Sunday, July 05, 2009

Neighbourhood Watch: Testing Times Ahead in Nepal

Nepal has been in a state of perpetual crisis for most of the past two decades, beginning with the pro-democracy movement in the late 1980’s, the unstable and corrupt democratic governments, the start of the Maoists insurgency, palace massacre, the royal coup and the triangular struggle between the Maoists, the Monarchy and the political parties. It was only in 2006 that hope returned with the settlement between the Maoists and the political parties to corner the berserk monarchy that brought Nepal back from the brink of collapse. There was optimism, the monarchy blinked under sustained pressure, a cease fire was in place and the Maoists had been brought into the democratic process after the parties put aside their differences to work together.

Since then, the experience has been topsy-turvey of unending jockeying, pushing and then withdrawal of the varying interests being represented and negotiated since the formation of the Constituent Assembly. The present state of affairs can be interpreted in different ways, it is perhaps the result of the prevailing distrust and the clash of political cultures, the authoritarian Maoist one and the resistance of the mainstream parties to the Maoists efforts to have their way or it is about a recalcitrant general testing civilian supremacy in a fractured polity.

It all began with the National Games in April as the narrative goes. The Nepalese Army (NA) refused to play ball with former Maoist rebels also participating in the games. The received wisdom that sports is war by other means proved to be right in the case but in an inadvertent manner as the NA refused to engage with their former rivals and walked out of the National Games.

But the incident was merely another round in the running battle between the Maoists government trying to assert its will over the NA. One of the institutions among the few along with the judiciary that has not been brow beaten by the Maoists deluge that is sweeping all aspects of Nepalese society. The Maoist government accuses the NA of disobeying it over several issues and couches its argument in the supremacy of the civilian over the military. In March, the army chief's recommendation to give three-year extensions to eight retiring officers of Brigadier's rank did not go down well with the Maoist government. Prior to this, the NA, refused to toe the government’s order to not go ahead with the recruitment to fill vacancies in the NA.

The Army Chief’s, Gen Rookmangud Katawal, personality clashes with the Defence Minister, a Maoist, who is hardly seen at army programmes, fresh recruitments to the army, the National Games walk out and the dogged opposition to the induction of the Maoists’ guerrilla combatants into the NA have brought things to the brink in Nepal.

The rehabilitation of about 20,000 former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighters in the U.N.-monitored camps is a major issue of contention between the Maoists and the military, with senior officers led by the Army Chief, resisting the integration of the indoctrinated Maoist fighters into the army. The PLA fighters have had their weapons locked away under the 2006 peace deal. The UN’s tenure will expire in July 2009 and any delay in the management could threaten the tenuous peace.

The 2006 peace deal also stipulates that both the NA and the PLA will not add to their ranks and any recruitment would be a violation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The Army’s enrollment drive was taken up by the Supreme Court which upheld it but asked the authorities to not make any further appointments till the final judgment. The Army officials have said that they did not violate the peace accord as it was just filling up the vacant positions. The Defence Minister and Maoist Army's commanders have strongly opposed the NA's move to recruit new soldiers and the Maoists PLA has even started to recruit new PLA personnel to counter the NA move.

In light of these developments and the walk out of the National Games, the Maoist government demanded a clarification from the Army Chief. Katawal submitted an explanatory note promptly, but it was found unsatisfactory by the Maoists who are decided on dismissing him. The General's contention is that he could be dismissed only by the President of the Republic, who is of the opinion that the government should take action against Katawal after reaching an understanding with other parties. The move to remove the army chief does not have the backing of most of the parties and even the CPN (UML), Maoists ally, is divided on the issue. Thus, while the parties agree that the army should heed the elected government's orders, they do not support the move to fire the army chief and there is an effort to forge consensus on the issue.

The Maoists have the most seats in the Constituent Assembly. In some views, the major parties like the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) or CPN (UML), and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) are standing up to the Maoists efforts to steam roll their agenda on Nepal. The coalition government was possible with parties compromising to cross the impasse in the larger national benefit. After ceasefire, the Maoists have committed themselves to multiparty democracy and democratic elections. The task of the coalition is to draft a new Constitution taking into account the multi-ethnic character of Nepal.

The Maoist government sought to sack Katawal in early April but failed after opposition by its main ally, the opposition parties and even major foreign donors, including India, the US and UK. Maoist sources assert that the ruling party is still bent on removing Katawal and was waiting for main ally UML to reach a decision. The UML’s Standing Committee decision has refused to support the Maoist move to replace General Katwal by Lt. General Khadka. The CPN-UML suggested a “middle-path” approach to resolve the crisis that proposed to remove Katawal and the second-in-command, Lt. General Kul Bahadur Khadka and settle for a third person to lead the Army, besides getting rid of Defence Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa. In effect, the two factions have their backs to the wall and any outcome will result in a loss of face for one or the other. It appears that with the lack of UML support, the Maoists are isolated. UML’s middle path compromise formula has been rejected by all parties including the Maoists. While the Maoists say they are determined to take action against Katawal, they are trying to reach a consensus among political parties. But what is certain is that any action along the lines is likely to further sour relations between the army and the former guerrillas.

Katawal’s term ends in August, the urgency to sack him stems from the Maoist desire to appoint as his successor, the second senior-most general, Lt-Gen Kul Bahadur Khadka. While Katawal staunchly opposed the Maoist bid to induct its over 19,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fighters into the Nepal Army (NA), saying they would have to meet international recruitment criteria, Khadka is assumed to be more flexible but there is a catch, that Khadka needs to be promoted soon or he will retire next month.

The Foreign Hand
The biggest pressure not to remove Katawal before his tenure comes from Delhi. After the abolition of the monarchy, an institution Indian wanted retained, even if merely titular, the NA harks back to the traditional linkages with India and the Indian Army. Acrimony between the two armed groups that represent powerful but divisive tendencies would make the Indian neighborhood a lot worse than it already is, with three of its neighbors at civil war. The proximity of Nepal to the Hindi heartland, linkages between the Maoists and the steadily increasing Chinese influence under a Maoist Nepal has had the Babus in South Block anxious. The Indian ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood met Nepalese Prime Minister Prachanda to express concern. India has been tight lipped about the whole issue and explains away the flurry of meetings, third in a week since the dismissal order, as discussions over issues of mutual interest. The strategic community in New Delhi is alarmed at the Maoist bid to turn the army into a Maoists stronghold and ignoring the fallout on the fragile peace process. The Indian envoy, though, was not alone in his mission and was part of an ambassadorial collective, representing the major donor nations among which the United States and United Kingdom are mentionable, indicating the concern at the breakout of new hostilities.

The fear is that the Maoists are trying to push the dismissal of the Army Chief in their efforts to control the army, the one institution which would in the event of a future civil war or turn towards a dictatorship, stand up to the PLA cadres. Though, the Maoists, call such allegations propaganda and express their commitment to multi-party democracy. Amidst all this, there has not been any effort to figure out the fate of the 20,000 odd PLA fighters and their absorption into society. The lessons from around the world of disarmed groups becoming a law onto themselves are not encouraging. It appears the only option remains their absorption in either the police or the military services but this also means the Maoists getting effective control of the institution, the proverbial dilemma between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The impasse has reached such proportions that Prachanda has had to postpone his eight day visit to China beginning in May where he was due to discussing fresh assistance and investment and negotiated a new peace and friendship treaty that Beijing is keen to sign with Kathmandu.

Despite the lasting military ceasefire, the current imbroglio severely challenges Nepal’s peace process by threatening the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and also opens the possibility of the two armies inching towards armed confrontation and inordinately delaying the drafting of the new constitution.

The piece was published on 3rd May in Sikkim NOW, a daily published from Gangtok.

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