Commentary | 75 years of partnership: Is Nepal-US going through a fresh test of trust again?

Nearly four months after Nepal’s parliament ratified the much-debated Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Nepal Compact, a fresh debate has been started over the country's supposed plan to sign the State Partnership Program (SPP).

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Kathmandu: The United States is again in the headlines in Kathmandu this week after some news outlets reported on a possible agreement to be signed between Nepal and the United States Army to join the State Partnership Program (SPP), a key US security cooperation tool, facilitating cooperation across all aspects of international civil-military affairs and encouraging people-to-people ties at the state level.

Soon after an unofficial document was published in some online outlets, Nepal’s intelligentsia and other fronts started criticizing the country’s ‘plan to join the program’.

In less than three days after the news emerged, there has been a heated debate in parliament on whether Nepal should join SPP or not. Social media, especially YouTubers, have again started producing clickbait content and the US has been again in the talk.

Rumors run high

The lack of transparency and accountability of Nepal’s political leaders on matters of national interest has resulted in a crisis of credibility. Populism and the one-sided narrative fueled mostly by communist leaders have prevented the leaders from expressing informed opinions. Leaders, it seems, are often guided by populism instead of the reality of the matter.

So is the case in terms of the recent news regarding the State Partnership Program and the subsequent reactions by the politicians and intelligentsia. The official record shows Nepal was listed as part of the program in 2019.

It can be assumed that America, as a country having a strong system in place, does not list any country without any formal correspondence with its Nepali counterpart.

Instead of following the rumors or expressing an opinion on the basis of the ‘leaked’ document, it would be quite rational on the part of parliamentarians and politicians first to inquire about the matter with concerned stakeholders–Nepal Army, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, for example.

But the initial debate in the parliament and on social media clearly showed the politicians and parliamentarians were carried away by populism, not facts. Instead of seeking and obtaining the facts from the concerned agencies, they are making comments under the pressure of populist narrative and mass opinions created by the ‘leaked’ document.

Lies and blame game

Leaders from both the ruling alliance and the opposition have already started a blame game on who initiated the SPP agreement process. Speaking at an event at the party office, Maoist-Center leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) said: “There has been a deliberate publicity campaign against the incumbent government regarding SPP agreement. This is completely baseless. This government has not done any agreement. And there will be no such military agreement.” He went on saying: “It is the fact of history that the KP Oli-led government had already signed an agreement in 2019 and it is already in the implementation.”

Another lie and blame game: For the agreement has not been signed.

Earlier, UML leader and former Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali, in an interview with OnlineKhabar, claimed that they had kept the process of SPP on hold and he was not aware of any development after the new government came to power.

But the fact is that all major parties–Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and Maoist Center–can get all the truths and facts about the matter within a day if they really want a factual debate on the matter.  

Nepal-US military relation is not new

Probably the first time in Nepal’s history Millennium Challenge Corporation’s $500 million Nepal Compact was excessively politicized and made a victim of misinformation and disinformation for long.

The initial indication regarding the SPP debate clearly shows that our leaders are ill-prepared to respond to the rumors.

The fact is that joint military training between Nepal and the US army is nothing new. It has continued for a long time. Nepal Army does the joint training with their counterpart in India and China too. Nepal Army personnel reach Army college and training centers of other countries and vice versa.  

The only fact is that these types of training and joint military training were happening without any formal agreements. But the preference of any army in Nepal is to do training in high lands as Nepal’s high land is familiar with the world. Apart from that disaster management is another area where joint training activities are happening. Joint training/exercises including high-altitude disaster response, rescue exercises and others have been happening for decades and this happens not only with the US but also with India, China and other countries.

Of late, even joint military exercises between Nepal and the US have started to be politicized. For example, a group of US army landed at Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu on March 18 for a joint military exercise. Following the arrival, CPN (Maoist-Center) leader Dev Gurung wrote a provocative status on Facebook: An aircraft belonging to the US Army landed at TIA today morning at 9.30 am. A total of 1200kg of goods (33 packages) were offloaded. The US Embassy took all the stuff to the embassy. Nepal’s security force, immigration, or customs department could not inspect the goods due to diplomatic amnesty. Nepal Government should pay attention to the sensitivity of national security.

He did not stop there. On April 1, he posted another similar type of status. Despite his own party Maoist-Center being in the government, he was questioning the government why the US Army landed in Nepal.

Other leaders and social media users have followed a similar trend. Old photos of Nepal-US army joint training have been used to provoke the people that US  troops are now stationed in Nepal. 

Creating ‘enemy’ outside 

There is a common character among Nepal’s communist forces: they create an enemy image of a particular nation or an international force to advance their political and ideological agenda. They create some catchy phrases–such as ‘Indian agent,’ ‘agent of imperialism,’ ‘accomplice of capitalism,’ ‘supporter of expansionism’ etc–to establish a negative narrative at the grassroots level.

This time, it seems, they are trying to create a new enemy out of the US.

In the past, the ‘pro-Indian’ tag was labeled to discredit the reputation of any political leaders by the communist forces to create their space and project their political opponents in a negative light. However, the time has exposed the Delhi connection of a number of communist leaders. Nepal’s extremist forces have long tried to portray the US as an enemy.

On Wednesday, nine extremist communist parties issued a press release requesting the Prime Minister to cancel his upcoming visit to the US.   

They want to project themselves as nationalists, branding others as enemies of the nation in the process. 

Look within 

Those who hold anti-American sentiment in terms of ideology and other interests often come together in an organized form in Nepal. 

It was so during the MCC ratification process. This trend has repeated even now.  Leaders are debating the issue not on rational grounds and based on facts. They are not looking into where the Nepali side made mistakes. Instead, there is a coordinated campaign to shift the blame to the US and hide the weaknesses the Nepali side made in this whole process. 

When Nepali side makes mistakes, we need to make Nepali leaders and bureaucrats accountable, instead of the US.  Raising anti-American rhetoric only will contribute to damaging our reputation and US-Nepal bilateral relations. This holds true for our relations with India and China as well.

 Trust your own institutions

Following the story on State Partnership Program (SPP) and subsequent reactions among Nepalis, even President Bidhya Devi Bhandari has expressed her concern. Nepali Congress leader Gagan Thapa raised the matter in parliament on Wednesday. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has clarified that there will be no agreements that could harm the national interests during his US trip.

On Wednesday, the US Embassy in Kathmandu claimed that Nepal Army had first requested support from SPP–the claim which Nepal Army had denied in its statement. The Nepal Army has claimed that it, as an institution, has not initiated any process regarding SPP. 

But the fact is that all major parties–Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and Maoist Center–can get all the truths and facts about the matter within a day if they really want a factual debate on the matter.  

When the top leaders comment on such sensitive matters, they should consult the references beyond what comes out in the media reports–which at times can be far from the truth. They should be in the position to respond to the issue with facts and the data. Otherwise, they stand at a real risk of being misguided by the crowd. 

The President, the PM and parliamentarians have direct access to the institution that can initiate any kind of partnership or cooperation with other countries–Nepal Army, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense, among others. 

Top leaders should talk on the basis of evidence. Foreign affairs is a highly sensitive matter. If Nepal Army had initiated the process, the government should be in the position either to discard the hitherto process or to continue it. If the civilian government was bypassed from the process, the government should make the irresponsible officials accountable.  

Lesson to learn

Whether SPP is required for Nepal or not, the debate on MCC and SPP has established that there should be openness and transparency in any international deal. Transparency helps keep the debate well within the boundary of facts and evidence.  

Fact-based debates in parliament not only promote healthy democratic exercise but also keep people informed.