Between Giants | Nepal’s Security Sector Reform

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SUBINDRA BOGATI & JULIA STRASHEIM |

SECURITY Sector Reform (SSR) programs that transform the structure and agency of security institutions in war–torn states have become a building block of post–war peacebuilding processes worldwide. SSR is commonly designed, financed, and implemented by a myriad of domestic and international actors. International know–how was long driven by Western donors, such as the UK’s Department for International Development or DFID, and has focused on promoting democratic security governance, conflict management, and human security.

■ Unknown soldiers of Nepalese Armed Police Force, December 2013 in Kathmandu. Minimum age for enlistment is 18 years, tasked with counterinsurgency operations in Nepal | Archive

Increasingly, however, non–Western donors play a crucial role in supporting post–war SSR. These ‘emerging donors’ include China, India, or Russia, who say that SSR has been subjugated to Western understandings of security or statehood and who frame their own support as an alternative to Western models. China and Russia, for instance, have rejected strategies of aid conditionality followed by Western donors, who tie SSR assistance to democracy or human rights standards. There is thus far little knowledge on the drivers and effects of post–war SSR sponsored by non–Western donors.

What about the growing support by India and China to SSR in neighbouring Nepal? There currently are four points on the shortages in the literature on emerging donors in SSR, which have consequences for Nepal’s overall peace and democratisation process.

 

The expansion of Sino–Nepali ties was the source of great uneasiness in India. For instance, as Nepal bought arms from China in 1988, India retaliated with an economic blockade against its neighbour with enormous economic and political consequences, inter alia aiding the overthrow of the authoritarian Panchayat regime and the transition to democracy in 1990

 

OVERLOOKING HISTORIC LINKS

First, any reference in the literature to non–Western states as new or ‘emerging’ donors in SSR overlooks historic (regional) links and path dependencies between security institutions that can impact current policies. Both China and India actually sustain a historic relationship with and have long competed for influence over Nepal’s security sector, and they conceive Nepal an important buffer state of strategic importance. The ‘special relationship’ of Nepal and newly independent India began with the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship that defined security relations, while later accords granted India a monopoly on arms sales to Nepal.

The Indian Army and the Nepali Army also maintain an age–old security cooperation, including a customary practice to confer the little of honorary general to each other’s army chief. Nepal and China signed their own Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1960, two years before the Sino–Indian war in which Nepal remained neutral. The expansion of Sino–Nepali ties was the source of great uneasiness in India. For instance, as Nepal bought arms from China in 1988, India retaliated with an economic blockade against its neighbour with enormous economic and political consequences, inter alia aiding the overthrow of the authoritarian Panchayat regime and the transition to democracy in 1990.

 

India–Nepal relations reached a new low when Delhi imposed a border blockade in support of anti–constitution protests in September. China, conversely, presented itself as a benevolent neighbour as opposed to what is in Nepal often perceived as an imperial attitude of India

 

It is only against this background that any new Sino–Indian rivalry for influence over Nepal’s security sector can truly be understood. 2015 thereby marked a pivotal moment in the China–India–Nepal triangle. After the Indian media was profoundly criticised for its chauvinist reporting on earthquake victims in April and May, India–Nepal relations reached a new low when Delhi imposed a border blockade in support of anti–constitution protests in September. China, conversely, presented itself as a benevolent neighbour as opposed to what is in Nepal often perceived as an imperial attitude of India.

Nepal’s government signed a trade deal with China in March 2016, joined the Belt and Road Initiative in May 2017, and confirmed further infrastructure deals with China in June 2018. At the same time, China heavily increased its military aid to Nepal, announcing over 22 million US$ in aid for 2018 (an increase of its 2017 support by 50 percent). Besides financial assistance, China provides equipment and training, regularly invites military leaders to China for seminars or conferences, and offers Nepali Army personnel scholarships at Chinese military universities. The first joint military drill of the Nepali Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army took place in April 2017; a second one was held in September 2018 only days after Nepal pulled out of a joint military exercise in India at the last minute. Until April 2017, the Nepali Army had only held military exercises with India and the United States.

■ A group of Nepalese human–rights activists shout slogans against the border blockade by India during a protest rally in front of the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, December 2015 | Narendra Shrestha

GEOPOLITICAL AND ECONOMIC DRIVERS

Just as for Western donors, SSR supported by non–Western states has many geopolitical or economic drivers, and these drivers must not necessarily be contrary to the objectives of ‘the West.’ China and India, for example, have explicitly stated that their goal was to promote political stability in Nepal, which is also a key component of the EU’s Annual Action Programs. Chinese and Indian aid could also potentially drive the reform of security institutions whose restructuring has long been neglected by Western donors. DFID as well as various UN agencies have, for instance, invested in modernising the Nepal Police, improving its accountability, capacity, responsiveness, and crime prevention skills or rebuilding police stations, but a true reform of the force was left behind in the peace process. Finally, one should not forget that among the key motives for the growing Chinese engagement in Nepal is that it is received enthusiastically in Kathmandu, and is since the 2015–16 border blockade regarded as a way to decrease Nepal’s dependence on India.

 

China provides equipment and training, regularly invites military leaders to China for seminars or conferences, and offers Nepali Army personnel scholarships at Chinese military universities. The first joint military drill of the Nepali Army and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army took place in April 2017; a second one was held in September 2018 only days after Nepal pulled out of a joint military exercise in India at the last minute

 

EXACERBATING INSTITUTIONAL DRIVERS OF INSTABILYTY IN THE LONG RUN

Having said that, Chinese support for Nepal’s security sector may restrict space for human rights and civil society, overlook current security challenges, and thus exacerbate institutional drivers of instability in the long run. For instance, China is investing heavily in the Armed Police Force (APF) that was founded in the midst of the civil war in 2001 for counter–insurgency operations.

Since the end of the Maoist insurgency, the raison d’être of the APF is debateable. In our interviews with stakeholders of SSR in Nepal, a civil society expert, for example, argued: “The APF has no reason to exist in the post–war period.”

■ The first ever Nepal–China Special Forces joint training has begun at the Nepal Army’s barrack in Maharajgunj, in Kathmandu | Archive

Still, the APF was not factored greatly into the SSR process and is regularly accused of human rights violations. In June 2017, China handed over a newly built APF training academy to Nepal. In November 2017, it proposed setting up joint security forces at the Nepal–China border to stop Tibetan refugees. China has generally tied its aid to Nepal’s support for the One China Policy, not least since anti–China protests in Kathmandu in 2008. As a result, the number of Tibetan refugees in Nepal has dropped by 93 percent from 2009 to 2015.

Besides concerns for the human rights of Tibetans in Nepal, critics argue that the growing role of China and India in Nepal’s security affairs also means that they influenced the government in Kathmandu to introduce a new law restricting space for civil society and Western INGOs, who they do not want to share strategic space with and who they accuse of inciting identity politics, or, in the case of China, of working for the cause of Tibetans. But identity politics in Nepal are not an invention of the West, and the issue of inclusivity was brought into post–war politics by the Maoists.

Inclusivity of the security sector is enshrined in the 2015 Constitution but by no means realised. For instance, while forty–five percent of all posts in the security sector should go to women or ethnic groups (especially Madhesis, who make up about 30 percent of the population), in 2016 only 0.062 percent of army personnel identified as Madhesi. Madhesis thus have little trust in the security sector, are regularly exposed to excessive violence by security forces, and the Madhesi conflict remains a major source of political instability in Nepal.

 

In November 2017, China proposed setting up joint security forces at the Nepal–China border to stop Tibetan refugees. China has generally tied its aid to Nepal’s support for the One China Policy, not least since anti–China protests in Kathmandu in 2008. As a result, the number of Tibetan refugees in Nepal has dropped by 93 percent from 2009 to 2015

 

CONCERNS FOR THE DEMOCRATIC–CIVILIAN CONTROL OF THE ARMY

Chinese and Indian support for SSR in Nepal raises concerns for the democratic–civilian control of the army. Until 2006, the Royal Nepal Army was under de facto control of the palace and was then re–named Nepali Army as part of a political process that abolished the monarchy. Its reform was the key SSR component set out in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2006 that called for its democratisation, ‘rightsising’, and inclusivity.

■ Nepalese policemen detain exiled Tibetans as they shout slogans during a protest outside the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu, March 2014 | Niranjan Shrestha

Yet, besides the integration of over 1,400 Maoist ex–combatants into the army in 2013, few structural changes have taken place. Conservative voices, including influential former military leaders, oppose downsising the force. Politicians have long obsessed over potential foreign threats and have as a result ignored internal security challenges and aspects of human security.

 

In 2016 only 0.062 percent of army personnel identified as Madhesi. Madhesis thus have little trust in the security sector, are regularly exposed to excessive violence by security forces, and the Madhesi conflict remains a major source of political instability in Nepal

 

Although democratic control was a central theme in their debate on SSR in Nepal, they have failed to enact necessary legal changes to ensure it. As a result, and while the Nepali Army has a tradition of respecting civilian supremacy, it is not strongly institutionalised. For instance, the anti–corruption body Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority has no jurisdiction over the army and politicians are said to fear a military coup, so they ‘keep the army happy.’ In this institutional setting, China’s growing support means the army is even less dependent on civilian politics or aid from traditional partners like India or the US, which can weaken these actors leverage over democratisation. ■

Subindra Bogati is the Chief Executive of the Nepal Peacebuilding Initiative. Currently, he is implementing projects to strengthen capacities for conflict prevention, local mediation and reconciliation at the subnational levels in Nepal. Julia Strasheim is a Researcher at the Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt Foundation and a Research Associate at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg. Her research covers peace, conflict, and security issues in Asia. LOOKEAST is not responsible for the opinions, facts or any media content presented by contributors. In case of abuse, mail us at lookeast.in@gmail.com

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