Story Publication logo June 20, 2008

Two Into One Won't Go


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In April 2008 Nepal turned a corner. More than 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for...


On a sun-baked plain four hours' drive south of Kathmandu, the capital, a platoon of Maoist fighters in jungle fatigues is on the move. A cry of "lal salaam!" ("red salute!") pierces the air as the drill instructor orders a halt, and the soldiers make thrusts with their mock-up wooden rifles. Even in the haze of dusk, it is clear there are still two armies in Nepal.

Elections are over, the monarchy scrapped, and a government is being formed. But a host of nation-building tasks lie ahead, none more daunting than the integration of the former Maoist rebels into the national army. This was part of the peace deal in November 2006 that ended a ten-year civil war. But more than 23,000 Maoist soldiers are still awaiting orders in seven United Nations-monitored cantonments. Maoist officers say they are ready for the merger, or to form a separate force as an adjunct to the regular army. The latter suggestion has been dismissed out of hand. But the army command remains deeply suspicious that Maoists in their own ranks would be a red Trojan horse.

An army spokesman has declared that the fighters cannot be integrated yet; they must first be "rehabilitated". Some politicians echo the army's line. A spokesman for the Nepali Congress, the oldest party, argues that a strategy must first be developed to ensure the army is not "polluted". Others say the army itself might need cleansing. Until the peace deal it was known as the Royal Nepalese Army. Indrajit Rai, a Kathmandu-based analyst, says it is now split: some senior officers with hereditary links to the monarchy are still loyal to the deposed king, Gyanendra, and want him to retain a symbolic role. They are at odds with a more flexible group who have worked their way up the ranks.

The UN mission has supervised the storage of weapons from both sides and screened Maoists for their eligibility for the army. Out of more than 31,000 candidates, some 19,600 passed muster. This is a large number relative to the army as a whole, which has expanded to 93,000 troops from about 50,000 in 1996.

Some argue that such a large force is no longer needed—Nepal's huge neighbours, India and China, are both friendly. Manpower could be diverted to rebuilding one of the world's poorest countries. One retired general insists that former rebels should be offered practical alternatives to the army, such as vocational training, education or jobs in the police.

The Maoists' leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known as "Prachanda", has said that "democratising" the forces will be a priority for the coalition government he is poised to lead. However, he has not given up his post as commander of Maoist forces since entering mainstream politics. And the Maoists' feared youth wing, the Young Communist League, continues to tax his credibility with its thuggery. All this, and the abduction and killing of Ram Shrestha, a Kathmandu-based businessman, who was beaten to death last month inside a cantonment by Maoist cadres, has put Prachanda on the defensive.

The UN, too, has faced its share of criticism, but overall can claim its mission in Nepal as a success. It is due to end in July. That has raised concerns that a loss of international interest and of the UN's expertise in healing war-torn states may stall an integration process that has yet to start.


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Peace Initiatives

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