Sunday, November 20, 2005

Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat, Vermont

It may seem strange that on a day when the Congress is debating the budget resolution I would be asking the Senate to turn its attention for a moment to the remote and tiny nation of Nepal.

I do so because for the past several years a ruthless Maoist insurgency and a corrupt, repressive monarchy have brought that impoverished but breathtakingly beautiful country to the brink of disaster. It is important for the Nepalese people to know that while they may live half a world away, the difficulties they are facing have not gone unnoticed by the United States Congress.

It has been almost nine months since Nepal’s King Gyanendra dismissed the multi-party government, suspended civil liberties, and arrested the Prime Minister along with other opposition political leaders, human rights defenders, pro-democracy student activists, and journalists.
The King’s explanation was that democracy had failed to solve the Maoist problem. He said that he would take care of it himself and then restore democracy after three years.

It is true that Nepal’s nascent democracy had not solved the Maoist problem. Neither had the King. In the four and a half years since King Gyanendra assumed the throne and became Commander in Chief of the Nepalese army, the Maoists have grown from a minor irritant to a national menace. While the Maoists use threats and violence to extort money and property, and they abduct children from poor Nepalese villagers, the army often brutalizes those same people for suspicion of supporting the Maoists. Like most armed conflicts, defenseless civilians are caught in the middle.

What the Nepalese people desire most is peace. Despite the King’s autocratic maneuvers on February 1, many would have given him the benefit of the doubt if he had a workable plan to quickly end the conflict. Nine months later it is clear that he does not. One can only wonder why King Gyanendra thought that he could defeat the Maoists by dissolving the government, curtailing civil liberties, and surrounding himself with a clique of elderly advisors from the discredited, feudalistic Panchayat era.

The United States, Great Britain, and India criticized the King’s actions and have urged him to negotiate with Nepal’s political parties to restore democratic government. Unfortunately, although he has released most political prisoners and reinstated some civil liberties, the King has increasingly behaved like a despot who is determined to consolidate his own power.

In the meantime, the Maoists declared a ceasefire. The violence has reportedly decreased, although abductions and extortions have continued apace. Whether the ceasefire is a sinister ploy or a sincere overture for peace may never be known, however, because it is due to expire next month and neither the King nor the army has indicated a willingness to reciprocate.

Against this disheartening backdrop the Congress, on November 10, 2005, approved my amendment to impose new restrictions on military aid for Nepal. On November 14, President Bush signed it into law. I want to briefly review what we did, and why.

The amendment says that before the Nepalese army can receive U.S. aid, the Secretary of State must certify that the Government of Nepal has “restored civil liberties, is protecting human rights, and has demonstrated, through dialogue with Nepal’s political parties, a commitment to a clear timetable to restore multi-party democratic government consistent with the 1990 Nepalese Constitution.”

This builds on an amendment that was adopted last year, which required the Secretary of State to certify that the Nepalese army was providing unimpeded access to places of detention and cooperating with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to resolve security related cases of people in custody. Unfortunately, the Secretary was not able to make the certification. Not only were the NHRC’s members replaced through a process that was contrary to Nepal’s Constitution, the International Committee of the Red Cross suspended its visits to military detention centers because it was denied the free access it requires.

The Nepalese Government objects to any conditions on U.S. aid, arguing that the army needs help to fight the Maoists. The army does need help, but it also needs to respect the law and the rights of the Nepalese people. The Congress took this action only after it could no longer ignore the pattern of arbitrary arrests, disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings by the army. The army’s abusive conduct, coupled with the King’s repressive actions since February 1, have contributed to a political crisis that threatens not only the future of democracy but the monarchy itself.

Economic aid to support health, agriculture, hydropower, and other programs through nongovernmental organizations is not affected by my amendment. If the situation changes and the Secretary of State certifies that the conditions in U.S. law have been met, military aid can resume. But that alone will not solve the Maoist problem. The Maoists are expert at intimidating the civilian population and carrying out surprise attacks and melting back into the mountains. While they do not have the strength to defeat the army, neither can they be defeated militarily.

The only feasible solution is through a democratic political process that has the broad support of the Nepalese people. Perhaps seeking to placate his critics, the King, without consulting the political opposition parties, announced municipal elections for February 8, 2006. Not surprisingly, the parties say they will not participate in an electoral process dictated by the palace, and when the army and the King’s handpicked representatives have taken control of local affairs and are unlikely to relinquish power.

The U.S. Embassy is skeptical of the Maoists’ intentions and has publicly discouraged the political parties from forging an agreement with the Maoists. This is understandable, since the Maoists have used barbaric tactics that should be universally condemned. But this conflict cannot be won militarily and the King has rejected a political accommodation with the country’s democratic forces. He is imposing new restrictions on the media and civil society, and he has spurned offers by the international community to mediate. Nepal’s younger generation, who see no role for the monarchy in Nepal’s future, are taking to the streets. It may not be long before the army is faced with a fateful choice. Will it continue to side with the palace even if it means turning its weapons on pro-democracy protesters and facing international censure? Or will it cast its lot with the people?

It is a choice that we may also have to make. For the better part of a year, the United States and others friends of Nepal, as well as many brave Nepalese citizens, have tried to nudge the King back toward democracy. It has not worked. With the King increasingly imperious and isolated and the political parties already making overtures to the Maoists, what is to be lost by calling for the Maoists to extend the ceasefire, for the army to reciprocate, for international monitors to verify compliance, and for representatives of all sectors of society who support a democratic, peaceful Nepal to sit down at the negotiating table?

There are no guarantees, but it would test the Maoists’ intentions and it might create an opening for agreement on a democratic process, with the support of international mediation, that can finally begin to address the poverty, corruption, discrimination and other social ills that have fueled the conflict. The people of Nepal, who for generations have suffered far more than their share of hardship and injustice, deserve no less.

Senator Leahy To US Congress On Nepal
Keith Bloomfield
Gagan Thapa Case Taken To The United Nations
2005 Young Republican National Convention (US) Resolution 1 On Nepal
Tom Daschle

Moriarty's Irresponsible Mainstream
The Army Rank And File Need To Be For The People And Democracy

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