Decision follows tensions, clashes in camps
In what is being considered a major development in Nepal's peace process, the Nepal Army (NA) has taken control of the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA) cantonments, combatants and the weapons stored in containers inside the camps. This is in line with a decision taken by the all-party Special Committee (SC) for the Supervision, Integration and Rehabilitation of Maoist combatants, which was also attended by top political leaders, on Tuesday.
NA will now be responsible for the security of the 15 remaining Maoist cantonments, including its infrastructure. Around 9,700 combatants who have opted for integration remain in these cantonments, and there are over 3,000 weapons in the containers. A little more than 7,000 former fighters who voluntarily retired with cash packages left the camps in mid February, while 12 satellite camps were shut down in March.
Last week, the SC had decided that there would be another round of regrouping in the cantonments, where combatants would be given a second chance to take voluntary retirement. This was aimed at bringing the numbers of those opting for integration down to 6,500 — the agreed maximum limit of those who can join a specially created directorate under the Nepal Army as per a peace agreement.
Tensions and clashes
Opposition parties have long demanded that the Maoists hand over the control of cantonments to the Nepal government. Tuesday's decision, however, comes in the wake of reports of increasing tensions and even clashes among combatants in the cantonments during the process of voluntary retirement. The process was halted at the request of the Maoist leadership.
Highly placed sources involved in the integration process told The Hindu that trouble had emanated from different quarters. A member of the SC secretariat present at a cantonment in western Nepal, on the condition of anonymity, said over phone: “There seems to be a virtual breakdown of the chain of command here. Most combatants want to opt for retirement and the commanders, to save face, have told them to take integration — but with little success. Instead, combatants have threatened the commanders.”
A source from another cantonment in eastern Nepal said ethnic tensions had broken out, with junior combatants not listening to senior commanders who hail from the west and belong to other communities. “Junior commanders want rank determination before integration and transparency in the selection process. They fear favouritism by the party leadership,” he added.
Former fighters who were “disqualified” during the U.N.'s verification in 2007 and discharged from the cantonments in early 2010 have also gathered outside some cantonment sites protesting against the party. Loyalists of Maoist senior vice-chairperson Mohan Vaidya ‘Kiran', who has opposed the integration process and termed it a “sell-out”, are also understood to have encouraged dissent within the camps.
All of this worried the Maoist top leadership who on Tuesday morning eagerly pushed to hand over control of camp sites to government security forces. Reports from cantonment sites suggest that the situation has been “defused” and there is calm. A Nepali Congress leader told The Hindu, “The trigger may have been negative but with this step, the peace process is now irreversible. For its own interest, the Maoist leadership will push through the integration process.”
On Tuesday, the SC also reiterated that option of voluntary retirement will be kept open for combatants as long as the integration process is not concluded. According to a statement read by Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) chairperson Jhalanath Khanal, the parties have also agreed to prepare a code of conduct for the combatants who remained in the cantonments.
Decisions regarding the composition of the selection committee responsible for integration of the combatants, their educational levels to be considered, and ranks are yet to be taken. While the existing plan is to transfer those opting for integration to nearby army barracks, Maoist commanders are now understood to be arguing that selection can happen inside the cantonments itself to make it “quicker”.