September 17, 2010
On September 15, the UN Security Council dediced to dismantle the United Nations Political Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) four months from now, on January 15, 2010.
UNMIN came to Nepal in early 2007 after the decade of armed struggle ended between Maoist rebels and government forces. UNMIN’s mandate was to oversee the ensuing peace efforts – including the 2008 constituent elections -- and to monitor both the legitimate army and the 28 cantonments set up to house the Maoist ex-combatants until they could be reintegrated into society.
But UNMIN’s presence has been plagued with questions of its neutrality, as well as its ability to correctly cipher Maoist irregularities.
The Headcount Controversy
Early on, UNMIN conducted a headcount of the rebels to weed out child soldiers and new people recruited after the peace agreement was in place. Their count was just under 20,000 combatants.
In 2009, however, the UNMIN verification became a source of embarrassment after a secret videotape of Maoist Supremo Prachanda – recorded in one of the cantonments – caught him boasting that he had duped UNMIN by padding the camps with young people who didn’t actually qualify. The real number of the People’s Liberation Army, according to Prachanda, was actually between 7,000-8,000.
As 2009 wore on, the government became suspicious that even that low number was inaccurate, saying that many of the Maoists (once sequestered in the cantonments) had long since left without Maoists leaders duly reporting their departures. This creative accounting made it possible for the Maoist party to continue to receive governmental stipends for cantonment residents who did not exist.
Many began to question the validity of having UNMIN in Nepal in the first place -- if the monitoring process had been such a travesty. When the government asked UNMIN to provide an updated number of the PLA present in the camps, UNMIN refused, saying it would be a violation of confidence.
The response was: a violation of whose confidence? The Maoists? Or the government, which was paying salaries to unverifiable ex-combatants?
The idea that UNMIN was pro-Maoist gathered steam. It was a particularly hard pill to swallow given the fact that, as part of the peace agreement, the Maoist made promises, which to date have gone unfilled. They have not disbanded the YCL, their paramilitary group. They have not returned the many seized properties, which contribute to their coffers. The presence of UNMIN has not helped to rectify these broken promises.
Adding insult to injury
Fresh fuel for the fire was provided last week when Karin Landgren, the most recent chief of UNMIN, submitted a report to the UN Security Council in New York, in which she announced that she and the Maoists had recently agreed to conduct a new headcount of the ex-guerillas living in the cantonments.
The problem is that Landgren had not deemed it necessary to inform the Nepali government of this new arrangement.
The government was livid. Yesterday, caretaker Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal’s office issued an eight-page statement voicing its outrage over being kept out of the loop: “This good news has not been shared with the government. Indeed, when the details of the Maoist Army combatants in cantonments were requested by the government a few months ago, UNMIN refused to provide such information…”
The general feeling of non-Maoist parties is that the UN not only has increasingly “disregarded or derided” their input, but also ceased to regard Nepal as a sovereign country. Four former foreign ministers objected to the UN for questioning “the legitimacy of the legally constituted government of Nepal.” Back in New York, Nepal’s Permanent Representative in the UN echoed the government’s outrage.
Government officials have other bones to pick with Landgren as well. Her report to the Security Council seems to characterize the ruling parties as being in turmoil and irresponsible, while “glossing over” Maoist shortcomings.
In particular, the government objects to Landgren’s reference to a six-day strike imposed nationwide by the Maoists in May to topple the elected government. According to Landgren: “after six days, the strike was called off and the demonstrators made an orderly retreat.”
The government’s response: Based on Landgren’s report, UN officials would presume that the demonstrations had been popular, democratic and non-harmful when, in fact, there was “huge suffering inflicted on ordinary people, with millions of children deprived of schooling, patients not being able to go to hospitals, businesses forced to close, losing billions of rupees, and great hardships to daily wage earners.”
But the sting is also deeply felt regarding her criticism of the national army. She faults the army for going ahead with recruitment to fill vacancies and – even more unnerving -- applies identical terms to both the 90,000-strong prefessional army and the 7,000-strong Maoist guerrillas –implying that the UN should regard both groups as deserving equal status.
Disgruntled lawmakers also point out that the Nepal Army is already governed by the interim constitution and therefore answerable to parliament, not UNMIN. Why, therefore, should the army be saddled with UN supervision, particularly since the UNMIN has done such an underwhelming job in monitoring the Maoist cantonments?
In any event, UNMIN’s stay in Nepal is coming to an end. It has four months left before it packs up and goes home. The impact of the extra four months may be negligible, but what, in the meantime, has it done to sour the goodwill of the people of Nepal, who have historically respected the UN?