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Nepal is walking a tightrope between India and China | China



This year, amid a raging pandemic, a looming global economic crisis and devastating floods and landslides, the Himalayan nation of Nepal has been in political and diplomatic turmoil over its disputed border with its much larger neighbour, India. The dispute has deepened strains within the current government and reignited debate over the future of Nepal’s relations with India and China.

On May 8, India inaugurated a link road built in a disputed territory which falls near a strategic three-way junction with Nepal and China. Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who was already facing multiple domestic political challenges, adopted a defiant stance against New Delhi and deemed the new road an attack on Nepal’s sovereignty.

He issued a new map which places the disputed region within Nepal’s borders and swiftly passed it through both houses of the parliament. His ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) also pushed an amendment to the country’s citizenship law that requires foreign women marrying Nepali men (most of whom are Indian) to wait for seven years for naturalisation.

Oli’s nationalist stance earned him some much-needed support among the Nepalese public, but proved insufficient to silence his many critics who have long been demanding his resignation citing his failure to provide effective leadership at a time of crisis. Commentators and officials both in India and Nepal accused him of cynically using the border dispute to stir nationalist sentiment and outmanoeuvre his rivals in the NCP, or acting at China’s behest.

In response, Oli has claimed that his political rivals within the ruling party are “colluding with India to oust him from power”. His chief opponent in the NCP, former Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal – commonly known as “Prachanda” – described the accusation as “neither politically correct nor diplomatically appropriate,” asserting that it was he, not India, who sought Oli’s resignation.

Rivalries within the NCP undoubtedly played a role in aggravating Nepal’s political crisis. Nevertheless, it is also impossible to deny the significant role Nepal’s two giant neighbours, India and China, have played in bringing about the turmoil.

All politics is local

In May, the Indian Army chief General MM Naravane went out of his way to suggest that Oli’s objection to India’s road construction was instigated by Beijing. Indian news outlets, particularly those close to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), relentlessly attacked Oli for his alleged pro-China and anti-India stance. One Indian channel directly warned Oli not to challenge India, a country on which “you depend so heavily”.

The Indian media has obsessively reported on the activities of the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, even levelling tasteless allegations that the “model-like” envoy has “honey-trapped” Oli. She has indeed been active throughout the crisis, holding numerous meetings with senior Nepali political leaders. And China does appear to be standing by Oli in this dispute, but there is no evidence that Beijing is goading him into taking on New Delhi.

India too is by no means a mere bystander. Top Indian intelligence officials, according to a report in the Daily Pioneer, have been actively courting senior Nepali politicians. The Indian media’s relentless onslaught on Oli also gives weight to the 68-year-old leader’s accusations that India is actively working to topple his government. And so too does the recent past. India has brought down several governments in Kathmandu over the years.

Observers generally see Oli as supported by Beijing and Prachanda by New Delhi. There is, however, little publicly available evidence to support the claim that New Delhi is propping up Prachanda to replace Oli.

Prachanda has his own reasons for sparring with Oli. In 2018, the leftist parties of Oli and Prachanda merged. The two men have shared the post of chairman of the newly-formed NCP and reportedly agreed to alternate as prime minister over the course of the NCP’s five-year term in power, which is now at its halfway point. Last November, Prachanda reportedly accepted a revised deal that would give him control over the party while allowing Oli to continue as prime minister. Oli appears not to have held up his end of the bargain, hence Prachanda’s anger.

Even if Prachanda is indeed backed by New Delhi, the partnership is likely tactical and temporary. Prachanda has had a complicated relationship with India. India facilitated the integration of Nepal’s Maoist rebels – led by Prachanda – into the political fold in the mid-2000s, but also helped force Prachanda’s resignation as prime minister in 2009 after he took on the Nepal Army, a key lever of Indian influence.

Notably, Prachanda has not played the anti-Beijing card to gain the upper hand against Oli. In fact, he has also taken positions as of late that can be seen as pro-Beijing. While Oli supported the United States Millennium Challenge Corporation’s (MCC) Nepal compact – which Washington says aims to increase the availability of electricity and lower the cost of transportation in the country – Prachanda opposed it, citing US statements linking the project to the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is largely seen as a China containment policy.

Prachanda made a veiled reference to the MCC project in an address to the Chinese Communist Party last month, stating that any developmental assistance inconsistent with the country’s policy of non-alignment “can’t be accepted by any means.”

Indian heavy-handedness created opening for China

If Oli is forced to resign, it would not necessarily be an enduring setback for Beijing. As Nepali news editor Biswas Baral argues, the cohesion of the NCP is more important for Beijing than Oli’s survival. Furthermore, the NCP leadership is likely to sustain its desire for China to play a balancing role even after Oli’s departure, due to its deep-rooted fear of Indian dominance.

Over the decades, India has played a paternalistic role in Nepal, which has been helpful in many ways. However, New Delhi has also been heavy-handed and abusive in its dealings with its Himalayan neighbour, leveraging the landlocked country’s dependence on it for access to the sea. India is Nepal’s largest trade partner, accounting for 65 percent of its imports and 57 percent of its exports in 2017.

India has used connectivity as a coercive tool, blockading Nepal three times in the past 30 years – most recently in 2015 after a devastating earthquake. The blockade imposed by India on Nepal in 1989 was partly out of concerns over Nepal’s growing proximity to China. While China’s military sales to Nepal grew, India remained the predominant external power in the country.

India’s most recent blockade of Nepal has proved to be a strategic folly, stirring Nepali nationalism, which has had an anti-India strain. The blockade roughly coincided with China’s launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), giving Beijing an opportunity to step in and pledge large sums of aid and investment.

China’s massive investments in extending its domestic rail network toward its western and southwestern frontier amplify its efforts to reshape the region’s economic geography. Its drive to expand connectivity in the region, for example, provided Nepal with an alternative route to the sea.

In 2016, China and Nepal concluded a transport agreement that gives Kathmandu access to four Chinese eastern seaports. While India’s Calcutta port is closest to Nepal by distance, Chinese rail service to Tibet, which borders Nepal, provides it with maritime access that may be shorter in time and more competitive in cost than Calcutta.

In 2017, Nepal officially joined the Belt and Road Initiative, making clear to India, a lead opponent of the BRI, that it is now a country with options.

More money, more problems

There is, of course, a price to siding with China. Beijing is notorious for its unfair trade practices. And its economic partnerships with developing countries are often based on loans rather than grants. Many high-risk recipients of Chinese lending struggle to repay their debt to Beijing – a trend that has triggered accusations of “debt-trap diplomacy”.

Following their transport agreement, Beijing and Kathmandu are also in talks for building a trans-Himalayan railway linking Nepal to China’s domestic transport network, but the estimated $2.5bn cost of the project may eventually prove too expensive for Nepal. Should the project move forward on a loan basis, Kathmandu may struggle to generate the revenue-generating capacity to repay it, and the country could end up trading Indian dominance for Chinese.

Allying with Beijing also requires ritualistic professions of agreement on its “core interests” and policing of Chinese national migrants and refugees, such as Uighurs and Tibetans. Notably, Nepal recently backed China’s new national security law for Hong Kong.
Neither China nor India are benign, altruistic powers. Nepali leaders appear to be aware of that. Even if Prachanda comes to power with some help and support from New Delhi, he is unlikely to push away Beijing’s hand.

Whoever leads Nepal in the years to come will have to manage a geopolitical environment that is only growing in complexity. Today, Nepal is area of contestation not just between China and India, but also in the broader U.S.-China Cold War.

At first glance, Prachanda’s opposition to the USS MCC’s Nepal compact appears to make little sense. Washington is offering a $500m grant, not a loan, to Kathmandu to support the construction of a high-voltage electric power line and upgraded roads. But some Nepali observers fear that the power line project, which will link to India’s electric power grid, may increase Kathmandu’s dependence on New Delhi and harm its burgeoning trade partnerships with Beijing.

Nepal is between a rock and a hard place. It undoubtedly wants US support, but equally fears increasing Indian dominance and hence wants to keep China on its side for balance. To receive much needed aid and protection, it somehow needs to simultaneously satisfy these regional and global superpowers, who are all capable and willing to manipulate Kathmandu’s internal divisions and weaknesses for their own benefit. Such a difficult balancing act requires more than will. It requires political stability at home and consensus among domestic power brokers – all of which, unfortunately, have proven to be elusive in Nepal.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Minister Rukutana charged with attempted murder, remanded




The state minister for Labour, Gender and Economic Development Mwesigwa Rukutana has been remanded to Kyamugorani prison in Mbarara district.

Rukutana appeared before Ntungamo Grade One magistrate Nazifah Namayanja this afternoon from where he was charged with seven offences related to attempted murder, assault, malicious damage, and threatening violence.

Rukutana was captured in a video that went viral on social media showing him grabbing a gun from one of his bodyguards and started shooting at a vehicle belonging to supporters of his political rival Naome Kabasharira. At the time of the incident, Rukutana had just lost the Rushenyi country NRM flag to Kabasharira.

The prosecution alleges that on September 5, 2020, at Kagugu village in Ntungamo district, Rukutana and others still at large assaulted Julius Niwamanya and threatened to kill or injure him together with three others. The others are Stuart Kamukama, Dan Rwibirungi, and Moses Kamukama. 

It is also alleged that Rukutana also willfully and unlawfully damaged a motor vehicle registration number UAR 840X Toyota Rav 4 type which belongs to Moses Muhumuza.

According to the Judiciary public relations officer, Jameson Karemani, Rukutana has not taken a plea of these charges against him since they can only be tried by the chief magistrate who was not in court today.

As a result, the magistrate decided to send him to Kyamugorani, awaiting his return to court on Tuesday.      

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Lira district headquarters closed over COVID-19




Lira district headquarters have been closed after one staff tested positive for COVID-19 last week. 

On Monday morning, district staff were blocked at the gate with only the deputy chief administrative officer, his secretary and the receptionist allowed access to their offices. 

Paul Samuel Mbiiwa, the deputy chief administrative officer says that only heads of department will be allowed at the headquarters while the rest will work from home. He adds that the restriction will help to curb the spread of the virus.

“You see corona is not a joke. We have taken a step at fighting it and that is why you are seeing the staff outside. Even in my office here I do not want people to come if there is anything we can discuss on the phone.”

Francis Okello Olwa, a senior community development officer who doubles as the district spokesperson says that the entire district offices will be fumigated and closed for two days.

Health authorities in the district are planning to take samples from all the staff because they could have interacted with the one who tested positive. Currently, there are 19 COVID-19 patients under treatment at Lira regional referral hospital.     

On Sunday four health workers at the hospital tested positive for COVID-19. Dr Patrick Odongo, a senior medical officer at the hospital also succumbed to the virus.  

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Museveni issues ultimatum to police boss




Museveni flagged off distribution of motorcycles for NRM chairpersons

President Yoweri Museveni has given Inspector General of Police (IGP) Martins Okoth Ochola a chilling ultimatum: You either do your work or I will do it myself!

Museveni disclosed the ultimatum he gave to the IGP today Monday at the NRM secretariat at Plot 10 Kyadondo Road in Kampala where he was flagging off the distribution of motorcycles to parish chairpersons of the ruling National Resistance Movement party across the country. 

“I told the IGP that if the police doesn’t do their work, I will do it myself by arresting the police officers themselves,” Museveni stunned his audience as he commented on the electoral violence that marred the NRM primaries held on Friday last week. At least 4 people were killed across the country during the primaries. 

“There was violence in Bukono county [Namutumba district] where people were beaten. I got information that police has not done much work. Some (policemen) have been arrested and given police bond; there is no police bond for somebody who has attacked Ugandans!,” Museveni added. 

Museveni vowed to deal with all persons who messed up the party primaries.  In some parts of the country, there were massive regularities where candidates who had been defeated ended up being announced winners. In some places like Namutumba, Isingiro, Ntungamo, Jinja, Katakwi, among others, there was violence that led to the killing and wounding of civilians. Museveni said that they are going to make sure that all those who participated in these irregularities and violence are held to account. 

Museveni said although the violence was orchestrated by the politicians, the police personnel are to be held accountable for failing to contain it.

Last week, police spokesman Fred Enanga warned police personnel especially those guarding VIPs against being drawn into the politicians’ political wrangles, reminding them that they would face the music if they did. With the president now threatening to go and conduct the arrests of errant policemen himself, IGP Ochola is likely to move fast to avert the spectacle. 

Museveni wondered why police would shoot at unarmed people who were fighting amongst themselves: “That policeman must be arrested; even the ones who are threatening people you will go to jail for that if we get evidence,” a seemingly incensed Museveni said.

He also said that the state minister of Labour, Gender and Economic Development Mwesigwa Rukutana who was captured on camera attempting to shoot people over the weekend in Ntugamo after he lost the  Rushenyi primaries, will be charged with threatening violence and attempted murder. 

 “This game is finished,” Museveni said.

Rukatana has since been charged and remanded to Kyamugorani prison in Mbarara district in western Uganda. Museveni called upon all those dissatisfied with the election results to write petitions to the regional panels of elders which he said are going to be constituted to hear all election complaints.

“We are going to get three respected people who are not part of the struggles, then we shall go and audit village per village and we shall discover. If you have committed forgery, the registrar or the politician who ordered,  you all shall go to jail. The game is finished; the voting is by lining and if you miss-add, you are ‘miss-add’ yourself,” Museveni said.

Museveni’s speech came shortly before that of Justine Kasule Lumumba, the secretary general of the NRM who called upon the president to reign over some senior people who with impunity were freely changing the results of the elections.

“Some of our staff were lured into changing declaration forms on the way forgetting that people who had participated at the village don’t need to write; they registered the record in their faces…Some have done things with impunity… in Butemba county Kyakwanzi district, one of the candidates who got 3,000 votes brought in soldiers, cordoned off that place and was declared a winner and off they went away,” Lumumba said. 

The ball is now in Ochola’s court to get the police to execute their duties professionally and with impartiality. In March 2017, President Museveni warned Ochola’s predecessor Kale Kayihura to clean the police force of wrong elements. As months passed with no visible sign of police officers shaping up, Museveni resorted to other security agencies who started arresting rogue senior police officers and charging them in the military court for various crimes.

Kayihura was then removed from office, arrested and jointly charged with the errant officers in the army court. To avoid similar fate, Ochola is likely to use a firmer hand on the police officers so that by the time of the February 2021 elections, there is no laxity in the force’s execution of its mandate to maintain law and order.

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