We'll judge Maoists on what they do, not what they say
US Ambassador Scott H DeLisi is leaving Nepal in the first week of June after spending two years in Nepal. Kiran Chapagain caught up with him last Tuesday at his office to share his experiences while in Nepal, his observations on the Maoist party and Facebook diplomacy, among other things.
How was your recent trip to Mustang?
I thought it was a fantastic trip. The rugged beauty of the country is really striking and so different from many things we have seen elsewhere in Nepal. It was a reminder of the tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity. I expected to find another unique cultural experience. What surprised me a little bit is the richness of the artistic culture in Mustang.
Your predecessor, Ambassador Nancy J. Powell, had also visited Mustang just before she left Nepal. How should we take this?
You should assume that it means you have had two ambassadors in a row who had a spirit of adventure, who loved Nepal and who wanted to see your country. Ambassador Powell had gone up to Mustang to see the start of our efforts to do cultural preservation. She only saw the beginning of the process in addition to some of the works the American Himalayan Foundation and others are doing there. I went up there so that I could see the conclusion of the work. It is important for us that when we do these sorts of project we actually go and see how they come out—was the work done right? Is this having an impact in the communities? That is why I was there. And a desire to see more of your country. When we go to that higher altitude you get different birds. I am a bird watcher.
How are you going to remember Nepal? What are things, you think, you are going to miss?
I will remember Nepal mostly in terms of the people of this nation. That is exactly what I am going to miss.
I have spoken of the beauty of the country and how much we have enjoyed all the wonderful things we have seen and done. But underlying all of that are the people of this country. I have found over the years that the people of Nepal are some of the most gracious, resilient, open, generous people that I have met anywhere in the world in my 30-year career. This is the theme that I hear again and again from visitors to this country and from all the friends of Nepal around the world. People come because of the natural beauty. They stay or they come back because of the people. That is what I will remember the most.
Any plan to visit Nepal in the future?
Absolutely, not necessarily in an official capacity. But my wife and I have talked about this and I would have to say that, for us, we certainly do not feel we are through with Nepal and I hope Nepal is not through us. This is a country that will stay in our hearts. As a tourist, as a visitor, I will come back to find the spiny babbler.
Before coming to Nepal you had told a senate hearing committee that “we got the Maoists a mixed bag”. How do you see the Maoist party after two years of your engagement with them? Are they still a mixed bag?
The relationship with the Maoists has gone undergone tremendous change over the past two years. I think the change was already underway when I arrived here and we have been able to continue. We have continued to have a very constructive dialogue with the Maoist party and in the process of that dialogue we have come to understand each other better and also to witness changes are taking place. For me, the fundamental point when I’ve engaged with the Maoists has been to say to them that I would judge them not by what they said but by what they did. And I will tell you that I see there has been tremendous progress. I see the steps they have taken, not they alone, in conjunction with other political parties, to bring us to the point where we are today, where the peace process is essentially completed, where the cantonments are virtually empty, and where remaining Maoists will be integrated into the military.
Two years ago, that dialogue was not happening, the issues in the constitution were many and were not being discussed and the mistrust that existed between the parties was so strong, that having a dialogue was very difficult. So I see tremendous progress and I think a part of that can be attributed to the Maoists and the actions they have taken. I give them credit for the movement they have made. I feel that our relationship is a more constructive one. I think that across the board our message has been the same, though, to the Maoists, to the Congress, to the UML, to the Madhesis, to any of the parties—our commitment and our interest is not parties per se, our interest is Nepal and Nepal’s future, and to seeing a stable, prosperous and democratic country that respects human rights.
Despite the “tremendous changes”, the Maoists continue to feature in the specifically designated terrorist organization list of the State Department. How much is the pressure from the Maoists to take them off the list? Will the recent takeover of the cantonments and Maoist army by the government help expedite the process?
We have made it clear to the party that we are engaged in a process of reviewing their status and they understand that. I think that our colleagues in the Maoist party also know that it is a sincere review on part of the United States government. We’ve explained, though, at the same time that this is a complex process within our government and involves many agencies of the United States government. It is not just the Department of State, it involves the entire intelligence community, Department of Justice, Department of Defense, Department of Treasury, many different agencies. We know it will take some time and I think the party leadership is very much aware of that. But they also know that we are making very, very careful and considerable review, given the tremendous progress they have made.
The continued movement by the Maoist party in the right direction, their efforts to finally conclude the peace process, to conclude the constitution drafting process, to be part of a democratic government, certainly that is something we look at very closely when we make these decisions. We look very much at what they are doing. I think it has been a very constructive movement on the part of the party. I know that my colleagues in Washington are taking all that into account. I hope the review will be completed as soon as possible. They know it is underway and they know the result will be forthcoming and they know we will give it a fair and objective hearing.
One of the agendas of your term here was to “vigorously work with Nepal’s political leaders to end the culture of impunity”. How far, do you think, you achieved that goal?
This remains very much a part of the dialogue with the government. That is not to say there has not been progress—there has been progress. We have seen the CIAA taking on a greater role at times. We have seen former police chiefs who have been convicted. We have also seen ministers, including a sitting minister, convicted and sent to jail. We have seen continued dialogue among the parties on the issues of truth and reconciliation and disappearances. We know this is an ongoing process. I think it is incredibly important for Nepal’s future as a democratic society and also to attract investment. We will continue to stand for basic human rights on every level.
Besides other things, the US sees Nepal as a strategic country to engage both China and India on some key issues of regional importance. What is your experience in this regard?
Nepal is strategically located and sits between two very large, two very important countries. But our focus on Nepal is not because Nepal sits between India and China; our focus on Nepal is because we have a partnership with Nepal. We care about this nation and we want to engage with Nepal on the merits of our relationship; not because of what we think Nepal might or might not be able to do, what role you may play vis-à-vis your neighbors. I think the important thing for Nepal, when we talk about your strategic location, is to realize what great opportunities it does present for the nation in terms of the economy in particular and partnerships in terms of trade and development.
We want to engage with Nepal on merits of our relationship; not on the basis of what role you play vis-à-vis your neighbors.
The US has shifted its policy to the Asia and Pacific region. What does this policy change mean for a country like Nepal?
I do not know if it means that much for Nepal. We have been engaged here and we have had a good partnership. It has been a growing partnership for many years. I do not think that is going to change. We are going to continue to be a good partner for Nepal, no matter what. Our interest in the Asia Pacific region makes great sense. But for Nepal, I think we are going to continue to do business as a good friend, as a good partner.
Was there any progress in implementing the US’s policy on the Tibetan refugee resettlement program during your term?
Our focus has not been on resettlement during my term here. Our focus is very basic and fundamental: protection of basic human rights of refugees, whether they are Bhutanese or Tibetans or urban refugees. We know that these populations are among the most vulnerable and refugees’ human rights must be protected. Their interests have to be protected and there has to be that effort to ensure that refugees are given opportunity to live lives of dignity, lives of achievement and lives where they can be fulfilled. This has been my focus.
Last summer an American business delegation had visited Nepal. What are the areas of interest for American businesses in Nepal?
First, the delegation was very successful. We’ve seen a tremendous outpouring of interest that has not yet translated into full scale investment. But I’m heartened by how much interest there is in Nepal and some of the companies that did visit are doing much more here in terms of sales and they’re looking at the potential for the future. We also see people looking toward civil aviation, medical sector, energy sector and also the information technology sector.
Your decision to keep organizers of banda on the embassy’s visa watch list was both lauded and criticized from various quarters. What prompted you to take such a decision? How do you take those criticisms?
People are entitled to their views. You will never please everyone. Those who wish to be critical are free to be critical. I will be honest, it does not bother me in the least. These two issues have become conflated. They are in some ways two different issues. On the one hand, I absolutely do believe that bandas are an unhelpful tool and they are not part of political discourse, they are part of political violence and political intimidation and I don’t believe they have a place in a democratic society. There are other ways to express political views in a non-violent fashion. I will remain opposed to bandas. That is my view and my government’s as well. We make no apology for that.
The issue of visas, the simple fact is that we have our criteria for visa. This existed before there were bandas in Nepal and before we spoke about the bandas. Fundamentally, those who engage in political violence can be found ineligible for visas. Their actions to engage in political violence, to engage in this sort of political intimidation could have consequences under our law. It was not about taking a decision, our visa laws and regulations existed for long time, we were merely telling them that your conduct puts you at risk of falling afoul of those visa laws. But I am not afraid to say that.
Let us talk about Facebook diplomacy. With almost 14,000 friends on the Facebook page, what is your experience of using Facebook for diplomacy?
It has been a fascinating experience for me. This is a new undertaking for us and for diplomats around the world. But the fact of the matter is this tool is there, it is not going to go away. If we want to understand what the young people are thinking, if we want to share our perspectives and hear theirs’, we have to find different tools to do business. The days when ambassadors could successfully do their jobs by just talking to the government, to the ministers and to the political leaders and maybe the business elite, I do not think that is possible anymore. We have to broaden our engagement and we have to hear from more elements within society. Facebook has been a tremendous tool for us to do exactly that. I have learned so much about your country in talking to the young people on my Facebook page. I have also learned not just from my conversations, but when I post something, I can observe and listen to the debate that people have on the page among themselves. I learn a bit about your country, what people are concerned about, what they aspire to, where they want their nation to go. It has been very instrumental. I know it has been rewarding for me.
It is a different role for diplomats. This is a different type of diplomacy. Some people say “oh, what are you doing?” and I am still trying to figure that out sometimes. But overall I have not a single regret. I am delighted to use it. I think it has made a difference on how people perceive our embassy. I think they hear directly from us and recognize the US government is interested and that we care.
Any final word?
Just a heartfelt appreciation to the people of Nepal, to all the friends we have made and colleagues for their support, friendship. It has been a tremendously good experience. I have a sense of satisfaction that the relationship between the United States and Nepal continues to be strong. I think it has moved forward more effectively and I’m pleased with that.