Tuesday, February 5, 2008

UN Foot in Mouth in Nepal

"I would like to clarify comments made to the press by United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Nepal, Matthew Kahane, on 24 January," said the statement by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "His comments were not intended to suggest that the Government of India has influence over Nepalese groups that have recently been limiting the steady flow of essential goods into the Terai region of Nepal, such as food. India is an important partner in the region and we appreciate very much the unfailing and long-standing assistance and support that India has provided to the United Nations and, more importantly, to the people of Nepal." The statement came after less specific efforts by the Secretary-General's spokeswoman in New York to back away from Kahane's statement had failed to mollify Delhi.

To understand what the flap was about, we have to look at what has been happening in Nepal, and perhaps more importantly, what is likely to happen there if someone does not get a handle on the country's very tricky politics.

As Nepal approaches the April 2008 elections to a Constituent Assembly that will work on a new republican constitution, it seems increasingly likely that the process will be chaotic. The 31,000 Maoist guerrillas who have been gathered in 28 separate camps around the country are increasingly restive as their leaders, who quit the interim government last September, are faced with public opinion polls showing they are not popular. Some analysts think they might win no more than 10 per cent of the vote. If that should happen, or to preventit from happening, the temptation to resort once again to "armed struggle" will be strong.

To complicate matters, the political atmosphere in the country has been poisoned recently by bomb attacks at political rallies and violence at the hands of the Young Communists League (YSL). The Maoist leadership is not being blamed for this; the bombers are supposedly from one of the violent groups that have sprung up in the steamy Terai region along the southern border with India, and the YSL is reported to have an urban, English-speaking membership, unlike the peasant rank and file of the Nepali speaking Maoists.

These developments suggest that if the constitutional process breaks down there will be no return to the status quo ante, especially in the Terai. A combination of factors, including tensions between highland and plains Nepalese, has led to growing violence and lawlessness in the region that produces most of Nepal's food. The Maoists will have to contend with other well-armed groups, including criminal gangs and one that wants an independent state in the Terai.

As is usual in the region, the weapons in the Terai are said to be coming from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency; on a program secretly taped last year by the Indian television station Tehelka, an arms dealer in Kathmandu was voluble about the ISI being the source of the AK-47s, rocket launchers and plastic explosives he was selling. If they were for use against India, he said, there would be a special discount.

It was against that background that Kahane, a British national who has been in Nepal since 2005, called on India to "control" the violent groups in the Terai, implying that they were, in fact, sponsored by Delhi. What made it worse was that India had just blocked what it saw as a quite gratuitous effort by another British UN official, Ian Martin, the Secretary-General's Special Representative in Nepal, to have his mandate strengthened by the Security Council. Martin evidently tried to get himself the authority to oversee the amalgamation of Maoist forces into the army; that would have put him in a position to do a great deal of mischief.

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