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Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 211 / Asia

Nepal: From Two Armies to One

Nepal’s Maoist combatants urgently need to be integrated into the national security forces and rehabilitated or retired to consolidate the peace process.

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Executive Summary

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.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 18 August 2011

 

Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.

Kathmandu/Brussels