The decision of the government not to participate in BIMSTEC military drill and Nepal signing protocol to Trade and Transit Agreement with China may have been appreciated within Nepal but the two developments have also drawn attention of many quarters including India. What did Nepal gain from BIMSTEC summit? Why did the government of K P Oli withdraw from military drill? How is the government handling foreign relations and why it is failing on governance? Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradeep Kumar Gyawali shared government’s position with Mahabir Paudyal and Kosh Raj Koirala.
Nepal successfully hosted BIMSTEC Summit but many say Nepal did so at the cost of sidelining SAARC. What did Nepal gain from BIMSTEC summit?
BIMSTEC was an important gathering in Nepal after the implementation of new constitution and formation of new government. This provided Nepal an avenue to share its achievements and to talk to our friendly countries about our priorities. The summit has helped enhance our image and credibility. A head of the government told me ‘BIMSTEC received its definite shape and momentum only after Kathmandu Summit. I feel that the real beginning of the BIMSTEC has begun from Kathmandu.’
BIMSTEC had failed to finalize its direction, set its priorities and create mechanisms and procedures to implement those priorities. We set out priorities, decided to strengthen Secretariat, form various mechanisms including standing committees, different regional centers and BIMSTEC Development Fund. We also resolved to draft a charter of this regional body. The Summit also paved way for effective cooperation for peace, prosperity and sustainable development of the people living in the Bay of Bengal region. The biggest hope for us from BIMSTEC is connectivity and broader integration. The Summit has created a solid foundation for this.
As for the question related to Nepal not doing much on SAARC, this comment is either an uninformed one or biased. Nepal is not in a position to organize the SAARC Summit even in its capacity as chair until and unless all other member states agree to do so. Second, we do not want to compare SAARC with BIMSTEC. They do not substitute each other. Nor are they rival institutions. Instead, they complement each other. In almost all our bilateral meetings and diplomatic forums, Prime Minister and I have been highlighting the need to revitalize SAARC. We have been putting our effort to host the SAARC summit. We are going to have meetings with SAARC leaders on the sidelines of UNGA in New York. I will talk to my counterparts how we can make SAARC strong.
Why did Nepal pull out of BIMSTEC military drill? Some have even started questioning Nepal’s commitment to anti-terrorism.
Our thinking is that BIMSTEC should mainly focus on economic and technical cooperation. Of course, the issue of security comes along but BIMSTEC is not a strategic alliance and its main priority is not security either. Priority of this organization is development and security is linked to the extent where the development is hampered.
Besides, issue of organizing joint military exercise did not feature in any of the BIMSTEC structures including senior officials meeting, ministerial meeting and the Summit. India had put forth this proposal. India also leads this sector in this regional body. So India’s proposal was natural. But such a proposal had never reached the cabinet level. Nepal decided not to participate in the military exercise because holding military exercise even before other mechanisms within the body could take a shape could be potentially interpreted as strategic move.
India seems to have expressed overt displeasure over this decision.
I do not think so. They know that Nepal as an independent and sovereign country can decide whether to participate or not to participate in such exercises. Other countries have also taken similar decisions. We have not received any indication of such displeasure. If you are talking about media reports, sometime I see paranoid thinking in a section of Indian media. The way they linked this issue with conclusion of transit protocol with China is quite ridiculous. We reached a treaty to this effect in 2016. We were holding third round of negotiations with China. That decision to withdraw from military exercise followed the protocol agreement was a mere coincidence.
Although the EPG has already prepared its report it has not been submitted to the respective governments yet. Why?
I have also been personally following on progress of EPG. In certain corners, they may have their own understanding about the report. But this is a historical document. The EPG report, when implemented, is going to totally redefine Nepal-India relations. It is going to take Nepal-India relations to a new height on new foundations. There are some people who do not want to see this happen. Such people are there in both the countries. So, there could be some reservations and apprehensions in certain corner.
But this initiation took place during the previous stint of KP Sharma Oli as prime minister and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Today, we have built new foundation of trust and explored various new areas of cooperation. Since the leaders who gave EPG a boost are in power in both the countries, I believe the EPG report will be submitted soon and both governments will implement this.
The government of K P Oli has been seen to pursue India-China centric foreign policy, while undermining western countries which have remained Nepal’s development partners for long. Should not Nepal look beyond India and China?
That we are undermining the western countries is not true. Our diplomatic engagement has four dimensions. Neighborhood countries naturally come first. Then come our development partners, whose support helped Nepal to come to this phase. Their support will be important in the days to come too. Nepal’s third engagement is with labor destinations, where more than three million Nepalis are working. The money they send constitutes nearly one third of our GDP. Then there are multilateral forums like the UN. They are the means to advance Nepal’s national interests.
Naturally, in initial phase our government focused on resetting ties with neighboring countries. That was necessary. But we are also working equally with other partners. I have already visited Europe and traveling to Europe again. In view of development partnership, this region is very important. There I will apprise our friends about the achievements made by Nepal so far and talk to them about our development priorities and ways they can help fill the resource gap we have here.
Official Development Assistance (ODA) and Foreign Direct Investment can help us fill that gap. We have been talking to our development partners along this line. We have been trying to reach new labor agreements with Malaysia to manage our relations in a new way. We have already convened BIMSTEC summit. We are trying to revive SAARC. We are also taking part in the UNGA. Preparations are underway to make bilateral visits to various countries beyond neighborhood.
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Nepal in May the two prime ministers had signed an agreement to resolve all outstanding issues between the two countries by September 19. What is the progress?
Some of the pending issues are in course of being settled. We are working on matters related to new air entry routes, inundation in Tarai plains, Tanakpur link road, easing access of Nepali products to Indian markets and review of trade and transit treaties. As a matter of fact, we have touched on every issue. And we are in the direction of resolving them all. Indian team has already come to Nepal to study inland waterways. Nepali team is going to India for the same. We have signed MoU on railway and its feasibility study. There is good progress on agriculture partnership as well. This has created the environment of trust between the two countries. Many works are in the pipeline and many others have made a progress. It might take some time for full implementation of all issues but many pending issues are in the way of being resolved.
Since you became the foreign minister, you have been visiting China, India and western countries. What impression did you get from those visits?
Our neighboring countries and other friendly countries are excited about the prospect of stability in Nepal. They have expressed support to Nepal’s stability and development. Instability and backwardness in Nepal is not good for our neighbors. Only shared prosperity benefits all countries in the region. Our neighbors want to see strong, stable and developed Nepal. I have found that this is their priority at the moment. The bitterness and misunderstanding we once had have been cleared. Our friends in the West are also in favor of stable and developed Nepal.
But we also see that at certain corners, some countries which tend to make the political ideology the basis of bilateral relations, view us with biased lens. Some of the countries have taken selective approach to defining democracy and human rights in Nepal and they at times display double standards as well. Except for those who look into Nepal with the lens of bias, we have had absolutely smooth relations with the countries in the world.
With regard to India, there is a realization among leaders that relation with democratically elected government of Nepal should be the main basis of relation between the two countries. This realization is very important for Nepal. In the past, our relation with India was scattered across many levels. Non-state actors were trying to exert their influence in bilateral relations and this created troubles. Now they have realized that the relation with the government elected by the people should be the basis of relation between the two countries. We have drawn the red lines that our internal issues do not become determining factors of bilateral relations. This has led to making our relations smooth and credible. That said let me also mention that there are some who look into Nepal through prism of political ideology, without understanding the ground reality. They seem to hold the faulty notion that Nepal is governed by communists and communists are necessarily bad. The world should know that communists of Nepal are different from communists elsewhere. Nepali communists are not only integral part of Nepal’s democratic movements but they are also the pioneers of those democratic movements. This has been tested and proved several times. Yet there are some who judge us based on ideology, raise suspicions and question our commitment to democracy. When you have a preoccupied mindset, you do not judge the situation fairly. For certain elements, Nepal’s stability and development seem to have become the source of discomfort. They do not favor strong and developed Nepal because their vested interests can be fulfilled only in instability. Such tendencies are there but since we have had the best of bilateral relations at political level, we don’t need to worry much about them. Yet we need to be careful of the fact that there are forces who could be working against stability. Such forces are there even within Nepal. They do not want to see Nepal take independent decisions on internal and foreign affairs. They do not want to see the government of Nepal dealing with governments of foreign countries on equal footing. They always want to project Nepal as a subordinate nation. This is unfortunate.
There is an allegation that your government is bent on curtailing civil liberties.
This allegation has been made out of sheer bias. The evidence they cite to project us in that light does not support the arguments. They cite Maiti Ghar Mandala protest ban, new civil codes, and Integrity Policy to claim we are curtailing civil liberties. They forget to mention that the civil codes were endorsed a year back and came into implementation only this year. Integrity Policy is still in the phase of discussion and has not been finalized. They are questioning the democratic credentials of the party that has fought and sacrificed so much for democracy. Democracy is not only freedom. It is also a rule of law. We are the witness to how anarchy almost took hold of Nepal in the transitional period. This allowed handful of people to exercise unlimited powers while the rest of the people suffered. This is why for the first time in our history we have enshrined fundamental duties apart from fundamental rights in the constitution. The government has neither intention nor desire to control civil liberties. Those who accuse us of doing so are being utterly unfair to us.
But the proposed Integrity Policy tends to restrict activities of civil society organizations and NGOs, does not it?
First of all, like I said, this policy has not been finalized yet. Through integrity policy we are actually trying to institutionalize the system of transparency, accountability, fairness and rule of law which western countries have made integral part of their governance system. The proposed policy basically intends to tie up resources donors and international agencies spend for Nepal with national budgetary system. And it wants those resources to be channelized as per the priorities of the government. Donors’ money actually comes from their taxpayers and they should be spent for the best purpose and spending should be transparent. This is what we want to achieve through integrity policy. What’s wrong with it?
The government has not yet appointed ambassadors for many countries including India. Why this delay?
For long, the positions of ambassadors in India, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi and the United Nations have remained vacant. We have developed a new criteria and new directives for envoy appointments. Around January, more positions will be vacant. We tried to set the criteria to make ambassador appointment more systematic and this took some time. We have proposed some names and they are under discussions. In few weeks, we will complete this process.
Let’s turn to the governance issue. Six months in power, the government has failed to deliver on basic issues. It seems to be lacking sense of direction and there is huge public outrage against the government.
We have been seriously following on criticisms coming from media and public spheres. I see three distinct types of criticisms and concerns against the government. There are people who are worried that the two-thirds majority government is failing to deliver on promises and commitments. ‘If such a powerful government also fails on delivery, when will the governance improve in this country?’ they are saying. They say if this government fails, Nepal will find itself in another series of troubles. Such criticisms are our assets and they are valid and just as well. We take such criticisms in good faith.
Then there are others who misunderstand the government and pass negative comments. The third category of commentators is clearly biased and is bent on projecting our government in absolutely negative light. They are those who seek to reap benefits out of instability and lawlessness.
From our part, we know our responsibilities. We have been constantly saying we have no excuse to hide our weaknesses. We have been constantly saying that we alone will be responsible if we fail on governance and delivery.
But why is the government failing to deliver?
There are some factors to it. First, there is a gap between people’s expectations and the way the government is delivering. This gap has arisen because we raised a lot of expectations and introduced some good measures to implement them. But the state apparatus we have to implement those visions have not been able to catch up with the government vision and spirit. Our state mechanisms seem to be used to with the routine work at a time when we need to work on war footing and go extra miles. We are working on how to make these mechanisms proactive. At times we have also felt the lack of inter-ministerial coordination and coordination among decision implementation agencies.
The rising cases of rape and violence against women and girls have deeply disturbed. We are really sensitive toward this matter. We are looking into every case very seriously and investigating where the law enforcement agencies failed and why they failed.
In the first six months, our focus was exclusively on implementation of federalism. A number of laws have been enacted for this. Personnel have been mobilized and three tiers of government are fully functioning. The government has become successful on this front.
To sum up, we are mindful of our weaknesses and are taking public criticism seriously. Let me assure you that we will correct our weaknesses and work to fulfill the mission of good governance and delivery in a way people can feel it.