Nepal failed to stand up for democratic values while reacting to military coup in Myanmar, analysts sayIt took a whole day for the Foreign Ministry to come up with a statement where it called for immediate release of elected leaders but stopped short of showing concern over the risk of reversal of democratic reforms in the Southeast Asian country.
On Monday, Nepalis woke up to what came as a grim reminder of a royal-military coup, as reports filtered in that the Myanmar military had staged a coup, seizing power and detaining civilian elected leaders including President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
Nepalis followed the unfolding events in Myanmar with keen interest, as exactly 16 years ago, on February 1, 2005, then king Gyanendra had assumed absolute power and put various political party leaders under house arrest.
Nepalis also awaited the government’s response to the putsch in the Southeast Asian country, as the world joined condemnations of a reversal of democratisation in the country which was experiencing a fledgling democracy after five decades of junta rule.
It was only in the evening that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came up with a statement, in which it said it “has been closely following the developments in Myanmar”.
“We believe that all parties involved will respect the will of the Myanmar people and hope that the democratic and constitutional process will be restored soon,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. “We are equally
concerned about the safety and well-being of the detained civilian leaders
including President U Win Myint and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and call for their immediate release.”
Experts and diplomats say that Nepal’s statement on the coup in Myanmar was “too little” in favour of democracy and that Nepal failed to stand up as strongly as it should have.
According to Ramesh Nath Pandey, a former foreign minister, Nepal took a middle path, somewhat timid approach, in responding to the desecration of democracy in Myanmar.
“What is our strategic interest [with Myanmar] anyway that Nepal could not stand strongly in favour of democracy?” Pandey told the Post. “Our statement resembles that by a superpower that has a huge strategic interest.”
Pandey was referring to responses of some countries that took a softer approach while denouncing the military seizure of power.
Until the ministry released its statement, at around 8:48 pm, there was also speculation in Kathmandu if Nepal would even speak up, as the KP Sharma Oli government itself is facing charges of undermining democratic values ever since it decided to dissolve the House of Representatives.
Oli’s House dissolution move has been criticised by experts on constitutional affairs as unconstitutional and an attack on the constitution and democracy.
Analysts say how the government of the day responds to world events also reflects how it pursues not only its foreign policy but also how strongly it believes in certain values.
This is not the first time that the Oli administration’s way of viewing things on democratic principles, supporting the tenets of democracy and upholding human rights has come under scrutiny.
Recently, Nepal chose to stay mum when the Capitol, considered the symbol of democracy of the United States, was assaulted by Donald Trump supporters, just days ahead of Joe Biden’s presidential oath.
The Nepal government once abstained in November, 2018 from voting in the United Nations on Rohingya refugees and openly supported China's position on Uyghurs Muslims.
On July 12, 2019, 50 states, including Nepal, signed a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council, of which Nepal was then also a member, expressing support for China’s policies in Xinjiang.
When it comes to Myanmar issues, Nepal had chosen to abstain from voting on the Rohingya refugee issue over which Suu Kyi had appeared in the Hague in December 2019.
“To me, it is not a statement. The Foreign Ministry goes through a process while issuing such statements,” said Pandey. “A desk officer seems to have drafted the statement. A desk officer usually tends to hedge such statements fearing backlash.”
A Foreign Ministry official told the Post on Monday evening, after the statement was issued, that the delay in coming up with the statement was caused because they were waiting for the prime minister’s approval.
“Since the matter was sensitive, we had to wait for the prime minister to give the go-ahead,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared running into controversy. “Yes, there indeed was pressure to speak up on what was happening in Myanmar.”
Some political party leaders, however, were quick to respond to the unfolding events in Myanmar.
Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba called for the release of Suu Kyi and restoration of the elected government.
“Nepali Congress urge [sic] Myanmar's military to immediately release Aung San Suu Kyi, and restore the elected government,” Deuba said.
The Nepal Communist Party (Dahal-Nepal faction) too condemned the coup.
“Today's meeting of the Central Committee of our party, Nepal Communist Party (NCP), has described the recent political developments in Myanmar as unfortunate and tragic,” party spokesperson Narayan Kaji Shrestha tweeted. “Our party is in favour of democracy against autocracy and expects democracy to be restored in Myanmar soon.
Senior Nepali Congress leader Shekhar Koirala termed the military coup in Myanmar as a huge blow to democratic transition in Myanmar.
“I express my solidarity with elected representatives and call upon all to adhere to democratic process, release political leaders and reinstate the elected government without delay,” Koirala wrote on Twitter.
Analysts say how countries across the world responded to the situation in Myanmar also reflects how democracy, economy and geopolitics converge and diverge. Hence, Nepal must have paid proper attention to those facts and issued the statement accordingly, rather than taking a roundabout way, according to them.
Nepal’s immediate neighbours—India and China—took a completely different approach while reacting to Myanmar developments.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs said it “noted the developments in Myanmar with deep concern”.
“India has always been steadfast in its support to the process of democratic transition in Myanmar,” the ministry said in a statement. “We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely.”
Stating that it “noted” what happened in Myanmar, the Chinese said they “are in the process of further understanding the situation”.
“China is a friendly neighbour of Myanmar’s. We hope that all sides in Myanmar can appropriately handle their differences under the constitution and legal framework and safeguard political and social stability,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily news briefing in Beijing, according to Reuters.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the developments in Myanmar were a “serious blow to democratic reforms” and urged all leaders to refrain from violence and respect human rights.
US President Biden called the military takeover and detention of civilian officials “a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law”.
“We will work with our partners throughout the region and the world to support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law, as well as to hold accountable those responsible for overturning Burma’s democratic transition,” Biden said in a statement.
As far as Nepal is concerned, analysts say, while the country talked about respecting the will of the Myanmar people and expressed hope that the democratic and constitutional process will be restored soon, the statement lacked in expressing concerns over the reversal of demoratic reforms.
“The statement has nothing, it does not say anything,” Prof Lokraj Baral, Nepal’s former ambassador to India, told the Post. “It looks like the ministry completed a formality by issuing the statement.”
According to Baral, the ministry should have come up with a statement that carried a powerful meaning regarding democracy and democratic values.
“While it does call for the release of the detained leaders, it fails to show that Nepal strongly stands up in favour of democracy,” said Baral. “Nepal should have expressed its displeasure at the coup and said the steps taken by the military leadership in Myanmar are not fair.”
Nepalis on Tuesday, however, were wondering about the Nepal Army moving its armoured vehicles along Ring Road on Monday night.
Though an Army spokesman had put out a tweet, saying the movement of the armoured vehicles was part of the national defence force’s regular exercise, it gave ample ground for people to question the timing.
The army carried out the exercise exactly on the day (February 1) when Nepal saw a royal-military coup in 2005. Prime Minister Oli now has thrown the country into uncertainty with his House dissolution move and dragged all key institutions into controversy. Army drove its vehicles hours after the Myanmar military staged a coup.
Padam Buda, a lieutenant at the Directorate of Public Relations of the Army, said it was a regular drill.
“We decided to pre-inform this time expecting it doesn’t leave any confusion among the general public,” Buda had told the Post on Sunday when asked about Monday’s exercise. “It is only a coincidence that the drill’s day is on February 1.”
While the Army’s Valley Directorate moved its armoured vehicles along Ring Road on Monday, the mechanised units under all eight directorates are carrying out similar drills on Wednesday as well, according to the defence force.
Experts on security and defence matters say the timing chosen by the Army was bound to create confusion.
Indra Adhikari, the author of “Military and Democracy in Nepal”, said the timing obviously did give room for suspicion, particularly for two reasons.
“First, the Army chose February 1, the day then king Gyanendra in 2005 took over the executive authority by dismissing the elected prime minister, for the drill,” Adhikari told the Post. “Second, the drill is being held when the country is facing political uncertainty.”
Diplomats say there may not be much to think about the Army drill, especially when the defence force has called it a regular exercise, but when it comes to Nepal’s statement on Myanmar, one is forced to think if the ministry made it more muted given the political uncertainty Oli has thrown the country into.
Dinesh Bhattarai, Nepal’s former ambassador to Geneva, said that the content of the Foreign Ministry statement actually had nothing.
“It looked like the ministry was carrying out a formality,” Bhattarai told the Post. “The content of the Foreign Ministry’s statement and its spirit somewhat resemble the statement by China. I found similarities between ours and the Chinese one.”
According to Bhattarai, China’s muted statement, however, is understandable as Beijing has strategic interests and it is making huge investments in Myanmar.
“I could not figure out why the ministry hedged the statement,” said Bhattarai.
A senior Nepal government official, who is familiar with decision-making processes in such situations, said that due to some “unavoidable circumstances” and Nepal’s lack of wherewithal in overall geo-politics, oftentimes the country fails to take firm and strong positions on several international issues.
“Such tendencies we have seen in the past too,” the official told the Post who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s a reality that we are not consistent on such issues.”
Pandey pointed at how countries have taken a different approach in reacting to the Myanmar coup.
“What is the reason for Nepal not to condemn what happened in Myanmar? See the differences. The United States has taken a strong approach, threatening to reimpose sanctions and India formed its position with democracy as its promise, while China says it is still looking into it,” said Myanmar. “But what was there for us to stop short of saying what we needed to say.”
Binod Ghimire contributed reporting.