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

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 ‘cost-benefit 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 Multi-Sectoral 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.

The writer can be reached at: shashipbmalla@hotmail.com

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