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Nepal : Inviting the Dragon In

Some very dangerous thoughts have recently been articulated by senior Nepalese journalist and political activist, N.P. Upadhyaya in an article in The Telegraph, Nepal. Mr. Upadhyaya’s central theme is that India and the United States were sabotaging China from Nepalese soil to try and break up Tibet from China, and China could retaliate militarily in Nepal, if pushed too far.

Quoting unnamed highly placed Nepalese Foreign Ministry sources, Upadhyaya says that the Chinese Ambassador, just before leaving for Beijing last week for consultations, hinted to the Nepalese authorities that thousands of PLA soldiers have already been put on high alert and may soon be deployed on the Nepal-China (Tibet) border.

Of course, the Chinese Ambassador in Nepal, Qiu Guohong, met top Nepalese leaders including Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal and Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala to protect and seek clarification regarding the Nepali government’s position on the meeting of six Constituent Assembly (CA) members with the Dalai Lama, earlier in July. That these CA members from the Tharu and Madhesi communities announced there will be more visits to the Tibetan leaders in Dharamsala, has angered the Chinese and their anti-India Nepali friends even more. Upadhyaya speculates that China would have to take a “very bold decision to treat and tame (emphasis added) Indo-dependent (sic) Nepal in order to safeguard its underbelly – Tibet”, to quell the deliberate onslaught, coming as it does from various political quarters, both domestic and international. Upadhyaya suggests that a Chinese blockade of Nepal’s northern border could bring economic disaster to Nepal; certainly, Upadhyaya forgot to take into calculation that if the Chinese army invaded Nepal’s Southern border on which the country depends for most of its trade and import, will remain open?

From their perspective, the Chinese authorities have a serious problem with the exiled Tibetan religious leader, the 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama and the majority of the Tibetan exiles are struggling peacefully for at least real autonomy for Tibet, as guaranteed under the Chinese constitution. China is aware that the Indian government has yet kept the Tibetan diaspora under much greater control than elsewhere in the world. But they are much more concerned about the US role, which they perceive as aimed to keep China’s restive minority regions, boiling, if not dislodge them from China.

Traditionally, the Tibetans had a respected place in Nepal. Tibetans travel both clandestinely and with legal permits from Tibet through Nepal to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama. But China sees anti-Chinese protests by Tibetan exiles in Nepal as a serious threat to China’s territorial integrity. Erstwhile King Gyanendra cooperated, under Chinese pressure from 2002 to put down the Tibetans. But the Lhasa riots in March, last year greatly disturbed the Chinese. They saw Nepal as the main conduit for fomenting trouble by the Dalai Lama in Tibet, and are determined to sanitise Nepal of Tibetans.

The Chinese contention is that world government leaders must not meet the Dalai Lama as such meetings encourage him to try and split China. Using their economic and trade power, the Chinese brought down relations with France a notch this year. But world leaders get around and the Dalai Lama is welcome.

The latest problems arose with the six CA leaders meeting the Dalai Lama and vowing to send more such delegations to Dharamsala. China pressures Nepal because it can. US congressmen regularly meet the Tibetan leader, and US Presidents are legend for their “drop by” meetings with the Dalai Lama in the White House.

Despite transforming Nepal from a Hindu country to a Republican system under the Maoist demands last year, the overwhelming Nepalese are religious. And the Dalai Lama is as respected as a famous Hindu seer. It will, therefore, be difficult for China and Nepal’s hard line Maoists to turn the people away from the Dalai Lama.

China’s boast of minority harmony and its Tibetan population’s commitment to the communist government was badly damaged by last year’s Lhasa protests. It is said that the name of the Dalai Lama is written on the hearts of all Tibetans, including those working for the Chinese government. In the course of last year’s Lhasa disturbance, a very senior Tibetan leader with the Lhasa government was dismissed for his sympathy for the Dalai Lama. The recent protests by minority Muslim Uighurs in China’s western Xinjiang region has further raised China’s concerns, and made the Chinese unnerved perhaps for the first time. China’s interest in Nepal is part of its “India containment” policy. Most recently, visiting Pakistan Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir advised chosen Nepali leaders to form a Nepal-China-Pakistan trilateral alliance and Nepal should enter into a relationship with Beijing. Obviously, the Maoist hardliners are delighted with this proposal and Upadhyaya hints in this direction. China had no connection with the fall of their close friend, King Gyanendra and his Palace coterie, in 2006, much as they had denied any links with Maoists before that event. With quick ascendency of the Maoists or the CPN (M) the Chinese leaders could not hide their elation at having penetrated Nepal strategically to counter India.

Maoist Prime Minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal made his first foreign visit to China, breaking with the India visit tradition. On his return, however, he said that his government would not play strategic games between India and China, and also tried to signal that the visit was not an official Prime Ministerial visit.

In contrast, Prachanda’s Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa Badal followed immediately with a visit to China in the last week of September, 2008. On his return, an elated Thapa revealed that the Chinese had offered to help build the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA-M), and reiterated their commitment to safeguard Nepal’s territorial integrity. A number of senior Chinese officials, including their Ambassador in Nepal, voiced their commitment to safeguard Nepal’s territorial integrity. A senior Chinese academic who is also an advisor to the Chinese government, Prof. Wang Hong Wei alleged that China was fully aware of India’s plans to “Sikkimise” Nepal, and will never allow it, even if Nepal entered that process. This statement to the Nepalese newspaper The Kantipur, came out in June 2008.

Three aspects are notable. One, all these politicised statements by the Chinese were made in Kathmandu, emphasising China’s position in Nepal. Second, Prof. Wang, who speaks on authority, conveyed a much more serious policy, that is, China will not allow Nepalese leaders to take their country into India’s sphere of influence. Third, in offering the Nepalese Maoist army support and assistance, China was actually helping an illegal army to develop. This would suggest the Chinese government and the CCP continues with its Maoist policy of supporting revolutionary armed uprising whenever the opportunity presents itself.

It would be pertinent to note that Upadhyaya’s article reflects the views of the Chinese and the hard liners in the CPN (M) now United CPN (M), led by Mohan Vaidya Kiran, Ram Bahadur Thapa and others.

Following the withdrawal of the Maoists from the government in the midst of controversial decisions including attempt at removing army Chief Rookmangud Katawal, an ideological battle ensued in the party between the more moderate Prachanda group and the hard line pro-China Mohan Vaidya group. At the moment, points are even but the battle is by no means over.

Some articles in the Nepalese media during the past one year have been noticed to attack Prachanda and his No.2 Baburam Bhattarai, as pro-India and Indian agents. These articles or opinion pieces have all been written from within the Maoist camp. Both Prachanda and Bhattarai have been hurt by their propaganda and have made some ideological and political compromises, but have still held most of their positions. A temporary truce has been arrived at. But it is temporary. It is unlikely that the Chinese would embark on a military misadventure in Nepal, like they did in Vietnam in 1979. China wanted to teach Vietnam a lesson, but got a bloody nose instead. Unlike Vietnam, Nepal has no army which can take the mighty PLA on. In that kind of scenario the international community will not stand by.

The Maoist hardliners including people like Upadhyaya would do well to call for a national referendum on India – whether the Nepalese people would want a freeze of relations with India, including stoppage of trade and commerce, Indian aid and assistance, and an embargo on Nepalese citizens working in India. It would be interesting to get a response from Mr. N.P. Upadhyaya.

(The author, Mr.Bhaskar Roy, is an analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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