Defence mechanism

The Nepal Army has no business going into business


In The Survey of the Nepali People conducted by Kathmandu University and Interdisciplinary Analysts last year, 91% of respondents said the Nepal Army was the institution they trusted the most. 

Politicians were at the bottom of the heap, and the sample showed great distrust towards social media content as well. We can understand politicians being unpopular, but why is the military held in such high esteem?  

Nepal’s army has not been involved in any external conflict since the Anglo-Nepal War that ended in 1816, although Nepali nationals fight and die in foreign wars to this day. The last time the Army fired guns in anger was during its involvement in the Maoist conflict 2001-2006.

For most of its 260 year history, the Nepal Army has shown loyalty to royalty. Being the army of the founding king, that is understandable. During the Rana period, the Army was under direct command of hereditary prime ministers, but reverted its loyalty to the Shahs after King Mahendra employed the military to stage a coup against a nascent democracy in 1960.  

Deposed Prime Minister B P Koirala’s secretary Kumar Mani Dixit recalls in his memoir how BP expressed his exasperation about the military not being under an elected civilian command. “What can we do when he (Mahendra) has the might of the military behind him,” BP said. 

Forty years later, BP’s brother Girija Koirala was also prime minister when the Royal Nepal Army refused to obey his order to mobilise against a deadly Maoist attack in 2001 on a police base in Holeri of Rolpa district. Shortly after, Girija Koirala resigned as prime minister.

In 2009, after the Nepal Army was made to drop ‘Royal’ from its name, the military and the political leadership were at odds once again after Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal tried to fire Army Chief General Rookmangud Katawal to replace him with his handpicked Lt Gen Kul Bahadur Khadka. Gen Katawal refused to step down, President Ram Baran Yadav overturned the Prime Minister’s decision, and Dahal resigned.

Perhaps past confrontations between Nepal’s military and elected governments have made the politicians wary of provoking the Army. So they have co-opted generals in National Pride Projects like the Kathmandu-Tarai Expressway so that the military is also tarred with the same brush as themselves.

Now they are eying the Rs73 billion that has accumulated in the Nepal Army Welfare Fund. Some in the top brass want to invest it in banking and real estate, with the active support of political parties.

The report Nepal Kleptocratic Network: Mapping Corruption and Impunity by the Policy Research Institute says political interference corrupts the military and sidetracks it from its primary role in defending national security.

The role of the Ministry of Defence is to strengthen civil-military relations and democratise the military, but it has no say. The National Security Council is supposed to strategise on defence and plan on downsizing the Army, but has become a political pawn.  

Nepal borders the two most populous countries with the largest standing armies in the world, and both are nuclear powers. We are not at war with any other country. And yet the Nepal Army takes a big chunk of the annual budget. Can Nepal, like Costa Rica, not have a military at all? We could spend the money on equitable development instead.

While maintaining the trust of the people in the military is important, Nepalis must be made to realise that the Army is not above the Constitution or the laws of the land. The military’s financial dealings should therefore be under scrutiny by civilian courts and the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority. 

The army has no business being in business. No good has come out of any military in the world being involved in profit-making ventures. We have seen in neighbouring countries what happens when the army becomes a private limited company. As BP Koirala put it more than half a century ago, 'Nepal’s military needs a new purpose to establish a prosperous future for our democracy.' 

 A report by Transparency International UK says this:  'Business engagements are detrimental to the professionalism of the armed forces, as it serves as a major distraction from its core duties. One of the most harmful consequences of such practices is that the element of profit-making breeds corruption within the military. As evidenced from the case studies in the literature, the scale and type of corruption varies. In more extreme cases, corruption encompasses embezzlement of state funds, tax fraud and even brutal coercive practices on workers. Once the military begins to engage in economic activities, it is often difficult to end such practices.'

Those lines could have been written with Nepal in mind.