Why Nepal must speak out against human rights abuses in Myanmar

The government in Kathmandu should not desist from voicing its gravest concerns about what is happening in Myanmar, a country where there is still a well-rooted Nepali-speaking community.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 5 min.

Now that China and Russia condemned Myanmar at the UN Security Council for executing four democracy activists, perhaps it is high time for Nepal to take a stand on the issue. As of this writing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not yet issued any formal statement condemning the incident, the latest example of the brutality expressed by the Military junta since it took power in February 2021.

Since then I have been trying to follow the evolution of the crisis and how a pacific protest movement was forced to take arms in order to defend its own people.

While strongly condemning the generals in power, I do not hide my discomfort in seeing a vast number of protesters picking violent resistance versus continuing holding harmless demonstrations.

Yet it is easy to express moral judgment from afar while blood is spilled out every single day especially when harmless protests are met with bullets. 

For this year and half, the international community has been trying to maintain a dialogue with the junta but with the execution of the activists that many fear to be the precursor of many others to come, it is clear that traditional diplomacy is not working.

So far no nation has decided to back off from recognizing the generals as the legitimate representatives of the state of Myanmar despite the existence of a National Unity Government composed by politicians and activists in exile or in hiding. It is the same National Unity Government that also recognized the armed rebellion against the junta as its own People’s Defense Forces.

I was terrified by the idea that having civilians joining the armed oppositions or some of the many ethnic guerrillas active in the country for decades would have caused more and more pain and suffering. Indeed we are now in an uncontrollable spiral of violence and no one knows when this needless bloodbath will cease.

Nepal has historical connections with Myanmar and there is a sizable cultural and linguistic Nepal community there.

Years ago, I even remember meeting at the cash counter of a supermarket here in the capital some young students who, I found out later in my conversation with them, were from Myanmar and were here for their graduate studies.

In my previous column I advocated for Nepal to make the abolition of the death penalty a centerpiece of its foreign policy.

Here I am instead wondering what the Government of Nepal could do to defuse the political crisis and the civil conflict stemming from it in Myanmar. Probably not much unless it takes some bold decisions but a stand must be taken.

It is not easy because even those in Myanmar’s neighborhood were not so far able to do much.  India has been shamefully careful at not angering the generals and totally silent on the execution. For example on July 25, its Ministry of External Affairs condemned some brutal killings in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

But in the case of Myanmar, only on July 28, after 3 days from the execution, the Ministry of External Affairs expressed “deep concerns” but not a direct condemnation of the junta. “As a neighboring country, we have always highlighted the need for a peaceful resolution to the issue. The rule of law and democratic process must be upheld,” Arindam Bagchi, the External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said. He continued “As a friend of the people of Myanmar, we will continue to support Myanmar’s return to democracy and stability.”

The Association of SouthEast Asian Nations or ASEAN did not prove itself much more useful but not for want of trying. The ASEAN community so far has been unable to persuade the generals to dialogue and find an acceptable common ground with the opposition.

Soon the ministries of foreign affairs of the ASEAN member states will gather and, probably, there will be some breakthrough in their common stance towards the crisis.

Kathmandu did the right thing when it condemned the Russian’s invasion of Ukraine. Nepal has another opportunity to leverage its own credentials by condemning the execution of activists by the junta in Myanmar.

These are nations which have been bitterly divided on how to engage the generals but so far Myanmar is still an official member of ASEAN. As a grand bargain that satisfied those members keen to take more drastic positions against the generals, the official representatives of Myanmar have stopped being invited to the official meetings of the bloc.

Probably soon the country will be officially expelled from this regional community but still no one is presumably moving towards officially recognizing the opposition.

In all this mess, what should Nepal do?

First of all, the government should condemn the executions in the strongest terms possible.

It is nice to know that the Embassy of Nepal in Myanmar recently organized a program to promote Nepal as a tourist destination but clearly we need to have a much more vigorous positioning towards the crisis and set aside tourism promotion for a while. As I have argued in my columns before, being a non-aligned country does not mean that Nepal should not project principles and values based foreign policy. This means taking stands whenever a situation warrants them.

Embracing the cause of the capital punishment would be, as I argued, a great way to give the message to the world that a country like Nepal, notwithstanding its internal issues, deeply cares about human rights and justice.

Kathmandu did the right thing when it condemned at the UN the Russian’s invasion of Ukraine. Nepal has another opportunity to leverage its own credentials and, with it, the credibility that comes with dealing, quite successfully, with internal civil strife.

Let’s not be naïve.

The generals in Myanmar are not interested in lessons learned from a relatively close but geopolitically insignificant neighbor like Nepal. Yet the government here in Kathmandu should not desist from voicing its gravest concerns about what is happening in a country where there is still a well rooted Nepali speaking community. Now that China has also officially condemned the junta, perhaps some dynamics in the conflict will change.

If not then the only other option is to stop recognizing the Generals as the legitimate representatives of the people of Myanmar while also advocating for an immediate cessation of all the hostilities from all the sides.

A truce could give space to diplomatic negotiations that could accommodate the core interests of the opposition but the military needs to make concessions. The threat of not being any more recognized internationally could make the generals realize that the international community had enough of them.

Nepal should step up its position and take bold steps to reaffirm the principles that justice and human rights trump any other geopolitical and economic interests. At minimum a democratic nation like Nepal should exert pressure stemming from its principled foreign policy in a way that the National Unity Government can be held as a legitimate party in the negotiation and an essential constituency to any future solution of the crisis.

If the brutality of the military in Myanmar continues unabated, Nepal may have to take even bolder steps than this.

Simone Galimberti is the Co-Founder of ENGAGE. The opinions expressed are personal.