The Diplomat is running a series of interviews with Washington DC-based ambassadors on defense, diplomacy, and trade in the Asia-Pacific region. In this sixth interview in the series, conducted by Washington correspondent Eddie Walsh, Ambassador Shankar P. Sharma, of the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal discusses regional diplomacy and security.
On Saturday, China agreed to provide Nepal with $119 million in foreign aid. According to reports, part of this aid relates to technical assistance for the Nepali police. Some have suggested that such aid will be used to suppress anti-Chinese activity among the Tibetan population of Nepal. From your perspective, are these concerns justified? If not, is the government still concerned that this aid could undermine the international community’s confidence in Nepal's human rights commitment?
Nepal police have given emphasis to a training program to make the police force capable of handling the changing demands of society efficiently and effectively. The organization has gone a long way towards reforming the training of criminal justice and safeguarding human rights along with other improvements. The assistance will be utilized in achieving these goals. These concerns are totally unjustified.
The situation in Tibet appears to be growing increasingly volatile. There are reports of significant numbers of Tibetans setting themselves on fire in protest over Chinese government policies. There are also now reports that Chinese security fires have fired on Tibetans over the weekend. What is Nepal’s position on the current situation in Tibet? How does it affect your domestic and foreign policy interests? And do you think that part of the motivation for the aid by China is their concern that the Tibetan situation could undermine domestic stability, one of their core interests?
Nepal has adopted a “One China” policy and the government of Nepal has been following and will continue to respect established international norms and principles with regard to asylum seekers and refugees. The international community has commended Nepal for hosting a large number of Tibetans in early 1960s, and for handling credibly the difficult job of refugees and asylum seekers.
The American shift toward the Asia-Pacific must be a complex issue for a country with two large countries with whom you want to maintain good relations. Given that the containment of China is often raised in conjunction with the U.S.-India relationship, how do you manage the strengthening of the U.S.-India relationship as a matter of foreign policy?
We have as our foreign policy a goal of friendly relations with both countries. But, in terms of the trading relationship, India dominates because we have open borders with India. So, nearly 2/3 of our trade is with India and almost all of our exports overseas must go through Indian ports. That’s very important, there’s no doubt about it. But we also enjoy friendly relations with China and we are getting significant assistance from them. And now, trade with China is increasing, especially with Tibet.
When you previously listed areas of increased U.S.-Nepal cooperation, you didn’t mention military-military cooperation, despite the recent joint training programs with the U.S. military. Do you see an opportunity to strengthen military-military relations in the years ahead?
Traditionally, U.S.-Nepal military-military relations have been very strong. The U.S. helped establish the Ranger battalion in Nepal. The hardware/software exchange also has been very important. As of now, the focus is more on peacekeeping forces and non-traditional security cooperation. I think the United States is very keen to help Nepal in the disaster response and management area. With the leadership of the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu and Department of State here, we had a big conference on this topic last year. We obviously welcome those efforts.
There have been strong indirect military ties between Nepal and the United Kingdom through the Gurkhas. Given the economic problems and power projection changes on the horizon in Europe, do you think that you will continue to maintain such strong ties with the U.K. or will you look to other Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries to absorb these forces?
We wanted to diversify our economy anyway. It has been traditionally very dependent upon remittances, particularly from the Middle East. Previously, it was very dependent upon remittances from India and the British Gurkhas and the recruitment in the army was very important. But that has changed. We’ve diversified to other countries in Middle East and Asia. So the number of people going abroad for non-military employment is growing. While we don’t want to depend upon remittances, we do want to diversify where the remittances are coming from. But, in the short term, we will have to continue and hope for employment in those areas.
The Gurkhas remain very active in the defense contracting sector, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Do you see the government of Nepal trying to influence which conflict areas its citizens might be active in for political reasons in the future?
In the private sector, I don’t think we’ll have changes on that. The people who are working in Afghanistan and Iraq are continuing. Those are high-paying jobs for security personnel, so we are looking for ways for that to continue with enhanced safety. That’s the demand of that sector.
We are trying our best to see if there are any refugees who don’t want to go to other countries but to Bhutan. Nepal is seriously working on it. The U.S. has already accepted more than 49,000. Altogether, 58,000 have resettled to other countries, including the U.S. and Australia. I think the rest will come. The only problem now is the people who don’t want to go to other countries. We are trying to get Bhutan to take them back; we are insisting on that.
We are committed to reform. The ganja farming has all been destroyed. We don’t see much news about it in Nepal. But, once and awhile, we see drugs coming out of Nepal. But our security forces are being trained and are vigilant. I think the enhanced capacity of the police is helping. Previously, we didn’t have much focus. But we have now established a department and trained personnel. That has made a big impact.
What steps is Nepal taking to overcome the long-standing caste and race-based divisions in Nepali society?
First and foremost, there needs to be political inclusiveness – whether in parliament or at the local level. I think that largely has been done. But in other areas, our focus has been on education and economic upliftment. Nepal has placed so much emphasis on education because that has been identified as one of the important factors to eliminate discrimination. We have also targeted programs and policy of positive discrimination to address the issue.
According to Freedom House, Nepal remains one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists and media workers. There have been calls for the government to take freedom of the press more seriously. This includes ensuring that press freedom is adequately protected and restrictions and limitations are in line with international requirements in the new constitution. Is freedom of the press a priority for Nepal at this point in time and, if so, what’s being done to improve working conditions for journalists in Nepal?
The present interim Constitution of Nepal guarantees freedom of the press and the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The government also enacted the Information Act in 2007 and instituted a mechanism to effectively implement it. According to Freedom House, “conditions in recent years have represented an improvement over the period that ended in 2006.” However, because of the armed conflict, there were some problems in the past. The situation of press freedom has improved significantly and the government is fully committed to a free press.
Shankar Sharma is the Ambassador of Nepal to the United States. He was Vice Chairman of the National Planning Commission, Nepal from 2002 to 2006. Dr. Sharma also worked as a consultant to the Constitution Committee on "Distribution of Natural Resources, Economic Rights and Public Revenue" in helping to draft the new Constitution of Nepal.
Eddie Walsh (@aseanreporting) is an accredited foreign correspondent who covers Africa and Asia-Pacific. He currently serves as a non-resident fellow at PacificForumCSIS. His work has appeared in publications including The Washington Times, JoongAng Daily, Gulf News, Korea Times, Al Jazeera English and AOL Defense.