The future of Nepal's two armies

Nepalese Army soldiers during a rescue operation near Shikharpur village,  80 km away from Kathmandu. Nepal continues to have two armies — the official Nepal Army (NA) and the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA). File photo

Nepalese Army soldiers during a rescue operation near Shikharpur village, 80 km away from Kathmandu. Nepal continues to have two armies — the official Nepal Army (NA) and the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA). File photo

Almost four years after Nepali political forces signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the country continues to have two armies — the official Nepal Army (NA) and the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA). The future of the two armies is at the heart of the peace process, and is directly linked to both government formation and Constitution writing.

A September 13 agreement between the government and the Maoists states the integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants will be completed within the next four months. This may be difficult to achieve, given the complex differences between the two sides on the issue but it is central to moving the political process forward.

The PLA officially has 19,602 verified combatants in seven cantonments and 21 satellite camps across the country. But reports suggest that the numbers have dipped in recent months. The combatants receive monthly salaries from the state treasury. All PLA fighters and weapons, and a limited number of NA personnel and arms are monitored by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), which has been in the country since January 2007.

As per the CPA, a special committee for the management, integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants was set up towards the end of 2008 by the Maoist-led government. The committee, now chaired by caretaker Prime Minister Madhav Nepal, also has a technical panel to assist it. The basis for the integration is a vaguely formulated provision in past agreements, which say “verified Maoist combatants” will be eligible for “possible integration into security forces based on standard norms.”

Three proposals

At the moment, there are three proposals on the table. The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) have differences over nuances, but their position represents one pole. The Maoists have presented their own alternative. And UNMIN has come up with a ‘non-paper' with a hypothetical 60-week timeline for integration and rehabilitation.

All parties agree that the PLA must be brought under the control, direction and supervision of the special committee immediately. Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda' told the PLA at its annual celebrations in February 2009 that it was now under the committee, not the party. But this was not implemented. As per the recent government-Maoist agreement, the former rebels have once again pledged to put the former combatants under the special committee. The NC-UML has suggested that a secretariat with a coordinator, representatives of the NA, the Nepal Police, the APF, the Maoist Army and other agencies be formed for the purpose. UNMIN has emphasised the need to form implementing and coordinating bodies. There is also a broad agreement among all parties that Maoist fighters who opt for voluntary separation, rehabilitation, and integration should be categorised and separated. This should be followed by the actual selection of combatants for specific security agencies, even as others are offered attractive rehabilitation packages. But there are major differences in at least three areas.

Numbers, modalities & timing

The first has to do with the numbers. The NC and the UML argue that the number of combatants to be integrated must be first decided at the political level, before the process is initiated. They point out that the Maoists informally agreed to integrate 3,000 combatants in a conversation with the former Prime Minister, G.P. Koirala. In their proposal, the Maoists say the ‘scientific way' would be for the special committee to ask each combatant what his preference is. Those who want to opt for voluntary separation or rehabilitation, and those ineligible due to physical disability can be left out. All others must be considered eligible for integration. They deny that a prior deal on numbers has been struck.

The second area of dispute is the basis of integration. UNMIN has pointed to the need for a political agreement on “rank harmonisation, entry norms and entry modalities” as a prerequisite for the process. The NC and the UML, with the support of the Army, insist that former Maoist fighters have to compulsorily meet the “standard norms” of the existing security institutions to be eligible for integration. They also say the combatants are “individually responsible” for integration. This is a reflection of the NA position that Maoist fighters can individually, as Nepali citizens, seek to join the army but there will be no entry on the basis of units.

The Maoists say “standard norms” in past agreements refer to the standard norms for integration, not the existing norms adopted by the security agencies for recruitment. The norms must be based on the “originality of Nepal's peace process.” This assumes importance since many Maoist fighters may not meet the exact educational or physical standards of the NA and other agencies. The Maoists' proposal also categorically rejects the concept of individual recruitment. Their leaders argue that integration was a special provision based on the reality that the PLA was not defeated in the war, and the logic that it had to be “professionalised” and the NA “democratised.”

The Maoists suggest that there could be further discussion on the modalities of integration. A separate force with their combatants could be created; a mixed force with their fighters and additional new recruits could be an option; and/or there could be an integration of the existing institutions.

The third area of contention is the timing. Formally, all sides recently agreed to finish the process in the next four months — by January 15, 2011 — but the politics behind the issue is more complex. Non-Maoist parties insist that the Maoists cannot be entrusted with leadership of the government, and the statute cannot be promulgated if they do not ‘detach' from their military structure. For their part, the Maoists are reluctant to finish the process before they have reliable guarantees on the Constitution and power-sharing.

In their initial proposals, the NC and the UML insisted that the entire process — of determining numbers, separating the combatants into different groups, discharge of those who want to leave voluntarily, selection into security agencies; and rehabilitation — be completed in a month. In a recent concept paper to build consensus, the UML suggested that separating the combatants could be completed within a month, while the remaining process could take four months.

The Maoists have said the special committee can finish the process of deciding the numbers through consultation in two months; and the separation into different camps can take another month. These two steps can form the basis of a preliminary consensus, and “after ensuring that the Constitution would be written, an action plan should be devised for completing the integration and rehabilitation works just before the promulgation of the Constitution.”

In its timeline, UNMIN holds that setting up an implementing body, informing the combatants, registering their initial choices, and separating them into different groups could take 21 weeks. The additional process of discharge and selection could begin in week 39. Non-Maoist parties have criticised UNMIN as they feel its proposal is too close to the Maoist plan. Additionally, the fact that UNMIN's tenure ends by January 15 next will have implications for the process. But UNMIN's proposal should not be dismissed for, it has international experience in implementing complex peace deals.

Political will

The differences can be overcome if all parties display the requisite political will. Informally, all of them — including the Maoists — agree that 6,000-8,000 combatants can be integrated into all security organs, with 2,000-3,000 in the NA. A combination of flexibility in entry norms, and Maoist fighters going through the required training, could bridge the debate on “standard norms.” The process can begin immediately but end some time before the promulgation of the statute. Once the PLA is under the special committee and Maoists are locked in, the other side should feel reassured and cede space to the biggest party in the power-sharing arrangement.

But all sides should first reassess their political positions. The NC and the UML should stop echoing the army's position only because they see it as an ally in their battle against the Maoists. Instead, the reform of the NA and bringing it under firmer civilian control are part of the peace accord. Isolating the Maoists is also counter-productive for, it only feeds their fear that “reactionaries” are out to “eliminate them” and makes them reluctant to give up their coercive apparatus.

For their part, the Maoists should stop being dishonest and using the PLA as a bargaining chip. If they want a new Constitution, they will have to make compromises on their political-military structure since other parties are justifiably insecure. The Maoists should feel confident since they derive their core strength from front organisations and a sizable mass base. If the question of two armies remains unsettled, there will be little chance of Nepal writing the Constitution or institutionalising democracy.

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Printable version | Sep 14, 2022 6:42:20 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead//article59928535.ece