Nepal: From Two Armies to One
Asia Report N°211
18 Aug 2011
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Central to Nepal’s peace process is the integration of some of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the state security forces and the “rehabilitation” or retirement of the rest. These steps are part of a complex set of negotiations about the future of the peace process and the Constituent Assembly (CA) that is drafting a new constitution. A settlement is urgently needed to give combatants a dignified exit, years after the initial ceasefire. It is also essential to protect the constitution-drafting and to reduce two standing armies to one. All involved will have to make compromises to settle an issue that lies at the heart of a sustainable peace.
Despite only sporadic negotiations after the CA’s term was extended in May 2011, agreement is possible. Negotiations have focused on integration into the Nepal Army (NA), and basic issues to be decided include: the number of combatants to be integrated, standards for integration, determination of rank and prospects for promotion, and the role of the former Maoist troops in the NA. For those who will choose rehabilitation or “voluntary retirement”, the issues include how many will want skills training, how many cash and how many a combination of the two. Also of concern are how these payments will be handled, how ex-combatants will be accommodated in Maoist party structures and how discontent will be handled.
It is tempting to see integration and rehabilitation (I/R) as a largely technical issue, but it is deeply political. The peace process viewed both armies as equals; neither was presented as having been defeated. All parties signed up to bring the PLA into the security forces, including the national army, which in turn was to undergo a process of reform to make it smaller, more inclusive and more accountable.
For the Nepali Congress (NC) and other traditional actors, the process is an opportunity to push the Maoists to become like the other parties and get rid of their army before the new constitution comes into force. For more conservative forces, generous terms for the fighters would give the sense that violence is being rewarded. That line runs up against the Maoist view that the PLA drove vital political change in Nepal, particularly the creation of a secular republic.
The Maoists accept that combatants will be integrated into a new directorate under NA control, although its mandate and size are unclear, and leadership will probably not at first be given to an ex-Maoist commander. There is a tacit understanding that combatants will have to meet some, though not all, existing recruitments standards and that wholesale integration of entire units will be difficult. This will in no sense be a merger of the two armies, as the Maoists used to demand. The party is also not going back to war, and the PLA has been systematically separated from political life since 2007. But all this is difficult to sell to some factions of the party and the PLA, as the Maoists are also making deep compromises on constitutional issues and many leaders are seen as increasingly caught up in politics. For the party’s own transformation to succeed, its army must be seen to have been treated respectfully. The Maoists need concessions, even if only symbolic, as much as the other actors might resent this. All parties must guard against reducing the issue to a political bargaining chip.
For the 19,000 combatants, their post-PLA options are a matter of more than just symbolism. As the parties determine how to reduce the perceived risks of the process, including those of ex-combatants joining criminal groups, turning their anger against their own party or engaging in subversion within the NA, they must remember that this is a diverse group. Different responses are needed for different ranks, and even within these groups, multiple options must be available.
Integration is also a test of the NA’s willingness to be a constructive player. Its leadership says the army will accept political decisions. The proposal the NA unofficially presented to the government has framed the negotiations, and some parts present a broadly acceptable way forward. That the army has set the agenda, though discreetly, runs counter to principles of civilian control of the military. But realistically, it means the army’s interests are well represented, a key point to keep it in the process.
I/R is a matter of urgency if the parties are to reach agreement on constitutional issues, including by extending the CA’s term, as needed. It is of limited public interest, but the overall slowdown is contributing to some frustration with mainstream political parties and further de-legitimisation of democratic processes. This is opening up space for fringe actors who wish to roll back the political changes since 2006. The cantonments also cost the Nepali state a lot of money and have been in place for over four years. Finally, conditions in the Nepal Army are relatively favourable at this time, with a chief who is willing to meet the parties part of the way. Formal closure on the war can, and should, begin now.
Integration and rehabilitation should serve a number of purposes: mark the end of ten years of war and progress in the five year-long transition; acknowledge recent history and political changes; and reduce the risk of localised conflict or political violence. Specifically:
- Combatants integrated into the NA should have a chance of a reasonably successful career within the constraints of age and years of service and so should be given opportunities to catch up with NA colleagues. Bridge courses have already been discussed. Perhaps some combatants will need a little more time to gain further qualifications, while others would benefit from seats at the staff college. While there is certain to be some wariness of ex-Maoist combatants, leaving integrated personnel uncompetitive could fuel discontent.
- If integration takes place primarily into the proposed new directorate under the NA, its mandate needs clear thinking. Being considered “non-combat” or unarmed is problematic for the PLA personnel, but the Maoist suggestion to deploy it for border security is unacceptable; Nepal’s borders do not need to be militarised. The parties should discuss whether the new directorate can participate in the NA’s more prestigious activities, such as peacekeeping operations and protection of national parks, for example. Although the debate has so far focused on the NA, the police and armed police could still be options, and the parties need to quickly do homework on this. The Maoists must clearly rank their priorities in negotiations: where integration happens, the mandate guiding integrated combatants, or the ranks at which they want integration.
- Preparations must immediately begin in the NA to accommodate the newly-integrated personnel.
- Independent assessments are that markedly more combatants will opt for rehabilitation and political work or “voluntary retirement” than integration, if offered attractive cash or cash and vocational training packages. This is appealing and broadly acceptable, but without safeguards, the payouts could mean a large infusion of cash into Maoist coffers and become a source of political tension. Payments should be made in instalments over a period of time. Some portion could be linked to completion of training, take the form of low- or no-interest loans, be paid to employment agencies for those seeking to work overseas, or consist of government bonds. Discussions on some options have already taken place; these should be formalised.
- The fraught 2010 exercise in discharging disqualified combatants holds some lessons. Vocational training options should consider the combatants’ interests and qualifications and not be presented patronisingly. Given the sensitivity around language, the vocabulary of “rehabilitation” could be replaced with the less judgmental-sounding “training”. Donors who fund or oversee these programs must ensure they are getting value for money, as combatants will know the official cash worth of their training programs.
- Integration and rehabilitation both should be monitored closely to address discontent early. The monitoring could be carried out by what is currently the secretariat of the special committee, which will have gathered experience and personnel during the cantonment monitoring and I/R process. Monitoring could also support a dispute or grievance resolution mechanism. Career counselling and psycho-social support for those who opt for training programs or political work still need to be discussed. Donor support for these activities could be helpful and allow low key international observation of the I/R process.
- As the cantonments empty, the parties must begin two exercises. A review of working conditions for soldiers in the NA can help mitigate the potential for resentment posed by the addition of new personnel who are seen to get special treatment. Secondly, the government and political actors, possibly through a strengthened and empowered national defence council, and civil society must begin policy-oriented research and discussion on key aspects of security sector reform so as to guide the thinking of successive governments, including: Nepal’s security concerns; making the NA more accountable and affordable; simultaneously downsizing the security forces and making them more effective and representative; and strengthening the defence ministry.
Kathmandu/Brussels, 18 August 2011