After a long spell of mistrust among political actors, the peace process in Nepal has returned to a constructive and progressive stage. This week the Maoist-led government of Dr Baburam Bhattarai ordered the Nepal Army and the Armed Police Force to take total charge of Maoist cantonments, the former fighters and their weapons.
The government issued the instruction on April 10 as per the decision of the Special Committee (SC) after the top leaders of the three major political parties agreed to send in the army. The decision came two days before the original plan as the security situation deteriorated in the cantonments and the chain of command of the Maoist army turned dysfunctional.
The situation went out of hand when the divisional commander and two vice-commanders at the Chulachuli cantonments in Ilam district fled the fearing for their lives at the hands of the combatants. Likewise, situation in the cantonments at Sindhuli, Shaktikhor, Surkhet and Nawalparasi had become “explosive” when the survey teams from the SC secretariat reached there on April 7 to start the voluntary retirement process.
What compelled the Maoist leadership?
The April 10 midnight decision to send the army into the barracks was a last ditch attempt by the Maoist leadership to prevent further deterioration of the security situation in some of the cantonments.
The implosion was a result of a long-simmering frustration and resentment in the cantonments due to lack of progress in the peace process. The former Maoist combatants have been placed at the temporary camps since 2007. They were forced to live under taxing conditions with uncertainties over integration. They were unhappy when the peace deal was signed last November, which did not meet the popular expectations of the combatants, nor was it in line with what the Maoist leadership had promised them since the war days. The combatants were dissatisfied particularly with the provisions in the seven-point deal on education, age, rank and the role of the proposed NA directorate. Even after the deal, the Maoist leaders kept on promising that the combatants’ current level of education would be taken into consideration, that there would be group entry into the Nepal Army, the proposed directorate under the Nepal Army would have a combat role and PLA commanders would make it to the higher ranks in the Nepal Army — at least to the level of brigadier general. None of those promises materialised. The hardliner faction of the UCPN (Maoist) called the agreement “complete surrender” and the combatants felt that their leaders had betrayed them.
The combatants were also dissatisfied over lack of proper schemes for the future of disabled combatants, women fighters with children and disqualified combatants. They had obstructed the retirement process in February this year, pressing their demands.
The growing rift in the Maoist party between the establishment faction led by Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and the hardliner faction led by Vice-chairman Mohan Baidya was reflected at the cantonments too. Combatants belonging to the Baidya group declined to opt for integration and instead chose voluntary retirement as requested by Baidya. This created parallel divisions within the PLA rank and file.
But most importantly, much damage was done as reports of corruption over the PLA funds surfaced. The combatants started demanding transparency of the funds, comprising of billion of rupees, which went largely unaccounted for. The funds were never made public.
With the sending in of state security forces inside the cantonments, the government has pre-empted further damage and deterioration of security situation in the cantonments. Any delay would have cost the peace process dearly. The move has also removed doubts from the minds of those who had of late come to perceive the PLA more as a threat to the peace process.
In the meantime, two forces had been at play in Nepal’s fragile polity. One was the pressure from international community, including India, which lately played smart diplomacy to help put the peace process back on track. The message that came clearly from both India and China, Nepal’s two most important immediate neighbours, was that that completion of the peace process was a prerequisite to additional support in terms of development and investments.
The other factor which pushed the leaders towards a larger consensus was the Supreme Court ruling that came last year, which closed all doors for further extension of the Constituent Assembly. The decision drew support from the general public, whose patience too was running out.
The peace process now has entered into an irreversible phase. Chairman Prachanda has risked the party unity while taking the decision to conclude the integration process by merging the two armies. He is still faced with the challenge of tackling the hardliners, who are opposed to the new development. But if a compromise is arrived at, it is certain that Nepal could have a constitution well within the May 27 deadline.
Akanshya Shah is Associate Fellow, ORF
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