| Nepalese journalists defy the government’s ban on demonstrations in Kathmandu on Thursday while staging a sit-in to protest the murder of a colleague by Maoists. (AFP)
Kathmandu, Sept. 11: After the revocation of the ceasefire by the Maoists, the public criticism of the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) is no longer as muted as it used to be. Many hold it directly responsible for the breakdown of the peace talks. Others believe that having acquired weapons from India, Belgium and the US, the army does not want peace talks and would like to give the Maoists a bloody nose.
Even before the Maoists called off the ceasefire last month, according to Subodh Pyakurel, a human rights activist, “a strong lobby within the army was pressing the government that they should be given full support to deal with the Maoists”.
A former foreign minister of Nepal, Chakra Prasad Bastola, said that after the killing of an army colonel in Kathmandu recently, the army is certainly putting pressure on the government to take a tougher line on the Maoists. However, he claimed that there was a difference in outlook towards dealing with the Maoists between the officers and the ranks.
“The upper echelons of the RNA consist of the traditional nobility — the Ranas, the Shahs, the Pandeys, the Basnets and the Thapas. The real fighting forces comprise the have-nots and they want peace,” Bastola claimed.
K.P. Oli, a senior leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) also does not see the RNA as a monolith. “The opinion at the higher and the lower levels is different. I suspect that a small section of the military leadership was in favour of breaking the ceasefire and pushing the country towards conflict. The lower levels of the army were and are strongly in favour of the ceasefire,” he said.
According to Oli, there could be two reasons for the confrontationist attitude of some of the RNA officers. “They would like to push politics in Nepal further to the Right by moving towards a more autocratic regime. And they would like to create opportunities for financial benefit for the suppliers of weapons as well as logistics equipment to the army.” Like in every third world country, there are allegations of kickbacks in such deals.
Both in terms of its history and social composition, the RNA does not have a democratic ethos. It was a militia converted into an army over time. Ever since the days of Prithvinarayan Shah, the founder of the Shah dynasty, the army in Nepal saw itself as a nation builder but loyal only to one institution — the monarchy.
“The Nepalese army does not have a military mind. It is headed by an arm-chair feudal military class. It is its class composition which prevents it from functioning as a professional army. The last decade or so has seen a sharp rise in free public education. The army leadership has not been able to gauge its impact on its rank and file,” said Hari Sharma, a political analyst, explaining the dichotomy between the views of the officers and the ranks.
There are those in the establishment, however, who dismiss the idea of any division within the RNA. “I would not entertain this notion at all. I think there is both unity of thought and action within the army. But there is a school of thought that a much tougher policy should be followed against the Maoists — an eye for an eye if not two,” a government official said.
Some Nepalese shudder at the thought of giving a free hand to the army. “The RNA has not learnt to fight without collateral damage. That is why it must not be allowed to fight,” said a Nepalese political observer who did not want to be identified.
However, he pointed to a more disturbing trend. “There is a group within the RNA which wants to go beyond the king by seeking a role in the national polity. This faction wants a pro-active army. Were this to happen, it would lead to a militarisation that Nepal has never seen before. They don’t want to mount a coup — the army here has always been in the background and then there is always the fear of India — but it has not had a finger in national affairs. Now the army wants that. And I blame the Maoists for this,” he said.
The RNA, he said, does not trust the Maoists at the negotiating table. What riled it the most, in his opinion, was the informal agreement at the second round of peace talks with the Maoists boxing it in a five-km limit of its camps. Ultimately the government had to disown the agreement as it was not minuted and had only been an oral commitment. The army, he said, also does not trust the political parties.
Damannath Dhungana, a facilitator in the peace talks, went a step further. He claimed: “Earlier, the army was under the king. Now, there is every indication that the king is under the army. I can assure you that the king had, in fact, agreed to the five-km limit for the army. The army opposed it and the government backtracked. The army was for a military solution. That is why they deliberately killed 17 unarmed Maoists a day before the peace talks.”
What is clear, however, is that the Nepalese intelligentsia, the political parties and the Maoists are grappling with defining a clear and accountable role for the army. In fact, the then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala resigned in 2001 when the army despite being deployed in Rolpa deliberately refused to engage the Maoists who had taken 69 policemen hostage.
The accountability of the RNA has been at the centre of the peace talks with the Maoists demanding that it be brought under full control of the executive instead of the monarchy. This is also the demand of the democratic political parties.