that was called upon at the last moment and I promised, as the Chief of the Army to the Prime Minister that, before Dashain, I would make sure that I had a bridge over the Koshi River. And the army did it.
The country needs the army for many things. Armies are not created overnight. An army needs hundreds of years. An army is not like other institutions. It has to remain within the law, it has to remain within certain disciplinary boundaries, it has to function within a chain of command. The army may have its complaints and grudges, but the army can’t just go out and wield its gun into the street and shut down traffic, close off the road. The army has to go through proper channels.
Security Sector Reform (SSR) has been a buzzword for the politicians. IGOs and NGOs, but I have been saying and I will continue to say it is not Security Sector Reform that should be looked at. What we need is Civilian Sector Reform. Why? Because the civilians don’t know how to handle and operate an institution like the army. They would like to treat the army like a group of political cadres. That is where the conflict comes in. They must understand how the army functions.
In your country, I am sure that, before the Secretary of Defense is chosen, a lot more thought is given by the politicians as to how much the candidate knows about handling the army. Not any Tom, Dick or Harry can become the Secretary of Defense. I don’t think America would do that. And the new Secretary would study a lot about the army and armed forces, before he would begin his tenure.
What happens in Nepal is this: any Tom, Dick or Harry can be appointed and he orders everybody “Oh! You do this, you do that, you hand out contracts to whoever.” The Minister of Defense can’t behave like that. Everything has to be legal.
Look what has happened in Sudan involving the Nepali police. There was a questionable contract and the police probably couldn’t resist [taking advantage of the situation]. On the other hand, the army was able to resist political influence. Fortunately, so far, the army is not that politicized – that’s what I believe – because it can resist.
At very difficult times, the army has to stand up and say, “No, this is unconstitutional and, sorry, we can not accept it.” And we did not accept [when Prachanda attempted to have General Katawal sacked.]
DUNHAM: Going back the subject of the Terai: By international law, armies must stay back some distance from its borders. And traditionally, it has been the police and armed police that have protected Nepal’s southern border. But given the extensiveness of the lawlessness today in Terai, is there any circumstance in which the army could or should take a more prominent role?
KATAWAL: Unless, the government tells us to move to the border, we can not do it on our own. Now, given the dramatic and unwanted activities going on in the Terai today, the army has raised a battalion comprised of only people of Terai origin. Among other things, this illustrates our concern for them. During my tenure, we also raised a battalion of eastern hilly region people: Limbus, Rais, Kirats, and Tamangs.
The degree of diversity, particularly in the Terai – there are 35 different varieties of Jatijanajati communities – I, myself, was surprised to see in one unit that there was so much diversity. If these people were down there as army personnel, there’s probably a better chance for them to earn the trust of the community. That was the whole aim of raising that battalion.
When I was still the Chief, I went to the cabinet. I took my whole staff, almost all the PSOs, and briefed the Cabinet on how large the problem in Terai could be in the future. I also discussed the possible solutions. We presented several possible solutions. (I’m sure the present Army leadership is also presenting it.) We raised the question as to how the police could operate more effectively. I think the first thing is to keep the police out of politics. This is the law: Enforce it. Don’t interfere.
But here’s what happens down there: Every time a criminal is arrested, the police officer gets a phone call and the caller says, “Oh that guy is our man. He’s innocent. Let him go.” If the police officer does not let the criminal go, he will get transferred overnight.
So who’s going to do their work? No one can work because they’re worried about their jobs. They have their families to look after. If they lose their job, their children will go hungry. So the policeman will say, “OK, I’ll release him.” And that is what is going on today.
Who’s to blame? I put the blame squarely on the politicians for not allowing the law enforcement agencies to act according to the law.
This is the same police force and the same investigation institution that was doing a fantastic job before the 1990s. Back then there was less politicization. They could work more efficiently and effectively. Why is the same institution in the condition it is in today? Because, first, the institution is full of political cadres, oriented and influenced by political parties, and once a new minister comes in, the secretary changes, the security officers change, so there is no continuity and no guarantee. Unless you have continuity and a guarantee, the majority of the security cannot work. Making decisions during work means taking risks. People generally don’t take risks. Taking risks means putting your family and community at risk. Why take a risk?
Probably, if there had been somebody in my position during the last month of my tenure, that person would have said [to the Prime Minister], “Thank you, sir, I quit.”
DUNHAM: But General, how do you effectively call the political parties to task? How do you checkmate political corruption?
KATAWAL: I think it’s about commitment, sincerity and honesty. Political parties have to implement whatever they have promised. They have to implement whatever is right. That is what is not happening. These people, we need to put their heads together and declare that they are Nepalese first, before they are a member of a political party, and they should understand the risk that is there awaiting their children and the future generations. They need to decide whether they want an independent operational functioning democratic Nepal or, would they rather see Nepal become an Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya.
Again, we must now decide if we want to become a North Korea or a South Korea.
And I would like to repeat that, with all the problems, I want a Nepal like South Korea or Japan or the United States, where you have freedom within the law of the land. You have a system of check and balance. And the politicians, sooner or later, have to understand the importance of checks and balances and they will have to make choices and make decisions. I’m not talking about looking at their personal interests, but rather looking at the larger interests of the country. It is time for them do this. If not, I will not reject an uprising like what you are seeing in the Middle East and Arab countries. There would be a time when people would reach their limits. There is not unlimited patience here.
DUNHAM: Is that really true? One of the things that most strikes me about the Nepali people is their remarkable patience.
KATAWAL: Yes. They are very tolerant. They have shown their tolerance over a long period of time. But I don’t think that they have unlimited patience. When there would be no electricity, no water, when they couldn’t walk the street and return home safely, I think then, the people would start taking risks.
DUNHAM: I have one last question. I’m in impatient. I want to know if you are going to launch your own political party on May 28.
KATAWAL: You must be one of the hundreds of thousands of people [wondering the same thing]. When the newspaper article in Kantipur came about me launching a political party, two embassies rang me. “Hey, General, are you launching a new political party?” I said, “Who told you that? Why don’t you ask Kantipur? I read that paper,” I said jokingly. And then they said, “No, no, tell us.” I said, “Look, first of all, in Nepal right now, people have started spitting at political parties. They are so disliked! In a village in Jajarkot district, just a week ago, the village declared that no political parties were allowed. In Kavre, just the other day, the villagers declared that no political parties were allowed. That is the situation of the country.
To suggest that I, of all the men on earth, would launch a political party!
I have no capability to run a political party, neither do I have the resources to run a political party. Even if I would have that, I would be the last person to launch and run a political party. I have no desire, no interest and no intention. I will neither open a political party or launch it, nor would I join any political party in my life.
But I will keep on working for the people and country of Nepal, until my last breath. That is why my agenda has been there right now. I expressed as much this morning, with three different groups. I said, first, we need a Nepal that is united, undivided, indivisible and sovereign . “Sovereign” in modern terms. In America, you can exercise absolute sovereignty. We have become so interdependent. As for Nepal, we are sovereign in the sense that in any open international forum, Nepal has to be able to offer its opinion, keeping the larger interests of Nepal, without any pressure or intimidation from any quarters from any country – that’s the kind of sovereignty I am talking about.
Second, before we are Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jain or Teraibasi or Pahadbasi or Chhetri or Bahun or Rai or Limbu or Kirati, we are Nepali first.
The Nepalis have to get together – everybody. This is a large space where the Maobadis or Rajabadis or Khaobadis [cheats of those pretending to be Maoists] must get together – a place where every Nepali can sit together as a Nepali First. We are Nepalese first.
You are an American. You know that you are an American before you are a Texan or a New Yorker or anyone else. You are an American first and you carry an American passport.
Laxman Tharu, the Tharuhet leader came to see me, the day before yesterday, and I asked him, “Are you Tharu or Nepali first?” And he said, “I am Nepali first.” I said, “Then forget about Tharu. If Nepal is there and the Nepalis are there, then the Tharus will be there. Guaranteed! You become a Nepal’s leader, not a Tharu’s leader.”
The third thing we need here is a democratic political system where, if you want to protect and preserve your rights and liberties, you must make sure that you also have equal rights and liberties that needs to be protected as equals. That is the political system I am talking about and, moreover, a system under the Nepali national flag. No other flags.
If these people could sit down together, I’ll give them my support. And I’ll go and give my opinion. But I don’t want any chairmanship, presidential status or anything. I don’t want it. I’m not going to be a minister or anyone like that. I must make this very clear to the people of Nepal.
But on these three issues, I will keep on harping on it and tell them to sit down as Nepalis first. As democrats first. Because that is the only alternative we have in today’s world. I don’t see another alternative in the foreseeable future. There is no alternative but democracy, whether you like it or not. Look at what is happening. You are seeing it on a day-to-day basis. When you turn on the TV [the revolutions in the Middle East] and even Morocco today, you know what is happening.