Caught between nuclear powers Nepal, other small nations in S. Asia are 'Davids' to mightily armed 'Goliaths'

June 21, 1998|By Akhilesh Upadhyay

KATHMANDU -- To most Westerners, Nepal falls into a blind spot. To others, it conjures a vague image of an exotic Shangri-la, to which adventurist relatives and friends ventured at the height of the Hippie Era. The verdant Valley of Kathmandu, blessed with year-round sunshine, was an idyll. It also offered cheap marijuana.

But that's not the dominant image of Nepal anymore. Kathmandu is getting increasingly crowded, and there has been a clampdown on drug peddlers. Hippies have long vanished from the streets of the medieval-looking capital.

The Himalayan kingdom, sandwiched between the Asian giants China and India, beeps on the world map for different reasons today, such as when Westerners perish on the slopes of Mount Everest. (The conquest of Everest has long ceased to be a news event even at home. And who cares about the deaths of native Sherpas on these mountains?)

One can conclude that Nepal, the land of famed Gurkha warriors, has no voice in the New World Order. But very similar is the fate of other small South Asian countries -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Ironically, it took 10 nuclear explosions last month for the world to sit up and take notice of South Asia, the impoverished region that's home to one-sixth of humanity.

No doubt, India and Pakistan, potential flash point of a nuclear war, will continue to draw the world's attention into the next millennium. But it will be a long time, if at all, before the world discovers the Davids languishing in the South Asian back yard.

So much has been proved since the regional heavyweights detonated nuclear bombs last month. To be sure, the world has been jolted out of its post-Cold War reverie, but the CNNs, BBCs, Times and Newsweeks have yet to chronicle the impact of the earth-shattering event, for example, on Nepali overseas trade or Bangladesh's role in the new South Asia, both heavily dependent on India.

A muted reaction

Unlike the euphoria that has gripped India and Pakistan, reaction to the nuclear test explosions in the rest of South Asia has been muted at best. Understandably, no nation would risk antagonizing the dominant regional power, India. After the May 11 blasts in the Pokharan desert, Nepal and Bangladesh issued routine statements of dismay, while Sri Lanka took 48 long hours to phrase its reaction. Indeed, all these nations had a tough time balancing their commitment to global disarmament with the pressures of geo-politics.

In a carefully worded reaction released May 12, Nepali Foreign said, "Nepal as a party to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and a signatory of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty views with concern nuclear tests by any country. Nepal hopes that the recent nuclear tests by India will not unleash an arms race in the region."

But that was not to be. Days later, Pakistan conducted six nuclear tests. Nepal's reaction was quick and comparatively more forthcoming, perhaps because the element of surprise was missing. In addition, the Indian president was in Kathmandu on a state visit. "Yet another series of nuclear tests in South Asia," the official statement read, "has added to our concern as this is likely to contribute to the deterioration of the security situation in the region."

With the high Himalayas standing as the natural barrier in the northern frontier with Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan are in all practical terms India-locked. So is Bangladesh, which is not landlocked but borders India on three sides. Nepal conducts its overseas trade through India, which is also by far its largest trading partner and the exporter of essential commodities, including oil. You don't need an analyst to know that irking India is to risk a virtual collapse, as the now-defunct Panchavat regime discovered in 1989-90. The pains inflicted by the 18-month-long transit impasse are among the most painful memories in modern-day Nepal.

On an unofficial level, analysts have been more forthcoming. The reaction varies from outright condemnation to extreme indifference. But almost everyone agrees that the region's previous strategic equations have been disturbed with the nuclear tests, and South Asia has plunged headlong into a dangerous arms race that will have no victors.

"Nuclear deterrence? The idea is a heap of rubbish," said analyst Dhurba Kumar of the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies. "Nuclear deterrence exists only in our minds. It has never been tested. It's like the emperor's new clothes."

Caught in cross-fire

Kumar speaks for millions of South Asians, especially outside India and Pakistan, who suddenly find themselves caught in a cross-fire but have little voice to influence events.

In fact, the New Delhi-Islamabad standoff is far worse than the Cold War situation between Washington and Moscow. Washington and Moscow had sound intelligence and command-and-control mechanisms governing the use of their nuclear weapons. And unlike India and Pakistan, eyeball to eyeball across a live wire of a border, the two superpowers were oceans apart.

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