STAFF: It is my great pleasure to introduce Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert O. Blake. Ambassador Blake served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Mission in New Delhi, India from 2003 to 2006. He was also Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives from 2006 to 2009. He served as Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs from May 2009 to the present. As you will remember, Ambassador Blake visited Nepal in mid-June of last year, shortly after he entered this position. He is going to lead off with some brief remarks, and then he will take questions. I ask that when you ask a question that you would name your organization, your affiliation, and give your name. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Thanks, Nicole. Namaste, everyone. It’s nice to be back here in Nepal during a very critical period in your history. The principle purpose of my trip is to urge all of the parties in Nepal to work together to conclude Nepal’s peace process in a timely manner. I appreciated the opportunity to meet this morning with Prime Minister of Nepal and Maoist Chairman Dahal. I also met with representatives of all of the other key parties to urge that they work together in the interest of the nation. Nepal has come a long way since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2006. The priority must now be to fashion a permanent peace, particularly by reaching consensus on the integration and rehabilitation of former Maoist combatants and a new constitution. Such a consensus would avoid a constitutional crisis and ensure that the hard work already invested in the process is brought to a fruitful conclusion.
In my meeting with Chairman Dahal, I urged that he and the Maoist leadership do everything possible to ensure that the May Day rally that the Maoists are organizing is conducted peacefully. He assured me that is the Maoists’ intention. The United States has a long and warm friendship with the people of Nepal. We are building on that by expanding our development assistance and by working with our Nepali friends on how we might expand bilateral trade and investment. We also hope to see progress on the rule of law and respect for human rights, which also would benefit the people of Nepal. Another important priority for the United States is to work with the Government of Nepal to stop the trafficking of women and children, both within Nepal and to India and the Gulf countries. I discussed this priority with Prime Minister who agreed that we must work together to combat this terrible problem. I was delighted to have the opportunity yesterday to visit Maiti Nepal, an organization that has done so much to help stop trafficking in persons, and provide rescue and rehabilitation to victims of trafficking.
Let me conclude by thanking our great team here at the Embassy in Kathmandu. I’m particularly pleased that Ambassador Scott DeLisi has taken up his duties. I know he will bring energy and deep experience to the important task of helping Nepal to conclude the peace process and expand engagement between the United States and Nepal. With that, I’d be happy to take your questions. I’ll ask Nicole to call on people.
QUESTION: I'm Sirish Pradhan from PTI (Press Trust of India). I wanted to ask a question. Maoist Chairman Prachanda has recently announced that they would launch an indefinite strike in May. Their aim is to topple the government. In this case, if a Maoist government is established instead, will the United States recognize it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t want to address hypothetical questions. Let me just say that I think that the way forward is through peaceful dialogue, and not by trying to bring pressure by lengthy strikes and those kinds of actions.
QUESTION: Robert Kittel, UPI. How has your perception of the situation here in Nepal changed based on this visit?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I follow Nepal very closely back in Washington, so there haven’t been any shocking surprises. But, again, I would just underline what I said earlier. This is a very critical moment now for all the parties to work together, to show flexibility, and to try to find compromise and consensus to avoid a constitutional crisis that I think would be very damaging for the people of Nepal.
QUESTION: Sir, this is Phanindra Dahal from the Kathmandu Post. I wanted to ask you if a new constitution is not written by May 28, what would be the scenario? Would the international community, say, and the United States …
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Sorry, I didn’t understand the first question. Could you please repeat it?
QUESTION: What is the alternative track on the peace process on the constitution after May 28, 29, and would the international community support to extend the term of CA?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Again, I don’t want to engage in hypothetical speculation about what might happen in the future. But let me just say that I think the international community would support an extension of UNMIN, provided there is a clear sense that the parties are working together constructively to try to find a solution to the current challenges that Nepal faces.
QUESTION: I was asking about the tenure extension of the CA, not UNMIN… Constituent Assembly?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE:Again, I don’t want to engage in speculation. Let’s first see how things go between now and then. Let’s not start to narrow our options.
QUESTION: My name is Rajneesh Bhandari from Kantipur Television. My question is, when you met the Maoist chairman this morning, he assured peaceful protest. But the parties say the Maoist party is preparing to, trying to capture the street, and preparing for it. So, are you sure that the Maoists will launch a peaceful protest? My second question is, the Maoists are the biggest party in Nepal, but are still on the terrorist list of the United States. So how far is the monitoring, and the real evaluation of the terrorist tag, going on?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: With respect to the first question, Chairman Dahal did assure me this morning that they would do everything to ensure that the May Day rally and whatever happens after that are held peacefully, and that they will do everything in their power to avoid violence. I think that is extremely important. It’s important not only in terms of preventing violence during those events, but also it’s important for the Maoists themselves to show that they can be a responsible party and that they are able to control the actions of their supporters. One of the reasons that the United States continues to have the Maoists on our terrorist list is because of the violent activities of the Young Communist League, and the failure thus far of the Maoists to completely renounce violence. So we think that those are two very important steps as far as our efforts to normalize our relations with the Maoists.
QUESTION: Akanshya Shah. I write for Republica. Last time when you came to the press conference at the Hyatt, I’ll ask you the same question as that time.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t remember what I said last time. [Laughter]
QUESTION: At that time there was a political consensus and you said that the U.S. Government was very positive and was very supportive. Now the political consensus is gone, and today you met with two politicians that cannot see eye to eye with each other in the same room. How does the U.S. Government evaluate the situation there?
The second question is on integration. You said that you spoke with both of them on integration, so where is this process? Since we don’t get this answer from them, hopefully you can answer this.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: First of all with respect to the parties, I think there is an intention on the part of the parties to try to forge a consensus, but that does not yet exist. So I think it’s very important that they work together constructively and show flexibility on everyone’s part to achieve that consensus that I talked about earlier.
One part of that agreement that will have to take place will be about the integration and rehabilitation process. There are several other aspects to it, but that is certainly one of the key aspects. Again, there is no agreement yet to my knowledge on that very important question, but I think that the parties understand the importance of it, and they are thinking creatively about how to address that. One of the things that I talked about was that I think that the United States and other members of the international community should be prepared to support whatever future agreement comes out, provided there is consensus among the parties. We can provide support, for example, by providing vocational training or other kinds of training for those who are not integrated into the army or police or other Nepali institutions. But there may be other ways that we can help as well. But the most important thing at this stage is for the parties to reach agreement among themselves on what the parameters of such an agreement would be, and then I think, assuming there is that consensus, that the United States and other donors would probably be willing to help.
QUESTION: Good afternoon Assistant Secretary, I am Sarad Bhandari from National News Agency. Just to ask you a question relating to your meetings with Mr. Dahal. One half hour or so earlier, he revealed that he sought your assistance—I should say U.S. assistance—in resolving the conflict with Nepal’s two neighbors, probably India and Nepal. He did do that, sir.
The second question, as the United States has been consistently supporting the Bhutanese refugees in third country repatriation. As you are leading the U.S. delegation as an observer to Thimpu, will you exert pressure on the Bhutanese Government for the dignified repatriation of Bhutanese rather than taking them to the United States? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Let me take the second question first. With respect to the Bhutanese refugees who are here in Nepal, the United States has been a real leader in repatriating and taking as refugees approximately 30,000 Bhutanese into the United States. We have spoken on several occasions with our Bhutanese friends that we feel that they should also do their part to help repatriate some Bhutanese back to Bhutan. So that remains our policy, and we hope that they will do so.
I’m sorry, now I’ve already forgotten your first question. What was the first question?
QUESTION: Mr. Prachanda–Mr. Dahal–said that he sought U.S. assistance in resolving the conflict between Nepal and India, I believe—because he did not specify the name, he said ‘the neighbors.’ He did say so?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, I can tell you that Mr. Dahal did not talk to me about resolving the conflict between Nepal and India, and that’s not really our role. We’re here to try to support developing a consensus between all the parties, and that’s certainly what we will do. We work very closely with India and with other donors in that capacity.
Nicole: We’ll take a few more questions.
QUESTION: Can I ask… As you said, that you met Prachanda and he assured you that the protest will be peaceful… Do you trust him? Because, you know, they are training thousands of people with sticks and knife. They have closed down 8,000 schools since Sunday and bringing thousands of people from different districts to settle in them. So their action regarding this situation in Nepal may head toward another confrontation? What will the international community do to resolve this crisis?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, let me say that the United States welcomes the assurances that Mr. Dahal has provided, that they will seek to ensure that these demonstrations are peaceful. But we also say that the Maoists will be judged not by their words, but by their actions, and how they implement the pledges they have made. That will be the standard by which the United States and other members of the international community will judge the Maoist actions.
QUESTION: Lokmani Rai, Kantipur Daily. You talked about UNMIN and OHCHR with the Prime Minister and Prachanda, and what is widely said about the mandate of UNMIN and OHCHR, and if their exit from Nepal can be delayed… (inaudible). Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: I don’t think there is, again, a consensus on that. That’s one of the many issues that the parties still have to talk about. But, again, I’ll just repeat what I said earlier: if the United States and other members of the international community feel that the parties are making progress, and that there is a sincere intent on all of their parts to reach consensus before the May 28 deadline, then probably there would be support for a limited extension of the UNMIN mandate.
QUESTION: (Akanshya Shah) You said that the U.S. is also looking at expanding development assistance. Are you also expecting some investment from the U.S. in the hydropower sector? Because, again, last time you mentioned hydroelectricity specifically and this time you did not. So are there any specific policies - are you talking with the Nepali Government for any kind of investment in this sector?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well, investment as opposed to assistance… Investment will come from the private sector. I think investment is constrained now by several things. First of all, by the absence of a peace process and by the instability that exists here in Nepal, but secondly by some of the electricity shortages, and some of the labor problems that exist in part because of these mentioned general strikes. So I think that the most important thing that Nepal can do to improve the investment climate is to reach a consensus agreement on the peace process, and that would have a very, very positive impact on helping to encourage American and other investors to take a fresh look at Nepal. Because I think that there are opportunities.
One of the things that we are doing that I’m very proud of is that our U.S. Agency for International Development has undertaken a new program called the Nepal Economic, Agricultural, and Trade Initiative—let’s call it—which is designed to help the Government of Nepal and the businesses of Nepal to expand exports other than garments and textiles, in areas like cardamom and essential oils and things like that, which are not traditional exports but which we believe have quite a lot of promise. So we’re very encouraged about that, and we think that will make a difference. But, again, the most important thing Nepal can do right now to encourage trade and investment is to reach an agreement on the peace process.
QUESTION: (Phanindra Dahal) What is the reason behind the U.S. Government’s decision to put conditions on aid to the Nepal Army?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: We have productive relations with the Nepal Army. We, for example, welcome the very positive role that the Nepalese military has played in international peacekeeping operations. We also cooperate in disaster management. But I think that wider cooperation is going to be limited until we can see greater progress on human rights. By the way, we want to see progress on human rights not just by the Nepalese army, but also by the Maoists. Particularly for accountability for some of the abuses that occurred during the conflict between 1996 and 2006. You hear that frequently from me that accountability is very, very important not just here in Nepal, but in countries around the world. We will be looking for progress in those areas before we can undertake wider cooperation.
STAFF: Any last questions?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY BLAKE: Well again, thank you all very much, and I’ve very much enjoyed my trip here to Kathmandu, and I look forward to another return trip as soon as possible. Thank you.