November 23, 2011
Last Saturday, camouflage-clad Maoist ex-combatants lined up for interviews to decide whether – at long last—they would able to enlist in (a non-combatant branch of) the Nepal Army or be slated for re-entry into civilian society. These young men and women had been sequestered in cantonments for half a decade and – now that the long awaited moment had arrived – solemnity seemed to be the prevailing emotion. Photographer Niranjan Shrestha was present on Saturday and captured the mood:
Of the 19,000-plus ex-rebels living in the cantonments since 2006, the government has agreed to allow 6,500 of them to join the army, with the clear understanding that their jobs will be restricted to construction of infrastructure projects, emergency rescue operations and patrolling forests.
The remaining ex-fighters have the option of receiving a retirement payoff (between $6,300 and $11,000) or receiving a rehabilitation package that includes vocational training.
The reintegration process will probably take two weeks to complete and the combatants will remain in the camp until their leaders have worked out the logistics of the retirement and rehabilitation packages. Early reports suggest that the rehabilitation package is the least popular option, the majority preferring integration into the army or a lump sum to finance their re-entry into civilian society.
What’s remarkable about the orderly process is the context in which the rebels were forced into the cantonments in the first place. At the end of the 10-year conflict, Maoist leaders promised their fighters that they would all be integrated into combatant branch of the national army and be given equal stature to their counterparts in the Nepal Army.
But General Rookmangud Katawal, who was the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) of the Nepal Army in 2006, when Maoist Supremo Prachanda became prime minister, fiercely resisted group integration of Maoist rebels into the army. Prachanda sacked General Katawal but, shortly afterwards, the President of Nepal overrode the decision and ordered General Katawal to resume his tenure as COAS. This resulted in Prime Minister Prachanda's resignation and a general collapse of the government.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that the government struck an integration compromise. The ex-combatants willingness to follow their chain of command – even though Maoist leadership couldn’t make good on their earlier promises – may say more about the misery they have endured for the last five years than respect for their commanders.
In my April 27, 2011 interview with General Katawal, he made the following observation about the ex-rebels:
"I still believe and I will keep on believing that the boys and girls who are in the cantonments, they are almost prisoners of some of the leadership. Right now. They are frustrated. They want to come out of the camps as quickly as possible If, without any imposition or pressure, they were given a choice, the vast majority of these boys and girls would like to go to schools, colleges, and campuses. They would like a better future. They would like opportunities -- a wide gate opening up for them of various opportunities once they are educated. They could go to America, or the UK, or Tokyo or anywhere and they could sit for competitions and win the competitions, once they were educated. Once they were exposed.
"I am sure that the vast majority of them would just like to leave the cantonments and do their own thing because they have lost about 14-15 years of their lives. Who’s going to return that to them? And they know it by now. What have they got to show for 14-15 years? Right now, what they have been given is 5,000 rupees a month, and even that too, I am told by the [Maoists] commanders who came to see me, they are really only given 3000 rupees."