Nepal earthquake: Army gets image boost from quake relief work

CHAUTARA, Nepal (REUTERS) - In the rubble-strewn Nepali hilltop town of Chautara, a round-the-clock rescue effort by the military is helping to recast the image of an institution once criticised for rights abuses in a brighter and more sympathetic light.

"The army was here five minutes after the quake," said resident Dil Bahadur Khatuwa, 44. "They've been treating people and helping to get things from houses."

That's rare praise for the Nepal Army, for years condemned over well-documented abuses. Human rights activists blame it for hundreds of killings and abductions during Nepal's decade-long war with Maoist rebels from 1996.

Natural disasters present opportunities and pitfalls for militaries with sagging reputations.

China's military won broad praise for its rapid and efficient rescue efforts during the May 2008 Sichuan earthquake. When a deadly cyclone struck neighbouring Myanmar the same month, its military's slow response and obstruction of foreign aid sealed its unsavory reputation.

A 2006 coup by the Thai army unleashed years of protests that culminated in a bloody military crackdown four years later. But it clawed back some popularity through its relief efforts after a catastrophic 2011 flood.

The quake came at a critical time for Nepal's military too.

A Supreme Court decision in February rejected the possibility of amnesty for perpetrators of serious human rights abuses that were committed during the conflict between Maoist rebels and the security forces.

The army's relief efforts might help its leadership "wash out the things they did in the past," said Trilochan Upreti, director of the rights group Advocacy Forum Nepal and an outspoken critic of the military.

But he added, "The most important thing is the relief effort, whatever you may think (the army) has done."

Officers in Chautara, in hard-hit Sindhupalchok district, said they rescued 35 people from the debris in the aftermath.

"Talk to the locals. They say the army has done a great job," said Lieutenant-Colonel SK Karki, who is running relief efforts in Sindhupalchok, where 1,260 people died in Saturday's 7.8 magnitude earthquake.