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Sanjay Upadhya: Nepal Now It’s The Military’s Turn

Nepal: Now It’s The Military’s Turn

By Sanjay Upadhya

Judging from King Gyanendra’s latest cabinet reshuffle, the monarch appears unfazed by last month’s 12-point accord reached between Nepal’s mainstream political parties and Maoist rebels in New Delhi.

Five days after returning from a three-week foreign trip, the king dropped a few controversial ministers and brought in representatives of smaller parties. Clearly, the monarch has his eyes on holding municipal elections less than two months away.

The Maoist rebels, having undergone some internal reorganization and ideological introspection, extended their three-month ceasefire by another 30 days. If their intention is to reassure the Nepalese people and the international community that they truly stand for peace, the window of opportunity may be narrowing. A further extension of the unilateral truce would coincide with the February municipal polls the royal government has vowed to hold in advance of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007.

The two largest mainstream parties – the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) – are busy organizing some of the largest rallies the kingdom has seen since the Feb. 1 royal takeover. In terms of substance, the leaders’ conversation has barely moved beyond rhetorical threats to the palace. Have the parties turned republican or have the Maoist become “ceremonial” monarchists? No one knows for sure. What has changed, though, is that the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) is increasingly being dragged into needless controversy.

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For those who believed all along that India – or at least an influential section of the New Delhi power establishment – was using Maoist insurgency as a leash on the kingdom, the rebel-parties accord was scarcely unnatural.

The smaller members of the Seven-Party Alliance (SPA) – on whose behalf Nepali Congress president Girija Prasad Koirala and Unified Marxist-Leninist general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal reached the agreement with Maoist leaders in New Delhi – were the first to criticize the accord’s principal flaw: keeping the RNA and Maoist fighters under the supervision of the United Nations or some such “international body” prior to elections for a constituent assembly. The vagueness surrounding the terms “supervision” and “international body”, among other things, propelled three constituents of the SPA to attack the accord. The implication, of course, is that outside powers – more specifically the one that facilitated the accord – could use the peace process to further their own interests.

After a point, condemning India for orchestrating the accord becomes meaningless. New Delhi is entitled to actions and opinions that suit its interest. The onus is on the Nepalese people to think and act rationally. For now, external and internal efforts to project Nepal’s assertion of its sovereign rights as a campaign to legitimize “autocracy” have gained the upper hand.

Ordinarily, the two big parties’ embrace of the rebels would be hailed as a monumental gesture of reconciliation. After all, the Maoists have inflicted as much death and destruction on Nepali Congress and UML members as they have on state security forces and innocent civilians. In that spirit, the parties’ decision to equate the rebels, whom they had branded terrorists while in power, with legitimate state security forces could be understandable. In their ardor to tame the palace, however, the mainstream parties have been dangerously provoking the RNA.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy's references to the RNA having to choose between the king and the people have had a deepening resonance in the domestic discourse. For credibility’s sake, at least, Nepalese politicians making such appeals could explain how they would be better able to serve the army’s interests. Instead, the UML leader has chosen to attack China for backing the RNA in the aftermath of the arms embargo imposed by India, United States and Britain. Koirala has been calling for the creation of a “national” army.

Superficialities such as bringing the army under civilian control and integrating rebels into a future national army are catchy political slogans. The long-term implications cannot be glossed over. Even the most radical republican recognizes that the state cannot remain without an army. States that do are either part of a broader security umbrella or exist in regions with sufficient political, economic and geographical symmetry to confer security.

It has become fashionable in the western media to describe the RNA as a ceremonial force suited at best to broad-base international peacekeeping missions. An institution that takes pride in its role in the consolidation of Nepal as a nation-state is bound to resist such efforts. Army chief Gen. Pyar Jung Thapa’s recent comments clearly suggest that the top brass does not intend to allow the military to become a political football.

Clearly, the RNA, as a conventional force, is facing deep problems in countering the Maoists’ guerrilla warfare. The corollary – at least as it relates to any peace process -- is the difficulty in mainstreaming ideologically motivated group of fighters to abandon their hit-and-run tactics against the state and become part of a regular army. Ideally, as part of a broad peace process, integrating the two forces into a national army would help the reconciliation process.

The imponderables are too many. The task of incorporating former rebels not trained in the rigors of a professional national army is much too complex. For instance, not much is known about key rebel commanders. Their integration into command posts would focus attention on their academic qualifications.

The challenges on the other side, too, are immense. The full impact of what now appears to be a significant dilution of the Maoists’ ideological agenda remains unclear. The fact that the ceasefire has held – at least in terms of a significant diminution of rebel offensives -- can be taken as evidence of either strong discipline or the prosecution of war by other means.

In broader terms, the record of discipline within rebel ranks is not entirely encouraging. Prachanda himself has had difficulty enforcing explicit pledges not to attack civilians. Even after the New Delhi accord, local Maoist cadres are still impeding the activities of mainstream political parties.

Prachanda’s climbdown on the issue of the monarchy – if that what it really is – is the least of the rebel supremo’s problems. Of the five members of the Maoists’ last negotiating team, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai and Krishna Bahadur Mahara remain the most conspicuous. Matrika Yadav makes headlines as a prisoner of the state. Dev Gurung has been named secretary of the Maoist government, but little has been heard about him beyond that. Does the relative silence of Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal,” the architect of the “People’s War” signify the supremacy of the political command or something more ominous?

Are the lower-level cadres fully behind their leadership in embracing the Nepali Congress and the UML, which ordered and endorsed some of the most repressive crackdowns during the early years of the insurgency?

The India Factor How does the ideologically driven segment of the rebels view India’s whole role in facilitating the accord with the mainstream parties. This becomes relevant especially since many of the rebels’ key grievances relate to India’s “exploitative” policies on Nepal. Can this segment be oblivious to India’s other intention in mainstreaming the Nepalese Maoists: severing their growing links with allies active in almost a dozen Indian states. After all, Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam enjoyed New Delhi’s patronage as long as their concept of an independent Tamil homeland excluded claims to the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

The centrality of India in the rapid sequence of events within Nepal’s Maoist movement over the last year has raised serious questions. After having accused Dr. Bhattarai of being, in effect, an “Indian agent” – prompting the chief ideologue to imply that the supremo was a tool of the palace -- Prachanda suddenly dispatched him to hold talks with Indian and Nepalese leaders in New Delhi. That paved the way for Dr. Bhattarai’s rehabilitation in the party, without much attention paid to the serious accusations the two had traded.

When local security officials suggested that Nepalese Maoists were involved in a daring attack in India’s Bihar state, Prachanda and his lieutenants went to great lengths to deny any role. That seemed to have pacified New Delhi, but local officials stuck with their story. Then, days after signing a joint statement with his Indian counterpart Ganapathy, Prachanda expressly pledged that the mission of Nepal’s rebels was confined within the country. What, then, has become of the much-hyped Compact Revolutionary Zone in South Asia?

During the peace process of 2003, Nepali Congress president Koirala vigorously opposed the Maoists’ demand to limit the RNA within a five-kilometer radius of their barracks. Koirala took that stand while he was leading the agitation against King Gyanendra’s sacking of an elected government.

Today, Koirala sees no problem in placing the army under ambiguous “external supervision”. The only thing that has changed since is that King Gyanendra has become head of government as well. Wouldn’t a republican Nepal Koirala seems to half want need a strong and legitimate military force? Or has the imperative of demolishing the second bastion of the Nepalese state superseded everything else?


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