The main cantonment housing the combatants of the Fifth Division of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is built along a ridgeline in Dahabang, in Nepal’s Rolpa District, a longtime Maoist stronghold. The first week of February saw a ceremony in Rolpa as the last of nearly 3000 minors and other ‘disqualified’ combatants were finally discharged from the cantonments, which observers hailed as a major victory. Yet even as these individuals now look to figure out how to re-integrate back into Nepali society, life for the 19,000-odd other combatants in the cantonments continues at its slow pace. As the ceremony was taking place in the Dahabang cantonment, for instance, other combatants were busy constructing a two-storey building to be used as a residence by their commanders. Indeed, since 21 November 2006, when Nepal’s former Maoist guerrillas began their stay in the seven main and 21 satellite cantonments set up in accordance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), one of the cadres’ main jobs has been to construct their own living spaces. For most, there has been little else to do but wait – a process that now looks set to continue, as discussion over the combatants’ futures remains mired in political infighting in Kathmandu.
Company Commander Panchama Roka Magar (aka ‘Shrijana’) says she takes part in the construction activities when she is not involved in military and political training or sentry duty. Her official responsibility is to distribute foodstuffs to the more than 150 comrades in her cantonment – significant duties, which have made her camp life unusually busy and, to a certain extent, satisfying for the past few years. Yet coming after the end of the decade-long war, Shrijana’s life too has been turned upside-down. Originally from northern Rolpa, she is now 33 years old, and says that she has been involved in the insurgency since the Maoists began their ‘people’s war’ in February 1996. Her husband, who was also a Maoist fighter, was killed in a military action against a police station in Takasera of Rukum District in 2000, ten months after they got married. Three years later, she formally joined the PLA and participated in several major actions, including the massive raid on an army base in Beni, the capital of central Myagdi District. Now, her only family member is her 10-year-old daughter Nisana, who goes to a public school close to the cantonment during the daytime and stays with her mother at night.
Shrijana, like the thousands of other former Maoist combatants, is wondering what she will do once the cantonments are, eventually, shut down. Due to the conflict, she, like many other cadres, never had a chance to engage in proper study. As such, Shrijana says that the only hope that she has for her future is to work in the national army – a due that she feels she now deserves. It is a future for which she says she is willing, again, to fight. “I want to work for the country,” she said. “We have been staying in cantonments for more than three years, expecting that we will be integrated into the national army. If we are not, another war may start.”
For the past five months, another woman commander of the Fifth Division, Horika KC (aka ‘Nabina’) has lived in Ghorahi of neighbouring Dang District with her two-year-old son. She was forced to leave the cantonment after her division passed a new regulation disallowing women combatants with children younger than three years from living in the camps (though they can return when the children grow older). This policy has affected a significant number of women, particularly given the sharp rise in births in the cantonments in recent years. In the Fifth Division alone, nearly 250 women combatants have been forced to leave – a requirement that Nabina feels is unjust, given her status as an experienced commander.
Nabina likewise expresses her desire to work in the national army, but says she is not optimistic about her future. “All the ‘mother combatants’ should be integrated into the national army,” she said. “But seeing the present political situation, I don’t believe that the integration of the two armies will happen.” Indeed, all of the Fifth Division commanders and combatants with whom this writer met gave strikingly similar answers: that there is no option for them but to be integrated into the national security forces, mainly the Nepal Army. The political discussions of ‘rehabilitation’, including options for further education and even overseas employment, are simply not an option for them, they say, partly due to the pride that they feel for having fought for their country, and partly due to political coaching on the issue from the Maoist leadership.
Deciding on the future of the Maoist army, which has 19,602 members as qualified by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), is surely the most critical outstanding issue in Nepal’s peace process. For the Maoists, integrating their armed forces into the country’s national-security institutions has been raised since the peace process began, and even before. When this writer travelled around the Maoist base areas of Rukum and Rolpa during the second ceasefire period, in February 2003, a Maoist theatrical play was taking place at a mass gathering in western Rukum titled “Jana sena and shahi sena” (People’s army and royal army), on the occasion of the formation of a district-level ‘people’s government’. During the three-hour comedy-tinged play, the Maoists tried to send a message to both their cadres and the general public: that PLA combatants would be merged with the national army, to work together for the country’s sake. During the meeting, Maoist leaders also stressed that both the PLA and the national army should be dissolved and then integrated into a single new force. Six years later, this unlikely goal remains the basis of the Maoist combatants stance on their future.
Safer in groups
The political reality, meanwhile, is far from this Maoist ‘plan’. Prior to his retirement in mid-2009, the former chief of the Nepal Army, Rukmangud Katawal, repeatedly stated that the army could not take on recruits who had been ‘indoctrinated’ with political ideology, indicating that his force would reject any potential merging with the PLA. Likewise, as soon as she was appointed defence minister in late May 2009, Bidhya Bhandari of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxists-Leninist) publicly echoed this sentiment, pledging that Maoist combatants would not be integrated into the army – rather, they would be “supervised”. Yet the Maoist demand for en masse integration has remained strong. In January, after the Nepali media reported on Indian Army chief Deepak Kapur’s comment that only individual Maoists who meet the army’s recruitment criteria should be allowed to join the Nepal Army, the Maoists launched a street movement against India, angrily claiming that New Delhi was politically intervening in Nepal’s peace process.
In fact, the Maoist leaders themselves have to share the responsibility for the delay in deciding on the future of the former guerrillas, as they have not taken the initiative to start the process of integration. During its ten months in power (until early May 2009), the Maoist-led government committed itself to completing the process of integration and rehabilitation of combatants within six months. Yet thereafter, it never showed any real interest in pursuing the issue. On 13 February 2009, on the 13th anniversary of their armed struggle, then-Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka ‘Prachanda’) directed the PLA to come under the command of the government’s planned Special Committee for the Supervision, Integration and Rehabilitation of Maoist Combatants. This never happened, however, and once formed the Special Committee itself was never able to function well under Maoist-led government. Detailed discussion on the future of the Maoist cadres can be thought to have begun following 1 September 2009, when the first meeting of the Special Committee finally took place. After much discussion, the body had been formed under the coordination of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, after Prime Minister Dahal resigned in May 2009. It consists of nine members, two representatives from each of the three largest parties – the UCPN (Maoist), the Nepali Congress, the CPN (UML) – and one from each of the three Madhesi parties.
In January, Prime Minister Nepal tabled a proposal before the Special Committee that had been prepared by representatives of the non-Maoist parties. In it, he proposed to complete the process of integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants within 112 days, once the process began. The PLA’s chief commander, Nanda Kishor Pun (aka ‘Pasang’), announced this as a positive step, given that a prime minister had taken the initiative to start the process while other political party leaders, especially Defence Minister Bhandari, remained opposed to the idea of integration. “When Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel was a minister of peace and re-construction,” Pun said, “he used to say ‘no Maoist combatant can be integrated into the Nepal Army.’ But now [Prime Minister Nepal] is saying that up to 5000 combatants can be integrated into national security forces. This is in fact a development.”
Still, there has been widespread criticism of the prime minister’s proposal from within the Maoist ranks. Barsa Man Pun (aka ‘Ananta’), a Maoist member of the Special Committee and former deputy commander of the PLA, responded to the proposal by noting that its central concept was still individual recruitment. “According to this proposal, combatants can take one of three options,” he said, “to work in the party organisation, to rehabilitate in the society, or to be integrated into one of four national-security institutions,” referring to the army, the civilian Nepal Police, the Armed Police Force or the Department of Investigation. Pun also took exception to Prime Minister Nepal’s suggestion that only up to 5000 combatants could be integrated, stating, “Among 19,602 qualified combatants, all who are willing to work in national security forces should be integrated.”
All of the Maoists interviewed by this writer flatly rejected the possibility of being recruited on an individual basis, rather sticking to the idea of ‘unit-wise integration’. They expressed anxiety that if they were to be individually mixed with Nepal Army soldiers and officers, they would not feel safe among their former enemies. Education qualifications are also clear obstacles, as many combatants (such as Shrijana, introduced earlier) did not have a chance to study in school, and thus would not be able to meet the standards of the national-security forces. There are ideological underpinnings to this refutation, as well. In rejecting the push to accept the Nepal Army’s current standards, Shrijana asked, “We fought against the bourgeois education on which the Nepal Army’s standards are based, so how can we now accept those standards?” Others point out that the requirements are something of a double standard. Brigade Commander Himamat Baral Magar studied up to 10th grade and received his School Leaving Certificate, which means he would only be able to attain the rank of captain in the Nepal Army. But, he jokes, “[Nepali Congress leader] Girija Prasad Koirala, who has become prime minister many times, studied only up to Intermediate level. If politicians don’t need higher education to be a minister, then why do we need to get a bourgeois degree?”
Chief Commander Pun stresses that priority should be given to integrating higher-ranking Maoist commanders into the national army. Yet in fact, accepting Pun and the various ‘divisional commanders’ as Nepal Army officers would undoubtedly prove to be even more problematic for the hesitant army generals, given that such individuals would almost certainly be more strongly motivated by their party ideology than would lower-rank combatants. Some on the Maoist side are attempting to ameliorate such concerns. For instance, Deputy Commander Chandra Prakash Khanal (aka ‘Baldev’) has promised, “After joining the national army we won’t do publicity activities under the flag of our party.” He was quick to note, however, “We all can have our own political faith.”
There are also disagreements between the Maoists and other political forces over the timeframe for completing the process of integration. The ruling political parties are currently emphasising that the process of integration and rehabilitation needs to take place before the new constitution is completed, which is supposed to happen by late May. On the other hand, the Maoist party Standing Committee decided not to fix the fate of combatants until the Constituent Assembly decided on a new national security policy. “But so far, no discussion has taken place on this issue,” said Nanda Kishor Pun.
In fact, even Maoist members of the Constituent Assembly seem not to be particularly serious about a new national security policy. Rather, the Maoist strategy appears to revolve around utilising the PLA to re-gain the upper hand, both in the constitution-writing process and in dealings on other political issues, such as forming a new Maoist-led national government led by Maoists. But Barsa Man Pun, the Maoist member of both the Standing Committee and the Special Committee, has a different explanation for the Maoist demand: “We suspect some foreign forces and some in the ruling parties are plotting to dissolve our army and not to write a constitution, with the purpose of giving a powerful role to the president and bringing an end to us.” He continues: “Accordingly, we thought the process of making a constitution and the process of integration should go together, as these two processes are closely related. If a new constitution is successfully completed, then the process of integration would also end successfully.”
To make both of these processes successful, political consensus among the main political parties is essential. And despite the slow going, some progress has indeed been made on this. In the Special Committee, for instance, according to Barsa Man Pun, the Maoist representatives have agreed to give over responsibility for decision-making on key issues – such as the number of combatants that will be integrated into the national-security institutions, as well as the norms and modalities of integration – to the recently created High-Level Political Mechanism (HLPM), which consists of the top leaders of the three main political parties. However, in a situation in which the role of the HLPM itself is being questioned by members of the three political parties, including the Maoists, it remains unclear whether the mechanism can even function as a decision-making body on crucial issues. During a HLPM meeting on 13 February, for instance, despite previous agreement among members of the Special Committee, Maoist Chairman Dahal rejected any discussion of integration issues when Prime Minister Nepal tabled a proposal to that effect. Barsa Man Pun indicated the difficulty of reaching an accord among the leaders in the current context: “Even if members of the Special Committee reach a consensus, it does not mean that leaders of all political parties agree.”
Perhaps the most difficult agreement to reach will be with the on-the-ground Maoist cadre and commanders themselves. In a situation in which there is little possibility that all former combatants will be integrated into the national security forces, convincing them – especially the high-ranking commanders – to accept the new reality will be extremely difficult for the Maoist leadership. “There is a difference of heaven and earth between the debates going on in the Special Committee and our expectations,” said Raj Bahadur Buda (aka ‘Abinas’), vice-commander of the Fifth Division. “We are not satisfied with what the Special Committee is discussing … the prime minister’s proposal was made in order to force us to surrender, and we cannot accept it.”
Similar intra-Maoist disagreements are simmering over the prerogative of the Special Committee. In order to bring the PLA under the command of the Special Committee, the Maoist leadership proposes that a Maoist chair the secretariat that is meant to directly oversee cantonments and combatants. The non-Maoist parties are vehemently opposed to this idea. It is not even clear whether the Maoist rank-and-file will agree to something to which the leadership has agreed. As Vice-Commander Buda warned, “Even if our leaders accept another party’s coordinator, we will not accept it.” Likewise, suggests Baral Magar, “If we are not integrated into the national army in the way that we want, we are not going to stay under the command of the Special Committee. Rather, we will continue to stay under our party.”
Barsa Man Pun is of the view that the issue of Maoist-combatant integration will now proceed only when the national-level politics get back on track – and for that, political consensus among political parties is the only way out. However, with little possibility of such agreement in the present political situation, the future of Nepal’s Maoist combatants seems to hang in the balance. At this point, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that if the constitution-writing process is prolonged beyond May, the Maoist combatants will have to remain in the cantonments – and then, no one knows.
~ Kiyoko Ogura is a Japanese journalist based in Nepal. She has been covering the Maoist conflict since 2001.