Nepalese Army, West’s Human Rights and China’s Deep Pocket

The major vernacular Kantipur in Nepal published news in December 2016 that Nepal Army had made a plea to the political leadership to not agree to India’s request to bring the Nepalese army (NA) under a potential India-led South Asian regional command for the UN peacekeeping operations as that would be a huge blow to Nepal’s independence and sovereignty. However, not any Army officials, or the Defense Minister, acknowledged that there had been any such communications officially. Interestingly enough, this “unofficial story” appeared more or less around the same period when the historic agreement on China-Nepal military exercise was made public.

Therefore, one could speculate that the long-standing geopolitical tug of war between India and China in Nepal had reached a new height, with the deepening defense cooperation between Nepal and China. China’s General Fang Fenghui had expressed his country’s willingness to expand bilateral security cooperation with Nepal during the visit, with Nepalese army chief Rajendra Chhetri in early 2016. After a one time postponement owing to lack of preparation, Nepal Army and China’s PLA concluded their 10-day long exercise in Kathmandu, which undoubtedly added a new dimension to the relationship.

But if we interpret the NA-PLA ties only in security or geopolitical terms vis-à-vis India, we would be reading too much into it because there are two other main factors that would make Nepalese Army go ahead with the military cooperation with China at this level. One is of course China’s deep pockets and the other is the fact that there was no love lost between Nepalese Army and the West regarding NA’s accountability in terms of human rights records during the Maoist insurgency.

With regards to the financial factor, the post-conflict Nepal saw further increase in its tendency of depending on foreign aid, which it immediately began from requesting the United Nations to oversee the post-conflict management of combatants, that ended up in the Maoist leadership being charged with massive fund misappropriation. While a plethora of nongovernmental organizations were operating under external funding, state institutions for their part also eyed external resources to improve their conditions.

The Armed Police Force of Nepal received a gift of around 200 million RMB from China to build an academy during the visit of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in 2014. In that visit, China announced a five-fold increase in its aid to Nepal as the two countries agreed to enhance cooperation in several vital areas including security and counter-terrorism. The Nepalese Army itself had also received aid from China in previous occasions. For their part, Nepal’s political parties were notorious in receiving financial aid from outside, especially the Maoist doing so from China. Similarly, Nepal Police also received financial aid from India after the Armed Police Force did so from China.

Therefore, put simply, Nepal’s institutions because of their financial constraints would happily accept financial aids from any place. And in terms of the state regulation regarding the reception of foreign aid, although institutions receive foreign aids through the government, the government itself does not have much of a say in it rather than its role to carry out the process as per receiving institutions’ request.

Similarly, regarding the human rights factor, the pressure on the Nepalese Army, (which has a phenomenal record of peacekeeping operations in conflict countries) from national and international human rights organizations and Western states to cooperate in the investigation into any war time crimes during the Nepal Maoist insurgency through a truth commission, irked them. The Neplaese Army hence does not have the most positive view of the human rights community, which  from their viewpoint sided with the rebels who were responsible in waging the war.

The UK police arresting Colonel Kumar Lama, who was serving in Sudan peacekeeping mission while he was in the  United Kingdom in 2013, under “universal jurisdiction” for alleged torture in Nepal in 2005 jolted the NA and its rank and files. Multiple requests by the NA and the government for releasing Col. Lama to the United Kingdom government and the United Nations went in vain. The NA’s grudge against the UK was manifested when the Nepal government, mainly the army, refused to accept British help by turning away three Chinook helicopters when Nepal was hit by massive earthquakes in 2015. Meanwhile, in 2016 Col. Lama was freed as the case “collapsed” for the lack of convincing evidence.

Nepal is now confronted with two choices. One is the moderate Western aid targeted towards social political engineering with the obligation for state institutions to meet international standards of human rights. The other is the massive aid from China simply for assuring China’s principal concern in Nepal, which is to curb any anti-Chinese/pro-Tibetan activities. This comes at the back of the 2008 Beijing Olympics which saw a rise in Tibetans protesting, hence further increasing Nepal’s geopolitical significance for China .

As Nepal has failed to satisfy the human rights community regarding truth commission’s functioning, the pressure has been increasing on stakeholders. The latest drama of the Prachanda government trying to impeach the Chief Justice Sushila Karki was seen by the UN as yet another attempt to undermine human rights in Nepal. For its part, the NA is preoccupied with potential war era crime charges on its officials and possible international sanctions hampering its participation in peacekeeping operations. Against this backdrop, for the Nepal Army -- a permanent institution of a politically unstable and ramshackle country -- China has become a natural choice.