The government is de-democratising the security sector and weakening democratic oversight of the security forces
When Pushpa Kamal Dahal became the prime minister in 2008, the Maoists began to call for a new national security policy. While the idea of ‘national unity’ was designed to reconcile and control the Maoists’ former warring partners, the idea of ‘territorial integrity’ was a reaction to the perceived threats to Maoist power from India and the Madhes movement.
After Dahal was forced to step down, the subsequent governments sought to contain ‘anarchy, insecurity and impunity’ spread by the Maoists as well as democratise and professionalise the security forces that had once backed the monarchy. The then CPN-UML also perceived a clear threat to national integrity from Indian interference, the rise of identity politics and the separatist movement launched by CK Raut.
The civil society’s interest in security sector reforms, meanwhile, was shaped by the desire to enhance national security, build a modern state, establish inclusive democracy, and ensure human security.
However, after the promulgation of the constitution in 2015, the most powerful driving force turned out to be the idea of ‘nationalism’ defined by former UML and joined in by the Maoists.
Historically, Nepal’s security strategies have largely centred on protecting the ruling regimes. But we have now arrived at a stage where the security policies conflate the interests of the ruler with the interests of the state.
The reversal of the democratic thrust of security sector reforms is likely to have long-term implications for Nepal’s democracy, including the construction of new threats.
National security policy
The National Security Policy 2019, which was first submitted to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on February 16 was revised to incorporate Oli’s suggestions. The cabinet approved the policy on March 18 but has kept it a closely guarded secret.
According to knowledgeable sources, the new national security policy has defined 13 issues of national interest and identified threats to each of these issues. Nepali newspapers have already carried news about some of the defined threats, like interference in internal affairs by external powers and the imposition of blockades. Similarly, the discourse on national security has continued to perceive citizenship obtained through irregular migration and misuse of law as major threats to Nepal’s sovereignty.
While the earlier National Security Policy 2016 was based on a ‘nationalist’ assessment of security threats, the much improved National Security Policy 2019 appears to revolve around the political platforms adopted by Oli. National Security Policy 2019 blends together three tendencies: a nationalist tendency to exclude “others,” a political tendency to promote political agendas, and an authoritarian tendency to maintain political control.
The premise of Nepal’s national security discourse has always been a singular notion of nationalism, in line with the prevalent nationalist discourse that emphasises the glory and contribution of our ancestors and Nepal’s status as a free nation.
Although people may differ on the way Nepal’s history is understood and narrated, the underlying idea of Nepal’s sovereignty cannot be contested. Nor can we contest notions like unity in diversity, good governance, diversity of cultures and peoples, cooperative federalism and democracy and freedom.
In recent years, near-anarchic social and political practices have undermined Nepal’s national interests while serving individual and partisan interests. It was, therefore, necessary to put in place internal security arrangements that could promote and protect national interests. The experience of a blockade is also a painful reminder of Nepal’s vulnerability as a landlocked country which has the rights to access ports for international trade.
Despite a national security policy, Nepal is vulnerable to security threats because a national security strategy is absent and national security institutions have been systemically hollowed out due to corruption and misgovernance. It will remain a challenge for the government to address questions of corruption and abuse of authority through national security policy.
Politics of security
The National Security Policy 2019 must be seen in relation to the broader political context, where Oli’s central focus is protection of political power. He has centralised and weaponised security, rule of law, and regulatory institutions to maintain political control.
The ruling regime is de-democratising the security sector, weakening democratic oversight of the security forces, and increasing the prime minister’s control over security forces by bypassing democratic mechanisms and practices built in recent years. The government’s attempt to securitise the state is weakening the state and giving leverage to foreign actors.
Rather than being based on the objective and factual assessment of reality, the state’s recent security policies are configured by subjective dispositions and designed to feed the fears, interests, and needs of the decision-makers and security agencies. A close analysis of the political movements conducted by CK Raut and Biplav reveals that the government exaggerated security assessments for political mileage, generating differences with the security institutions.
The government’s overt obsession with political stability goes to the extent of defining internal political maneuvering as a threat to national security. International and regional dynamics, coupled with the pursuance of power and money, has corrupted foreign policy and destabilised domestic political competition. For example, the tussle for power between China and the US is likely to create a wedge in Nepali politics, particularly if they play to the fears, interests and needs of top political leaders.
However, the way we perceive and understand “threats” has the potential to generate new security threats. Especially if we turn security policy into a partisan political discourse aimed at imposition of a nationalist worldview on a diverse society and maintain political control by securitising the state. For example, Parliament’s failure to approve the citizenship bill, along with some other bills crucial for the functioning of a federal state, is a reflection of these two tendencies and will generate strain on the political system.
It will also remain a challenge to set up fair and objective mechanisms of national security so that those with political interests do not use the national security policy to unfairly control freedom of expression, political organisation, and foreign funding of civil society initiatives. Intense securitisation can facilitate weaponisation of national security institutions to retaliate against political opposition and civil society.
Unless Parliament plays a significant oversight function, the government can misuse the National Security Policy 2019 to excessively surveil and control citizens and political opposition. Many instances in recent months have already demonstrated the failure of Parliament to maintain civilian oversight of government functions under duress from top political leaders. Nepal Airlines Corporation and Nepal Telecom refusing to furnish documents and information sought by parliamentary committees, while the special hearing committee failing to hear appointments to constitutional bodies, serve as recent examples.
Author: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
This article first appeared in The Kathmandu Post on March 25, 2019.