Tug of War Elephant

 April 2015, Chinese State media announced considerations to construct a tunnel underneath Mount Everest in order to connect the Qinghai-Tibet Railroad (itself the sole connection between Beijing and Tibet’s capital in Lhasa) to the Nepalese capital in Kathmandu. After completion in 2020, the line would extend all the way south to the rich markets of India’s New Delhi social elite. But how exactly does a 217 year-old basic technology like rail come to symbolize the latest of the world’s largest democracy’s fears that it is being encircled by the Middle Kingdom? The train runs through the Nepalese Roof of the World – and no punctured roof can keep both an Elephant and a Dragon dry forever. That a small Himalayan nation caught between two economic powerhouses would at once be courted for favor and disdained by both, precisely for its shifting allegiances between both, should be obvious. What is not clear, however, is the very future of Nepal; the brinkmanship expressed in the game of thrones in which it currently finds itself a pawn; nor the political ideology it will ultimately adopt atop Mt Everest, through which it will look down upon the world below.

The Barrel of a Gun, Or, Where to find Political Power

From 1995 to 2006, the People’s Liberation Army (the armed wing of the UCPN [Maoist]) waged an insurgency against the constitutional monarchy of King Gyanendra. In 2006, the Maoists, under the leadership of Pushpa Kamal Dahal, A.K.A, “Prachanda” (his Maoist guerre de nom), agreed to a U.N.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA). The agreement stipulated King Gynendra lose all political power, the Maoists earn political seats in the Constituent Assembly (Nepal’s national law-making body), the Maoists disarm and demobilize their troops into U.N.-supervised camps, and all sides declare respect for universal human rights. In short and indeed, the Maoists kept their promise to end the violence in exchange for a place in the political process and the end of the 241 year-old Hindu monarchy. However, the CPA also required the formation of an interim government, procedures for drafting a new constitution, and a timeline for ratifying it. An interim government was formed and held general elections in 2008 and again in 2013. In the 2013 Nepalese Constituent Assembly election, the [1]three dominant parties of Nepal emerged as:

1) The Nepali Congress, led by Sushil Koirala, with 196 of 601 total seats available.

2) The Communist Party of Nepal (UML), led by Jhala Nath Khanal with 175 seats

3) The Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), led by Prachanda, with 80 seats

As of spring 2015, the constitution is still incomplete and there is no clear sign that any breakthrough will be reached. When politics come to fist-fights in the halls of a country’s highest law making assembly, the public is not far behind. Indeed, a 30-day strike against the Government was launched by the Maoists in January 2015 concurrent with the Assembly brawl as a protest against the 2/3rd majority bloc created by an alliance between the Nepalese Congress and the CPN (UML).

Rearmament and Mobilization

A fist-fight and a strike does not a revolution make. However, the underlying drivers of the constitutional conflict are caste, class, and ethnic divisions. If the alliance of the Nepali Congress and CPN (UML) does push-through a constitution, then in one brash move, 1) the constitutional aspirations of the UCPN (Maoist) will not be codified into law; 2) the Maoists will be disenfranchised from the political process; and 3) not just a political party will lose – an entire class of people, and a mutually-sympathetic coalition of marginalized ethnicities will lose their political voice. Further recognizing that the UCPN (Maoist) current leader is none other than Prachanda himself – orator, philosopher, guerrilla fighter – the man who deposed a king and abolished a monarchy less than a decade ago, then the Maoists have at their helm arguably the most competent, violently successful Maoist revolutionary since Cambodia’s Pol Pot.  Furthermore, in total only 1,460 of the 19,600 Maoists fighters registered with the U.N. after the war have since been indoctrinated into the regular Nepal Army.  The remaining 18,000 fighters have never been broken of their loyalty to Prachanda or the UCPN (Maoist) party.  And the PLA’s weapons?  The UN has their weapons under supervision, but not out of reach by forceful reclamation.

Caution need be exercised when predicting the dissolution of a country. Brown & Brown famously predicted the outright collapse of Nepal in 2012, opting for sensationalism over pragmatism.  However, considering the diminishing options for resolution-by-ballot available to the Maoists at the constitution’s 11th hour, then Prachanda and his party themselves likely see no alternative to achieve their goals other than a Second Nepal Civil War.

Exit: Light — Enter: Naxalite

Outside of the UCPN (Maoist) party, who would benefit from a destabilized Nepal and a renewed opportunity to install a Maoist government? Just across the Indian border, a Maoist insurgency has raged for 50 years to topple the Indian government in favor of a red régime. Stretching from Bihar state to deep into Southern India, the Naxalite Insurgency has been  described by former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as “the single biggest internal security challenge ever faced by our country,”. It forms the Red Corridor , red-corridorand creates a continuous supply line for Maoist sympathy and insurgency from southern India, through the Himalaya, and directly to Communist China. India has long accused publically the Nepalese Maoists of sending weapons and support to the Naxalites; in November 2009, Nepalese politburo member Chandra Prakash Gajurel admitted full and open support for the Maoist insurgency in eastern India . Certainly one politician doesn’t represent a nation, and much has changed in the five years since Mr. Gajurel’s statement, but if the UCPN (Maoist) rearmed, the [3]Naxalites would be the obvious first choice of allies. The Naxalites would have everything to gain by helping prop-up a friendly, unopposed Maoist regime sympathetic to their cause. As if Naxalism needed any further help, [4] minor regional insurgent groups sympathetic to Maoism and vying for their own states would resume supplying the Naxals and the Nepalis.

The Dragon acknowledges the Elephant in the room: India and China

A second civil war in Nepal would give New Delhi two primary concerns: 1) a reinvigorated Naxalite alliance with the Maoists; and 2) Chinese Communist training and resources fueling a second, protracted civil war. Fences make for good neighbors, and Nepal makes for a great buffer between India and China. Therefore, India’s interests would be served by a stable, neutral Nepal in which Naxalism could not find sanctuary and Chinese influence could not find an audience.  Conversely, China’s primary concern would be a disruption of the current status quo, i.e., controlled political dysfunction that prevents Nepal from leaving the Chinese constellation of influence but keeps it receptive to massive Chinese investment. Therefore, China’s goals for Nepal would include recognizing a Maoist government which is favorable toward Beijing’s foreign policies (notably anti-Tibet/Dali Llama sentiment) and troop deployments around the border region. Furthermore, the key for China’s access to the Naxalites is through Nepal, and by Naxalite-induced quagmire, the weakening of the Indian Naval presence in the Indian Ocean. To explain, China’s theorized Third Island Chain Strategy suggests its blue-water maritime ambitions reach through the Strait of Malacca to the India Ocean.  Because India’s military successes have traditionally been Naval, any domestic insurgency along the eastern ports in India would allow Chinese Naval vessels the freedom to navigate, and to contain Indian influence in Southeast Asia.

Thus an ancient rivalry between two great powers will soon be borne out by competing insurgent groups in the Himalaya. That one Nepalese political party’s decision to not sign a piece of paper could throw a country the size of Illinois into chaos, and with it the surrounding region, is but a footnote in the history of the two great civilizations to its south and east. However, for the Nepalese and the Naxalites, it may well be the epitaph written on the death of a revolution.


[1] The Nepali Congress is the traditionally dominant party, composed of the Brahmin and Chhetri upper-castes. The UML and UCPN (Maoist) advocate very different tactics and must be separate in the reader’s mind. The UML advocates the theory of People’s Multi-party Democracy (PMD) in order for Nepalese people to achieve political empowerment. This contrasts with the UCPN (Maoist) theory of Armed Struggle; the UCPN would more closely align with the Universal Suffrage movement than with Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. Therefore, the order of power for the top three political parties in Nepal also indicates the order of least-likely to most-likely to use violence for political goals.

[2] The alliance would not come without some sacrifice on the part of the Naxalites. To open a northern front, they would almost assuredly have to abandon their ambitions to overtake the tri-junction region of the Indian states of Kerala-Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (Yadav 2015).

[3] The alliance would not come without some sacrifice on the part of the Naxalites. To open a northern front, they would almost assuredly have to abandon their ambitions to overtake the tri-junction region of the Indian states of Kerala-Karnataka and Tamil Nadu (Yadav 2015).

[4] Political instability and armed conflict attracts foreign fighters. A destabilized Nepal is predicted to see an influx of fighters and weapons dealers crossing over the porous border. The major players would be the Naxalite Maoists, the Kantipur Liberation Organization (KLO), and the Liberation Front of Assam (LFA). The Bhutanese Maoists would likely sympathize, but find themselves limited in supplying material support. The Chinese on their border wish to see order in Bhutan, not chaos, and the Indian state of Sikkim to Bhutan’s west immediately blocks off direct aid to Nepal. The below graphic (Associated Press, 2015) illustrates many of the competing players in the region: