Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Nepal's Maoists-The few, the proud, the happy campers

AT THE end of Nepal’s civil war in 2006 this correspondent visited one of the cantonments where the Maoist former guerrillas would live until they were integrated into a reformed national army. The sprawling camp in Surkhet district, nestled against wooded hills by a clear blue river, was largely deserted—but for a squad of tailors hurriedly running off hundreds of camouflage uniforms. Then, as the sun was going down on that scenic spot, a seemingly endless convoy off buses arrived, each jam-packed under a roof crowded by jubilant young rebels waving flags and banners.

It was a moving spectacle. The war was over. That night the “Comprehensive Peace Agreement” (CPA, text here) was signed in Kathmandu.

There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then, and a lot of other stuff too. A deal was finally done this month to integrate 6,500 former rebels into the national army and to pay off the rest. This week the process of sorting the ex-fighters is set to begin. Nepal will have just one army again. It sounds like the formula for a happy culmination of the peace process (text courtesy a Maoist website). But a recent visit to a cantonment found none of the former jubilation—though it was, once again, largely deserted.

The issue of the former fighters was a bit of a hoax from the start. Most independent estimates put the rebels’ troop-strength during the conflict somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000. Yet when the camps opened over 32,000 people turned up, apparently recruited at the last moment by Maoist promises of pay and perks under the peace deal. The other parties were willing to indulge some of this mischief in the interests of the broader peace. Of those 32,000, a quarter soon drifted away and another 4,000 were “disqualified” by UN monitors who deemed them to be either underage or late-comers. The “disqualified” remained in the camps until February 2010, when they were finally “rehabilitated” under an internationally sponsored programme.

Meanwhile those in the camps seem to have drifted in and out quite freely. The commander of the camp that The Economist found so sparsely populated last week suggested that it would fill up again this week when the process of assigning army jobs or pay-offs (of up to $11,000, depending on rank) begins.

Not only were most of those in the camps not actually former fighters, but most of the authentic rebels seem to have joined a thuggish Maoist organisation called the Young Communist League, in preference to sitting it out in the camps. The YCL threw its weight around in cities and towns but its presence has faded of late. It’s not surprising that, for both sides, military issues have sometimes been more emotional or symbolic than substantial. At the end of the war both armies were able to regard themselves as undefeated. The Royal Nepal Army (as then it was) held the capital and other towns. But, at least since the failed peace talks of 2003, the Maoists’ main demand had been an assembly to write a new constitution and (they hoped) abolish the monarchy that the army was sworn to protect. That assembly is now sitting and it abolished the monarchy on its first day.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement treated both armies as equals, with equivalent terms and a matching pattern of concessions for each to make. So, integration of the Maoists would be marked by “democratisation” of the conservative and caste-ridden Nepal Army (as it is now known), making it more representative of the diverse population and bringing it firmly under civilian control. Likewise, return of land that the Maoists captured from absentee landlords would be matched by land reform, and so on. As the centrepiece of the whole process an elected assembly would write a new democratic constitution, creating a federal system and a “New Nepal” in which power and privileges were shared more fairly among the country’s many ethnic and caste groups.

This spirit of goodwill and compromise did not last, and it took a turn for the dire after the Maoists unexpectedly won elections in 2008. The army, still with its wartime strength of 90,000, resisted integration on the grounds that a few thousand former rebels would subvert the entire force. The other parties allied with the army as a bulwark against the Maoists. Yet at the same time, having argued that the Maoists could not be treated as a legitimate party while they had an army of their own, their opponents were motivated to throw a steady stream of obstacles in the way of Maoist demilitarisation. In that strategy they had willing allies among the Maoists’ own left wing, which clung to their army in the hope of using it to complete their revolution.

The final terms of integration remain vague but are based on proposals produced by the army and accepted by the “pragmatic” wing of the Maoists, currently in the ascendant. It is a matter of speculation how deep discontent runs within the party, although even hardliners are not threatening imminent trouble.

The issue of the Maoist fighters was indeed an obstacle in writing the new constitution. The recent deal was greeted with relief by many, who hope the process will now come unstuck. Yet talk of “democratising” the army, or of land reform, or the other reforms promised in the CPA and once widely accepted as necessary, has long since slipped off the agenda. The constitution is already late, with several fundamental issues seemingly destined for inelegant, last-minute fudges sometime next year.

Conservatives, and others who felt comfortable under the pre-war dispensation, might feel relieved that the peace process is not delivering on its more radical promises. Among the political Left, and among the traditionally disenfranchised groups, there are growing reasons for disappointment.

In the Hattikhor cantonment last week those Maoists who were put up for interview pronounced themselves satisfied with the deal, and relieved to be moving on with their lives after five wasted years. They seemed unaware of the less attractive aspects of the package. All of those interviewed said they wished to continue “serving the nation” by joining the national army alongside their fellow countrymen. Money was never important to them, they said, rejecting the pay-off’s significance. Presumably the discontented and cynical among them had already drifted off elsewhere. By Banyan for The Economist

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