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Conflict between Army and ex-guerrillas fuels Nepal's political crisis

Ongoing tensions between former Maoist guerrillas and the Royal Nepalese Army – which enjoys traditional parties' support – stand to hamper efforts to elect a prime minister and write a new constitution.

Nepalese Maoist activists stage an anti-government protest

Can Maoists and traditional parties compromise on electing a prime minister?

Nepal's parliament will try to elect a new prime minister on September 5 – the sixth time in three months. The political stalemate pits the country's traditional political parties against a Maoist party that won a plurality in elections in 2008.

The Maoists had commanded a guerrilla army, but agreed to a ceasefire that ended the civil war, which raged from 1996 to 2006. But the underlying problems that gave rise to the civil war remain unresolved. Each side bitterly accuses the other of lying, engaging in backroom maneuvering and undermining democracy.

Nepal's traditional parties support The Royal Nepalese Army, known for its fierce Gurkha fighters. During the civil war however, the Army also became known for brutal repression.

An insurgency led by the United Communist Party, a Maoist group, fought the Army to a standstill. For their part, the Maoists are accused of forced conscription, seizing local property and other brutal actions. An estimated 13,000 people were killed on both sides during the civil war.

The guerrillas locked up their arms, and almost 20,000 ex-combatants remain in camps scattered throughout the country. The camps, supervised by the UN, were supposed to be temporary but have lasted four years.

Commander Pasang, head of the Maoist People's Liberation Army

Commander Pasang is head of the Maoist PLA

Illegal recruitment?

As part of the peace process, both sides agreed not to recruit more soldiers and to eventually integrate their security forces. But the Army recently announced plans to add 3,400 recruits to compensate for attrition in the ranks.

"This army is a national defense army," Brig. General Ramindra Chhetri said in an interview. "It has shown its commitment to democracy – so there is no point imposing that kind of unnecessary restriction on this army."

But the Maoist ex-guerrillas said if the Army expands, they will follow suit, according to Commander Pasang, head of the Maoist People's Liberation Army.

"This Army announcement to recruit new soldiers was made by a caretaker government, and they have no right to do it," Commander Pasang said in an interview. "It's a violation of the Comprehensive Peace Accord."

Nepal's highest court previously ruled that new recruitment by either side is illegal. Yet earlier this year, the same court ruled that it has no jurisdiction on the issue, an opinion that political analyst Prashant Jha described as contradictory.

Jha noted that the United Nations, which has a mission in Nepal to facilitate the peace process, "has consistently maintained that any recruitment – be it additional recruitment or recruitment to fill existing positions – is unacceptable and against the agreements."

Nepalese army General Chhetri

Nepal's army Gen. Chhetri was a victim of a Maoist assassination attempt

Integrating security forces

The recruitment controversy is just the latest in a series of sharp disputes about how to bring permanent peace to Nepal. Commander Pasang said the two armed forces should be treated as equals. He proposed a radical restructuring of the Army, which currently has 84,000 troops.

"The ex-guerrillas should enter the Army's ranks from the top to the bottom, including officers and enlisted men," Pasang said. "The government should draft new security policies, and there should be a joint command by army officials and former rebel leaders."

Brig. General Chhetri strongly disagreed, arguing that the Army is a national institution representing the entire country. He was the victim of a Maoist assassination attempt years ago and, because of those injuries, he uses a wheelchair. He said the Army will not accept former guerrillas as a group.

"If the Maoist combatants are willing to completely disassociate themselves from active politics, he or she may join the Nepalese Army in an individual capacity," he said.

Analyst Jha said the Maoists and the two other major parties have discussed a compromise in which most of the guerrillas would go home, while some join the Army, police and other security forces. He suggested that somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 ex-combatants would join, noting that the Maoists, "need a respectable, honorable deal on integration."

A member of the Maoist PLA checks a pistol before relinquishing it for lock-up

Maoist guerrillas agreed to lock up their arms following Nepal's civil war

Political consequences

So far, the Maoists have refused such a compromise. Settlement of the military issue is closely connected to whether the country's political parties can elect a new prime minister and write a new constitution by the May 2011 deadline.

Magazine editor Kanak Dixit said the traditional parties hate the Maoists, accusing them of wanting to create a communist dictatorship.

"The Maoists present themselves to Western diplomats as an evolving social democratic party," Dixit said. Meanwhile, "they present themselves to cadre with all the hoary rhetoric to say, this is only a tactical move we've made to come above ground. Our plan for protracted people's war is in place."

A Nepali policeman stands guard near the flag of the Communist Party of Nepal

The Maoists won a plurality in legislative elections in 2008

For their part, the Maoists distrust the traditional parties, who they say cooperated with the repressive Army. Jha argued that the Maoists are, in fact, transforming themselves. He noted that they retain a significant base of support and won a plurality in legislative elections in 2008. In fact, Maoist leader Prachanda was prime minister for nine months until May 2009, when his government resigned following differences with the president over an attempt to fire the Army chief.

"The Maoists have gone through tremendous changes in the last few years," Jha said. "They are slowly becoming entrenched in the established political culture of the country."

Whether those changes mean the Maoists and traditional parties can compromise on electing a new prime minister remains to be seen. By all indications, Nepal will continue to face political turmoil for some time to come.

Author: Reese Erlich
Editor: Anke Rasper

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