Nepal’s former rebels face uncertain future as UN withdraws

By Pratibha Tuladhar Jan 10, 2011, 3:16 GMT

Chitwan, Nepal – It’s just another day of waiting at the Shaktikhor cantonment for former fighters of Nepal’s Maoist rebel army, some 200 kilometres from the capital Kathmandu.

Around 4,000 men and women while away the time at the largest of Nepal’s seven such encampments under UN supervision since the 2006 peace treaty.

But with mandate of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) ending Saturday, the future of the 19,000-strong People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is far from certain.

The UN renewed its mandate seven times since it was first deployed in 2007 but has allowed its latest one to expire, frustrated by the lack of progress in the peace process.

There is still no political agreement over what to do with the former rebels, who have been living in the barrack-like cantonments since the end of the decade-long insurgency, which killed more than 16,700 people.

In principle, Kathmandu has said PLA members could apply to join the Nepal army. But they said they are already in the army and as serving soldiers their forces should be integrated, not made to ‘apply.’

‘Our combatants are free to decide to be integrated or seek voluntary retirement,’ said Udaya Bhadur Chalaune, division vice commander at the Shaktikhor camp. ‘But the very process of integration is unclear.’

PLA soldiers who overcome their principles enough to apply to the national army face further physical and political obstacles.

They must pass written assessments, tests of endurance and strength, and have their bodies measured. The former rebels’ mostly rural and less-privileged background puts them at a disadvantage for these requirements, they said.

‘It would be unfair if they took physical measurements,’ said Hombahadur Khadka, 3rd division company commander of the PLA. ‘Joining the army was a call of history for us.’

The political requirements have met with equal resistance.

Any ex-PLA soldier, who are all Maoist party members, must break their ties to the party before signing up with the army, which has been rejected by many of the former fighters.

The mistrust is mutual. The military has always objected to being treated on a par with the PLA, which they call politically indoctrinated.

‘The peace process can’t work if the Maoists enter the security bodies as party workers,’ said Minendra Rijal, army integration special committee member and government minister. ‘The PLA is still with the party, which is why we haven’t been able to cooperate.’

The Maoist Party in parliament has demanded that after UNMIN’s departure, a replacement supervisory mechanism cover the army as well as the PLA and be jointly managed by both sides.

But other parties last week refused to put the national army under supervision, to which Maoist chief Pushpa Kamal Dahal replied: ‘If this is your stance, you can consider the peace process broken down.’

The UN had also struggled with the problem of whom to monitor and how. Under the terms of its mandate, UNMIN was simply to observe the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections and monitor the PLA and army.

The UN claims to have successfully accomplished its mission, but it has been accused of taking sides with the Maoists and of contributing to the paralysis of the peace process.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon objected to his organization being made a ‘scapegoat’ in the Himalayan country’s problems and did not renew UNMIN’s mandate despite the pleas of the former rebels.

The UN may have fulfilled its mission, but many feel the peace process still lacks a solid foundation, and it is not clear who will fill the logistical and security gap when the blue helmets leave.

‘UNMIN’s departure has added to uncertainty of the peace process,’ said Geja Sharma of the Nepal Institute of Policy Studies. ‘It’s time for parties to honestly engage in preparation for post-UNMIN strategy rather than continuing to blame UNMIN.’

The UN was also hesitant to hand over any resources to either side in the absence of signs of cooperation.

‘It is not an option for us to hand over monitoring-related UN equipment to the government without agreement between the government and the Maoists on the nature and form of future monitoring,’ UNMIN chief Karin Landgren said.

With the ongoing debate over the future of the armed forces and parliament unable to elect a new prime minister since June, it seems unlikely that the peace process would be concluded – and a constitution drafted – by May, the latest deadline.

Back in Shaktikhor and the other six encampments across Nepal, patience is wearing thin.

‘Children born in the cantonments after the peace deal was signed have started going to school,’ Chalaune said. ‘How much longer can we wait?’

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