More than 600 people, mostly western scholars and peace activists based in the US and Europe, have signed a petition urging US lawmakers to stop military aid to Nepal. Dozens of Nepali rights activists and development workers have also joined in.
The reverberations of the conflict are no more confined to Nepali hills and valleys. Buoyed by increasingly convergent world opinion against terrorism, former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba travelled to Washington and London in May this year seeking military assistance.
Nearly a month after the London meeting of donors to Nepal (June 19-20), the British government announced an aid package of ? 6.5 million to procure two helicopters as well as provide training and other logistics for the Royal Nepal Army. The Bush administration announced in August that it would provide a supplemental $20 million as military aid to Nepal to buy "non-lethal" equipment and services for the army.
But things don't seem to be moving exactly the way Nepal would like. There has been reaction against military aid to Nepal. Belgian Health Minister Magda Aelvoet resigned over the proposed sale of 5,500 automatic rifles to Nepal. The government of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt survived after winning a confidence vote in August, but the weapons will not be supplied until after Belgium's parliamentary elections in November.
The Association of Nepal and Himalayan Studies (ANHS) at a one-day conference, "War on Terrorism: War as Terrorism" at the University of Wisconsin's South Asia Centre on 12 October adopted a petition to be sent to the United States government calling for a halt to the planned military aid. The petitioners said the aid "could resolve nothing and would do untold harm both to innocent Nepalis and to the prospects for a political resolution to the insurgency."
In its 2 August 2002 decision, the US government said the $20 million emergency "supplemental funding" would force the Maoists to decide that a military victory is not possible and that negotiations provide the best hope for realising their goals. The petitioners do not agree. "Our collective experience in the study of Nepali society and our close attention to the course of events since the commencement of the CPN (Maoist)'s armed insurgency in 1996 lead us to the opposite conclusion," claimed the ANHS. The association has posted the petition on the web (www.petitiononline.com/demonepa/petition.html) for signatures.
"It is our considered view that military aid will not help bring about a negotiated settlement, but instead deepen and prolong an already devastating civil war. Rather than increase the chances for Nepal to achieve a peaceful functioning democracy in the foreseeable future, such aid will only aggravate the present conflict, leaving Nepal and the region to cope with unintended repercussions and untold suffering far into the future," says the ANHS.
Those who signed the petition come from a wide spectrum. Interestingly, their diversity is reflected not only in their understanding of the issue, but also in the way they lobby for a "noble" cause. There are many names recognised in Nepal as scholars of experience, and also a few who seemd to have "walked" into the website and signed on.
Stephen Mikesell, a longtime Nepal hand who has written extensively about the Maoist phenomenon and is one of the petitioners, told us over email from Madison: "All of us who signed felt that ... even if the Maoists could be defeated militarily, the aid itself would lead to spiralling levels of violence, distortions and unforeseen repercussions far into the future."
But Saubhagya Shah, a PhD scholar of anthropology at Harvard, counters: "I would agree if they had talked about overall US policy including enormous military assistance to Israel every year. To single out Nepal could be part of romanticism of political exotica for the 'fashionable left'."
For their part, the organisers of the campaign were careful to underline that opposition to US military assistance to Nepal should not be described as support for Maoist activities here. When contacted by Nepali Times, some of the key persons behind the campaign refused to go on record, citing fears for their own research as well as possible reprisals against their Nepali friends and colleagues.
A US scholar actively engaged in disseminating the petition wrote : "It must be understood that a petition to the US government regarding its military aid to Nepal is not in any way equivalent to support of Maoist activities. Most signers of the ANHS petition simply wish to communicate to the US government their opposition to further militarisation of the conflict in Nepal, and would hold the same opinion about the militarisation of any other world conflict (and would also oppose the US's own moves towards war with Iraq)."
The debate on whether to aid the Nepali military or not seems set to intensify particularly in view of reports of killing of civilians by the army. Nevertheless, some analysts think that the Madison campaign itself is missing some fundamental questions. "The distance of the scholars from a rapidly evolving situation in Nepal may be making them reach for easy and romantic answers," said one Kathmandu-based observer who, like some of the petitioners, requested anonymity.
Dipak Gyawali, a political analyst and resource economist, argues that if the Maoists called a ceasefire, then Nepal's civil society could exert pressure on the army and government to engage them in a negotiated settlement. If Maoists are not going to lay down arms, and as long as the war situation continues the RNA will get its weapons from any source whatsoever, including the free market. "It is far better for Nepal to get military assistance from the US and the UK as these governments are responsive to their demand that the RNA respond to reports of rights violations," Gyawali told us.
Not everyone agrees. Chitra Tiwari, a political analyst based in Washington, argues that the question is not whether the campaign to stop military assistance to Nepal infringes on Nepal's right as a sovereign country to get assistance, whether lethal or non-lethal. The question is whether American taxpayers' money is being spent to save the lives of the people, or being used to kill non-combatants.
Rights activists from South Asia also echo similar sentiments. Gautam Navlakha, editor of the Economic and Political Weekly, has been actively questioning the Nepali government's action vis-a-vis the Maoists and was detained briefly by Indian police during a meeting in New Delhi of Maoist supporters two months ago. He told us: "Intervention of outside powers as well as military support during a civil war, as a rule, invites caution because such support vitiates chances of political resolution. If this is placed against the US military expansion in Central and South Asia and the nature of regimes being propped up, it becomes clear that democratic voices in the US oppose military support for autocratic monarchy in Nepal."
Neither the government nor the army have joined this debate, and all a Shital Niwas source would tell us was: "We would respond to the concerned authorities if the need arose."
Other analysts insist that the issue should be looked at from a broader perspective. Says Alok Bohara, professor of economics at the University of New Mexico: "In Nepal, having a strong military can bring some balance in the strategic equation, and will provide an incentive for everyone to come to the table. The army has not turned into a death squad, nor is it a right-wing militia."
Meanwhile the insurgents are also garnering support in Europe from the World People's Resistance Movement (WPRM), a group affiliated with the Revolutionary International Movement (RIM). The WPRM launched a discussion tour starting in Hamburg, Germany on 25 October, and ending in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on 7 November. The roadshow's rather wordy slogan is: People's Liberation is Not "Terrorism" Imperialists and Reactionaries-Hands Off Nepal!
A statement on WPRM's website (wprm.org) proclaims: "The agenda was to stop the imperialist aggression and support the ongoing victorious people's war in Nepal." Li Onesto, a journalist with RIM's mouthpiece Revolutionary Worker, presented a slideshow about her travels through Nepal's Maoist strongholds at the meetings.