The Royal Nepali Army is not just fighting to restore peace in Nepal, it is off to keep the peace in African hotspots as well. A massive airlift this month is ferrying nearly 1,100 soldiers, engineers, equipment and weapons from Kathmandu to Kinshasa for special UN peacekeeping duties in the Congo.
Another 40 Nepali military officers will be leaving on UN peacekeeping duties to Liberia soon, while 800 Nepali blue helmets are already in Sierra Leone. The Congo operation is by far the biggest so far and is being carried out in 20 flights by mammoth heavy-lift Antonov 124 aircraft chartered from a Russian airline which can carry up to 140 tons of payload each time. Seven of the flights had been completed by Thursday.
Critics say the army should not be distracted by foreign peacekeeping when there is a near-civil war in Nepal itself. We should be careful about the kind of commitments we make for peacekeeping, says Shyam Shrestha, of the leftist magazine, Mulyankan. But, a senior army officer defended international peacekeeping, saying this is a commitment to the United Nations that Nepal takes very seriously. Of course we can handle it in terms of military planning, the officer told us. We deploy in such a way that it will not hamper our operations within the country.
Another army officer at Bhadrakali said the army regards overseas peacekeeping deployments as a reward for brigades that perform well. It is a morale thing, there are monetary benefits for the soldiers as well as for the army itself, he told us. The army ploughs peacekeeping income into its welfare fund, which is used to take care of widows and orphans of soliders killed in action by the Maoists.
Critics are unconvinced, arguing that an army that constantly complains about being under-equipped and under-manned for counter-insurgency at home should not over-extend itself abroad.