A plaque of the Nepal Army (NA) greets one at the entrance gate of the first division of the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA) in this eastern corner of the country. Army personnel scrutinise cards and check with authorities before allowing anyone to proceed. Inside, two soldiers stand guard right in front of containers which have weapons used by the Maoists during the war. Nepal's flag flutters in one corner, while state officials are huddled in another.
The presence of Nepal government in what used to be autonomous Maoist camps marks the end-game of the peace process. After 10 years of fighting the state, and five years of staying inside the cantonments, former fighters are now getting ready for the next phase of their lives. Those who have chosen integration will have to go through the selection process of the NA, and undergo training courses. This was made possible by a final agreement between political parties on the technical issues related to integration on Saturday night. Many who opted for integration in an earlier round of categorisation are now getting a chance to switch to voluntary retirement and take cash packages.
Roshan Karki is a battalion vice-commander. Sitting in a large group near the division office, he said the presence of the Nepal Army — which the PLA fought against — had not created any problem. “The party had told us it would happen; they just came a few days sooner than expected. NA personnel go about their job and we do our own thing.” When asked how felt about the fact that the PLA would cease to exist, Mr Karki said, “We had taken up arms for a political objective, and we are giving up arms now for the same political objective. Our major achievement was a republic and a new constitution. The present step is aimed to institutionalise that.”
In a barb directed at party vice-chairman Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran' who has termed the NA deployment as ‘surrender', Mr Karki said, “What do those sitting in houses in Kathmandu know? We are the ones who stay here, and we are happy to be going for integration.”
While there is no opposition to presence of the NA, sources suggest that there was discontent building up in the cantonments. In an interview to The Hindu, Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' had admitted that there had been trouble in the first division cantonment.
A government official, present in the cantonment to help with the process of re-categorisation, said, “Each month, the party took a fifth of the salary of the combatants, promising to create a Provident Fund and return a bulk amount at the end of their stay here. Earlier this week, fighters demanded it but the commanders refused to give it back. That, coupled with uncertainty over rank and role in the NA, led to dissent.” The tensions are said to have triggered the decision to send in the NA to ensure discipline.
PLA commanders however rebut this version of the events. Division vice-commander, Pramod, saidwhile some questions were raised about financial management, there was ‘provocation' by forces which wanted to disrupt the peace process itself. “The leadership's decision is a reflection of our commitment to the peace.”
There is however a consensus among all concerned – commanders, combatants, members of the team responsible for implementing the process, and army officers stationed here – that the cantonments will soon be history, and peace process is ‘irreversible'.
On Saturday, the Special Committee (SC) for the Supervision, Integration and Rehabilitation of Maoist combatants reiterated that the former fighters would get integrated in a newly-created general directorate under the NA. This would be responsible for disaster relief, industrial security, development, and forest and environment conservation.
It also decided that a Lieutenant General would command the directorate. The present Director General of Military Operations, Major General Daman Ghale, is expected to assume the position. The ranks to be given to the new entrants would be according to the standard norms of Nepal Army (NA) — an informal understanding is that Maoist commanders would get the position of one colonel and two lieutenant colonels. The selection committee will be led by a Public Service Commission representative.
Back in the Ilam cantonment, there is uncertainty about the final number of combatants who would finally opt for integration or qualify. But the mood has perceptibly changed from remembering the past to worrying about the future. Soon after receiving his cheque, a combatant who opted for retirement, said, “It is time to go home. While the party has been all important till now, all my future decisions will be taken keeping my family in mind.”