Monday, June 29, 2009

Chinese Horse Sense On Mustang

After high-profile visits to Mustang by a few other top foreign envoys, Chinese ambassador Quo Guohang landed in the district to thank the local people for helping to stop anti-Beijing activities. In an open gesture of goodwill, the ambassador assured residents that China would soon introduce a development package for the Upper Mustang region.
The amity did not stop at that. Guohang said he had requested Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to spend the bulk of Chinese financial support in remote areas like Mustang. (Finally, the Chinese seem to have recognized the strategic merits of attaching strings to their foreign aid commitments.)
Behind the sentimentality, it is clear Beijing is worried about a resurgence of the “splittist” activities of the “Dalai clique” from the district that abuts into the Tibet plateau. The Free Tibet movement has become a more powerful vehicle combining its traditional glitzy global reach with an increasing recognition of the limits of nonviolence. Celebrities of all shapes are intent on saving one of the world’s last quaint and pristine regions even if takes some destructiveness in the process. A new offensive, advocates believe, is overdue, especially with the Dalai Lama advancing in age.
Like Taiwan, Tibet is a perennial sore China’s foes believe they must keep festering in order to pummel Beijing’s heart and soul. Nepalis are too busy with their own present to care too much about the geopolitical maneuverings of the past and the future. Instinctively, however, most Nepalis worry that a free Tibet would obliterate the country’s border with China, thereby leaving the field wide open for India.
Admittedly, the Chinese know the limits of western backing for the Free Tibet movement. With the Barack Hussein Obama administration’s Project Socialism predicated on Chinese purchases of American treasury bills, there is little incentive in Washington to tilt the applecart too steep. Should Wal-Mart suddenly lose all those cheap Chinese imports, who is to say how the American public would revisit the word “change”?
Beijing also recognizes that the American political class has to demonstrate displeasure with China periodically for domestic reasons. Throw in a couple of millions a year to a revitalized anti-Beijing rebellion and many of Obama’s congressional on the right would be quite happy.
Yet the Chinese are pragmatic enough to see the real threat. It is the internal security challenge – rather than Tibet’s outright detachment from the motherland – across the less-developed western hinterland that worries the one-time governor of Tibet, President Hu Jintao.
Indeed, a lot has changed since King Birendra ordered the Royal Nepalese Army to flush out the remnants of the fading Tibetan rebellion in 1974. Still, a little more light on history would be in order. President Richard M. Nixon’s opening to China may have convinced the Central Intelligence Agency to terminate its support to Tibetan rebels. But the impending end was visible long before that.
Mustang, in the eyes of the external sponsors, was supposed to be a transit point of the rebels. The Tibetans were expected to establish bases inside Tibet. Rebel leaders insisted they could not do so without arms. Weapons were airdropped, with the Americans keeping a close eye on developments inside Tibet. As the back and forth continued between the CIA and the Tibetan rebel leaders, the Chinese consolidated control along the Nepali border.
To be sure, sophisticated arms and improvements in aircraft payload capabilities would help overcome key weaknesses of the earlier rebellion faced. Improved communication, moreover, would facilitate movement and cut down the time between the acquisition of actionable intelligence and the mapping of operation plans.
As far as the regional biases that marred the earlier phase are concerned, however, not much can be said with certainty. Resistance leaders came from the same tribe or region and they chose for CIA training fighters mostly along the same ethnic and geographical lines. The majority of the trainees were from southeastern Kham (“Khampas”) and a few from adjoining areas.
A few Amdos and a handful of Goloks were also trained. The traditional rivalries and suspicions this fed weakened the rebellion from the outset. In the end, the operation could be suppressed when one key leader betrayed another.
A revitalized rebellion would, as then, depend on the Indians. Just as the Indians know that the Chinese won’t risk their bilateral partnership over Nepal, Beijing recognizes Delhi’s reluctance to gamble away ties over Tibet. But, then, there is the flipside.
If the Indians and the Americans could work together on Tibet during the height of the Cold War, when they were on opposing blocs, could the convergence under a Washington-New Delhi strategic alliance be anything short of compelling?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Relish The Redemption, Ram Chandraji

Just as Ram Chandra Poudel’s political fortunes seemed to have started plummeting, he has ended up atop the Nepali Congress. In the constituent assembly, at least. Well, technically.
Thrust into the dissident camp after party president Girija Prasad Koirala defiantly catapulted daughter Sujata to the cabinet, Poudel was exposed as a has-been. He made the perfunctory noises, together with new-found ally Sushil Koirala, but to little effect. At least Sushil has now found a valid reason to slip into retirement.
Poudel’s triumph at the parliamentary party elections reinforces the never-say-never adage, especially when it comes to horses cast in the darkest colors. Poudel got 61 votes, while his rival, Sher Bahadur Deuba, garnered 48 out of the total 109 cast in the second round of the long-awaited election. Contrast that with the first round, in which Deuba had won 45 votes, while Poudel secured 39, with the two other candidates – Kul Bahadur Gurung and Suprabha Ghimire – garnering a dozen each.
Professing his neutrality, Girija Koirala stayed away from the elections. Several other luminaries were absent for a variety of reasons ranging from the personal to – yes – the political. Going by their antecedents, Ghimire’s votes were probably going to go to Poudel. The surprise lay in the choice by Gurung’s supporters. His politics are certainly closer to Deuba’s in most respects. Something here simply doesn’t pass the smell test.
Granted, Deuba came nowhere near the 72-40 win he scored over Sushil Koirala after the Narayanhity carnage before regaining the premiership. Still, the twice-sacked premier’s performance this time was slightly better than his 2000 and early 2001 showing, when he unsuccessfully contested against Koirala. (Actually, the Deuba faction walked out of the polling venue in the latter instance when they discovered the balloting would not be secret.)
That was Old Nepal, for sure. But there was some expectation that things might still go Deuba’s way this time. First, the generals are on the ascendancy and aiming higher. Who can forget how Deuba, after the collapse of the royal regime, was still insisting that king retain control of the army in order to maintain the chain of command?
Then there was Deuba’s deafening silence during the thunder over Sujata’s nomination. True, the man probably hasn’t forgiven Poudel’s “betrayal” in the summer of 2002 when the former speaker had promised to accept the leadership of the breakaway Congress and had actually sent his supporters to the dissidents’ convention before throwing in his lot with Koirala.
Clearly, Deuba wasn’t entirely focused on payback, say, by denying Poudel the deputy premiership. If that were the case, what better way to batter Poudel than by letting him share power at a time when – so to speak – the ghosts are on their outrageously frequent snack breaks?
So the obvious question is, was there a Deuba quid pro quo with Koirala? Prakash Man Singh lamented that Koirala and Deuba had joined hands to send the controversial contingent for some unspecified purpose. Until the last moment, Deuba wanted Koirala to lead the parliamentary delegation. In the spirit of newness, Deuba could have forgotten the main plank of his challenge to Koirala at the party convention almost a decade ago: that the septuagenarian’s shoulders had become too frail to bear the entire burden. We certainly haven’t.
That’s why he’s the man to watch. As the results were being announced last week, Deuba was absent from the election venue. Eight years ago, Sushil had the decency to congratulate him and lock his arms in solidarity in a threesome with Girijababu. (Not that it really meant much.)
How events unfold in the days ahead would probably depend on what really happened. Was Deuba’s defeat a protest vote against Girija Koirala, especially since Sujata came out in open support of Deuba. Or, as is more likely, did our wily old man succeed in pitting those two perennially thorny leaders against each other to clear Sujata’s way over the long haul? Girija Koirala, we cannot fail to recall, was instrumental in Deuba’s ouster in 1996 and 2002. As for Poudel, the NC patriarch has already kept the new PP leader on a short leash by instructing him to keep the party intact.
All said, Deuba may start rooting for the rise of the fifth generation of Congress leaders – Gagan Thapa and younger. Or can we expect him to do something more immediate? Such as, say, start divulging the purported contents of the almost daily conversations Sujata supposedly has been having with Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal?
Relish the redemption, Ram Chandraji, as long as you can.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A Memory Frozen In Time

When Shailaja Acharya waved that black flag in front of King Mahendra on Democracy Day 1961, she probably had no inkling of the eternalness of her action. Immediately hauled away by a stunned security detachment, Shailaja plunged into politics with a fastness that sent ripples right into the Sundarijal detention center where her illustrious uncle, B.P. Koirala, could barely conceal his contentment.
Shailaja never sought to cash in on that act of defiance. She was powerless to stop its undulation. That she stepped aside stood the country in good stead. In a sense, Shailaja reflected her uncle’s narrative of endurance. In prison, exile and back in prison, conviction and courage reinforced each other. Acknowledging herself as flawed as every human being by definition must be, Shailaja could remain unfazed by the sustained campaigns of vilification mounted by inveterate foes as well as purported friends.
With the collapse of the partyless citadel in 1990, Shailaja found the to-do list only growing. As agriculture and cooperatives minister in Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s first government, Shailaja confronted a mess. Her immediate predecessor, Jhal Nath Khanal of CPN-Marxist-Leninist, had bequeathed to her a demoralized staff. When her own party and cabinet stymied her effort at wholesale cleanup, Shailaja quit. But it wasn’t your regular recourse to the easiest way out. The creeping corruption would ultimately undermine democracy, she warned from inside parliament.
Still, Shailaja was prudent enough understand why Premier Koirala could let her go so easily. He had the party – and future elections – to worry about. Multiparty democracy didn’t come cheap and graft greased the wheel of politics every step of the way. She would have to wage a solitary battle.
It was that curious mixture of principle and pragmatism that left the leader of the opposition, Manmohan Adhikari, comfortable discussing burning political issues with Shailaja in a way he never really could with his own party colleagues. Not someone prone to dispensing favors, Adhikari was often prepared to put in a word to Shailaja – and only Shailaja – if it was really unavoidable. The CPN-Unified Marxist-Leninist saw Adhikari as a useful figurehead. The communist lion, too, could easily see through the façade his supposed loyalists had built.
Shailaja returned to power becoming the country’s first – and only – deputy premier. The notoriously lucrative Water Resources Ministry could not tarnish her reputation. As vice-president of the Nepali Congress, Shailaja was fully equipped to provide ideological vigor. But the party had become a fractious entity where each satrap was busy extracting a bit of party history and reaping returns several times over.
The Nepali Congress, as the longest ruling party, inevitably began drawing public ire. Yet it seemed reluctant to acknowledge its paramount role in the squandering of the promise of 1990. Shailaja stood apart. Since the Nepalese people had limited expectations from the other parties, she argued, the Nepali Congress was morally obligated to be doubly contrite.
During the daily open house at his Jaibageshwari residence, B.P. Koirala often insisted that only two people could do full justice to his life story. Since Shailaja was preoccupied with day-to-day politics under a polity that allowed parties to function as long as they carried the prefix “banned”, Ganesh Raj Sharma, the eminent constitutional lawyer, stepped into the role his brother-in-law had envisaged.
Published posthumously, B.P.’s memoirs and prison diaries cast much-needed light on a critical phase of history and on his own transformation. The other branches of the extended Koirala family weren’t too thrilled by this audacious enterprise, yet they remained awed by the spark in the public imagination. B.P.’s immediate family was left lamenting how the Koirala mantle had been usurped by its least worthy claimants. Shailaja didn’t have to say a word.
After the 2002 and 2005 royal takeovers, Shailaja offered tepid support to the democracy movement. This underscored the Nepali Congress’ deviation more than her own ideological drift. It was impossible to label Shailaja as a co-conspirator in the revival of “royal absolutism”. But her critics did try their best.
Shailaja was resolute. The Nepali Congress could mount countless battles against the palace to retrieve liberty and freedom. That would not be possible in the event of a Maoist takeover, an eventuality she believed the Nepali Congress had brought closer in the name of upholding democracy.
The abortive ambassadorship to India allowed Shailaja’s opponents to strike what they considered the final blow in their demolition drive. The 48-year-old image, it turns out, is too solidly frozen in time.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

He Knew They Hated Him From The Start

In the immediate aftermath of the Narayanhity carnage, Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai revealed how Dhirendra Shah had expressed fear for his life. This week, another communist – academic Manik Lal Shrestha – posited that King Birendra shared a similar fear.
If the late king could open up so candidly to the estimable professor, he certainly would have made his security concerns known to the prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, who was also in charge of the royal palace portfolio. Koirala, as far as the public record shows, was locked in a power struggle with the monarch over such diverse issues as the citizenship bill and the mobilization of the army against the Maoist rebels.
If King Birendra didn’t convey his concerns to Koirala, then that does open an entirely different line of inquiry. After all, this would not be the first time that one of the plotters himself turned out to be the whistleblower on a “grand design”. Moreover, Koirala was the head of the party that had mounted assassination attempts on Birendra as well as his father, Mahendra.
The new story this anniversary of the horrendous night is not about how one royal ADC had prevented another from felling Crown Prince Dipendra, thereby permitting a wider bloodbath. It’s the series of revelations – scattered in the less-prominent Nepalese press – that King Birendra had survived earlier attempts on his life. What was it that made Birendra such a despised man among some? Clearly, his responsibility to Nepalese nation handed down by his ancestors.
Doubtless, King Birendra’s Western education and modern outlook personified the extension of Nepal’s international profile. This came on top of the monarchy’s traditional supervision of Nepal’s precarious balancing act between its two giant neighbors espousing antithetical values on virtually everything.
To be sure, there were old-style campaigns to denigrate Birendra, especially over issues of rifts within the royal family and romance. Those didn’t fly. Geopolitics had exacerbated Nepal’s sense of vulnerability. The Soviet-backed overthrow of the monarchy in Afghanistan in July 1973, through Indian abetting, confirmed the palace’s suspicions that India had virtually become the eighth member of the Warsaw Pact.
In an interview with Newsweek over a year after his enthronement, King Birendra said that the basic problems facing Nepal “are development and the preservation of our identity as a nation”. Nepal, he said, was not a part of the subcontinent; it was really a part of Asia which touches both India and China. The Khampa rebellion was rooted in, among other things, Nepal’s existence as a trans-Himalayan state. Yet the pressure from the south was unremitting. Nepal, the palace was politely but incessantly warned, should not exaggerate its geopolitical compulsions.
In the machinations underway in neighboring Sikkim, the palace saw the Indian political leadership less as an instigator. The bureaucratic-intelligence-security axis long subverted the political process and ultimately presented the political leadership with a fait accompli. Yet, given the end result, the distinction didn’t matter.
During his coronation in 1975, Birendra articulated Nepal’s quest to preserve its national independence through the Zone of Peace proposal. India held out, citing the urgency of further study. It contended that the proposal contravened the 1950 Treaty, at least in its interpretation. The palace persisted and, predictably, the Panchayat system was denigrated as a dictatorship.
Apparently 116 countries would not necessarily see the ZOP a tool of an autocrat aimed at consolidating his rule. Nor would a galaxy of international leaders, ranging from French President Francois Mitterand to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl consider Nepal off-limits as an international pariah.
The quaint and exotic image Kathmandu wore for the world could not conceal the deepening international power games. India, not surprisingly, was the prime mover and shaker. Amid the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, months after the anti-Shah revolution in Iran, King Birendra perceived a grave threat. Admittedly, the palace was fearful of Soviet-Indian subversion amid an emaciated America under President Jimmy Carter. But much more than the monarchy was at stake. It was easy to berate the monarchy’s invocation of a custodianship of national independence, especially by those who bore no such responsibility.
King Birendra recognized the risks therein. In August 1979, when the Irish Republican Army assassinated Lord Mountbatten, King Birendra was in China. The sorrow that had descended on the royal entourage could not hide the deep sense of foreboding.
The 1980s witnessed behind-the-scenes arms-twisting from the south. New Delhi became more brazen in linking trade and transit concessions Nepal felt entitled to under international law to acknowledgement of its security concerns. The problem, as usual, was that profound gap in perceptions. What India considered its “legitimate” security concerns encroached upon Nepalese sovereignty. A foreign-inspired attempt on King Birendra’s life was foiled after another embassy provided the palace with information it had intercepted. In public, the controversy over the mysterious import of 84 cases of arms camouflaged the wider conspiracy.
King Birendra embarked on a renewed drive to bolster Nepal’s international profile. During a state visit to the United States in December 1983, President Ronald Reagan not only heartily endorsed the ZOP proposal but also described the monarch’s innovative approach to peace and development as possible foundation for progress throughout the region. The message was not lost on New Delhi.
Following Rajiv Gandhi’s ascension to power – in the aftermath of his mother’s assassination in 1984 -- there was some hope that New Delhi would finally discard its outmoded notions vis-à-vis Nepal. That was short-lived. The series of explosions that rocked Kathmandu in 1985 was observed and explained in terms of the non-cooperation movement launched by the Nepali Congress and the republicanism espoused by Ramraja Prasad Singh. Before the full implications of the linkages between the two central venues – the Royal Palace and the Rastriya Panchayat – could be probed, anti-palace propaganda machine was in overdrive.
The summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu in 1987 provided Kathmandu with a fresh opportunity to fortify its international profile. King Birendra’s adroit handling of the post-summit news conference allowed Kathmandu to articulate its aspirations clearly and candidly.
The Indian Army’s intervention in Sri Lanka that year once again heightened King Birendra’s anxieties. Indian incursions into Nepalese airspace forced Nepal to rethink national security. The purchase of anti-aircraft guns, along with other materiel, from China was purely defensive and based on cost.
For India, this provided the pretext to try to turn the clock and reinforce the 1950 Treaty by bringing trade, transit and other aspects of the bilateral relationship under a single comprehensive treaty. What began as an Indian embargo expanded into active political subversion. The Nepali Congress and the communists joined hands against the partyless system. Yet it was no coincidence that the movement happened to peter out at the precise moment the draft of the comprehensive treaty was being worked out before it could be foisted on the palace.
The Reagan administration’s enthusiasm for the palace’s efforts to preserve Nepal’s independent existence had diluted significantly under its successor. Under the George H.W. Bush administration, Nepal became increasingly vulnerable to the Christian evangelism and anti-China strands of the Republican party. The palace nevertheless pressed on. The fallout from the Tiananmen Square massacre wasn’t the only reason behind China’s diffidence in coming out in full support. Deng Xiaoping had revived the east-west swap on the border dispute with India. Rajiv Gandhi, fresh from his landmark visit to China, recognized the opportunity to act against Nepal.
Clearly, the restoration of multiparty democracy was not the result India expected. But it had to make the most of it. So when Ganeshman Singh was asked what the new constitution would be like, he could offer no specifics. Except that he would drop the ZOP proposal. (A statement that effectively ended his political utility for India. A man projected as the first president of Nepal could not wield enough influence several months later to save his wife and son from electoral defeat in the face of their own distinct political records.)
Three years after the restoration of multiparty democracy, the principal critic of the Tanakpur project, Unified Marxist-Leninist (UML) general secretary Madan Bhandari, was eliminated. That was shortly after Bhandari acknowledged the palace as a power center and was working on a common front. (Significantly Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal revealed the other day how Bhandari’s successor-in-waiting, Madhav Kumar Nepal, conceded that the charismatic leader had fallen victim to international politics.) The net was cast for the wider Mahakali Package under the new leadership of the UML.
As the Maoist insurgency benefited from the political instability, geopolitics took another ominous turn. India conducted a series of nuclear tests, citing the threat from China. The US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in what was officially described as an accident. President Jiang Zemin refused to take President Bill Clinton’s phone call.
The Indian Airlines hijacking capped a sordid reality: India’s relations with the world’s only Hindu kingdom hit its nadir under the leadership of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. New Delhi accused the palace of abetting Kashmiri militants. Kashmiri militants, for their part, were sore that the palace systematically blocked the convening of an international conference on Kashmir. The most bizarre explanation for the Hrithik Roshan riots came from Prime Minister Koirala, who suggested it was a public reaction to King Birendra’s machinations against their hard-won gains.
Some Western powers continued to egg on the monarch to intervene politically. Birendra, citing how his pleas for sympathy fell on deaf ears in 1989-1990 on the instigators, refused. In an effort to defuse the looming showdown, the anti-Koirala faction of the Nepali Congress walked during a general shutdown to register a no-confidence motion against the premier. Premier Zhu Rongji’s trip to Nepal, shortly after King Birendra’s own visit to China, thickened the plot.
In the end, what happened on the night of June 1, 2001 and its aftermath may have been the outcome of a divergence between the objectives of King Birendra’s detractors. Specifically, between those who wanted an immediate end to the monarchy and those who sought to widen their own room for maneuver before the denouement.
For both groups, what better way to gain access than discredit the new king? But King Gyanendra was fully aware of the machinations played out in Kathmandu over the decades, honed though the close consultations the royal family always held on political and national-security affairs.
During the first phase of royal assertiveness that began on October 4, 2002, Nepal veered too closely to the south and west. The February 1, 2005 takeover thus came as an inevitable corrective. The aftermath of the collapse of royal rule bore its own oddity. Nepal’s official Hindu status had to go first.
And when it was time for the monarchy to go, there was that historical record hanging in the air. Before he walked out of the palace, Gyanendra Shah complained of the long-running campaign of vilification, challenge the leaders of New Nepal to reinvestigate the palace massacre and confidently offer his full cooperation.
The day prime minister Dahal made that commitment – regardless of his sincerity – everybody inside the country and abroad who had thought they had gotten away by dumping everything on the deposed king and his son for the June 1, 2001 carnage began scurrying for cover. And they still are.