Nepal's Maoist Government Faces Unrest in the Ranks

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The Nepalese army takes part in the third Democracy Day Parade in Kathmandu, Nepal, on April 24, 2009

In the latest development in Nepal's experiment with allowing former rebels to take the helm of the nation's democratically elected government, the Maoist leadership formally retracted its threat last week to sack the chief of the formerly royalist Nepal army. The move, some say, may have saved the less-than-a-year-old government from being overthrown. The intractable dispute over assimilating the former Maoist guerrillas into the army, as per the terms of the peace accord signed in November 2006, could have led to a military coup. But while the government's reconciliatory decision succeeded in keeping power and pulling a fragile peace process back from the edge, the Maoists now find themselves tasked with trying to stamp out growing unrest amid their own ranks — the former insurgents of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

Trouble had been brewing for months in Kathmandu over the most controversial goal of the peace accord: integrating the 19,000 former guerrillas into the Nepal army and, more important, into society. During the Maoists' decade-long insurgency, the former King's Royal Nepalese Army was called upon to tackle the Maoist guerrillas, and the two forces have been stridently inimical to each other ever since. "The fact is, the Nepal army today is the only significant opposition to the Maoist takeover of Nepal," says retired Major General Dipankar Banerjee, director of the New Delhi–based Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. "The new government wants to get greater influence over the army." (See pictures inside Nepal's former PLA camps.)

Indeed, the current army chief, Rookmangud Katawal, has a reputation for being a strident royalist and Maoist baiter. Katawal had been adopted by Mahendra, the father of King Gyanendra, whom the Maoists fought hard to bring down in their aim to abolish the monarchy. The army chief has long resisted the induction of the PLA into the Nepal army, and he courted trouble last November by beginning recruitment of 3,000 new soldiers before any former PLA guerrillas had been folded in — a move made without permission from the Ministry of Defense and against the provisions of the peace agreement. Katawal also refused to retire eight monarchy-era generals despite the new government's order. Things came to a head earlier this month when he refused to let the Nepal army participate in the National Games because the PLA was also taking part. (Read about what King Gyanendra and other ex-royals are doing in "Life After the Throne.")

The Defense Ministry wrote to Katawal earlier this month, giving him 24 hours to clarify his actions. When the general wrote back defiantly, claiming the actions were legitimate, his removal looked imminent, sending shock waves through the political establishment and the donor and diplomatic community. The key opposition party to the Maoists, the Nepali Congress, disrupted parliament on Tuesday and was joined by 15 other political parties, including a key coalition partner, CPN-UML, to oppose the Maoists' move to unseat Katawal. Even the Indian ambassador to Kathmandu, Rakesh Sood, made several representations to Prime Minister Prachanda, asking him to back down.

Even after Prachanda did just that, however, the end of this dramatic series of events has left the Maoist leader facing the ire of his own ranks, who are getting edgy after being corralled into U.N.-monitored encampments around the country since they began their surrender over 2½ years ago. Nearly 20,000 PLA fighters have been verified by the U.N. and are ready to be inducted into the army if they meet the eligibility criteria. But that process has yet to begin, a stall that some have attributed to the opposition of the army chief and the Nepali Congress. "The fact is that the Maoists took things to the edge, and now face-saving within the party will be difficult," says journalist and Nepali Times publisher Kunda Dixit. "The problem is now not between the army and the Maoists but within the Maoists themselves."

By all accounts, accommodating all 19,000 former guerrillas in the army is not possible. Earlier this month, the Army Integration Special Committee set out to conduct the first survey of what the former rebels want to do. A vast majority are expected to opt to join the Nepal army, but those who don't make the cut will have to be assimilated into other security forces or given other jobs per the terms of the accord. "Some 5,000 have left — they just got tired of waiting," says Kosmos Biswokarma, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Nepal. "The rest are getting impatient. They want decisive action." Prachanda's biggest problem now will be containing this unrest and finding a solution. Until then, "the first great world experiment of the 21st century" — as Prachanda described the Maoists' political ascension in Nepal in November 2006 — may only yield more instability for the people of this tiny Himalayan nation.

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