By Ameet Dhakal
News Editor, the Kathmandu Post
KATHMANDU, Aug 24 – When army men start talking about the Maoists something happens to them inside: the voice suddenly becomes loud and body language changes. It’s an intoxicating mix of excitement and anger. All the army personnel interviewed for this article said the Maoists came to the negotiating table because they could not win the shooting war – Nasakera aayeka hun (they came because they couldn’t). But none of them claimed that the army won either. In between this “we-didn’t-win-they-didn’t-win” acceptance lies the anguish of the Nepali Army (NA). After all, armies the world over are institutions created to win wars. Not winning creates a trauma of its own.
Now that the fighting is in recess, army people are concerned that the Maoists should not be perceived as the winners. “They are behaving as if they won this war,” said one major. The intense political limelight that the rebels have enjoyed ever since the ceasefire has left the army grumbling. “They are everywhere on TV and in the newspapers, and even at the prime minister’s quarters as if they are the most powerful people in Nepal,” complained another major.
The army may have its reservations about the Maoists but it is very lenient about mainstreaming the rebels, even integrating them. “The Maoists should not be made to go back to the jungle,” said a third officer. Almost all of them repeat clichés like, “Whoever dies in this war will be a Nepali, so the war should not resume.”
But again the army seems pretty confident that the rebels will not go back to the jungle after all. “They won’t go even if you push them,” said a retired general. Only one among the officials interviewed said there was a fifty-fifty chance of the rebels picking up their guns again.
The army also seems more practical than many politicians when it comes to the question of managing the Maoist weapons and integrating the rebels. “If you tell the rebels to lay down their arms first, they are not going to do it,” said a major, adding, “No one does that”. A retired general said, “I have been to many war-ravaged countries but I don’t remember any country were the rebels surrendered their weapons in the beginning.” He suggested that disarmament should be linked to the political process and effected phase-wise.
The Nepali Army’s arms management experience comes from its experience of serving in United Nations peacekeeping operations in more than a dozen countries. More than 40,000 army personnel have participated in such operations. So it has in a way seen the devastation of war, the complexity of making peace and the challenge of arms management. “We knew from the beginning that this war wasn’t winnable; it’s only the politicians and the king who were talking about wiping them out,” said one general. A retired general even claimed that the army had proposed to recruit about 2,000 unemployed youths into the army from the Rolpa and Rukum region as a deterrent tactic when the insurgency had just begun in the Raapati Valley.
The general also argued that downsizing and integration of the Maoist rebels was not a problem. “We knew long back that this was coming.” All the army personnel agreed that the current size of the NA was too big for peace time. But at the same time they are irritated by “everyday” calls from the Maoists and political party leaders for downsizing the army. “The army will be downsized if our national security policy [which should be formulated] deems that necessary, but not just because the Maoists or the politicians want it,” fumed one army officer.
He also argued that Maoist rebels should be integrated into the army only as per such a policy. “They should be taken into the army based on certain criteria and qualifications. But there can’t be blanket integration”
Don’t you think integration of the politically indoctrinated Maoist rebels could create problems in the army? “Who cares about politics? Once in the army they [rebels] will be more concerned about their pensions,” said the officer. “But my boys say Pasang lai salute garnu paryo bhane ta ke jaagir khaai bo ra army maa [It doesn’t make sense to serve in the army if we have to salute Pasang (Maoist commander)]”, he said and laughed wildly.
(Series concluded) These series were first published in the Kathmandu Post