The interests of China, India and the United States are increasingly intersecting in the underreported war on terrorism in Nepal. Occupying a sensitive landlocked position, Nepal has traditionally sought to steer an independent course between its powerful neighbors. But today democracy is under threat in the Himalayas. Nepal is reaching out to the United States and the West for assistance.
Nepal faces a radical Maoist movement engaged in a People’s War aimed at overthrowing the constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy and raising the red flag of a People’s Republic. This movement is explicitly based on the Chinese model of Mao Zedong, but also draws inspiration from more contemporary ideological soulmates such as the discredited but ruthless Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru. With a hardcore force of at least 5,000, Nepal’s Maoists are using terrorist tactics–assassination, bombings and extortion–to achieve their revolutionary aims.
BEIJING ON THE SIDELINES FOR NOW
For its part, Beijing has distanced itself from Nepal’s Maoists and denies providing support of any kind. On May 10, China’s ambassador in Kathmandu went so far as to say that the terrorists are misusing the name of Chairman Mao and that China is committed to a stable Nepal. To be sure, much of the terrorist arsenal is captured weapons from government forces. But outside assistance is strongly suspected. Last December, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that Burmese police seized a consignment of 200-400 assault rifles near the northwest border with India, a consignment perhaps intended for the terrorists in Nepal. A Burmese rebel group was transporting the weapons, most of which are believed to have originated in China, with some having been sold by Burmese soldiers. Other links with like-minded groups in India, and access to illegal weapons markets there, also have been established (as below). These ties between the Nepali terrorists and outside forces need to be investigated further and choked off, like the al-Qaida network.
In larger strategic terms, Beijing has until now most likely viewed Nepal as a relatively quiet buffer area free from external power influences. Although Nepal itself poses no threat, adjoining Tibet as it does, China clearly has an interest in monitoring Tibetan exiles and freedom fighters who are either transiting or residing in Nepal. Additionally, maintaining a secure land border with Nepal allows China to focus on security challenges elsewhere on its periphery, most notably in the maritime regions in and around Taiwan and the South China Sea.
India also seeks good relations and has an important interest in a stable, democratic Nepal. It has recently provided much-needed training and military hardware, including helicopters, to the Royal Nepal Army. But tighter vigilance at the border is required to deny the Maoists safe havens in India, and limit their access to such groups as the Maoist Communist Coordination Center, which operates in the Indian states of Bihar and Jharkhand, and the Naxalite People’s War Group in Andhra Pradesh.
NEW DIMENSION: GROWING AMERICAN INTEREST
A new dimension in the geopolitical equation that may afford Nepal a longer-term balancing mechanism with its neighbors is a possible American role. Washington’s interest in Nepal has grown since September 11. Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Kathmandu in January 2002, the first such high-level American visitor in fifty years. Subsequently, Nepal’s Prime Minister Mr. Sher Bahadur Deuba, completed a successful visit to Washington, where he met with President Bush and his national security team. Through these contacts Washington is clearly signaling that the United States and Nepal have mutual interests in the global war on terrorism, and this will likely lead to new U.S. military aid and assistance (such as equipment, training and intelligence support) for Kathmandu in the near future. The United Kingdom has also expressed support for Nepal’s war on terrorism.
POSSIBLE CHINESE REACTIONS
China has yet to react specifically to the budding U.S.-Nepal relationship. But many Chinese commentaries post-11 September have voiced general concern of U.S. “encirclement” resulting from new U.S. military relationships and bases in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Greater American involvement in Nepal may add to Beijing’s anxieties in this regard. China may look to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)–China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan–as one means of countering U.S. activities in South and Central Asia. The SCO defense ministers recently met in Moscow, and on May 14 vowed to increase cooperation. In addition, Russian commentaries have noted that China would like the SCO to form the basis of a military alliance.
BRINGING TERRORISM INTO SHARPER FOCUS
The Maoists, officially the Communist Party of Nepal [CPN] (Maoist), abandoned the legitimate political process in 1996 and turned to violence. During the past six years of terrorism, over 4,000 people have been killed. Property damage is estimated at US$250 million. Nepal’s critically important tourism revenues have dropped from US$210 million in 2000 to US$70 million today. As a result, Nepal’s government is being forced to divert scarce resources that would otherwise go for pressing development needs.
The terrorists have been most active in rural areas outside the Kathmandu Valley, but bombings and attacks also have occurred in the capital. They are following the classic Maoist strategy of encircling towns from countryside base areas in an attempt to gain strength and move from the strategic defensive phase of operations to a stalemate phase, and then to the offensive. Over time this will enable them to form a liberated zone and declare a People’s Republic of Nepal. In the areas under their influence they create governing bodies, judicial entities, underground economies and collective farming systems. Political power is exercised by the party’s Standing Committee and Politburo. Military power is exercised by the People’s Army under the direction of the Central Military Commission. The chairman of the Maoists is Pushpa Kamal Dahal alias Comrade Prachanda (“Furious One”). Prachanda has developed his own ideology called “Prachandapath,” which applies communist principles to the perceived situation in Nepal.
COUNTERTERRORISM AND THE WAY FORWARD
In recent weeks the government has scored some counterterrorism successes. On the weekend of May 3-5, for example, government security forces attacked a training camp and base in western Nepal and killed hundreds of terrorists. But the conflict continues to ebb and flow, and a much firmer, multifaceted counterterrorism strategy is required to root out Prachanda and his followers and sweep their outmoded ideology into the dustbin of history where it belongs. Outside investment is a necessary ingredient in this effort. So is better equipment for Nepal’s security forces to enable them to move and operate more effectively in the country’s rugged terrain.
The terrorism in Nepal merits greater concern than it has received. The country’s stability is at stake. A peaceful and democratic Nepal is critical for regional security. Already one of the poorest nations in the world, Nepal can ill afford a protracted war that needlessly drains precious resources away from economic development. Nor could it withstand a Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution or other type of revolutionary experiment should the Maoists grab power.
Additionally, the problem of terrorism must be addressed wherever it arises. The United States cannot afford to suppress terrorism in one location, only to see it thrive in another, thus potentially creating new bases and safe havens for international terrorists.
Nepal’s democracy is still recovering from the shock of the massacre at the Royal Palace last year that grabbed world headlines. Helping this friendly nation put down deeper democratic roots contributes to regional stability and is in American and Western interests. Nepal is doing the best it can with the tools at its disposal, but more support is needed to wage a successful campaign to stop the terrorist threat at the top of the world.
1. See “Message by the Chinese Ambassador,” May 10, 2002, at www.chinaembassy.org.np/remarks&statements.html
2. “Nepal’s Maoists Look for Guns,” Far Eastern Economic Review, December 13, 2001.
David G. Wiencek is president of International Security Group, Inc.
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