“Smoke has not stopped from the guns,” warns 22-year-old Chandra Bahadur Giri. “The revolution has not stopped yet and we have not forgotten how to use the guns,” he added, giving vent to his anger at a process that took three years of his life and was now placing him in unfamiliar territory.
Chandra was one of the 493 People's Liberation Army (PLA) members discharged in Surkhet on February 3 after they failed to be recognised as “qualified combatants” by the United Nations. About 4,008 such people had been living in cantonments monitored by the United Nations along with 19,692 other qualified combatants since the then Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) signed a peace deal in 2006 and the PLA, the combat wing of the party, laid down arms.
More than half of them were assessed to be minors when the U.N. carried out a verification process soon after the 2006 deal. The rest were found to have been recruited after the ceasefire and hence, could not be categorised as combatants. The 2006 agreement said these people had to be freed immediately and the qualified combatants be managed but Nepal's political instability and the Maoists' unwillingness to discharge them caused the process to be delayed by nearly three years.
Finally, in a process that culminated on February 8, 2,394 people have been released from the camps (others had left the cantonments before the discharge process started) but their loss of years and the proposed rehabilitation programme have angered them.
Under the rehabilitation plan chalked out by the UNICEF and the government, those who could not complete their studies after they joined the party will be provided free education. Those who want to start businesses will be given training and financial assistance. Those who want to join the medical field will be trained as health workers and community medical assistants.
But Bhupal and David, two young men listening to their Division Commander bidding them farewell in Surkhet on February 3, said they do not want these packages.
They said their “militarised” minds would not accept agricultural training or business. “We can provide security at our disputed border and we can prove that we are not unqualified,” one of them said. The Maoists have been quite vocal in recent times on the “encroachment” by India on Nepali land.
At the event, some of those about to be discharged had come in an inebriated state and broke chairs. They said it was a conspiracy by the U.N. and the government to send them away from the camps.
Their anger was reflected by deputy commander of the PLA Chandra Prakash Khanal “Baldev”. “We're carrying out this process with discontent,” he said. He criticised Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal's action plan for the management of the PLA combatants. The open field where the discharge ceremony was taking place thundered with applause and whistles suggesting that his remarks struck a chord.
The crowd was less enthused by U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Robert Piper's speech encouraging them to be teachers, health workers, mechanics, masons and plumbers.
The anger did not seem out of place when a young girl who did not want to be named said she could have finished her schooling if she had been discharged three years back. She had completed her eighth grade when she joined the PLA as a minor.
Also, those disqualified were being sent home with a cash support of NPR 22,000, a paltry sum compared to what they could have earned even as daily-wage earners had they been working for the last three years.
The U.N. has said it will monitor those discharged for six months so that they do not become associated with criminal or violent groups. But there have been reports of former combatants joining underground armed groups.
On the last day of the discharge ceremonies in Rolpa on February 8, chief of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN, which monitors the Maoist cantonments) Karin Landgren said the major challenge ahead was consolidating peace and preventing future conflicts. To achieve this, the government and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) must work together to institutionalise peace and show the right direction to the youth so that they contribute to the rebuilding of this war-affected nation.