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Struggling for influence in Nepal

November 3, 2008
October 31, 2008

Both the Tibetan refugee community in Nepal and the Chinese
authorities are putting considerable efforts into strengthening their
respective influence in the Himalayan country, which, after more than
a decade of virtual chaos, is currently experiencing an in-depth
reconfiguration of political power. The emerging picture is that both
parties are applying fundamentally different strategies: while
Tibetans are seeking support from recently elected parliamentarians,
as well as from civil society, China strives to develop its influence
on both Nepal's army and the former guerrilla forces whose party, the
CPN (M)(1), has emerged from the elections of 2008 as Nepal's
strongest political force. The outcome of these efforts might well
define the future of the Tibetan community in Nepal.

Nepal became a multiparty democracy within the framework of a
constitutional monarchy following the revolution of 1990. The new,
liberal regime allowed for a previously unheard of freedom of press
and political organisation. Ethnic minorities, many of which have
close cultural links with Tibet, acquired their first historic
opportunity to articulate long suppressed demands. However, the
second half of the 1990s saw rampant corruption, poverty, a still
semi-feudal society in the countryside, and political power struggles
that paved the way for an armed insurgency led by the CPN (M). This
dogmatic outfit, linked to India's Naxalite movement, claimed
ideological affiliation to Mao Zedong's brand of Communism and
regarded today's China as 'revisionist'.

The paralysing insurgency led Nepal's last king, Gyanendra, to
orchestrate a bloodless coup with the support of the army in February
2005. China, for whom Nepal's 'Maoists' were a considerable
embarrassment, openly supported Gyanendra's attempt to re-establish
'stability' on its sensitive Himalayan border and remained Nepal's
sole military supplier, following an arms embargo by the US, the EU
and India. In return, the king closed down the Office of the Dalai
Lama, and the Tibetan Refugees Welfare Office Kathmandu, both of
which had been operating quietly for decades, and introduced stricter
policies towards Tibetans living in Nepal. The number of complaints
by Tibetans arriving in the country, of abuse, theft, beatings and
harassment by Nepalese police and armed forces also rose.

Despite China's support, Nepal's army proved incapable of quelling
the insurgency. Internationally isolated, and amidst accusations of
human rights violations by the army and an ongoing economic crisis, a
popular uprising in 2006 forced the king to relinquish power and
reinstate parliament. In an arrangement brokered by India and
facilitated by the UN, the established political parties and the CPN
(M), who saw its 'People's Liberation Army' increasingly losing
ground, agreed to a peace process that saw the re-introduction of
democracy and the arrival of the CPN (M) into the political
mainstream in order for it to participate in fresh elections to a
constituent assembly for the drafting of a new constitution.

Beijing's support for the monarchy, which was finally abolished in
Spring 2008, was a source of resentment to most political forces in
Nepal and consequently yielded Tibetans an unprecedented level of
political freedom. Demonstrations and political events, which even
before 2005 had largely been restrained, due to the powerful
neighbour in the north, were for a while tolerated by the
authorities(2). But the new freedom was to be short lived.
Considerations of realpolitik and the perceived necessity, with
Chinese help, to counterbalance India's overwhelming and often
unpopular influence in Nepal, soon translated into new efforts to
bring Tibetan political activities on Nepali soil under control.
Proposals to officially reopen the Office of the Dalai Lama were soon
rejected and public demonstrations were restricted again. Meanwhile,
in an attempt to redress the blatant fiasco of its Nepal policy,
China sent delegation after delegation to Kathmandu to foster new influence.

The events of spring 2008 in Tibet, and the ensuing Tibetan
demonstrations in front of the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu on an
almost daily basis, marked a new phase in Chinese-Tibetan
confrontation in Nepal, albeit one whose long term impact remains to
be seen. Sources familiar with Chinese personnel in Kathmandu report
that the demonstrations succeeded in creating a siege mentality and a
climate of fear within the embassy, but they were also an open source
of annoyance among a Nepali population weary of years of political
instability, including some who were broadly supportive of the
Tibetan cause. In any case, the political establishment showed itself
deeply unsettled by the demonstrations and Western criticism of the
rough handling of Tibetan demonstrators. The continuation of
demonstrations after the Beijing Olympics in August finally made
Nepal's Home Minister, Bam Dev Gautam, ran out of patience and he
announced his intention to review the status of all Tibetans living
in Nepal and expel all those without valid documentation. The
minister later clarified that Tibetans without status would be handed
over to the UNHCR with the understanding that they would be deported
to India and not to China. Considering that roughly half of Nepal's
Tibetan population(3) is estimated to reside there with uncertain
status, the proposed measure generated considerable anxiety and
curtailed the embassy demonstrations.

The elections to the Constituent Assembly held in April 2008 made
clear the Nepali people's dissatisfaction with the established
parties. The CPN (M) was able to yield a surprising good result and
became with roughly one third of the seats the single largest force
in the assembly. In the fertile, lowland Terai region, bordering
India, the winner was a new regional party, Madhesi People's Rights
Forum (MPRF), who successfully articulated local opposition to the
long resented domination of the north and was able to tip the
political balance. Together with a third partner, they formed an
apparently functional coalition that is now working towards
establishing a new and lasting state structure for Nepal. Conscious
that they must find channels to influence the new government, both
the Tibetan community and the Chinese government have been redoubling
their lobbying efforts.

The Tibetan's currdent strategy acknowledges Nepal's return to a
democratic and, in principle, liberal order. Efforts are being made
to seek support from NGOs, in particular human rights groups, as well
as from international organisations and Western embassies who, in
providing crucial aid to Nepal, exert considerable influence. In
addition, prominent members of the community are working towards
establishing a parliamentary lobby. To this effect, an initial
meeting with assembly members was organised in October 2008. It
gathered together about 40 members of the Tarai Madhesh Loktantrik
Party and the Sadbhawana Party, parties from south Nepal without
whose consent no government would likely be able to remain in power.
Invitations were also issued to parliamentarians from the CPN (M) who
come from ethnic regions where Buddhism predominates. This move
reflects the fact that the CPN (M) successfully made ethnic issues,
particularly opposition to the domination of high Hindu castes in
Nepal's state structure, one of the main focuses of their campaigns.
Two CPN (M) parliamentarians accepted the invitation, but were unable
to attend the meeting due to other urgent business. The Tibetan
community are also to count on long-time supporters among
parliamentarians of the remaining parties.

In comparison, China's approach appears more conservative and less
confident about the future of democracy in Nepal. Beijing's most
recent move was to provide a financial package worth NR100 million
(UK£760,000; US$1.26m; EUR€957,000) to the Nepal army. At first
glance the Chinese authorities seem to be continuing their policy of
supporting the institution that they see as the guarantor of Nepal's
stability, but they are also cultivating their former contacts in the
army, contacts that might prove useful in the eventuality of a
reverse of regime. The army is also one stronghold of Nepal's
nationalists and hence of anti-Indian resentment, and India is the
strongest counterweight to Chinese influence in Nepal. Indeed,
magazines close to the army, like People's Review, have in recent
years regularly published the strongest anti-India articles, while
lauding China, to the extent that the magazine, on the occasion of
the 70th anniversary of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA),
published four full colour pages of articles that were written
entirely by Chinese military journalists. The PLA's activities in
Tibet were one of the main features. During the unrest in Tibet in
spring 2008, the magazine also published numerous articles in praise
of China's policies in Tibet.

Despite what it seems, the move also appears to be a first step
towards fostering better relations with the formerly despised CPN
(M), Nepal's 'Maoists'. The Nepali magazine Newsfront noted in a
recent issue that the exact destination of China's financial
assistance, which was announced following the trip of Nepal's Defence
Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa, a prominent CPN (M) member, to China in
September 2008, had not yet been disclosed, but would be "used as per
the need of the institution". The magazine also reported that army
headquarters had still not been informed about the details of the
financial package. The current object of heated debate in Nepal is
the planned integration of, or at least at least parts of, the CPN
(M)'s guerrilla force, known popularly as the 'Maoist Army' and
currently confined to special cantonments under UN observation, into
the Nepal army. The plan has raised suspicions amongst the opposition
who have alleged that the CPN (M) plans to organise its own army
within the Nepal army in clear breach of the peace agreement. It also
raises issues related to the lack of formal military training of the
former guerrillas. Sources in Nepal speak of plans to send senior
commanders of the 'Maoist Army' to China for formal training. Should
the endeavour be realised, it would naturally strengthen the links
between the Chinese and Nepali military, while helping fostering
relations between Beijing and the CPN (M) that have been strained by
China's former stance on the party. In the event of tensions
developing between the 'old' Nepal army and the 'newcomers', China,
with solid links with both elements, would also be an ideal broker,
thus allowing for a strategic and unprecedented stake in an
institution crucial to Nepal's stability. Under these conditions, a
Chinese lobby in Nepal's parliament is superfluous.

1:Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), originally a splinter group of
the CPN (UML)/Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist),
despite its name, a rather mainstream leftist-liberal party. The two
other main parties of Nepal were the Congress Party, of
centrist-liberal orientation, and the right-wing royalists.
2: See for instance:
3: Nepal's Tibetan population is often estimated to number 20,000,
but the actual figure is likely to be much higher.

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