Friday, December 25, 2009

A Dangerous Mix in the Himalayas Could Drag the Region Into Conflict

With Indian encouragement, Nepal’s democratic forces are coalescing into a fragile coalition against the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which appears determined to go to the next level and seize state power in Katmandu.

Beyond a tender regard for Nepal’s parliamentary democracy, Indian opposition to the Maoists has an inevitable geopolitical component. India and China have been engaged in a war of words over several touch points, including the eastern Indian province of Aranuchal Pradesh, which China sporadically claims is a province of southern Tibet. There have also been confrontations over parts of Kashmir. In New Delhi, there are growing suspicions that Beijing regards the Maoists in Nepal as a proxy army.

Now the Maoist push for power has attracted the concern and action of India, which fears that Nepal would abandon its traditional role as a virtual satellite of New Delhi and become a bastion of Chinese influence on its northern border if the Maoists triumph. In recent weeks, India has gone beyond encouraging Nepal’s shaky democratic parties to displaying some anti-Maoist background.

The Maoists ended their armed insurgency in Nepal in 2006. However, they have continued to drive the political struggle toward violence and confrontation. New Delhi and Nepal’s democratic parties, seeking to thwart them, have inevitably turned to their main military asset — the Nepalese army — to step forward as an anti-Maoist force.

After putting down their arms, the Maoists came to power with 38 percent of the popular vote in the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections. The Maoists’ leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who goes by the nom de guerre Prachanda, became prime minister and soon deposed the monarchy, but he resigned in May this year and dissolved the government in a dispute over the reinstatement of the Nepali Army chief, Gen. Rukmangad Katawal. Prachanda had earlier fired Katawal for refusing to integrate members of the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army into the national force — another condition of the peace agreement. Months of political chaos have followed.

In an August interview with Asia Sentinel, Chandra Prakash Gajurel, the Maoists’ head of international affairs, accused the government of pursuing an arms deal with India,

The military is growing increasingly concerned the Maoists are attempting to cow the current government into submission with an escalating program of land seizures, unilateral declarations of autonomous regions and, most recently, a confrontational and frequently violent three-day general strikes throughout the country.

The Maoist timetable allegedly calls for harassing and intimidating the government until May 28, 2010 — the date mandated for promulgation of the new post-monarchical constitution by the peace agreement that brought the Maoists out of the forest.

If the government has not accommodated the Maoists and gained their participation in the process of drafting the constitution by then, the Maoists have threatened to declare that the current government has lost its legal mandate to rule. Then the Maoists will place the onus for collapse of the peace agreement on the democratic parties, India, the military, the United States and/or disgruntled monarchists, and proclaim a new constitution and government “from the streets.”

New Delhi has significantly upped the ante in Nepal’s power game by responding favorably and publicly to an appeal from Nepal’s army — which hunted the Maoists brutally and unsuccessfully for almost a decade — for India’s assistance in keeping the Maoists out of power. The overtly pro-India, anti-Maoist tilt of the Nepali Army was highlighted by the recent high-profile visit to India of the chief of army staff, Chatraman Singh Gurung. The determination of India and the Nepali Army (shared by significant factions inside Nepal’s fractured democratic parties) to crush the Maoists has become virtually a matter of public record.

The Maoists’ underlying agenda in seeking to oust Katawal was their need to ensure that the military was under the thumb of the government and would acquiesce to the dilution of the army’s anti-Maoist fervor by the incorporation of Maoist forces in the army, as mandated by the peace agreement.

As the news out of India demonstrates, the Maoists were right to be worried about the hostility of the army. Beyond receiving his honorary rank as general in the Indian Army, Gurung delivered a raft of proposals for strengthening his forces, intensifying the pro-India tilt and turning them into a more effective antagonist of the Maoists.

The Telegraph of Calcutta, in a recent story, said officer cadets from Nepal would get more seats in the Indian Military Academy, that the recruitment of Nepalese Gurkhas in the Indian Army would be increased and that New Delhi would consider supplying 50 phased-out tanks to Katmandu.

The Ajeya T-72 tank is a serious piece of hardware. As the Indian government is aware, the T-72 is conspicuously ill-suited for action against the only external threat that New Delhi would consider legitimate — military action by China in Nepal’s mountainous north — but would be quite useful making an anti-Maoist statement in the central valley that holds Katmandu and several more of Nepal’s larger cities.

A Defense Ministry source quoted by the Telegraph of India said Nepal had asked for 100 tanks in two phases at concessional rates. The newspaper also carried a disingenuous piece of spin-doctoring, presumably courtesy of the Indian defense establishment, describing the convoluted history of military cooperation between India and Nepal, saying the Nepali Army had inquired if India could raise the supply of military hardware to the level prevalent nine years back, when the campaign against the Maoists was at its height.

Actually, in 2005, India punished King Gyanendra with a downgrading of military ties after the king purchased arms from China. The Indians also went the extra regional-hegemonist mile and brokered an alliance between the democratic parties and the Maoists that birthed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and removed King Gyanendra from power.

Now India is talking to the Nepali Army about cleaning up the mess it helped make. An improved environment for military sales from India to Nepal is therefore in the offing.

The two countries’ militaries held an India-Nepal defense cooperation committee meeting in Katmandu in mid-December, with the Indian government reportedly responding favorably to a request for more concessionary terms for the supply of non-lethal aid (sales of lethal aid already enjoy a 70 percent credit concession).

The Indian and Nepalese militaries have also easily achieved a meeting of the minds as to how to regard the Maoist challenge. The Indian Army is suspicious of any integration of Maoist troops into the Nepali Army ranks. The Katmandu media reported that the Indian Army’s chief of staff, Deepak Kapoor, had advised Gurung not to integrate Maoist forces into the Nepali Army, as the peace agreement stipulates. The Maoists were quick to cite Kapoor’s alleged remarks as evidence of Indian interference in Nepalese affairs, shifting the focus of their attack from the relatively obscure issue of civilian precedence to easy-to-understand and popular India-bashing.

In a rally celebrating the conclusion of the December three-day strike (and promising to escalate the crisis with another national general strike of indefinite duration beginning on Jan. 24), Prachanda blasted the Nepalese democratic parties as servants, “puppets” and “robots” of New Delhi.

Combining the Nepali Army’s desire to settle scores with the Maoists with India’s desire to deny China a political foothold in Katmandu makes for a dangerous mix. In its incarnation as the Royal Nepal Army, Nepal’s military proved conspicuously more successful at racking up human rights violations than fighting the Maoists, who exploited Nepal’s vast, mountainous terrain, near-feudal social conditions and the virtual absence of a central government presence in many rural districts to fight the army to a standstill or better.

The Maoists actively fan fears that the military will abrogate the peace process in order to deny them the victory in Nepal’s urban areas that they believe is in their grasp, raising the specter of a reprise of the bloody stalemate of the previous two decades. Given the constellation of forces arising to confront them, the Maoists’ push for power — and Nepal’s descent into chaos — will probably accelerate, potentially undermining the peace agreement. By Peter Lee Asia Sentinel

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