Nepal Army at the Cross­roads? Pos­si­ble Fu­ture Role of the Army in Nepalese So­ci­ety

People's Review - - LEADER - BY SHASHI MALLA

There is a gen­eral per­cep­tion in our coun­try that many of our in­sti­tu­tions – tra­di­tional and mod­ern – have failed us. Above all, the old po­lit­i­cal par­ties as agents of change and de­vel­op­ment have fallen flat. The Monar­chy as a bul­wark of so­ci­ety in gen­eral and Nepal's sovereignty in par­tic­u­lar has been as­signed to the dust­bin of his­tory. The re­vival­ists of the Hindu Monar­chy should con­sider their hopes and as­pi­ra­tions a closed chap­ter. Among our im­me­di­ate neigh­bors, any gov­ern­ment in In­dia will be strictly op­posed to a restora­tion, and China does not have the least in­ter­est at all, how­ever wel­com­ing the Com­mu­nist lead­ers, in­clud­ing Mao and Deng, were to both King Ma­hen­dra and King Biren­dra – both of whom were highly adept in play­ing the leg­endary ‘China Card' [both were ‘mas­terly', but only King Ma­hen­dra was mas­ter­ful!].The main rea­son for monar­chy's demise was that for­mer King Gya­nen­dra was un­able and/or un­will­ing to feel the winds of change and played his cards neg­li­gently and in­ex­pertly. It is, how­ever, un­nec­es­sary to go any fur­ther and at­tempt to play the blame game. Our cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sys­tem can best be de­scribed as ‘pseudo-demo­cratic', with the trap­pings of an im­per­fect elec­toral process with no gen­uine po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion of the peo­ple, and whose hopes and as­pi­ra­tions are rou­tinely ig­nored. Not sur­pris­ingly the ma­jor­ity of the Nepalese peo­ple per­ceive the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment as an oli­garchy of klep­to­crats. To­day, in our coun­try amidst the shat­tered ex­pec­ta­tions of mil­lions of our coun­try­women (and men), there still re­mains one in­sti­tu­tion with its rep­u­ta­tion in­tact, and this is, of course, the Nepal Army, with re­cruit­ment from many of our eth­nic groups. It is an in­sti­tu­tion based on merit and en­joys re­spect both at home and abroad. There have been de­mands from so-called ‘cost­ben­e­fit an­a­lysts' and ‘pro­gres­sive in­tel­lec­tu­als' that the ‘huge' num­bers of serv­ing sol­diers – of 90,000 plus – are too much for a small coun­try like Nepal with limited re­sources and in­sub­stan­tial func­tions for a fight­ing force. Some po­lit­i­cal groups even con­sider it a me­nace to their own pro­jec­tion of power. How­ever, these crit­ics ig­nore the fact that the Nepal Army is not limited to its prime func­tion of na­tional de­fense, al­though this too is not in­sub­stan­tial. Nepal may be sand­wiched be­tween gi­ant ‘friendly' coun­tries, and its puny army would be no match for ei­ther of the great pow­ers' huge mil­i­taries and war ma­chines, but it still re­quires an ef­fec­tive army to counter any overt or covert at­tack. For this, it has fine-tuned moun­tain war­fare and guerilla tac­tics. The strat­egy is to ap­ply counter-of­fen­sive mea­sures and keep the would-be at­tacker at bay un­til con­certed in­ter­na­tional help can ar­rive. There is also the deep-seated be­lief that both of our gi­ant neigh­bors would not at­tack in uni­son as they are ide­o­log­i­cally far apart. How­ever, it is in Nepal's vi­tal na­tional in­ter­est to keep both our im­me­di­ate land neigh­bors happy, and as the Chi­nese are wont to say, cul­ti­vate ‘a state of tran­quil­ity' on our bor­ders. And this can only be achieved by strictly fol­low­ing the un­di­vided na­tional se­cu­rity pol­icy laid down by the Great King Prithvi Narayan Shah of Gorkha-Nepal of ‘equidis­tance' be­tween China and In­dia. If our so-called po­lit­i­cal masters for­get this car­di­nal rule of Nepal's for­eign pol­icy, then it is the sa­cred duty of our army gen­er­als to re­mind them dili­gently of the reper­cus­sions in case of non-com­pli­ance. There seems to be lit­tle cri­tique about the army's in­volve­ment in build­ing crit­i­cal phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture. All mod­ern armies have ro­bust corps of en­gi­neers which swing into ac­tion in times of nat­u­ral catas­tro­phe. Thus, the Nepal Army is no ex­cep­tion, only it is even very ac­tive in nor­mal times. This is a very wel­come de­vel­op­ment, con­sid­er­ing that an un­der-de­vel­oped coun­try like Nepal should use all the po­ten­tial at its dis­posal to achieve the goals of all-round sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. In fact, the Nepal Army could even go two steps ahead and – de­pend­ing on the fi­nan­cial re­sources made avail­able by the cen­tral and state gov­ern­ments – keep the al­ready ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture in good re­pair. The fact is that many of our cur­rent phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture projects are mired in con­tro­versy and en­demic cor­rup­tion. Thus, it has been more than three years since the hor­rors and de­struc­tion of the ‘Great Gorkha Earth­quake' and yet thou­sands still wait for re­lief and suc­cor. The com­bi­na­tion of lethargy, per­sonal greed and cor­rup­tion, and sheer lack of com­pas­sion in the bu­reau­crats and politi­cians is un­be­liev­able. Such a state of af­fairs would be quite unimag­in­able if the Army had been as­signed with re­lief mea­sures right from the start. It is an open se­cret that the state of na­tional health is in very bad shape. Un­like in the United King­dom [from whom we have learnt many use­ful things] we do not have a “Na­tional Health Ser­vice” (NHS). The poor and the needy can­not af­ford to buy ba­sic medicines, let alone pay fees to con­sult­ing med­i­cal doc­tors. Med­i­cal ser­vices are few and far be­tween. Poor and bright stu­dents can­not pay for a med­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion. The few avail­able schol­ar­ships (also in other dis­ci­plines) are (mis)ap­pro­pri­ated by min­is­ters, politi­cians, bu­reau­crats and those with con­nec­tions. Here one can sur­mise the work­ing of the in­sid­i­ous ‘Nepalese deep state'. Not for noth­ing has the em­i­nent Dr Govinda K.C. been con­tin­u­ally ag­i­tat­ing for re­forms in med­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion and med­i­cal ser­vices. The Nepal Army has done its bit in the med­i­cal field, but it can and should do more. It must trans­form its hos­pi­tal in Ch­hauni into a state of the art in­sti­tu­tion (sim­i­lar to that of the US Wal­ter Reed Na­tional Med­i­cal Cen­tre in Bethesda, Mary­land ). It could pro­vide med­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion to ca­pa­ble and po­ten­tial as­pi­rants and pro­vide med­i­cal ser­vices through­out the coun­try. The present civil­ian sys­tem is in ut­ter sham­bles. Where suc­ces­sive civil­ian gov­ern­ments have ut­terly failed, the Nepal Army could thus plant the seeds of so­cial in­fra­struc­ture and strengthen na­tional co­he­sion. There is the per­cep­tion [only in the bu­reau­cracy and the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment] that the Nepal Army is not fit to en­gage in eco­nomic en­ter­prises. Thus, its of­fer to res­ur­rect the He­tauda tex­tile fac­tory has been kept in limbo. This is a mis­con­cep­tion. With their long years of ded­i­cated ser­vice, army of­fi­cers have ac­cu­mu­lated know-how in the do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional spheres and the nec­es­sary man­age­ment and lead­er­ship skills to lead pub­lic en­ter­prises and com­mer­cial firms. What they lack, re­tired of­fi­cers (in the prime of life) can eas­ily make up in in­ten­sive cour­ses at home and abroad. The coun­try is in­deed wast­ing away su­perb tal­ent for de­vel­op­ment work. In other coun­tries, re­tired army of­fi­cers rou­tinely work for in­dus­trial and com­mer­cial com­pa­nies, as well as, the gov­ern­ment ad­min­is­tra­tion. Here only party ap­pa­ratchiks mo­nop­o­lize any open­ings. Pre­vi­ously, re­tired army of­fi­cers were also ap­pointed as am­bas­sadors. This has not been the case for a very long time. Just imag­ine what a magic trans­for­ma­tion ,state en­ter­prises and in­sti­tu­tions – like Nepal Tele­com, Nepal Tourism Board or Nepal Air­lines Cor­po­ra­tion, to name only a few – would ex­pe­ri­ence un­der the lead­er­ship of a com­pe­tent ex-army of­fi­cer! In the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal sce­nario, the Nepal Army must ve­he­mently op­pose be­ing used for po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. The prin­ci­ple of ‘civil­ian supremacy' is all well and good, but there are lim­its. A civil­ian ad­min­is­tra­tion that is not even ca­pa­ble of solv­ing an open and shut case of rape and mur­der [but rather ob­fus­cates, ma­nip­u­lates and shields the per­pe­tra­tors] has lost the trust of the peo­ple. Af­ter the so-

called restora­tion of democ­racy, the top brass have been too meek and hum­ble and un­able to speak their minds even in pri­vate! Lately, the gov­ern­ment ini­tially agreed to par­tic­i­pate in the first ever joint mil­i­tary drill (led by In­dia) of BIMSTEC (Bay of Ben­gal Ini­tia­tive for Mul­ti­Sec­toral Tech­ni­cal and Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion) along­side its six fel­low mem­bers, Bangladesh, Bhutan, In­dia, Myan­mar, Sri Lanka and Thai­land. The Nepal Army promptly dis­patched par­tic­i­pants to In­dia. How­ever, Prime Min­is­ter Oli then la­con­i­cally in­formed the In­dian am­bas­sador that Nepal could not take part be­cause of “in­ter­nal po­lit­i­cal pres­sure”. This sounds not only hol­low, but im­plau­si­ble. At the same time, Nepal joined the “Sa­gar­matha Friend­ship-2” joint mil­i­tary ex­er­cise with China in Sichuan prov­ince. This un­sa­vory episode has sev­eral lessons. First, the Nepal Army was used as a po­lit­i­cal play­thing by the var­i­ous fac­tions of the rul­ing party. Sec­ond, the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process of the gov­ern­ment is not only opaque, but dys­func­tional. Third, the co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the de­fense min­istry and the Army is not only hap­haz­ard, but detri­men­tal to the na­tion's vi­tal na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests. Fi­nally, it also vi­o­lated Nepal's car­di­nal for­eign pol­icy prin­ci­ple of “equidis­tance” and ‘strate­gic rel­e­vance'. Nepal re­ally looked stupid on the diplo­matic front. Nepal may be a small coun­try, but in the field of in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion in the United Na­tions Peace Keep­ing Oper­a­tions (UNPKO), it has dis­tin­guished it­self be­yond mea­sure. Lately, it was sin­gled out in South Su­dan for brav­ery and un­wa­ver­ing ser­vice be­yond the call of duty. Suc­ces­sive top brass of the Nepal Army must strictly en­sure that the Nepal's UNPKO- slate re­mains com­pletely clean un­like many other na­tional con­tin­gents. Af­ter all, UN peace-keep­ing mis­sions are fac­ing a dam­ag­ing wave of al­le­ga­tions of sex abuse and of fail­ing to come to the aid of civil­ians caught up in vi­o­lence, no­tably in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic and South Su­dan (AFP/Agence France –Presse). Con­se­quently, the United States has sub­mit­ted a draft res­o­lu­tion to the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil aimed at re­in­forc­ing the UN re­sponse to fail­ures by peace-keep­ing troops in their mis­sion to pro­tect civil­ians. No­tably, the Nepal Army, un­like other top troop-con­tribut­ing coun­tries, did not com­plain that a lack of re­sources was un­der­min­ing peace-keep­ers in their mis­sions! Af­ter all, it was all in the day's work, and the Nepal Army will con­tinue to hold high the na­tion's unique flag and be ready to face new chal­lenges.

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