A bipartisan US Congressional delegation led by Representative Ami Bera, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s (HFAC) Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation, was in Nepal earlier this week. The four-member delegation that included Representative George Holding, Member of the House Ways & Means Committee; Staff Director at the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, and Nonproliferation Nikole Burroughs and Senior Professional Staff Member at HFAC Sajit Gandhi held meetings with government officials, civil society leaders, staff at the US Embassy, and the Millennium Challenge Corporation among others. On the sideline of their visit to Nepal, Nagarik Daily’s Guna Raj Luitel and Republica’sKosh Raj Koirala talked to Ami Bera to learn more about US foreign policy on Nepal, latest controversies about the MCC and other issues pertaining to the Nepal-US relations. Excerpts:
Can you begin by explaining the purpose of this delegation?
I am democratic member of Congress and George Holding is Republican. So this is bipartisan delegation. We have travelled extensively together and both of us have deep appreciation of South Asia. I just assumed chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee Committee that has jurisdiction over Asia. So, this is my first trip as Chairman. One of the priorities of this Committee is looking at young democracies in Asia and what are the things we are doing as the US supports the young democracies and then what are things that we should be doing. So, we have to come to South Asia. Nepal was one of the choices for our visit because our embassy and some of our workers at USAID are helping Nepal to do the same. As a chairman that is also my priority. We also wanted to talk to your leadership how they find it.
We also visited Sri Lanka, which is also coming out of decades of civil war. We wanted to see how they are doing as a democracy and in the reconciliation process. We also made a brief visit to India to talk to Indian leadership about what is happening in India today. We wanted to get a sense of this from them. And then Nepal is actually the longest of our trip. I had never been here. I think it is important for us to learn about those countries. The best way to learn about the countries is to visit those countries.
What impression do you have after your visit to Nepal?
Two things have struck me. First thing is how happy our embassy staffs are. Each of the embassy members I talked to is happy to come to Nepal and many of them intend to extend their time in Nepal. That tells me something how they feel about people and the country. Secondly, I also found people happy. Again that is my three-day impression. Best part of the trip was getting out of Kathmandu to see some of the USAID programs. We could see the activities of Peace Corps members and local people.
You also met with the political leaders. What sense did you get out of that meeting?
We met with prime minister, foreign minister and the finance minister. They are grateful for the partnership with the United States. We are grateful that we got high-level meetings. That tells us that they value the presence of the United States. We heard from each other. We talked about how their democracy is coming along and how things could be made better. They would like more US investment; more private sector investment coming in. One of the reasons why MCC is such an important tool is that it signals to business community that this is a good place to make investment.
MCC has lately courted serious controversy in Nepal, with a section of leaders of ruling party arguing that there are many smaller agreements within the MCC. A task force formed earlier by the ruling NCP to study about the content of the MCC agreement suggested that parliament should endorse the agreement only after the amendment. Is it true that MCC has different smaller agreements?
Not to my knowledge. MCC was negotiated by the Nepali government with the United States. The government is the one that actually chose the project’s focus areas. I think the government actually chose to focus on the right areas of power transmission and transportation infrastructures. Those were not things United States asked to focus. They are the ones Nepali government choosing that would have the highest impact. I do not think there are any side languages.
MCC is an incredibly valuable tool. Other countries that have entered into the MCC compact have used this as a tool for their development. It is a tool to encourage more business presence. We think it is in Nepal’s interest. Nepal has signed the Compact to help build the power line. Any members of the parliament can take time to read the Compact Agreement if they have questions. As far as I am concerned, it is a pretty standard Agreement and that is in Nepali government’s interests. A significant amount of investment dollars that the government will be able to use is the best for Nepal. Obviously, we want some transparency and that the funds are being used where they are meant to be used. But Nepali government is actually in charge of how they implement those funds for those two projects.
Part of the reasons why the MCC seems to have courted controversy is because of different interpretations. Can you explain in a simpler terms what exactly is the MCC Compact?
It is a tool that gives us ability to partner with the recipient government. It is really a grant. So, we are not saying here is how you have to use those funds. What we are saying is when we entered into that Compact, the government that is receiving those funds is selecting the projects in focus areas, making sure that there is transparency and there is good business practice because we think that sends signals to the US business community and even the international business community that this is a serious place we should start thinking about investing our resources. That is the simplest way to explain about it. What we are not telling here is how you should use the funds. We just want to make sure that there is transparency in the way funds are being used.
Some of the ruling party leaders even allege that the MCC is the US strategy to encircle China. What do you say to this?
I would ask how helping Nepal improve its energy transmission infrastructures or improve the road transportation system helps to encircle China. I would tell them to read the Compact. I would also ask them to talk to their own government. It is one which picked the projects under the Compact.
Did you have any words from Prime Minister about the endorsement of the MCC through the parliament since the implementation calendar of the MCC projects has already been affected?
We emphasized that we believe in Nepal and we believe in Nepal’s future. And the MCC is a tool that helps Nepal to realize that future. If you build strong Nepal, if you build strong economy in Nepal those are tools of democracy. That is the underpinnings of a strong democracy. Those are the decisions Nepal’s people and the governments have to make. Yes, the implementation timeline is in June and that is coming very quickly. There are many countries that clearly require assistances. I would encourage Nepali government to have questions with who signed the Compact they negotiated and signed to answer those questions. I would encourage them not to be swayed by disinformation. There are probably others who are putting information out that are not accurate. There is a timeline here. At some juncture, Congress will say there are a lot other countries, young democracies, which want to have 500 million dollars. MCC compact is a public document. Take that document, and read that now to see if there are any things that you are concerned about.
Misinformation is not unique to Nepal. You see them in our elections; you see them in our politics. But at the end of the day it is for us as elected leaders and officials in our country to take the decision. We say same things to the leaders in Nepal. They should also ask themselves as this tool is aimed at development. We think it is in Nepal’s benefits. If they do not choose and pursue to implement the MCC Compact, what signals will that send to the business community? And, I would say they should take time to read the MCC Compact and ask our embassy questions. We in Congress think that it is in Nepal’s interest to have electrical generation transmission capability. We think that would help generate income for Nepal from many other projects. We also think businesses are going to invest here. Transportation system, roads infrastructures and those are all important things for companies; more importantly for US companies. If you want that foreign investment, the Compact sends strong signal for the investment community.
MCC is also defined as part of US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy. How do we understand Indo-Pacific Strategy? Where does Nepal figure into that?
The Indo-Pacific Strategy is a maritime security strategy. It is a strategy of free movement of goods and services. That’s all the way from the Indian Ocean through the Pacific Ocean. Nepal fits into it from democracy perspectives. It’s really a strategy of movement of goods and services. Nepal is a young democracy and we want Nepal to be successful. We think democracy is the best form of the government because it is responsive to the people. And, we see the potential in Nepal which is why the US members of Congress chose to come here. Indo-Pacific Strategy does not fit into any larger geopolitical strategy other than for strong and a democratic Nepal.
How do you assess the state of civil liberties including press freedom in Nepal?
There was not any direct conversation about this with the officials. But we did emphasize on foundational values of a strong democracy is a freedom of press. That’s incredibly important. We talked little bit about information and disinformation. It is important that there is freedom of press and that there is no censorship.
Was there any discussion about transitional justice as well?
Not at that depth other than both our embassy and the US members of the Congress emphasized part of the healing process after years of civil wars is helping families find closer and is looking for accountability. That’s up to the Nepali side to decide what that process looks like. But again you hear me say strong democracy. Part of that is democracy has to represent all the people and part of that is having reconciliation process that heals the country after the civil wars. And that takes time. But ultimately, that is up to the Nepali people to decide what the process should look like.
Are there any future plans and programs of the United States parliament to work together with the parliament of Nepal?
We have an open invitation for the Nepali parliamentarians to come visit the members of the Congress. We think the strongest link is between parliamentarians. That is because the president might be in power for four years or eight years, and sometimes they shift their agendas. But members of Congress generally are here for a longer period of time. And when you think about a long-term strategic relationship with Nepal, as you are building your democracy, recovering from the earthquake and building your economy that does not happen in four years or eight years. There should be a long-term partnership.
The successful implementation of MCC could give a positive message in bringing more FDI in Nepal. Do you have any suggestions for Nepal on how should Nepal project itself in the international arena to bring more FDIs in the country?
I think the couple of potential areas for Nepal are tourism and hydroelectricity. The tourism sector is the area where the US has expertise working with Nepali companies. We want Nepal to build the industry as there are opportunities to develop eco-tourism and high-end tourism. I think Visit Nepal 2020 is an example of the government projecting the country as a great place to visit. The government has already identified hydroelectric capacity of the country. The unique geography of Nepal lends itself to electricity generation. And I think the reason they [Nepal] chose to focus on transmission line under MCC Compact is that they can generate more electricity than Nepal actually needs. Nepal should sell the electricity generated to the countries that are in the need of power. This can generate income and revenue for Nepal. These are two obvious areas for Nepal.
In what areas can Nepal and the United States work together?
I think the Nepali government made the right decision with the MCC. The 500 million dollar can help Nepal build reliable electricity, excess capacity and ability for transmission. That reliability is going to be important as it helps bring in foreign direct investment to Nepal. There is a satellite company in California named Astranis Space Technologies. Nepal would like to have its own satellite. I think in a mountainous country like this, that makes sense. I think they can deliver this to Nepal at a better price with faster speed. If you get a deal like that it sends signals to all the companies, not just US companies, that this is the place where you can make investment.
Do you intend to suggest anything to the US government that can be helpful for the development of Nepal after your visit here?
We would like to make sure Nepal is a successful democracy. Nepal is still a young democracy. I see some of the farmers working in one of the rural parts of the country. The farmers are entrepreneurial and I was impressed to see increase in the level of productivity with a small investment. A step of democracy is when people have jobs and income. Also, a step of democracy is when they feel that they can make the lives of children better. That is why we use the tools to identify the assets any country has.
The government and the people should make the decisions that are in the best interest of the country. The government should think what’s in the best interest of Nepali people. Every country in this region will have relationships with both China and the United States to make sure the partnerships are in the best interest of people.
People see the United States as a role model of democracy. In your opinion, what leads democracy to fail? As Nepal is a new democracy, what do you think are the imminent threats for democracy here?
Democracy fails when the government is not responsive to people. The government can’t solve every problem, but it has to be responsible to people. At the end of the day, people would like to believe that if they work harder they can create a better life for their children. But if the government isn’t transparent and is corrupt, people start thinking that voting does not matter. That is when the democracy fails.