U.S.-Nepal RelationsEvan Feigenbaum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs
May 29, 2008
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: So, should we just start? We’re on the record, right?
MR. GALLEGOS: That’s right.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Okay, good. Well, I’m Evan Feigenbaum. I’m the SCA Bureau Deputy Assistant Secretary who handles Nepal, among other countries. I’m one of Richard Boucher’s Deputies, just back from three days in Kathmandu. It’s obviously a very historic leap for Nepal. A lot of things are happening, not least declaration of a republic very, very, very late last night or early this morning, depending on how you count it, end of a monarchy that’s lasted over 240 years, formation of a Constituent Assembly which has been a demand of a lot of Nepalese for a very long time.
So it’s a very historic week for Nepal, but it’s also a time of considerable uncertainty for Nepal. So I went out at this point because we thought it was a good time, given both the historic nature of the week, but also the uncertainty to try and supplement the already terrific efforts of our great Ambassador Nancy Powell out there to talk a little bit to the leaders of the various parties in Nepal about the formation of an interim government, the problem of violence, in particular, political violence in this society, and also next steps on the drafting of a constitution, which is really the main task that’s going to face this Constituent Assembly.
I met with a whole bunch of people starting with Prime Minister Girija Koirala, but also the leaders of the four main parties in Nepal: Pushpa Dahal, who is the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal Maoists, which came out as the leading party in the Constituent Assembly election with the most seats, also leaders of the other leading three parties of the Nepali Congress. I met with Mr. Deuba, who’s a former prime minister and a leader of the Congress Party, Mr. Khanal, who is the new leader of the Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist Lennonist. So there are a few communist parties in Nepal, a different one, and then something called the Madhesi People’s Forum, which represents the interests of people in the Terai in southern Nepal, Mr. Yadav. And I also met with the Chief of the Army, General Katuwal.
You know, the U.S. has a lot of history in Nepal. We have over 60 years of diplomatic relations now. We have assistance programs to the people in Nepal in a lot of different areas: education, health, security, economic development, and there’s a long history between these two countries. There are thousands and thousands of Americans who have spent a lot of time there, whether as students or scholars or backpackers over the years. There are a lot of Nepalese who have spent time in the United States. I’m one of those people. Twenty-one years ago, I spent a little bit of time in Nepal, hadn’t been back in a long time.
So there’s a reservoir of goodwill between people of both sides. And so we take an interest in what happens there, and in particular, we take an interest in a stable, democratic and prospering Nepal. And so on that basis, we really wanted to have a chat with the leaders of the country this week about three things. As I said, one is, in particular, the political process. People voted for a Constituent Assembly on April 10, but in a sense, they weren’t just voting for a Constituent Assembly. They weren’t just voting for people to make a budget or write an arcane set of provisions in a constitution. They were expressing their political will, in a sense.
And so we had a chance to talk to the leaders of the parties about what the next steps were going to be among the parties, not just on the Constituent Assembly, but in the effort to form a government in this country. And for our part, we think it’s important that whatever government emerges, it’s going to be up to Nepalese, but in some sense, it needs to reflect the will of the Nepalese people as expressed on April 10.
Talked a lot about violence in the country; we’re very deeply concerned about the level of violence in the country. It’s a general message for all of the parties, but it has particular resonance for the Maoists, obviously, because they’re designated on two of these lists, but also because we have some concerns about the Young Communist League, which is a youth arm of the Communist Party of Nepal Maoist. And I must say, you may have seen that Dahal did a press stakeout after his meeting with me and Ambassador Powell, and he was quite open about that. He talked about the fact that we talked a lot about the Young Communist League. So we do have concerns about the level of violence in the society and we had a chance to talk about those things too. And then last, we talked a little bit about the role of the international community with all of the party leaders and with the prime minister, too. And that includes the role of the United States, but also of UN agencies and others in the country.
So, in any case, it was a – it was a good trip. It was a good opportunity to just touch base with everybody. There are a lot of challenges for this country. The events of yesterday were historic. But I think you may have noticed they have adjourned for a period now to try to continue discussions among the parties and try to work out some of the outstanding questions, not least forming a government. But I think the real challenges in Nepal are challenges of governance. This is a country that faces a lot of challenges.
In the near-term, it’s most immediately the high price of fuel. All over Kathmandu, there were long, long gasoline lines. And so the next government is going to have to deal with that question no matter who leads the government and no matter who’s in the government. Likewise, Nepal, like a lot of other countries, is facing issues of food prices and then there are the longer-term challenges in this society of economic development, poverty, which is really quite endemic in some parts of the country, and other issues too. So the United States has provided a lot of assistance on those things over the years and we look forward to continuing to work with the Nepalese political elite, but also with the Nepalese people on all of those things.
It was a good trip, three days, just got back. And we thought it was a good time just to touch base, see if anybody was interested. I had no idea there was this much interest in Nepal, but anyway, happy to talk about anything you’d like to talk about.
QUESTION: What about the question – sort of the perpetual question of the terrorist designation for the Maoist party? And how are you going to deal with that? I mean, is this something that the Administration is reviewing now?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I guess I’d make one point about background and one point about policy. On background, and I just say this informationally, there are several categories of these lists, and we can get you more background on this from lawyers, and I’m not a lawyer, so people who know more about this. But there is, of course, the Foreign Terrorist Organization, or FTO list, which is – has broad legal implications and is a legal category. The Maoists are not designated as an FTO. And I’ve noticed that in a lot of the press coverage, people have a tendency to conflate these different lists. So just by way of background, you should know that the Maoists are not designated as an FTO.
There are two other categories. One is called the Terrorist Exclusion List, which flows from the Patriot Act, and really is – it’s a visa category. It has to do with – with – with entry and exit into the United States. And then there’s something called the Specially Designated List, which flows from an Executive Order. So the Maoists are designated, just by way of background, on two of those, but not on the FTO list.
In terms of next steps, you know, I really wouldn’t want to speculate. It’s going to depend. They’re on the list. They remain on the list for the moment.
QUESTION: Is this on background or are we back on the record?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: This is – this can be on the record.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I wouldn’t want to speculate on the record. What I would just say is that our basic message to every party in Nepal is that the degree to which we can work with parties in Nepal will depend very directly on the degree to which they continue to embrace the political process and abandon violence. And so – and I wouldn’t want to speculate on next steps. We’ll just – that’s our – that’s our message and we’re going to follow events very closely and we’ll follow the actions of the various parties, including the Maoists, very closely. And then we’ll see where we are going forward.
QUESTION: Could you explain what being on the two lists that you mentioned does for the Maoists -- I mean, how – does it constrain the United States’ ability to deal with them politically, diplomatically? Is there something that – I mean, can they travel freely to and from the United States? And what does it do for the officials who are --
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: You know, I’m not a lawyer, so I’m a little reluctant to get into the legal specifics or the policy specifics of these kind of – we can probably get you that.
QUESTION: Can you speak generally about it, though --
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: As I said, one – one particularly applies as a visa category to entry and exit. One has to do with property. And the FTO list, which is the broadest legal category, has additional legal implications. But I’m not a lawyer, so we’d have to get the lawyers to give you that background.
QUESTION: Is this something that they expressed concern about when they talk to you? Is this something that you hold out as, you know, a goal for maybe them getting off at one point if they --
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, I’d just take the first part of that. I mean, I think the Maoists have spoken very publicly about their desire to come off those lists, so – so they’ve certainly said so publicly. So it’s something of concern to them, but in terms of next steps, as I said, I wouldn’t want to speculate. We’re going to watch very closely what happens in Nepal.
QUESTION: Since you just came from there, can you say that the violence will go down because of the Maoist part of the government? And second, they are asking that they should be off the list since they’re – now they’re the political party and the major party in Nepal. And third, you think there is a Chinese influence as far as the rising of communism, like in Nepal or India?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, first on the violence, I mean, our hope, as I said, is that the level of violence in the country generally will be reduced, and hopefully, eventually ended. Violence, and particularly political violence, has been a big problem in this society. And so, as I said, we expressed a concern about that to the Maoists, but we’ve expressed that concern more generally. And so that was a subject of conversation in every meeting that I had in Nepal. And it’s a subject of conversation that we have and that the ambassador and others have in every conversation in Nepal.
Our hope, as I said, would be that the level of violence goes down. And I think – you know, the good news is that Nepalis themselves are talking a lot about violence in the society. I was certainly not the first person to raise the issue of the Youth League. Dahal himself has been very open about it. There’s a lot of political discussion about it in Nepal. The problem of violence more broadly is something that a lot of Nepalese talk about. The week that I was there, there were a couple of – they call them socket bombs that went off in town. The claims of responsibility were from – I think it was actually one of the Hindu fundamentalist parties.
But in any case, I think our hope would be that the country, over time, really builds on the comprehensive peace agreement and the process that resulted from that of the last few years, the discussions among the parties that have led to a more sustained democratic process, and also that people really begin to embrace political means in ways that I think, unfortunately, have sometimes been too rare in Nepal.
On the Chinese – you know, China’s a neighbor; obviously, they have interest in Nepal as does India, another neighbor. I think there’s a – you know, there’s an embassy. There’s a lot of contact between Nepal. I’d leave it to the Maoists themselves to characterize their own ideological complexion, but I think – I wouldn’t make too much of the fact that they call themselves Maoists. If you look at some of what they’ve had to say, including what Dahal said to the press publicly after his meeting with me, he talked a lot about actually embracing international investment, embracing capitalism, wanting to develop the society.
So these are people that want to portray themselves as concerned with development in the country, concerned about economic development. And they’re certainly saying a lot, and they’re saying interesting things about the challenges of governance in Nepal. How they would govern, we’ll have to see. They’ve been invited to form a government by Mr. Koirala. Those negotiations are continuing. So if and when a Maoist-led government emerges, we’re going to watch very closely how they govern.
But, you know, the United States encourages economic development in Nepal and we think openness to market forces would be a good thing.
QUESTION: There have been some voices in Kathmandu calling for the king’s head, literally. Do you – is -- did that come up in your discussions, the (inaudible) of the current king?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: No. I mean, you know, we had asked a lot of questions about the king, you know, what are your plans, what are people thinking. You know, I think it’s clear that all of the parties have been looking to manage a graceful exit for the king. I notice that the king, apparently, is still in the palace. So I had seen a news report saying that the Constituent Assembly had given him about two weeks to vacate. So that’s certainly more graceful than tossing him unceremoniously out of the palace. But this is something the Nepalese will have to work out for themselves.
QUESTION: Are you encouraged by this movement in some way? Or is it – really doesn’t change what – this deposing of the king and adopting this new form of government? Do you think they’re really embracing a democratic form? Or do they -- are they more likely to go in a different direction, especially with the Maoists in charge now?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: No, I don’t think it’s for us to tell Nepalese what kind of government they should have. I mean, this debate about monarchy or republic is a very old one in Nepal. Some of these parties – I mean, we tend to focus on the Maoists because they get most of the newsprint. But the Nepali Congress, of course, has a long history and so do the other parties, too.
So take the demand for a Constituent Assembly; this is a very longstanding demand in Nepal that’s now been delivered. So I think, you know, in a lot of ways, what’s happened this week reflects debates that have been going on in Nepali society for a long time. So Nepalis have concluded that they wanted a republic; it’s obviously something that’s very historic. It’s not for us to tell them what kind of government they have.
But I think that, you know, to the extent that – the way in which the end of the monarchy is managed in a way that’s graceful, that preserves peace and harmony in the society, from our standpoint, that’s a good thing. So, you know, we’ll have to see what happens between the parties and the king. But for now, you know, they’ve declared a republic day and they’re just – quite – apparently, quite a bit of celebration in Kathmandu. So --
QUESTION: But beyond trying to tell them what kind of government they want, what would work best for the United States in terms of the U.S. interests in that region?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, I think what works for us is a stable – as I said, a stable, democratic and prospering Nepal. So to the extent that the comprehensive peace agreement and the political process have led to greater stability in Nepal, we’ve embraced it. Indeed, the United States has encouraged this peace process for the last several years; likewise, the issue of a democratic Nepal – you know, to the extent that the parties are able to work their differences out by political means, to the extent that they’re able to forge some consensus about the political future of the country, that’s up to them. But we think that’s a good thing. And then in terms of this issue of a prospering Nepal, as I said, this is a country that is very poor.
I flew up – there was one morning I had a little bit of time, so I flew up to the very northwest part of the country to a town called Simikot. And it’s a very poor part of Nepal, very, very poor. And so you see the developmental challenges of this part of the world. If you talk to my AID colleagues, you know, they can talk to you a lot about this. So clearly, this is a country that has a lot of challenges of governance. The debate over the last few years has focused really heavily on political horse trading. It’s been all about politics: who’s going to lead the government, who’s going to come out in the elections, who’s going to be prime minister. There’s going to be debate now about 26 appointed seats to the Constituent Assembly. I’m sure there’ll be a lot of horse trading about portfolios. We’ll see; is there a unity government, no unity government, who’s going to lead, who’s not going to lead.
But apart from all of this political debate, from our perspective, it would be a good thing if political leaders in this country also began to focus on some of these challenges of governance. And I think the good news is that in all of my meetings – I mean, it’s clear that people recognize the challenges in the country, and I think that’s part of what’s been driving this political process. There’s a desire to start focusing on some of these policy issues and I think that would be a good thing.
QUESTION: What’s the level of aid we’ve been giving? And are there already plans to up that, depending on how the government shakes out?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: You know, I don’t know the exact number. We’d have to get it for you.
QUESTION: Well, can you give me – I mean, are we talking 10 million or a hundred million? I mean, what are we –
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Alex, can you ballpark it for me?
PARTICIPANT: Fifty, sixty (inaudible).
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Fifty, sixty?
PARTICIPANT: Yeah, somewhere in there.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Okay, fifty, sixty. To be honest –
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: To be honest – I mean, you can check this and I can check it for you too. I think the levels have fluctuated a bit over the last few years, so partly, I’m a little reluctant to give you a number because I think it’s gone up and down. You know, we’ll have to see what the Hill gives us this year.
I think – you know, as I said, there are a lot of challenges. Development is a big one. But we’d also like to be supportive of some of the institution building in Nepal. I know there’s a lot of interest in this in the international community. Take something like the Constituent Assembly. You know, the Constituent Assembly is a new institution. And if you look at the people that were elected to this assembly -- there are 601 seats in the assembly – I think it’s something like 80 percent of the people in the assembly have no prior experience in any government body of any kind. You know, and the Maoists, in particular, these are people who have not served in government roles before, but I think that’s true actually of a lot of the representatives of the Constituent Assembly across the political spectrum.
So we provided, during the election to the Constituent Assembly, a lot of support to the Election Commission, for instance, as did others in the international community. So there may be a role for the international community in providing some technical support to the Constituent Assembly in terms of capacity building. There are also a variety of commissions that have been formed, you know, human rights commissions and anticorruption commissions and things like this.
I think one challenge we’re going to face is to ask ourselves questions about how we can be useful on capacity building for these kinds of institutions as this new republic in Nepal emerges. So we’ll see what we’ve got from the Hill this year and we’ll take a look at our assistance. But one thing that’s interesting about Nepal is we provided assistance across a variety of categories, so we do development, but we’ve also done democracy and governance and we’ve done security assistance as well.
QUESTION: Just to begin on the same background or (inaudible). The perception we get is the United States is unable to negotiate with terrorist groups. Under the terms in which – under the regulations in which these guys are branded under the two categories, is the United States able to talk to these guys?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, I just talked to them and -- I just talked to Mr. Dahal and Nancy Powell had talked to him once before, so --
QUESTION: But under the law – I mean, you have seen reports, right, that the United States cannot negotiate with terrorist groups. Now, under the two regulations in which these guys are branded, does it allow you to negotiate?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I’m going to go back to what I said before: They are not designated as a FTO. They’re designated on those two others. Those are – there has been a policy that we had of not making contact with the Maoists. The fact that Nancy Powell met them or that I met them should suggest to you that we’ve just revised that policy with respect to this group. I do Nepal. I don’t do any other part of the world, so I’m not in a position to talk about any other group or any other place. But in the case of Nepal, we took a policy decision – Nancy in the first instance, then I in the second.
QUESTION: What was the basis for you to revise this policy?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: To revise that policy? We took a policy decision. That was the basis.
QUESTION: Why? I mean, there must be a basis for doing that, right?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: The Maoists have – well, I mean, the Maoists participated in the comprehensive peace agreement, which is a process that we encouraged. The Maoists participated in the April 10 Constituent Assembly election, which was also a process that we encouraged. The Maoists have emerged as the largest party as a result of the Constituent Assembly election. Our role, as we define it in Nepal, is to encourage the various parties to embrace what we think is a common vision of a stable, democratic, and prospering Nepal. And so we thought that our own role in encouraging that was best served by making contact, in this case, by Nancy and then by me. And so we took that policy decision.
What’ll happen going forward, I don’t know. We’ll have to see. But as I said, I’m not a lawyer, so if you want more on the legal categories, we can get you --
QUESTION: No, I just wanted to (inaudible) just to -- and what about military aid? Before the king went berserk and imposed the various measures that led to the suspension of many activities by the U.S. in Nepal, there was some military aid given to the authorities. I think it was, if I’m not mistaken, machine guns?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, security assistance has provided – it’s comprised one category of our assistance in the past.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Right now, we only provide something called Expanded IMET, and so we’re providing some programmatic things under the Expanded IMET program. Beyond that, there’s not a lot that we’re doing.
QUESTION: What is Expanded IMET?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Expanded IMET is a category that the Hill has. It’s a little bit different than the regular IMET. It focuses principally on human rights training and human rights related courses. And it focuses in particular on the upper ranks of the military, not the lower ranks.
QUESTION: Sorry, could you clarify something? Did you say 80 percent of the people elected to the assembly have no prior government experience?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: I have to get you the exact number, but suffice it to say, it is an overwhelming proportion of the Constituent Assembly. It’s a really very small number of people who have prior experience in any government institution. I can get you the exact number. It’s really small.
QUESTION: It sounds like it could be a mess. I mean, is – I mean, what – you mentioned some things that you’d like to see happen. What is the U.S. specifically doing to try to ease the chaos? I mean, it seems like it’s going to be --
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, you know, I’m a political scientist and so it’s always – I was an academic before I came in government. It’s always interesting to ask, you know, how a society that is embracing a process of institution building and democratic change manages that process. Every country does it in its own way. In this case, they have this institution of the Constituent Assembly. They’ve had an interim parliament up until now. As I said, most of the members of the Constituent Assembly were not members of the interim parliament.
So this is a new experience for a lot of these people, but it’s going to be a process for them. What I was really struck by on the first day was that it actually came off not so chaotically. It took them a while to finally convene. There was a lot of discussion going on back-channel among the parties, so they convened, apparently, eight, nine, ten hours after they were supposed to convene. But when they did, you know, there was this motion adopted to declare a republic and end the monarchy. There was, I think, one speaker. They were allotted a time limit. When he exceeded the time limit, the rules of procedure said that he was done, so he ceased speaking and that was the end of it. And the Maoists, apparently, sort of sat in their seats and observed the whole proceeding and, you know, it all came off rather well.
But of course, the challenge now is to really define a role for the Constituent Assembly. And there’s some immediate challenges they have. One is they have to make a government budget, and they’re going to have to do this, I think, in the next month. And making a budget, as you know, in any country, is always a pretty contentious exercise. And this is a moment where there’s a lot of popular pressure on things like fuel prices. This is not unique to Nepal. It’s also true in India and a few other countries, too.
But in the face of all these government -- governance challenges, expectations are really very high in Nepal. On April 10, I mean, people thought they were voting for something. And very clearly, if you look at the result, a lot of people voted for some kind of change, to go to something different. And so the expectations of the political class in Nepal are very high. And so the Constituent Assembly has to do a budget, they have to do a constitution, and there’s a government that’s going to emerge. But I think that Nepalese themselves are going to be watching very closely.
In terms of us, I mean, I don’t know, we’ll have to see. But I think over the last few years, we’ve focused a little bit on capacity building for various institutions in Nepal. You know, we have various mechanisms that we use to encourage institution building. I think the Constituent Assembly is brand new – it’s, what, it’s a day old? So we’re in the process of having some discussion inside the U.S. Government about how we can be helpful to Nepal during the period of transition. But as I said, a lot of that’s going to depend on what happens in Nepal.
I mean, our basic message, I think, and the basic conclusion that we in the U.S. Government have up to this point is, as I said, the degree to which we can work with anyone in Nepal will depend very directly on the degree to which they continue to embrace the political process and abandon violence. And to the extent that people do that and parties do that and groups do that, you know, I think we’ll find ways to work with them. What the specifics of that will be, I don’t know. That’s a discussion we’ll have to have as we look at our assistance programs.
QUESTION: Are NDI and IRI involved in Nepal at all?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: NDI is out there. In fact, I met with the NDI rep out there. There are a lot of these NGOs that are out there. NDI has been very active out there. There’s a group called IFES, the International Foundation for Election Systems. They do a lot of good work. They’ve been there. The Carter Center is out there. You saw President Carter was out there monitoring the election. The Asia Foundation has been very active out there. There are a lot of other countries that are quite active. The Danes are there, the Norwegians are there, the Europeans are there, the UN agencies are there. The UN agencies are quite active, for instance, on refugee issues. The IOM, the International Organization for Migration, UNDP is there, UNHCR and others.
So there’s a whole host, as you would expect in any country with the development challenges that Nepal has. And you know, we coordinate pretty closely with those other donors.
QUESTION: Before any chaos or mess takes place, you think the U.S. is providing any emergency aid because of food rising and fuel rising and also – because of so much poverty and – since they are expecting from the new government?
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, the tone of your question was interesting. You said before any chaos takes place, so we’re – we’re certainly hoping that no chaos takes place. We thought that yesterday, as I said, was a historic moment for Nepal. And so, you know, we’ll be watching the next steps very closely. But I think the fact that it came off largely without violence is a good first step for Nepal.
You know, we’re continuing to provide the various forms of assistance that we’ve provided over the years. After Nancy Powell met with Dahal, with -- the Embassy in Kathmandu issued a press release. And one of the things you may have noticed from that release is that she talked to him a little bit about the assistance programs the United States provides in Nepal. She did that, in part, because I think that the Maoists are probably less familiar than other parties that have – have been involved in government for a long time in Nepal with the various forms and levels of assistance that we do.
So I think, you know, there’s going to be ongoing conversation with all of the parties as we look at ways where the United States, in our assistance programs, can be most useful.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Well, there’s a release up on the Embassy Kathmandu website that gives the exact date, so you can check, but it was about three weeks ago.
QUESTION: Thank you.
DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FEIGENBAUM: Anything else? Thanks. I hope it was useful.
Released on May 30, 2008