May 1, 2009
During the decade-long insurgency, the fight was between the Nepal army and the Maoist combatants. And although a democratic process arose from the ashes of that conflict, three years down the line it would appear that not all that much has changed.
The foes remain the same: the Maoists vs. the Nepal Army (with a majority of the political parties currently weighing in favor of the army). The underlying issue is whether or not the Maoist rebels can be integrated into the professional army – an increasingly nebulous prospect. What’s at stake here is nothing less than the derailment of the peace process and, in the gloomiest scenario, a return to armed struggle.
For the last two months, the central players in this drama have been Prime Minister Prachanda and Chief of Army General Rookmangad Katawal. Prachanda has done everything in his power to undermine Katawal’s position and Katawal has refused to budge.
Prachanda’s sense of urgency to integrate his PLA with the state army is no doubt fueled by his fellow Maoist Central Committee leaders as well as 19,000 malcontent guerrilla combatants, who have been squirreled away and left moldering in distant cantonments for almost three years now. For the Maoist rank and file, the integration is more a matter of prestige. Grumblings abound that Prachanda is coming off as a weak leader, uncharacteristic of a leader of a revolutionary party.
Katawal’s resistance stems from what he regards as the sheer folly of a wholesale merger of irregular combatants with his highly professional, non-political military operation.
And in the meantime, the world takes notice with mounting misgiving: India, China, the US and numerous EU countries, and now the UN with a just-released report of the Secretary-General that cites the Maoist-Army standoff as a deepening rift played out in front of a Legislature-Parliament who bicker among themselves instead of tending to the far more crucial business of getting a constitution written:
“Notwithstanding the formation of coordination committees to strengthen relations and cooperation between UCPN-M and its major governing coalition partner, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) (UML), and among the four political parties in the Maoist-led coalition Government, those relations remained fractious, marked by public acrimony and weak consultation over major decisions.”
The Maoist-Army feud erupted last month when General Katawal recommended that eight brigadier-generals nearing retirement be given a three-year extension. Prachanda ignored the recommendation and, instead, attempted to force them to retire – a move that backfired when the Supreme Court failed to uphold Prachanda’s edict; that, in turn, prompted several Maoist leaders to issue diatribes against the Court’s (to put it mildly) sagacity. The outcome of that legal battle is still pending but has left many analysts wondering how sincere the Maoists really are when they claim that they seek democracy in Nepal. How does assailing the Supreme Court -- if the judges’ decisions don’t suit Maoist political priorities – jive with the democratic notion that the judicial branch must be held separate and sacrosanct?
Regardless, a bouquet of hostilities has befouled the halls of Parliament since then. Kid gloves, if there ever were any, have now been unceremoniously dropped and “to keep Katawal or to sack him” has become the central question that has eclipsed all else in the backrooms of Nepalese politics.
Katawal is a formidable opponent – both lighting rod and Achilles’ heel for Maoist resentment and self-esteem respectively. He’s either loved or despised by the general public and frequently portrayed as the villain of the 2006 19-Day Uprising. Moreover, there’s no dearth of rumors that he is capable, if not actually planning, a “soft coup” – but one wonders if there isn’t wishful thinking at play here.
Katawal is a graduate of India’s National Defense Academy, the Indian Military Academy and he trained with Special Forces in the United States. (Over the years, American taxpayers have spent a lot of money training Nepal’s military elite.) Interestingly, King Mahendra, (the father of the recently deposed King Gyanendra) adopted Katawal when he was a boy – a legacy that has dogged him with a “royalist” tag ever since.
But his monarchial upbringing hasn’t appeared to be an obstacle to his support of the democratic process as mandated by the people of Nepal. Throughout the controversy, he’s been assiduously adamant that his role is strictly non-political. [Soon after the 19-Day Uprising reached its culmination, a leading foreign diplomat at the time assured me that it was “Army top brass that told the king he must step down – that killing dozens of unarmed demonstrators was going to escalate into hundreds of killings and no one in security could stomach that eventuality.” In effect, it was Katawal who gave the king his walking papers by taking “his” army away from him.]
In any event, when it comes to defending Nepal – in spite of who runs the government -- Katawal seems to have the narrow-eyed focus of a bull terrier. Also like a bull terrier, he doesn’t back down from perceived infringement upon his appointed territory. I have never spoken to anyone who is more determined to (literally) stick to his guns. Put in another way: Katawal is a man one wants to have on one’s side.
Maoist Defense Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa does not have Katawal on his side. Katawal defied Thapa’s order to stop recruitment to NA and, during Thapa’s brief but stormy tenure, has repeatedly opposed Thapa’s plan to induct guerrillas of the PLA en masse. A fresh provocation occurred in April when the new government held the National Games after a hiatus of eight years. When Prachanda issued a last-minute order to allow a Maoist team to join in the games, the Nepal Army-affiliated team staged a boycott, leaving the event decidedly lackluster and Maoist leadership once again publicly foiled and with egg on its face.
Prachanda’s determination to remove Katawal is beginning to look like personal obsession. Katawal is due to retire in August, a mere four months away. Many onlookers are now murmuring, “Why not get back to Constituent Assembly business and let Katawal quietly exit at the end of summer?”
Regardless, Prachanda’s urgency became pronounced earlier in April when the Maoist government served Katawal with a notice that he was to submit a written explanation in 24 hours for his list of “misdeeds” – a move that made it clear that the Maoists intended to sack him forthwith. Katawal’s reply was prompt and to the point: He contended that the only man who could sack him was the president of the republic. Maoist leadership was furious. Finance Minister Dr. Bhattarai went to the media with the threat that the Maoists would quit the government if they were not allowed to fire the army chief – a renewal of an armed insurgency being the implication behind the threat.
An additional back-story, furnished by The Telegraph, says that in a meeting with Katawal, Prime Minister Prachanda assured him that, if he quietly resigned, “he could be appointed as an ambassador or appointed as a security advisor to the Prime Minister. …However, as Katawal rebuked both the lucrative propositions, PM Dahal told him that the Military Act could be amended to sack him.” [This story has not been verified by other sources.]
Whatever was or was not offered behind closed doors, in the third week of April Prachanda backed down.
According to Republica, “India and the United States…put intense pressure on the government not to sack the army chief. Indian Ambassador, Rakesh Sood, met Prime Minister Dahal for the second time in as many days and appraised [sic] him of the Indian government’s view. US Ambassador, Nancy J Powell, also called on Home Minister Bam Dev Gautam and informed her country’s reservation against the government action.”
In addition, the political parties lined up against Prachanda’s plan, both in the ruling and opposition camps. “Except the ruling Maoists, Madhesi People’s Rights Forum, Sadbhavana Party and opposition Dalit Janajati Party, Sanghiya Loktantrik Rastriya Manch and National People’s Front, all the parties have stood united against the government move. …Ruling party CPN-UML came up openly with protests against the decision in a meeting of 17 parties initiated by Nepali Congress. Party Vice-Chairperson Bidya Bhandari termed the Maoist move as “motivated by ill intention” and said her party was “against all the attempts aimed at inviting instability and imposing single party authoritarianism by demoralizing judiciary, press and national security agencies.”
WHERE IS INDIA AND CHINA IN ALL THIS?
India is obviously deeply concerned about the clash between Prachanda and Katawal. Delhi is keen to see the Constituent Assembly succeed in drafting a new constitution by next year’s deadline.
Prachanda is equally intent on not being perceived as being dependent on Indian support.
But the fact is that the Maoists have always, to some extent, been dependent on Indian protection. Prachanda himself spent eight of the ten years of insurgency in hideouts on Indian soil – mostly in the eastern states of West Bengal and Bihar. The acrimony between deposed king Gyanendra and Sonia Gandhi also helped to emasculate Nepal’s monarchy, thus playing into the hand of the Maoists. When Indian External Affairs Minster Pranab Mukherjee claimed earlier this year that the Maoists rose to power thanks to Delhi support, the Nepali Maoists were uncharacteristically mute in responding to the assertion.
Once the Maoists came into power, however, the emphasis, at least publicly, shifted from India to China. China, it will be remembered, supported the monarchy but did a flip-flop once Prachanda took the helm. China is now seen as the most significant international backer of the Prachanda’s sequestered PLA.
But the Katawal ruckus has thrown a monkey wrench into Prachanda’s Chinese agenda. Only a few days ago, the Prime Minister summoned Chinese ambassador Qui Guohang to his residence and postponed a much-anticipated trip to Beijing that was to commence on May 2. It was regarded as an important trip for the Maoists – an opportunity to dispel Beijing suspicions over the Maoists’ closeness to Delhi and, no doubt, to discuss the army integration process.
Still it would be foolish for the Maoists to ignore or downplay the extent to which Nepal is, indeed, dependent on India. If, as some surmise, the Maoists’ ultimate goal is to take over the Nepal Army, India would not look kindly on that unwanted shift in the balance of power – a northern neighbor with an army backed by China – particularly since China supports Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), India’s arch-enemy.
IS INTEGRATION REALISTIC OR EVEN WANTED BY THE EX-REBELS?
Lasting peace is impossible in a country where parallel armies exist, particularly if one or more armies have opposing political agendas.
The Nepal Army proved itself to be non-political by standing back while a centuries-old monarchy was transformed into a republic.
The Maoist rebel combatants, who did not win militarily and, as a result, have found themselves miserably sequestered in cantonments for several years, have failed to establish themselves as a non-political entity.
In other countries, it has been proven that integration cannot proceed successfully until the end of a political process has transpired. In other words, ex-rebels cannot be expected to conform to state armies unless their ideological ambitions have either been attained or dissolved. There is also the question of their emotional state: Have they adjusted psychologically to the point that they are now capable of joining hands with previous enemies? Forcing integration – on either army regulars or ex-rebels -- before psychological adjustment takes place is asking for failure.
According to the Seven-Point agreement: “The verified combatants of the Maoist Army will be offered a choice of various alternatives for rehabilitation including an economic package.” [Clause 2.2.2]
What alternatives has the Maoist leadership offered its languishing combatants? Apart from force-feeding them into the Nepal Army, what options have been offered them for reintegration into Nepali society? There are many options including financial support while pursuing further education, training in skilled occupations or placement in commercial, agricultural or foreign employment.
The entire peace process hangs in the balance because of 19,000 under-skilled, under-educated sidelined rebels.
Has anyone -- apart from Maoist leaders, who could easily employ coercion -- canvassed these poor guys to see if they actually want to join the Nepal Army? Has anyone asked if they might prefer to hang it all up, to go back to their villages, to find a wife, to secure a new trade, or get a better education?
Has anyone bothered to ascertain what these dysfunctional combatants really want – without their officers noting down what they say?