South Asia

After Furore, Nepal Backs out of BIMSTEC 'Joint Military Drill' in India

Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli instructed the army to cancel its participation after leaders from the opposition as well as his own party questioned the rationale of a military drill involving the regional group's members.

Kathmandu: Following strong opposition from various quarters, including leaders from his own party and main opposition Nepali Congress (NC), Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli has instructed the Nepal Army not to participate in a joint military exercise of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) countries.

Set up in 1997, BIMSTEC members comprise Bangladesh, Bhutan,  India Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

The six-day joint military exercise focusing on counter-terrorism is set to commence in Pune, India on September 10.

Nepal’s chief of army staff Purna Chandra Thapa was scheduled to attend the closing ceremony of the drill. But after Oli’s instruction, the Nepal Army has cancelled its participation.

“Nepal will not participate in the joint military drill of BIMSTEC,” Nepal Prime Minister’s press advisor Kundan Aryal told The Wire. He added that no decision on a BIMSTEC military drill had been taken at the summit in Kathmandu last month.

A senior army official, requesting anonymity, also confirmed, “Following PM’s instruction, we will not participate in the military drill.”

Officials worry about the implications of such a move on bilateral relations as India has already completed preparations for the drill. The Nepal Army, however, has not officially spoken either about its position on the issue or the prime minister’s instruction.

The controversy on the military drill comes at a time when the leadership of the Nepal Army is in transition. The decision to participate was taken when Rajendra Thapa was chief of army staff, but he retired last month. He has been succeeded by Purna Chandra Thapa.

Not only experts and opposition parties, senior leaders of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) have objected to the drill saying it is beyond the agenda of BIMSTEC. Among those objecting from within the ruling CPN are former prime minister Jhala Nath Khanal and former deputy prime ministers Narayan Kaji Shrestha and Bhim Rawal.

Oli’s instruction comes at a time when former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, who is the co-chairman of the ruling CPN, is on an India visit at the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The issue of the drill is likely to figure during the meeting of the two leaders, and in case Modi insists on having Nepal participate in the drill, there would be pressure on Oli to go back on his decision.

Prachanda is expected to replace Oli after the latter completes two-and-a-half years in the government, if the agreement rotational on power sharing is honoured.

The Nepal Army was making preparations for the drill even before the BIMSTEC summit, as the decision for the drill had been taken before the summit itself. The issue came into the limelight when  Modi mentioned it in his address during the inaugural session of the summit in Kathmandu at the end of August.

“I welcome the upcoming BIMSTEC multi-national military field training exercise and the army chief’s conclave that will be held in India next month,” Modi said. The perception in Kathmandu was  that drill decision was taken in the summit following pressure from  Modi.

Though the Nepal Army decided to participate in the drill, senior leaders of the ruling party say no decision or consultation had been made prior to the announcement. Similarly, senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said they had no idea about the drill. “It is customary that all external communication should go through the foreign ministry, but we have not been informed about the military drill,” said a senior foreign ministry official requesting anonymity. Officials from the Ministry of Defence too said they were unaware of the drill.

The Nepal PM’s instruction to the Nepal Army not to participate in the drill has once again brought the uneasy civil-military relationship in the country to the fore.

After half-a-decade of military prominence following the Maoist insurgency, political parties pushed for democratising the Nepal Army and bringing it under civilian control after the 2006 political changes. The Nepal Army, however, was not very happy with the agenda and resisted any such move to maintain civilian control.

Successive governments after 2006 formed committees to formulate a plan for  democratising the functioning of the army but the reports of such committees are gathering dust.

The relation between the Nepal Army and the civilian government was at its lowest when the then prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal removed Rukmangad Katuwal, the then chief of army staff in 2009. President Ram Baran Yadav overturned Prachanda’s decision, and Prachanda in turn resigned as prime minister. While this raised the morale of the army, it soured relations between the army and the civilian government.

Prachanda’s Maoist party then took to the streets demanding democratisation of the army and bringing it under civilian control, but soon moved on to other issues and more or less abandoned that programme.

Although there is no major friction between the civilian government and the Nepal Army, observers say the issue of civilian control over the army is a question that needs to be addressed. Prime Minister Oli has maintained a cordial relationship with the army, and the army has always taken Oli as a politician worthy of its trust since the 1990s.

The present imbroglio, however, shows there was no proper communication between the political leadership and the Nepal Army. The army may not find it so easy to question the instructions of the Oli government, which has a two-thirds majority in parliament, making it the strongest elected government in Nepal’s recent history.

To iron things out,  Oli, during his address to parliament last Tuesday, said what was planned was not a joint military drill but an opportunity to enhance the capacity of the Nepal Army. Minister of foreign affairs Pradeep Gyawali has publicly said no such decisions have been made by government. In the face of such contradictory statements from top government sources, it is not clear whether the drill is not taking place altogether or it has been given some other name.

“It is a matter of serious concern that there is no information at the political and diplomatic level about the joint military drill of BIMSTEC member countries which is taking place in Pune, India,” former editor-in-chief of Kantipur daily Sudheer Sharma wrote in Annapurna Post, a Nepali daily, on Friday.

Sharma, who has extensively written on civil-military relations and geopolitical affairs, further wrote, “The Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers have no knowledge about the joint military drill. It clearly shows how our army or defence diplomacy is operating.”

Experts are also objecting to the drill saying it only serves the geopolitical interests of India and confers no advantage to Nepal. Moreover, they see the drill as another move to undermine SAARC and push for BIMSTEC. Experts say that unlike SAARC, there has been too much focus on security issues in BIMSTEC whereas connectivity projects, economic integration and other technical cooperation are neglected.

“The fundamental question lies on how the proposal was initiated. Was it the BIMSTEC Secretariat, bilaterally, multilaterally, MoFA or MOD? said security analyst Binoj Basnyat, a retired Nepal Army major general. “Neither the BIMSTEC charter nor its vision envisages joint military exercises. BIMSTEC security cooperation should have started with the army chief’s conference, military, civil police, armed police and intelligence to address the common challenges like the ones with the Ind0-Pacific command,” said Basnyat.

In a clear indication of projecting BIMSTEC as an alternative to SAARC, Modi proposed nine new activities in the fourth BIMSTEC Summit held in Kathmandu on August 30-31.

India, which has already hosted some key programs under the BIMSTEC framework mainly after the cancellation of the 19th SAARC summit which was supposed to take place in November 2016 in Islamabad, has proposed a string of programs under BIMSTEC for the next couple of years.

Of the 14 priority agendas, counter-terrorism and transnational crime is one, and it is being led by India. India plans to develop a legal and institutional framework in the BIMSTEC region for countering terrorism and transnational crimes. India proposed the military exercise under the same agenda. The first meeting of BIMSTEC national security chiefs was held in New Delhi on March 21, 2017, and the second meeting took place in Dhaka in March this year.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based writer and journalist.