Four years ago, Hardik dropped out of his university-level science studies in the Nepali capital, Katmandu, to join Maoist insurgents in the bush. Admittedly scared sick at first, he said the rigors of guerilla warfare hardened his resolve to oust a ruling monarchy hopelessly out of touch with Nepal's poverty.

Today Hardik is one of more than 23,000 members of the People's Liberation Army idling in U.N.-monitored ceasefire camps, where weapons are locked away and his free time is spent doing English grammar exercises or playing the flute.

"There is no such thing as perpetual revolution," the 25-year-old said at his camp in the country's arid southern plains. "We have achieved our mission through the ballot and must start to rebuild our country, together, for the people."

Landmark elections in early April handed the Maoists the largest bloc in the new Constituent Assembly, tasked with writing a constitution that will mint the small Himalayan nation's transition to a republic. Last week, ousted King Gyanendra left the royal palace to make way for a national museum. Another, critical task is next: The integration of former rebels indoctrinated with revolutionary zeal into a unified national army.

A great degree of reluctance to the merger exists in the higher ranks of the army command. And there are deep-seated concerns among opposition leaders that the integrated Maoists could amount to an army within the army unless a clear-cut strategy is devised to "democratize" thousands of ex-combatants awaiting orders in the cantonments.

In January, the Nepal Army chief, Gen. Rookmangud Katawal, rankled Maoist leadership when he flatly spoke out against the integration. This view was reiterated by the head of army public relations, Ramindra Chhetri, who said in a recent interview that the fighters "cannot be integrated as of now," adding that they must first be "rehabilitated."

Arjun KC, vice secretary-general and spokesman for the Nepali Congress, the country's oldest political party, argued that a mechanism must be established by the government to ensure ex-combatants respect the will of elected civilian leaders. He stopped short of explaining what exactly that might mean.

"The army has a historic role and must not be an instrument for any party. It must not be polluted," he said.

Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal, alias Prachanda, has said that "democratizing" Nepal's army and making the PLA "professional" would be a top priority for the new government he is poised to lead. Already he faces intense criticism for not yet giving up his post as commander of Maoist forces. These doubts have been fueled by the heavy-handed activities of the Maoists feared youth wing, the Young Communist League, which continues to use violence and intimidation as it did in the run up to elections like a "paramilitary lever," according to KC.

Adding to the controversy is the recent killing of a Katmandu-based businessman who was beaten to death inside a Maoist ceasefire camp, allegedly at the hands of former rebels, on dubious charges of stealing money. Prachanda accepted that "some selfish elements" within his party were to blame, and has moved into damage control mode to blunt a wave of public anger.

At the same time, Indrajit Rai, a military specialist based in Katmandu, pointed out that although Nepal's 240-year-old monarchy has been abolished, the army was long known as the Royal Nepal Army, with traditional loyalties to the king. A fissure remains within the military establishment between senior officers belonging to soldier castes that have a hereditary connection to the king and believe he should retain a symbolic role, he explained, and those who have worked their way up the ranks.

"In fact, the same argument that is used against [integrating] the Maoists can be used to some extent against the army," he said.

The entry of Maoist forces into the national army was first agreed upon as part of the November 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement to end a brutal civil war that claimed more than 13,000 lives. At the request of the Nepal government and Maoist party, the U.N. mission here, known as UNMIN, was established to assist with elections and facilitate the peace process. Its year-long mandate began that same month and was renewed for an additional six months after elections were first postponed.

Before and since the ballot, the mission's duties include a 24-hour presence at each of the seven main Maoist cantonments, where they monitor rebel forces and the storage of weapons. UNMIN is also responsible for screening combatants on the basis of age and legitimate experience in the war to determine eligibility in the national army. Out of some 31,000 candidates vetted, nearly 20,000 have passed muster.

According to some observers, military integration must be tempered by the already inflated size of the standing army. When the Maoist insurgency broke out in 1996, the national police were deployed to combat what was at the time seen as a law and order problem. As fighting intensified, counterinsurgency operations soon fell on the army, which swelled from about 50,000 troops to its present level of 93,000.

Retired Lt. Gen. CB Gurung said that such a large force is no longer required given the evolving political climate and the military superiority of friendly neighbors China and India. Instead of being forced into the army en masse, Maoist foot soldiers should be given practical alternatives -- entry into vocational training, universities, reconstruction corps or forest guards -- that will help Nepal emerge from the long shadow of war. This would involve drafting an entirely new national security doctrine, he said.

"People say the future of the Nepal army will be a problem," Gurung said, acknowledging the challenge of managing such a large force. "I think it will be part of the solution. . . . Democracy is the name of the game, and there's no way out."

Still, with the U.N. mission set to leave the country for good by late July, there are fears that the loss of international attention and post-conflict expertise may undermine the integration process.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said last month that an extension of the mission was unlikely, although the United Nations would carry on its development-related activities if the new government approved. Privately, though, several Maoist and opposition leaders expressed hopes that it will be extended for at least another six months. Rai, the independent security expert, asserted that by leaving after elections and before military integration was complete, the U.N. would have "fulfilled only half its duties."

Commander Pratiskha, head of the PLA's 4th division, said he ultimately has "no doubts" about integration moving forward, so long as a lasting political solution is reached. "In the end we are all Nepalis. During war time there is ego and anger. During peace time there is a spirit of cooperation."

Outside his tin-and-plywood barracks, Dhiraj, one of the veteran fighters under Pratishka's command, sweated profusely after pumping out a set of push-ups. Unlike many of his fellow fighters, he still wore his jungle fatigues.

"There is no difference between us and [the army troops]," he said. "We are strong, capable fighters, just as good as them."

Project

In April 2008 Nepal turned a corner. More than 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for elections to choose a new government tasked with abolishing the monarchy and forging a stable republic after a decade-long insurgency that claimed over 13,000 lives. Despite pre-election violence and intimidation, international observers agreed the elections were for the most part free and fair.

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Jason Motlagh is a roving freelance multimedia journalist.
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