SOUTH ASIA: NEPAL News Briefs
The year saw at least 49 fatalities in extremist-related violence, including 35 civilians, one trooper and 13 militants. Among the slain militants were cadres from the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-Maoist) as well as rebels of different groups operating in the Terai region. There were at least two major incidents (involving the deaths of three or more persons). On September 6, three persons were killed and five others injured in a bomb blast at the house of one Harka Bahadur’s house in Malakheti Village Development Committee (VDC) area in the Kailali District. On April 16, three persons, including two members of a family, had been killed by an unidentified group in the Mabu VDC area of Ilam District.
Fatalities in Nepal, 2005-2009
Clearly, however, the declining trajectory of violence since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) has been sustained. Indeed, despite widespread apprehensions in the wake of the collapse of the Maoist-led coalition Government in May 2009, there has been no escalation. The absence of violence, however, has failed to establish a sense and promise of an enduring stability in this Himalayan state.
Though the quick fall of the Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda-led Maoist Government was unexpected, the growing distrust between the Maoists and the then-ruling coalition partner UML and the opposition Nepali Congress (NC) was palpable much earlier, jeopardizing even the semblance of consensual politics. The non-Maoist parties had, in fact, become skeptical about the stated Maoist commitment to transform this radical formation into a democratic force. While they were in power, moreover, the Maoists did little to build confidence, using all avenues available to consolidate their position in Nepali politics. The hiatus widened even further as a result of the core conflict over the issue of integration of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) combatants with the Nepal Army.
The issue of Army integration was to be managed by the Army Integration Special Committee set up in October 2008 and headed by then Prime Minister Prachanda, but with the participation of all key parties. The Army, however, announced a round of recruitment in November 2008. This was blocked off by the Defence Minister, who claimed the move violated terms of the comprehensive peace accord. The then-Chief of Army Staff (CoAS), General Rookmangud Katawal, clarified that the recruitment was intended only to fill existing positions, and this had been done earlier as well. Ignoring the Defence Minister, the Army went ahead with the process. The PLA retaliated by announcing its own recruitment. The case went to the Supreme Court, which subsequently ordered the PLA to halt recruitment immediately, and the Nepal Army (NA), not to recruit in future. This was followed soon after by the refusal of the Government to extend the terms of eight Brigadier Generals, despite a strong recommendation by General Katawal. The officers went to court and obtained a stay order, which reinstated them. The third incident – which is believed to have made Prachanda personally furious – was when the Nepal Army partially withdrew from the National Games when the Government decided to allow the PLA to participate.
A political crisis finally erupted when the Unified CPN-Maoist led Government, having clear intensions of removing the CoAS, sought a clarification from him on April 20, within 24-hours, for "disobedience of the Government decisions" on three issues – recruitment in the Army, extension of the tenure of eight Brigadiers, and the Army’s withdrawal from some of the events at the Fifth National Games in which the PLA was participating. The CoAS did reply to the accusations and, predictably, his response was not found to be satisfactory and he was sacked. But the President, Dr. Ram Baran Yadav, as the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, asked the CoAS to continue in office, overriding the Maoist decision to dismiss him. The President declared that the CoAS’ dismissal by the Cabinet did not "meet the constitutional requirements and due process."
After failing to get his way against General Katawal, Prachanda announced his resignation on May 4. In his address to the nation, Prachanda described the President’s move as "unconstitutional" and added that it was no longer appropriate for him to remain in the Government when there clearly existed "two ruling powers (the executive and the President)" in the country. Saying that a constitutional President had no right to block the decisions of an elected Government, he rued that the Presidential decision had "dealt a serious blow to democracy, peace process and the newly established republican order."
The main opposition party, the Nepali Congress (NC) had cautioned the Maoists not to sack the General. Other political parties, prominently including the CPN-UML, also voiced their concern. President Yadav had strongly advised the Maoists against taking such a controversial step without a political consensus. The Maoist Central Secretariat, in its meeting on April 30, however, asked the Party’s leadership to go ahead with the plan to dismiss the General. It was a unilateral decision. The Cabinet meeting that discussed the proposal had been boycotted by the CPN-UML (with 103 seats in the CA), the Sadbhawana Party (with nine seats), and the CPN-Sanyukta (with five seats, while the the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (with 50 seats) issued a note of dissent. The Cabinet decision to dismiss General Katawal and to appoint second-in-command Lt. Gen. Kul Bahadur Khadka to act as CoAS was, in effect, the decision of a minority Government. Significantly, General Katawal was due to retire in September 2009, while Lt. Gen. Khadka, who was in favour of the Maoist plan to integrate the PLA with the NA, was due to retire in June 2009. The Maoist plan was, evidently, to get rid of General Katawal who was unambiguously opposed to Army integration, and to retain Lt. Gen. Khadka as the CoAS by granting the latter an extension on the calculus that he would facilitate the integration process, which the Maoists fervently desired.
The other political parties in Nepal, however, quickly closed ranks. At least 20 of the 24 political parties in the country pleaded with the President to undo the Cabinet decision to prevent a total capture of power by the Maoists. President Yadav, after consultation with various political parties and constitutional experts, nullified the Cabinet decision. The Maoists argued that the decision to sack the CoAS was necessary to assert civilian supremacy over the Army. The fact, however, remained that the decision had much to do with General Katawal’s inflexible opposition to the integration of Maoist armed cadres into the Army.
The Maoist design was fully confirmed with the surfacing of the videotape of an address by Maoist Chairman Prachanda to PLA combatants, which was telecast by the Kathmandu-based Image Channel in the afternoon of May 3. The video grabs were of a meeting held at Shaktikhor Cantonment in Chitwan District on January 2, 2008, when the Maoists were an important constituent of the Girija Prasad Koirala-led Interim Government. The centrality of the plan to integrate Maoist combatants with the Nepal Army within the broader strategy of capturing national power was outlined, as Prachanda chalked out the overall scheme of the revolution: "The plan is to democratise the Army which means to politicise the Army. It will take 5 to 7 years for that. If we are really going to have integration the way to do it is unit-wise so that our units remain with us. This is important if we do it unit wise. We can react if we are betrayed." Further, regarding the verification of PLA combatants by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), Prachanda claimed, "Speaking honestly we were few earlier. We were 7,000 to 8,000. If we had reported that, our number would have reduced to 4,000 after verification. Instead, we claimed 35,000 and now we are 20,000. This is the truth." Explaining the work of the party he said, "How is today’s situation different from during the people’s war? Talking of form, earlier you were holding the machine gun and, killing or being killed. Today it seems like we are chatting and sipping tea. The form is very different but the gist is still the same. We are both taking the revolution forward…"
The authenticity of the video tapes was subsequently confirmed by Prachanda himself, though he insisted that the scandal of their broadcast was a "ploy against the peace process", claiming that the context within which his remarks were made was ‘different’, and had since changed.
Subsequent to the fall of their Government, the Maoists decided to agitate in Parliament and in the streets, until their decision to dismiss the CoAS was implemented. The Constituent Assembly members of the party decided not to allow any business in Parliament until President Yadav apologised before the House for his decision to ‘reinstate’ the Army Chief – an expectation that remains unfulfilled.
The CPN-UML-led coalition of 22 parties came to power in the wake of the fall of the Maoist led coalition Government, but has failed to inspire any confidence with regard to its stability, though periodic assurances have been articulated that the Government would not fall before its full tenure. Indeed, Parliament could resume its work on July 6 only after an ambiguously worded understanding was reached between the Maoists and the CPN-UML that the two parties would resolve their differences over the contentious issue of "civilian supremacy" within a month. Subsequently, however, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal insisted that the July 6 bilateral agreement between Maoists and the CPN-UML only said the two parties would take measures to ‘resolve the stalemate’, without any specific terms of resolution. At the expiry of the deadline, as the stalemate was not resolved, the Maoists renewed the threat of launching a protest movement from Parliament and the streets.
It is now clear that the Maoists are adamant that they would not allow Parliament to pass the Seventh Amendment to the Interim Constitution if Parliament does not take up the President’s ‘unconstitutional’ reinstatement of the dismissed CoAS for discussion. The Seventh Amendment, with retrospective effect, is crucial to render a Supreme Court order against Vice President Parmanad Jha infructuous. Jha took the oath of office and secrecy in July 2008 in Hindi, provoking widespread protests from various groups and a challenge in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court pronounced a verdict on August 23, 2009, directing the Vice President to retake the oath in Nepali within seven days, failing which his authority as Vice-President would cease to exist. Given his declared unwillingness to retake oath in Nepali, the Prime Minister, the President and coalition partners attempted to prevail upon him to respect the Supreme Court order. However, Jha refused to budge from his position, refusing both the retake the oath or to resign, claiming that the apex Court’s decision was "against the spirit of the constitution, democratic norms and people’s fundamental rights to use their mother tongues". The Madheshi Janadhikar Forum lauded Jha for reflecting the feelings and aspirations of the Madheshi people. Meanwhile, the Government withdrew state facilities, including VVIP security and salary, provided to Jha after September 4. Unsurprisingly, the United Madheshi Front, the joint forum of three Terai-based parties – the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, Terai Madhesh Loktantrik Party and Sadbhawana Party – enforced a shutdown in the Terai region on August 30, in protest against the Supreme Court verdict disrupting normal life in Siraha, Saptari, Morang, Sunsari, Rupendehi, Sarlahi, Bara, Parsa, Rautahat, Mahottarai, Kapilvastu and Nawalparasi Districts. The Maoists, however, insist that the issue of civilian supremacy is far more important than the controversy over the Vice President taking his oath of office in Hindi.
As part of their strategy to launch an agitation across the country, the Maoists have started giving training to about 800 party cadres in Rolpa and Rukum Districts. Another training camp was organised by the party’s India Regional Committee for expatriates at Butwal on August 25. More than 200 expatriate leaders and activists participated in the training programme. Prachanda has reportedly instructed party cadres to ‘retaliate’ if the Government tries to suppress the party's agitation, and he believes that the possibility of suppression is high, as it is unlikely that the protests would pave the way for a ‘national unity Government’. In some Districts, the Maoists have also reportedly established parallel local Governments.
On August 3, 2009, the Maoists created a new party front – the United National People's Movement (UNPM) – under party Vice Chairman Baburam Bhattarai, to lead the series of protests to dislodge the Madhav Kumar Nepal coalition Government. Addressing its inaugural convention on August 19, 2009, Prachanda said, "We must form a comprehensive united front to tackle reactionary and regressive forces who are against the peace process and writing of the statute." The 'comprehensive united front' the Maoists aim to form will incorporate all those who are in favour of 'civilian supremacy', national sovereignty, peace and the constitution. The proposed movement is intended by the Maoists to turn into a 'third people's movement'.
On October 23, the Unified CPN-Maoist gave a 9-day ultimatum to the Government to address the demands raised by the party regarding the President's move. A meeting of the Maoist standing committee held at the party headquarters set a November 1 deadline for the Government to come up with an understanding on issues raised by the party. The Maoists have warned they would launch a blockade of Kathmandu Valley and the nation's only international airport if their demands were not met by the deadline. "We will not allow any aircraft to take off (from the Tribhuvan International Airport) or any aircraft to land," the Maoist daily Janadisha declared on October 28, 2009. The Maoists, who have obstructed parliament since May 2009, announced on October 30 that they would take to the streets from November 2 with disruptive protests once more, if the Government failed to concede to their demands.
Amidst these political developments, there are allegations that the Maoists continue to subvert the peace process. The Nepal Tarun Dal (NTD), the youth wing of Nepali Congress, has, for instance, alleged that the Maoists are using UNMIN monitored cantonments to launch attacks on other political parties, and that it has become necessary to close these down after removing all fake Maoist combatants. In a Press statement on October 29, 2009, the NTD also claimed that many of the individuals in the cantonments were Maoist political cadres, not combatants.
In response to the lingering violence in the country, under the ‘Special Security Programme 2066’, Special Security task forces of between 10 and 20 Security Force (SF) personnel are to be mobilised in 21 sensitive Districts, including three in the Kathmandu Valley, to curb incidents of killing, manhandling, kidnapping, extortion, highway obstruction, rape and corruption in Government offices. The Prachanda regime had identified four eastern hilly Districts and 10 Terai Districts as security sensitive areas. The new plan has identified another four Districts – Dang, Banke, Kailali and Kanchanpur – as sensitive. A report prepared by the Home Ministry noted that only 12 out of 109 armed groups active in the country were political, while 70 of them were purely criminal in orientation. The report had categorised armed groups as political, religious, political criminal, religious criminal and purely criminal. 12 groups, including the Akhil Terai Mukti Morcha (Jaya Krishna Goit faction), Kirant Janbadi Workers Party and Tharuhat Swayatta Rajya Parishad, were categorised as political. Four groups, including the Cobra (Nagraj) and Nepal Defence Army, were placed in the religious criminal category, while 11 others were categorized as political-criminal groups. The nature of eight armed groups could not be established, the report added. The MJF has criticized the Special Security Programme, alleging that it was intended to ‘oppress the Madhesis’. Speaking at a programme in Nepalgunj, MJF Chairman Upendra Yadav said, "The new security policy will increase violence and promote criminal activities rather than strengthening security... The new policy has been brought up intentionally to oppress Madhesis." He further accused the Government of instigating the Terai armed outfits instead of solving such matters through negotiations. He contended that the situation in the eastern Terai was deteriorating because of the SF offensive against the armed groups.
However, after four armed outfits operating in the Terai – Madhesi Mukti Tigers (MMT), Madhesi Virus Killers (MVK), Terai Samyukta Janatantrik Party and JTMM-Rajan – which had held a first round of talks with the Unified CPN-Maoist led Government, urged the Government to resume dialogue, a preliminary round of talks was held on August 10, 2009. While it was agreed to resume talks the next day, not much progress has since been made.
Meanwhile, the arduous task of Constitution drafting is just creeping forward. The Constituent Assembly has elected a new chairman for the main Drafting Committee. The issue of state restructuring is one of the many knotty issues that needs to be taken care of. The Madheshi parties have been demanding a single Madhesh province across the plains. The Tharus, encouraged by other national parties, have opposed this demand and said they want a separate province in the plains. The Government issued an official notification and, without consultations, put the Tharus in the list of Madheshi communities, provoking widespread protests. The Maoists have proposed 14 predominantly ethnicity-based provinces. The Nepali Congress and Communist Party of Nepal (Unified-Marxist Leninist), meanwhile, still do not have a roadmap for federalism, though they explicitly oppose ethnic states.
Compared to the bloody decade of war, Nepal is certainly a place of great calm today. The Maoists do not appear to have the necessary traction to sustain a ‘third people’s movement’ at a scale that would threaten the fragile order with collapse. Nevertheless, with the continuing deadlock in Parliament, and the diminishing authority of the Madhav Kumar Nepal Government at Kathmandu, the spectre of augmenting chaos looms large over the country.
[South Asia Intelligent Review]