October 26, 2008
Today is the beginning of the five-day Hindu festival Diwali (also known as Tihar), during which candles illuminate evening windowsills and household entryways. On each successive day families honor crows (to appease the god of death), dogs, cows, Laxmi (goddess of wealth) and finally brothers.
This year, Diwali comes on the heels of a governmental quagmire. Friday, after days of accusations, negotiations and unmanageable disagreements, the Cabinet had no choice but to postpone its decision on the creation of a special committee for Maoist integration into the regular Nepal Army. While the holidays offer a respite from political wrangling, there is no indication that the question of army integration will be any easier to resolve once Diwali comes to an end.
The central issue blocking the committee is: Which political party will lead the committee?
The Maoists claim the right to leadership because it is their ex-rebels who are to be integrated into the army. On Oct. 24, Prime Minister Prachanda insisted that the Maoist leadership reflects the sentiments of all armed forces including the army, the police, the armed police, as well as the Maoists combatants: “Those doubting the leadership of the new government are wrong. I believe that those who come out of war understand better the importance of peace.”
Nepali Congress Party’s Opposition to the Maoists
In spite of Prachanda’s assurances, the opposition Nepali Congress party has been quite aggressive in its objection to Prachanda’s intensions. Nepali Congress Vice President Ram Chandra Poudel complained on Thursday that the committee should either be headed on a rotational basis by each major party, or headed by a non-Maoist.
G.P. Koirala, Nepali Congress’ ex-Prime Minister, has been even more pointedly opposed. “We cannot allow the Maoists to integrate the radical communist indoctrinated PLA [People’s Liberation Army]”, he said, adding that any attempt to integrate the armies would result in a Nepalese bloodbath. In recent weeks, Koirala has also accused Prachanda and the ousted King Gyanendra of hatching a conspiracy against the other democratic parties in order to create a communist country. Koirala broadened his attack on Friday when he also accused the Maoists of interfering with the independent judicial system in order to create a dictatorship: “They are trying to make a fusion of their ‘People’s Court’ [created during the 10-year insurgency] and the national judiciary. …We cannot allow the Maoists to transform Nepal into a Cuba or a North Korea.”
Behind the scenes, it is rumored that Koirala is using the holidays to resolve his differences with another Nepali Congress leader and ex-prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in a meeting taking place in Biratnagar, Koirala’s ancestral home. Internal disputes within the party have kept Nepali Congress a hobbled foil to Maoist goals.
In the meantime, Nepali Congress’ acting president Sushil Koirala has attacked the Maoists’ priority in formulating ambitious plans instead of concentrating on drafting the new Constitution. Speaking to Kantipur news, Sushil Koirala said Maoist leaders were confusing people by giving conflicting definitions of what a” “People’s Republic” really meant in Maoist terms and, more important, Maoist actions. He cited the unabated unruly activities of the Maoists’ Young Communist League (YCL), the as-of-yet return of all private properties seized during the ten-year rebellion, and the as-of-yet liquidation of the Maoists’ “People’s Government”.
As for the integration of Maoist combatants into the Nepal Army, Sushil said that it “would only demoralize the latter.”
Maoists want a Maoist to be Chief of Army?
But perhaps the most serious accusation leveled at the Maoists is: Prachanda intends to replace the current Chief of the Nepal Army with the ex-rebel commander, Nanda Kishore Pun.
According to NC whip in the Constituent Assembly Shovakar Parajuli, Maoists designated Nanda Kishore Pun as chief of the PLA after Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal relinquished the position upon becoming prime minister in August: "We suspect that the Maoists have received support from China in this regard. Other parties are silent but we object to it," Parajuli told the CA session on Thursday.
According to him, Maoists are planning to send Pun to China where he will receive a nine-month defense course. "This is a part of the Maoist covert strategy to prove that Pun meets internationally-accepted standards to hold the post of chief of the National Army," Parajuli said.
According to him, this was all planned during Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa's visit to China last month. "NC demands that a response be furnished by the government before the House passes the budget," he said.
At the same meeting, Sher Bahadur Deuba said unification of Nepal Army and the Maoist army was not possible. "Unification of the [two] armies is not as easy as unification of two political parties," Deuba said. He opposed the idea of integrating politically indoctrinated Maoist combatants into the Army in a group. The past agreements mean that only those who meet security force standards could vie for integration, he said. "That too is not essentially in the National Army but also in other security forces. We have cautiously avoided the words 'National Army' and have used the words 'security forces,'" he added.
He also described the UN verification method as too simplistic. "They just checked whether the combatants were 18-year-olds and if they had fought in the insurgency. Those criteria are not enough for integration in the National Army."
He demanded that the expenses of billions of rupees from state coffers for Maoist combatants are made transparent, monitored by an authentic body and spent through an established mechanism. He also accused Maoists of interfering in the National Army and trying to guide the press, civil society and the education system.
The CPN-UML’s position on Maoist integration into the Nepal Army
Meanwhile, the second strongest political party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), has joined forces with the Nepali Congress Party in insisting that a party other than the Maoists should head the special committee. This week, CPN-UML General Secretary Jhalanath Khanal asked the Maoist leadership to become flexible on the issue, saying that the Maoists should not lead the committee but, rather, concentrate on forging an agreement with the other parties.
Other obstacles standing in the way of Maoist integration into the Nepal Army.
According to ABC Radio, rights groups in Nepal say more than 10,000 Maoist child soldiers were never registered at UN-monitored camps and need help integrating back into their communities. Many of these child soldiers are struggling as civilians - having lost the power they once had as feared rebels and paying the price for their stance during the 10 year civil war.
Meanwhile, almost 3,000 child soldiers, who have been confirmed as underage by the UN, are still living in Maoist camps across the country, with the former rebels afraid they will be re-recruited by other armed groups if they are released.
But Suman Khadka, a child rights advocate from Save the Children in Nepal, told Radio Australia that the current situation is just the tip of the iceberg. "There were so many children outside the cantonments, informally, who never even came to the cantonments," she said. "Now we actually realize the ones who are in the community are much more vulnerable and they actually need equally support if not more."
Experts say it is impossible to put an exact number on how many child soldiers there are in Nepal, but Ms Khadka estimates that less than a third of young fighters are staying in Maoist cantonments.
"I think we are saying 15,000 children including those children in the cantonments, but that means at least 10 to 12,000 are actually outside in the community."
The UN’s role in the integration of the ex-rebels.
The chief of United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), Ian Martin, has called for the immediate discharge of child soldiers, as called for in the 2006 peace deal.
But he says reintegration has been delayed by concerns from the former rebels that child soldiers they trained could be re-recruited by other smaller armed groups who continue to fight for various causes.
"That's a concern which the Maoist leadership expresses to us as to why they don't want those who are still in the cantonments to be discharged, unless and until arrangements have been made to reintegrate them effectively," he said.
"They specifically express concern that they might join other armed groups and there are people who, even if they came very late into the cantonments, have had some degree of physical and even military training there."
UNICEF and other children's organizations have started working with child soldiers, both inside and outside the camps, to facilitate their return home. But the real work has only begun.
Caution from the Nepal Army
It is essential to remember to take into account the stance of the Nepal Army itself: The army is not a political organization. According to reliable sources, General Katawal is fully committed to support the peace process. But there are perimeters within any legitimate regular army, particularly when it comes to who can and cannot be allowed to enlist. The Chief of the Nepal army has made it known that his army would accept only those recruits who met international recruitment norms.
Finally, the Madhesi issue.
The Madhesi population in the south, which makes up a very sizable proportion of the Nepali population, has still not been integrated into the Nepal Army. And they demand that they not be overlooked in this important time of Nepali transformation. Leaders of the Madhesi movement now insist that, without the inclusion of Madhesis, the Nepal Army cannot be a genuine “national army.” Their demand is to set up a separate Madhesi unit within the Nepal Army.
Between Diwali and the Chhath religious festival, which occurs this year on November 4, it seems unlikely that the integration of the army, one of the most important issues remaining unsettled in the new government, will be resolved. But indefinite postponement is really not an option.