Saturday, October 18, 2008

Army integration: The toughest job facing post-conflict Nepal

The world has witnessed many countries passing through transitions from war to peace. Transitions often reach their climax during the ordeal of integrating two formerly conflicting armies into one.Nepal, a South Asian country that reeled under a bloody war for about a decade, is now confronting the issue of integrating the two powerful armies - the government's Nepal Army and the Maoist People's Liberation Army (PLA)- which had been in armed conflict with each other until a cease-fire two years ago. The national army has some 95,000 professional army personnel and the Maoists have 20,000 battle-hardened guerrillas. As a part of the peace process, the government and the Maoists invited the United Nations to jointly monitor both their armies in cantonments. The issue of integration is further complicated by the number of parties involved: the formerly rebel Maoists headed by Prachanda, the new prime minister and head of government, the Nepal Army (that was formerly in conflict with Prachanda), and the newly emergent Madhes. The Madhes live in a region of southern Nepal that borders India and are seeking autonomy and representation in the army dominated by non-Madhesis.The parties are still at odds on integration and the UN is helpless, as it has no mandate to step in on this sensitive issue. In fact, the issue has become increasingly complex, and understanding this complexity is necessary before reaching any decision on army integration. As of now, there are five major issues and drawbacks to which the parties need to give serious thought. The first is the parties' immature policy of avoiding discussions on army integration by an act of continuous deferral. As the issue always tends to be the bone of contention, the conflicting parties choose to defer it contentiously for the sake of (hallow) consensus. And now, none of the peace agreements can clearly speak on the issue.Second, the parties never gave any thought to what will be the arrangements for balancing defenses once the king, who headed the national army, was abolished. What if the supreme commander of the Maoist PLA wins the election and gets the authority to "use and operate" the national army as well? The reality today is the king is gone, the Maoists have a majority and they have the power to use both armies. A challenging situation for the other democratic parties! In fact, this miscalculation prevented the parties from having a clear road map for integrating Maoist combatants. Third, while wrangling over powers, the political parties in the constituent assembly ended up giving almost absolute power to the Maoists. Some of the parties were cajoled into supporting the Maoists by passing a parliamentary proposal, which allowed the Maoists a monopoly in the National Defense Council. It became a problem only when the Maoist-led Council lost faith in the state army. Under such a condition, any Maoist unilateralism in dealing with army integration would invite a disaster because that would provoke the national army to step in.Fourth, the parties, after the abolition of monarchy, gradually broke away from the alliance that they had forged to fight against the king in 2005 and began misinterpreting what was already agreed upon. In between the period of the 2005 New Delhi pact and the 2006 Nov. 22 peace agreement, the parties changed their mood. The distrust of the Maoists has increased and the word "integration" mentioned in the first agreement was replaced by "possible integration" when it came to the Nov. 22 agreement. Fifth, the country's politics took a U-turn in the post-April Movement days when a new force emerged from the southern plain along the border with India: the Madhesis. Their genesis itself is described in terms of their revolt against the Maoist excesses. They have demanded regional autonomy and an equal representation in the national army. The Maoists and the other parties have committed to ensure them these rights. This would demand a complete change in army integration statistics.Given these complexities, the Maoists would do better if they realized this and took into confidence the two equally compelling forces: the existing national army and the dissent voices from Madhes. Prime Minister Prachanda's recent remarks said that he would complete the task of army integration within six months, however, a provocative response from the Chief of Nepal Army demonstrated that the integration will not be easy.If Prachanda insists on integration, then he should also explain how that won't impact the national army's neutrality. More importantly, the stakeholders should make it clear what "integration" exactly means. For the problem is that "integration" is interpreted only in terms of entry into the national army. If we consider their integration in educational, economic and social sectors, 90 percent of the problem will be solved. These alternatives could be sought by forming a high-level committee on integration comprising of representatives from all groups, including the newly emerged parties in the Madhes and the national army.
Artical by
Kamal Raj Sigdel