U.S. Department of State Background Note
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Perched on the southern slopes of the Himalayan Mountains, Nepal is as ethnically diverse as its terrain of fertile plains, broad valleys, and the highest mountain peaks in the world. The Nepalese are descendants of three major migrations from India, Tibet, and central Asia.
Among the earliest inhabitants were the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley and aboriginal Tharus in the southern Terai region. The ancestors of the Brahman and Chetri caste groups came from India, while other ethnic groups trace their origins to central Asia and Tibet, including the Gurungs and Magars in the west, Rais and Limbus in the east, and Sherpas and Bhotias in the north.
The Terai, a part of the Ganges Basin with 20% of Nepal's land, is the country's breadbasket. Much of the population is physically and culturally similar to the Indo-Aryan people of northern India. People of Indo-Aryan and Mongoloid origin live in the hill regions. The mountainous highlands are sparsely populated. The Kathmandu Valley, in the middle hill region, constitutes a small fraction of the nation's area but is the most densely populated, with over 7% of the population.
Religion is important in Nepal; the Kathmandu Valley alone has more than 2,700 religious shrines. According to the 2001 census, Nepal is about 81% Hindu. Buddhists account for about 11% of the population. The interim constitution promulgated on January 15, 2007 declared the country a "secular state." Buddhist and Hindu shrines and festivals are respected and celebrated by many. The government celebrates most Hindu and some Buddhist holidays. Nepal also has small Muslim and Christian minorities. Certain animistic practices of old indigenous religions also survive.
Nepali is the official language, although a dozen different languages and about 30 major dialects are spoken throughout the country. Derived from Sanskrit, Nepali is related to the Indian language, Hindi, and is spoken by about 90% of the population. Many Nepalese in government and business also speak Hindi and English.
Modern Nepal was created in the latter half of the 18th century when Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler of the small principality of Gorkha, formed a unified country from a number of independent hill states. The country was frequently called the Gorkha Kingdom, the source of the term "Gurkha" used for Nepali soldiers.
After 1800, the heirs of Prithvi Narayan Shah proved unable to maintain firm political control over Nepal. A period of internal turmoil followed, heightened by Nepal's defeat by the British in a war from 1814 to 1816. Stability was restored after 1846 when the Rana family gained power, entrenched itself through hereditary prime ministers, and reduced the monarch to a figurehead. The Rana regime, a highly centralized autocracy, pursued a policy of isolating Nepal from external influences. This policy helped Nepal maintain its national independence during the colonial era, but also impeded the country's economic development.
In 1950, King Tribhuvan, a direct descendant of Prithvi Narayan Shah, fled his "palace prison" to newly independent India, touching off an armed revolt against the Rana administration. This allowed the return of the Shah family to power and, eventually, the appointment of a non-Rana prime minister. A period of quasi-constitutional rule followed, during which the monarch, assisted by the leaders of fledgling political parties, governed the country. During the 1950s, efforts were made to frame a constitution for Nepal that would establish a representative form of government, based on the British model.
Declaring parliamentary democracy a failure eighteen months later, King Mahendra dismissed the Koirala government and promulgated a new constitution on December 16, 1962. The new constitution established a "partyless" system of panchayats (councils), which King Mahendra claimed was a democratic form of government closer to Nepalese traditions. As a hierarchical structure progressing from village assemblies to a Rastriya Panchayat (National Parliament), the Panchayat system enshrined the absolute power of the monarchy and kept the King as head of state with sole authority over all governmental institutions, including the Cabinet (Council of Ministers) and the Parliament.
King Mahendra was succeeded by his 27-year-old son, King Birendra, in 1972. Amid student demonstrations and anti-regime activities in 1979, King Birendra called for a national referendum to decide the nature of Nepal's government--either the continuation of the Panchayat system with democratic reforms or the establishment of a multiparty system. The referendum was held in May 1980, and the Panchayat system won a narrow victory. The King carried out the promised reforms, including selection of the prime minister by the Rastriya Panchayat.
Movement to Restore Democracy
An interim government was sworn in on April 19, 1990, headed by Krishna Prasad Bhattarai as Prime Minister presiding over a cabinet made up of members of the Nepali Congress Party, the communist parties of Nepal, royal appointees, and independents. The new government drafted and promulgated a new constitution in November 1990, which enshrined fundamental human rights and established Nepal as a parliamentary democracy under a constitutional monarch. International observers characterized the May 1991 elections as free and fair, in which the Nepali Congress Party won 110 out of 205 seats to form the government.
In mid-1994, the Parliament was dissolved due to dissension within the Nepali Congress Party. The subsequent general election held November 15, 1994, gave no party a majority. The 1994 elections resulted in a Nepali Congress Party defeat and a hung Parliament, with a minority government led by the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist Party (CPN-UML); this made Nepal the world's first communist monarchy, with Man Mohan Adhikary as Prime Minister. The next five years saw five successive unstable coalition governments and the beginning of a Maoist insurgency.
Following the May 1999 general elections, the Nepali Congress Party once again headed a majority government after winning 113 out of 205 seats. But the pattern of short-lived governments persisted. There were three Nepali Congress Party Prime Ministers after the 1999 elections: K.P. Bhattarai (5/31/99-3/17/00); G. P. Koirala (3/20/00-7/19/01); and Sher Bahadur Deuba (7/23/01-10/04/02).
On June 1, 2001, Crown Prince Dipendra reportedly shot and killed his father King Birendra, his mother Queen Aishwarya, his brother, his sister, his father's younger brother Prince Dhirendra, and several aunts before turning the gun on himself. After his death two days later, the late King's surviving brother Gyanendra was proclaimed King.
Struggle for Democracy Continues
Under Chand's premiership, the government and Maoists declared a cease-fire on January 29, 2003. This marked the second cease-fire with the Maoists; the first, in 2001, had been broken by the Maoists. The 2003 cease-fire included an agreement to undertake initiatives to resolve the Maoist problem through dialogue and bring the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) back into mainstream politics. After the announcement of the 2003 cease-fire, the Chand government held two rounds of peace talks with the Maoists, in April and May. But in its effort to end political instability, it failed to secure the support of the leading political parties. In the face of growing pressure from political parties and their mass movement, Chand resigned from his post on May 30, 2003, after only seven months in power.
The King appointed Surya Bahadur Thapa as the new Prime Minister on June 4, 2003, amidst opposition from the major political parties. Another round of peace talks was held in mid-August 2003, but on August 27, 2003 the Maoists broke the second cease-fire. Thapa resigned in May 2004 as a result of political pressure. In June 2004, the King reinstated formerly dismissed Sher Bahadur Deuba as Prime Minister.
King's Direct Rule
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
A Maoist insurgency--punctuated by cease-fires in 2001, 2003, 2005, and the latest one from April 26, 2006--has been ongoing since 1996. After King Gyanendra announced the reinstatement of Parliament on April 24, 2006, the Maoists declared a three-month unilateral ceasefire on April 26, 2006 which the new Koirala government reciprocated on May 3, 2006. Since then the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) and the Maoists have signed five agreements, culminating in the comprehensive peace agreement of November 21, 2006, effectively ending the insurgency. However, Maoist violence and intimidation have continued since the agreement.
The main agenda of the SPA and the Maoists is to hold a Constituent Assembly (CA) election. The Constituent Assembly would draft and promulgate a new constitution defining the future political system in Nepal. The interim constitution, adopted on January 15, 2007, expressed full commitment to democratic ideals and norms, including competitive multi-party democracy, civil liberties, fundamental human rights, adult enfranchisement, periodic elections, press freedom, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law. The interim constitution also guaranteed the basic rights of Nepali citizens to formulate a constitution for themselves and to participate in the Constituent Assembly in an environment free from fear. The interim constitution transferred all powers of the King as head of state to the prime minister and stripped the King of any ceremonial constitutional role. Under the interim constitution, the fate of the monarchy will be decided by the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly. The interim Parliament is a unicameral house.
After promulgation of the interim constitution, many socially marginalized ethnic communities, including the Madhesis of the lowland Terai, began widespread protests against the proposed proportional representation system incorporated in the new constitution. After a Maoist shot and killed one of the demonstrators, violent protests erupted with clashes between police and demonstrators and attacks on government facilities in at least 10 districts, resulting in the death of over 30 people. Prime Minister Koirala, in an address to the nation on February 7, 2007 promised to amend the constitution to meet the demands of the Terai people. However, the situation remains tense, with continuing protests and violence.
Nepal's judiciary is legally separated from the executive and legislative branches and, in practice, has increasingly shown the will to be independent of political influence. However, by asserting executive control over the judiciary, the interim constitution called into question this independence. Under the interim constitution, the Prime Minister appoints the Chief Justice on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council, and the Chief Justice appoints other judges on the recommendation of the Judicial Council. All lower court decisions, including acquittals, are subject to appeal. The Supreme Court is the court of last appeal.
Both the Maoists and security personnel have committed numerous human rights violations. The Maoists have used tactics such as kidnapping, torture, bombings, intimidation, killings, and conscription of children. Within the Nepalese security forces, violations ranged from disappearances to executions. After the royal takeover on February 1, 2005 and subsequent imposition of the state of emergency, the security forces arrested many political leaders, student leaders, journalists, and human rights activists under the Public Security Act of 1989, although all were released by June 2005 when the King ended the state of emergency.
After the April 2006 cease-fire announced by the government and the Maoists, incidents of human rights violations by the government declined substantially while incidents of human rights violations by the Maoists remained relatively unabated. Even after signing a comprehensive peace agreement with the government in November 2006, Maoists' extortion, abduction, and intimidation largely remained uncontrolled. Although activities by other political parties have increased significantly in the rural parts of Nepal, political party representatives, police, non-governmental organization (NGO) workers, and journalists reported continuous threats and intimidation by Maoist cadres. During the January-February 2007 uprising in the Terai, reports of government security forces using excessive force to quell demonstrations were common.
There are three major daily English-language newspapers, "The Kathmandu Post," "The Himalayan Times" and "The Rising Nepal." The last and its vernacular sister publication are owned by a government corporation. There are hundreds of smaller daily and weekly periodicals that are privately owned and of varying journalistic quality. Views expressed since the 1990 move to democracy are varied and vigorous. Currently, 75 radio and four television stations are privately owned and operated, following liberalization of licensing regulations. Radio Nepal and Nepal Television are government-owned and operated. There are nearly 200 cable television operators nationwide, and satellite dishes to receive television broadcasts abound.
Trafficking in women and child labor remain serious problems. Discrimination against women and lower castes is prevalent.
Principal Government Officials
Ambassador to the United States--vacant
Nepal maintains an Embassy in the United States at 2131 Leroy Place, NW, Washington, DC 20008 (Tel: 202-667-4550; fax: 202-667- 5534). The Nepalese Mission to the United Nations is at 300 E. 46th Street, New York, NY 10017 (Tel: 212-370-3988/3989).
Nepal ranks among the world's poorest countries, with a per capita income of around $322. Based on national calorie/GNP criteria, an estimated 31% of the population is below the poverty line. An isolated, agrarian society until the mid-20th century, Nepal entered the modern era in 1951 without schools, hospitals, roads, telecommunications, electric power, industry, or a civil service. The country has, however, made progress toward sustainable economic growth since the 1950s and is committed to a program of economic liberalization.
Nepal launched its tenth five-year economic development plan in 2002; its currency has been made convertible; and fourteen state enterprises have been privatized, seven liquidated and two dissolved. Foreign aid accounts for more than half the development budget. The Government of Nepal has shown an increasing commitment to fiscal transparency, good governance, and accountability. Also in 2002, the government began to prioritize development projects and eliminate wasteful spending. In consultation with civil society and donors, the government cut 160 development projects that were driven by political patronage.
Agriculture remains Nepal's principal economic activity, employing over 71% of the population and providing 38% of GDP. Only about 25% of the total area is cultivable; another 33% is forested; most of the rest is mountainous. Rice and wheat are the main food crops. The lowland Terai region produces an agricultural surplus, part of which supplies the food-deficient hill areas. Because of Nepal's dependence on agriculture, the annual monsoon rain, or lack of it, strongly influences economic growth.
Nepal's exports increased 2.8% in FY 2005/2006 compared to an increase of 8.3% in FY 2004/2005. Imports grew by 9.8% in FY 2005/2006 compared with 9.2% in FY 2004/2005. Exports were constrained by a prolonged phase of general strikes, industrial closures, and political turmoil during the second half of FY 2005/2006 and also by a significant drop in Nepal's main export, ready-made textile products. The trade deficit for FY 2004/2005 was $1.2 billion, which widened to $1.4 billion in FY 2005/2006. Real GDP growth during 1996-2002 averaged less than 5%. Real growth experienced a one-time jump in 1999, rising to 6%, before slipping back below 5%. In 2002, GDP recorded a negative growth rate of 0.33%, largely because of the Maoist insurgency. GDP grew 3.1% in FY 2002/2003 and 3.6% in FY 2003/2004, and again slipped to 2.4% in 2004/2005 and to 2.4% in FY 2005/2006, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Despite its growing trade deficit, Nepal traditionally has a balance of payments (BOP) surplus due to remittances from Nepalese working abroad. In FY 2005/2006, Nepal recorded a balance of payments surplus of $355 million, as compared to $79 million in FY 2004/2005. The lower BOP surplus in FY 2004/2005 was mainly attributed to the lower inflow of net government loans, and the higher surplus in FY 2005/2006 was due to resumption of foreign loans and assistance after the April 2006 People's Movement. Both the current account and the capital account registered significant growth in FY 2005/2006. Nepal receives substantial amounts of external assistance from India, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. Several multilateral organizations--including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the UN Development Program--also provide assistance. Such assistance decreased substantially in FY 2004/2005 after the royal takeover of February 1, 2005 and also because of the Maoist conflict, which undermined development activities throughout most of Nepal. On April 23, 2004, Nepal became the 147th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
With eight of the world's ten highest mountain peaks--including Mt. Everest at 8,848 m (29,000 ft)--Nepal is a tourist destination for hikers and mountain climbers. However, the decade-long insurgency and a global economic slowdown threatened the tourism industry. Figures from the Department of Immigration showed a 4% increase in arrivals in 2006, but these remained well below numbers during 1999, the peak tourism year. Recent tourist arrivals have given relief to the tourism-based hotel, trekking, mountaineering, and aviation industries. Since the political parties and Maoists brokered a comprehensive peace agreement in November 2006, the tourism industry hoped that guest arrivals in Nepal would bounce quickly back to 1999 levels and higher.
Swift rivers flowing south through the Himalayas have massive hydroelectric potential to service domestic power needs and growing demand from India. Only about 1% of Nepal's hydroelectric potential is currently tapped. Several hydroelectric projects, at Kulekhani and Marsyangdi, were completed in the early to late 1980s. In the early 1990s, one large public-sector project, the Kali Gandaki A (144 megawatts--MW), and a number of private projects were planned; some have been completed. Kali Gandaki A started commercial operation in August 2002. The most significant privately financed hydroelectric projects currently in operation are the Khimti Khola (60 MW) and Bhote Koshi (36 MW) projects.
The environmental impact of Nepal's hydroelectric projects has been limited by the fact that most are "run-of-river," with only one storage project undertaken to date. The planned private-sector West Seti (750 MW) storage project is dedicated to electricity exports. An Australian company signed a power purchase agreement with the Indian Power Trading Corporation in September 2002 and has the lead on the project. Negotiations with India for a power purchase agreement have been underway for several years, but agreement on pricing and capital financing remains a problem. The Government of Nepal has taken up the issue of project financing for the West Seti project with the EXIM Bank of China. The Department of Electricity Development recently obtained proposals from 14 foreign companies for survey licenses of three projects--600 MW Budhi Gandaki, 402 MW Arun III, and 300 MW Upper Karnali. The Ministry of Water Resources is currently evaluating the proposals and has not awarded the survey licenses. Currently, domestic demand for electricity is increasing at 8%-10% a year.
Population pressure on natural resources is increasing. Overpopulation is already straining the "carrying capacity" of the middle hill areas, particularly the Kathmandu Valley, resulting in the depletion of forest cover for crops, fuel and fodder, and contributing to erosion and flooding. Additionally, water supplies within the Kathmandu Valley are not considered safe for consumption, and disease outbreaks are not uncommon. Although steep mountain terrain makes exploitation difficult, mineral surveys have found small deposits of limestone, magnesite, zinc, copper, iron, mica, lead, and cobalt.
Progress has been achieved in education, health, and infrastructure. A countrywide primary education system is under development, and Tribhuvan University has several campuses. Although eradication efforts continue, malaria has been controlled in the fertile but previously uninhabitable Terai region in the south. Kathmandu is linked to India and nearby hill regions by an expanding highway network.
Nepal's military consists of the nearly 95,000-strong Nepalese Army (NA), which is organized into six divisions (Far-Western, Mid-Western, Western, Central, Eastern, and Valley Divisions) with separate Aviation, Parachute, and Security Brigades as well as brigade-sized directorates encompassing air defense, artillery, engineers, logistics, and signals which provide general support to the NA. The Prime Minister is the Supreme Commander of the NA. The Prime Minister is currently Minister of Defense. General Rookmangud Katawal is Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), also the senior commissioned officer of the NA.
Since 1958, the NA has contributed over 50,000 peacekeepers to 28 peacekeeping missions such as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the former Yugoslavia, the UN Operational Mission in Somalia II (UNOSOMII), the UN Mission in Haiti (UNMIH), and the UN Mission of Support in East Timor (UNTAET). NA units are presently serving in the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), and the UN Mission in Haiti (MINUSTOH), among others. Approximately 3,400 of the world-famous Nepalese Gurkha forces serve in the British Army, and 40,000 serve in the Indian Army.
The U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) coordinates U.S. military engagement and security assistance with Nepal through the Office of Defense Cooperation. Cumulative U.S. military assistance to the NA has consisted of $21.95 million in grant assistance: Foreign Military Financing (FMF) since 2002, annual professional and technical training provided under the International Military Education and Training Program (IMET grant for $650,000 in FY 2006), additional training provided under the Counter Terrorism (CT) Fellowship (approximately $200,000 annually), and approximately $2 million of Enhanced International Peacekeeping Capabilities (EIPC) funding to increase the pool of international peacekeepers and promote interoperability. Many NA officers attend U.S. military schools, conferences and seminars such as those provided by the National Defense University (NDU) and the Asia Pacific Center for Strategic Studies (APCSS).
As a small, landlocked country wedged between two much larger and far stronger powers, Nepal seeks good relations with both India and China. Nepal formally established relations with China in 1956 and, since then, their bilateral relations have generally been good. Because of strong cultural, religious, linguistic, and economic ties, Nepal's association with India traditionally has been close. India and Nepal restored trade relations in 1990 after a break caused by India's security concerns over Nepal's relations with China. A bilateral trade treaty signed with India in 1991 is renewed every five years. The most recent renewal was on March 6, 2007, which expires on March 5, 2012. A transit treaty with India, which allows Nepal to trade with other countries through the Calcutta/Haldia ports, was extended on March 30, 2006 for seven years.
Nepal played an active role in the formation of the economic development-oriented South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and is the site of its secretariat. Nepal is also a signatory of the agreement on South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA), which came into force on January 1, 2006. A SAFTA tariff liberalization program (TLP) was scheduled to be implemented July 1, 2006. All member countries, except for Nepal, whose TLP started on August 1, 2006, reduced tariffs for each other. However, on July 1, 2006, Pakistan officially toughened its stance of not trading with India under the SAFTA arrangements and did not announce TLP for India. Due to the stalemate between India and Pakistan, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation Free Trade Agreement (BIMSTEC-FTA), which was initially scheduled to come into force on July 1, 2006, was deferred indefinitely. The BIMSTEC Summit scheduled for February 8, 2007, in India was also deferred due to political instability in member states, including Nepal. On international issues, Nepal follows a non-aligned policy and often votes with the Non-Aligned Movement in the United Nations. Nepal participates in a number of UN specialized agencies and is a member of the World Trade Organization, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Colombo Plan, and Asian Development Bank.
The United States established official relations with Nepal in 1947 and opened its Kathmandu Embassy in 1959. Relations between the two countries have always been friendly. U.S. policy objectives toward Nepal center on helping Nepal build a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic society.
Since 1951, the United States has provided more than $791 million in bilateral economic assistance to Nepal. In recent years, annual bilateral U.S. economic assistance through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has averaged $40 million. USAID supports agriculture, health, family planning, environmental protection, democratization, governance, and hydropower development efforts in Nepal. USAID is also supporting Nepal's peace process, as well as its preparation for Constituent Assembly elections. The United States also contributes to international institutions and private voluntary organizations working in Nepal. To date, U.S. contributions to multilateral organizations working in Nepal approach an additional $725 million, including humanitarian assistance. The Peace Corps temporarily suspended its operations in Nepal in 2004 due to increasing security concerns, and officially terminated its Nepal program in 2006.
Principal U.S. Officials
The U.S. Embassy in Nepal is located in Pani Pokhari, Kathmandu (Tel:  (1) 441-1179; fax:  (1) 441-9963). The Consular Section and American Center (Public Affairs Section) are located at the Yak & Yeti Hotel in Durbar Marg, Kathmandu (Tel:  (1) 444-5577; Consular fax:  (1) 444-4981; Public Affairs fax:  (1) 443-5869). The U.S. Agency for International Development is located in Rabi Bhawan, Kathmandu (Tel:  (1) 427-0144; fax:  (1) 427-2357).
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
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Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.
The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Further Electronic Information
Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.
Revised: May. 2007