UWB note: The issue resulted in the resignation of the first democratically elected (and Maoist) Prime Minister of the Republic of Nepal after his split cabinet fired the Army chief only to be rejected by the first democratically elected President of the Republic of Nepal. The country is now into a constitutional crisis with the Supreme Court issuing a show-cause notice to the President’s secretariat as to why he ordered the army chief, who was sacked by the cabinet, to stay on. Maoists and some members of the civil society are hitting the streets saying the Presidential letter to the ‘sacked’ army chief was unconstitutional where as opposition parties representing more than 50 percent in the 601 seat constituent assembly feel the Maoist’s unilateral decision to fire the army chief was unconstitutional and improperly executed. Here is a research article, written before the resignation of PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal, that explains the issue that has almost threatened to put the fragile peace process in peril.
By Bishnu Pathak, PhD
The confrontation between the United CPN (Maoist) and the then Royal Nepal Army began when the former first attacked the Army barracks in Ghorahi, Dang on November 24, 2001 and continued up to the initiation of the Popular Movement (Jana Andolan II) in April 2006. When the present Prime Minister (PM), Puspa Kamal Dahal, popularly known as Prachanda, first appeared in the media two years ago, along with Dr. Baburam Bhattarai at Baluwatar, he harshly criticized the Nepal Army (NA). Even his retraction soon after did not untie the knot that had developed in the relationship. The result of Constituent Assembly (CA) widened the gap. This gap intensified more due to the Maoists having their own army, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The anti-Maoists generals felt abandoned, and the national and international forces who were against the Maoists-led government were (are) able to exploit their feelings to serve their interests. Their traumatized psyche aligned them towards politics. They knocked on doors of their near and dear ones, forgetting their structured and disciplined duties and responsibilities. The NA generals, particularly the incumbent Chief of Army Staff, (CoAS) Rookmangud Katawal, started to deliver political lectures as if they were political leaders, against the Interim Constitution, elected government, peace process (integration or formation of a new national army), and so forth. The vested interests of a few generals fomented distrust with the civilian government.
On April 21, 2009, the Cabinet gave Katawal a 24-hour ultimatum to furnish clarification about the new recruitment of 2,884 soldiers, reinstatement of eight retired Brigadier Generals without the consent of the concerned line ministry and the Army’s boycott of the National Games. The clarification now has become a major political issue, where all the political actors are playing various political games with the army to attract it into their fold. There has been extensive coverage of a coup attempt in the media. Several competing modes of thought have developed after the clarification initiative began in Nepal.
Present Nepal has been divided into civilian supremacy versus military supremacy. There are several schools of thought in the anti-Maoist notion. The Maoist-led government should be ousted as they are trying to uplift the interest of commoners. People centric work means their political carriers would be doomed. The Maoists shall impose an authoritarian regime, controlling the big house media, judiciary, and Nepal Army. The infamous leaders have fears that they shall be punished on charges of corruption if the government is continued. These notions compelled them to get behind the NA and prop it up as a shield.
Although a powerful section in the Nepali Congress advocates sacking the CoAS as it disobeyed the government decision.
There has been huge internal pressure to sack the CoAS from inside the Maoist party. The present government leadership does not want an ambush of their strong power holders in the party. As the Maoist PLA commanders are worried for their future. Due to the extreme pressure of all anti-Maoist forces, including the NA, not to integrate them into the army in the concluding year 2008, the PM initiated the sacking of the CoAS in order to include a larger number of PLA into the integration process, regardless of the Nepal Army’s professional standards. A large section in the CPN (UML) is against the CoAS due to his position seemingly being that of a political leader rather than a civil servant of the government.
Several semi-feudal, semi-imperial, and semi-colonial forces have had fertile time to advance their vested interest in the pursuance of not dismissing the CoAS. These forces are against inclusive democracy, people’s livelihood, freedom, and free-market economy. Destabilizing the state means grasping the opportunity to continue their extended privileges as in the past. These groups are seeking their own benefits by taking advantage of the internal conflicts in the Maoists party.
India understands that if Nepal were out of control, it would eventually affect the security system of India. India tends to minimize the role of Pakistani fundamentalists as a coping strategy for the communist problems in its home territory. Many European communities are trying to take the middle path by saying that the dispute is an internal matter and Nepal is to be a sovereign and independent country with full integrity. Due to the protracted history of the USA being against communist regimes, it wants to crush communist ideology using all available means. Owing to geo-political interest (as Nepal is in between India and China), the USA seeks a greater role in destabilizing Nepal’s regime for its hegemonic encroachment in both the emerging super powers. A tiny minority of nations have an interest in preserving a colonial legacy in Nepal. Such forces are formally and informally supporting militarily supremacy.
There are several divisive thoughts spreading through civil society. Those who are empowered by the donor communities tend to work as spokespersons for them. Those who are seeking power are segregated under the umbrella of political parties. A very few are working independently for the sake of people, nation, democracy, and nationalism. The selfish interest groups are now happy to please their lords by informally supporting or undermining the army.
Clarification of the CoAS
Answering the government letter concerns of April 20, 2009, the army chief submitted his clarification at the cabinet the following morning. Excerpts have been given below:
# He replied that only the president has the authority to hire and fire according to article 16 of the Army Act 2063 BS.
# He expressed his commitment to conclude the peace process by implementing declarations of the House of Representatives, Peace Accord, and Republic of Nepal.
# On the course of new recruitment, each year hundreds of vacancies of resignation, retirement, etc. are to be fulfilled. The recruitment process was initiated when the NA received a permission letter from the Defense Ministry on May 21, 2008. The NA had informed to the Defense Ministry of the advertisement for new recruitment on October 15, 2009. It was advertised in the Gorkhapatra daily on November 2 and 3, 2008. However, the army headquarters received the letter to stop new recruitment on December 24, 2008. The army informed the line ministry, saying that it was too late to stop the new recruitment on December 31, 2008. Subsequently, the new recruits had already received their job confirmation letter on February 6, 2009. The total of personnel does not exceed 95,753 soldiers which had been submitted to the UN Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). There had been no debate about the recruitment even at the Joint Monitory Coordination Committee (JMCC). The recruitment has been legitimated by the decision of Supreme Court on March 13, 2009. The recruitment was completed following the article 9 (1) and 10 (1) of the Army Act 2063.
#The army chief recommended the concerned line ministry extend the tenure of 8-brigadier generals following article 17 (3) of the Army Act 2063. Respecting the line ministry’s wish not to extend 3-year tenure, the retirement letter was handed over to all generals 6 days ahead of the retirement date on March 20, 2009. The Supreme Court gave an internal directive to the Ministry of Defense, Nepal Army, and Department of Army Secretary to continue their tenure on March 25, 2009. Thus, the army headquarters continue their work.
#The NA had been participating at the Fifth National Games along with 8 teams including Nepal Police and Armed Police Force. As another team was introduced against the law, the players themselves did not accept playing in six events.
#The NA easily accepted the constitutional supremacy and political change putting civilian administration and rule of law on highest priority for ever. The NA is ready to accept all orders and directives along with discipline on highest priority and even in the future and shall continue to work under the Defense Ministry and Nepal Government.
Who is the CoAS?
~ The Rayamajhi commission formed to investigate the cases of human rights violations on the course of April movement 2006, found him as one of the army perpetrators against the popular movement II.
~The confrontation of the Maoists and Katawal started when the later left the place where the Prime Minister Prachanda was administering official oath in Singhadurbar early.
~Katawal, while briefing the PM last August, presented six alternatives as possible models of integration of the Maoist PLA with the Nepal Army. He stressed first for them to be sent for foreign employment, second in independent business, third to engage in politics, fourth for recruitment in the army, fifth in the police, and sixth in the Industrial Force. The PM was shocked.
~The relations between the Ministry of Defense and the CoAS worsened, as the latter refused the concerned line ministry’s order to stop new recruitment December 24, 2008.
~On January 7, 2009 Katawal was invited to the concerned ministry to provide his clarification on the issue of recruitment. But the line ministry was not satisfied with the CoAS answer.
~The Defense Minister was humiliated more when he was stopped from inspecting army barracks in Chitwan on the order of the army headquarters.
~CoAS Katawal publicly accepted the memorandum letter of the Maoist Victims Association as if a political leader.
~He gave a controversial statement on federation, secular state, and Constitution amendment through referendum while attending a meeting at the National Interest Protection Committee of the Constituent Assembly.
~On March 16, 2009, the CoAS ordered eight retired generals to continue their duties and responsibilities in uniform, challenging the rule of law, army act, and ministerial legitimacy.
~The Supreme Court gave a verdict to reinstate the eight generals the following day while they file a petition on March 24, 2009 but the same court has had a pending case on the age-limit of CoAS Katawal for the last three years. It is clear that the court practices politics no less than the parties.
~On April 12, 2009, the CoAS ordered the army’s players to boycott the National Games when the Maoist PLA participated in it.
~He twice refused to attend the meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on the issue of New Recruitment.
~He tried to arrest 20 working generals who oppose the CoAS authoritarian characters on the pretext that they are obeying the order of the concerned line ministry and the Maoists.
Some relevant excerpts of the Nepal Army Act 2063
National Security Council (Article 6):
To control, use, and mobilization of the Nepal Army, the Council shall form under the PM as a chairperson, and Defense, Home, Finance, and Foreign Affairs ministers shall be members.
The CoAS’s appointment, duties, and rights:
Nepal Government shall appoint the CoAS (art.8.1).
The CoAS shall be responsible with the Government of Nepal (art. 9.1).
The major responsibility of the CoAS shall be to manage the army under the directives and legal system of the Government of Nepal (art. 10.1).
The CoAS shall work till 61-year (art. 11.1).
The tenure of CoAS shall be three-year (art. 11.2).
The CoAS shall be fired at any time by the Government of Nepal if need be (art. 11.3).
The CoAS shall work under the article 11.2.
If the CoAS recommended any general with logical reason stating that she/he is physically and mentally capable to work, Nepal Government shall extend her/his tenure for three-year (article 17.3).
The Maoists affiliated sister organizations organized rallies in several districts supporting the government’s decision to seek clarification from CoAS while Katawal was involved in disobedience. The demonstrators are pressuring the government to sack the CoAS with the slogan that Katawal represents the leftovers of the former king. To wipe him out they said that they are even ready to capture the Army HQ. The protestors chanted, “We know how to fire bullets, we will begin fighting immediately if the PM orders.” Other slogans were: “Katawal resigns immediately! down with the royalists! down with reactionaries!” etc. this is continued across the country each day.
In repose, the CoAS faction in the NA is preparing a coup similar to Bangladesh in the past. For this, the incumbent CoAS has clandestinely discussed with his Bangladeshi counterpart, inviting him in Nepal. Both the armies at this moment are in high alert and have their own weapons. People fear that at anytime the NA may impose the coup against the elected government, surrounding the cantonment and satellite cantonments. But interestingly the Nepali Congress (NC) advances the notion that the NA is not going to enforce the coup with its spokesperson saying, “It is just a sponsored myth.” To protect the position of the CoAS, the NC is protesting from the Constituent Assembly to the streets. Supporting the coup, former general secretary of the CPN (UML), Madhav Kumar Nepal, said that if an incommunicado coup is held, it shall not happen by the cause of NA, but by the Maoists themselves. Seventeen small parties in the CA also favor the CoAS. On the indecisiveness of the UML at such a critical political juncture, Finance Minister Dr. Baburam Bhattarai says, “We have doubt what gender it has?” He satires the UML, implying that it is
similar to a third gender.
A clear division in the NA can be seen between the CoAS faction and its immediate major general Kul Bahadur Khadka. It is believed that Khadka favors the formation of new national army, integrating both the armies, where the CoAS is in favor of selected PLA’s who meet the criteria of the army’s professional standards.
The History of Civil-Military Relations
For over 240 years, the then Royal Nepalese Army had been controlled by the royal family, operating only in the interest of the monarchy rather than in the interest of Nepali people, nation, democracy, and nationalism. The 104-year, hereditary Rana regime, with the support of this institution (Nepal Army was in fact structured and operated as a family force) had widened the gap between the ruled and ruler. The army was inflicted by the family-centric feudal fixtures such as, nepotism, favoritisms, sycophancy, and so forth. It is generally accepted that the Nepal Army as an institution has never been supported by popular will, which is demonstrated by its behavior during the 1960 royal coup, where it safeguarded King Mahendra’s undemocratic move. The Nepal Army seems to have continued to support every autocratic regime by resisting all Nepalese democratic movements in history. The army also suppressed the popular uprisings in the post-60s period by killing the NC rebels without a trace of remorse.
Interestingly, the Nepal Army, in the federal democratic republic Nepal as well, could not separate itself from its traditional schooling and legacy. During the 30-year Panchayat era (1960-90), the entire security system, including the military, was headed by the king and his courtier’s inner circle. The slogan ‘Rajbhakti, Hamro Shakti’, (loyalty to the king is the power of the army); succinctly encapsulates feudal culture. During the drafting of the constitution in 1990, it implicitly put pressure on the Interim Prime Minister to retain the sovereignty of the people to the king because, for the army, the king remains the solitary representation of the state.. Following tradition, then CoAS, Pyar Jung Thapa, gave a key note speech to the graduate officer cadets at the 11th convocation of the Command-in-Staff College of the then Royal NA on May 14, 2004.
He stated that, “the crown is the symbol of our identity. Moreover, the Kingship is the symbol of progenitor and protector of the Royal Nepal Army along with people’s nationalism and national unity. Therefore, all Nepal’s should be united towards safeguarding the symbol of Nepal’s characteristics along with the fundamentals of our national interests and desire.”
Civil Military Relations (CMR) faces several challenges from the security sector in the (post) armed conflict period. Retired brigadier general Keshar Bahadur Bhandari has said that the issue of civilian supremacy and civil control over the army is high on the agenda. Various armed forces have emerged and the process of militarization has become common. That creates military values which impose themselves on civilian values. Socio-psychologically, armed groups feel superior to the civilian in conflict and post-conflict times. However, the doctrine of civil supremacy states the armed forces should be controlled by, and accountable to, the elected civilian government.
The current confrontation between the government and NA was heightened when the Defense Minister refused to forward the file of the eight-Brigadier Generals at the cabinet for their three-year extension of tenure. There has already been a tug-of-war between them, with the Defense Ministry’s refusal of new recruitment initiated by the Army. Recently, the retirement of the brigadiers who are assumed to be loyal to the CoAS Katawal from March 15, 2009 onward, weakened his position further. In response he made a strong stand against the PLA’s integration in the Nepal Army or formation of a new National Army on the obvious conspiratorial advice of anti-Maoist forces and traditional mainstream political parties. Thus, the CoAS is directly responsible for his present position in regard to the Government.
Additionally, the NA has challenged the principles of civilian control by ignoring the government’s order to stop the recruitment process. On the other hand, none of the institutions, powerful donor agencies, pillars of civil society, or factions of the government have thought of how to improve the relations between civilian and military institutions. Nepal holds two military forces, the Nepal Army and the Maoist PLA, after signing the Peace Accord and Arms and Armies Management in 2006. There had been repeated promises inside and outside of Nepal’s armed forces to democratize and respect civilian supremacy and human rights, but efforts have repeatedly failed to meet assurances of professionalizing the PLA and democratizing the NA.
The Supreme Court (SC) full-bench ruling on March 9, 2009 not to make additional recruitment in its rank and file has encouraged departmental action against CoAS. However, the court also issued a decision allowing a loophole for the continuation of newly recruited soldier training. There has been heavy pressure to fire the CoAS, even within the military, owing to the deference toward the elected government and their own national identity-based institution. As a result, the Army Chief is trying his best to visit door-to-door to the anti-Maoist leaders to influence them against the present government. If the intensive debate within the NA cannot be resolved soon, there may be a confrontation within the command and even the rank and file (traditional forces vs. reformist forces). That may finally lead to a coup similar to Pakistan, Bangladesh and so forth. As most of the generals of the NA are working not only as a result of their own competency, but from their strong link with the former king, the CoAS influence tapers off vertically down to the rank and file.
The weakness can also been seen on the side of Defense Minister as he could not lose his war-time mind-set against the NA even after the government was formed under his own parties leadership. This can be chalked up to his close association with the PLA.
PM Prachanda himself was surprised to see both external and internal pressure regarding clarification from his own civil servant. He has stated that he has been receiving great pressure against the clarification and possible action against the CoAS from both India and the USA. Minister for Law, Justice and CA, Dev Gurung, publicly stated, “Foreign powers are operating the CoAS Rookmangud Katawal.” He further stated, “The CoAS continued to speak against the peace process with the support from foreign powers.”
The current ambiguity between civilian supremacy and military supremacy resides in the space provided by the lack of identification of national interest (external, internal, and timely reform), national security policy, and the extension of NA’s number (45,000 to 95,753 in five years tenure while the NA mobilized against the Maoist People’s War) without any concrete plans, policies, and measures. Still there is not any specific security mechanism charged with the NA’s mobilization, management, and control. To democratize the NA and make it inclusive is yet another major challenge for Nepal.
Now, the Maoists have four options: Withdraw from their stand on sacking the CoAS citing international and national pressure; Sack the CoAS due to his refusal of the decisions of the civilian government; Sack him in the name of his nearly launching a coup against civilian authority; Resign from the government.
(It is my privilege to pay special thanks to Mr. Neil Horning who has contributed to editing this research article. I also express sincere thanks to Mr. Surendra Uprety (PhD Scholar), Mr. Devendra Uprety, Mr. Sugam KC, Ms. Rushma Shakya, Ms. Rita Chaudhary, Mr. Ganga Puri and Ms. Meena Siwakoti who assisted in this exercise).