Wednesday, August 30, 2006
The charge of being a “feudal element” has been used with much frivolity and looseness in Nepal in recent times. Anything that anybody disapproves of is immediately labeled “feudal” and damned to perdition with no accompanying explanations. In his otherwise sensible Letter to the Editor denouncing “Maoists’ Crimes,” S.B. Shrestha from Tokyo cannot desist hurtling this over-used charge yet again at the national army. Not surprisingly, he offers nothing in the way of substantiating his accusation. What is it that makes the Nepal Army (NA) so “feudal”? It is high time such glib talkers stared at some hard facts in the face.
During the heat of the insurgency everyone—Chhetri, Bahun, Janajati or Dalit—who was chased out of the villages took shelter in areas secured by the army. Did the army resort to any “feudal” filtering process in deciding whom to protect? Detractors of the NA have always delighted in portraying it as a trigger-happy force bent on “annihilating” the Maoists. The truth, however, is that from the very beginning the NA’s mission has been simply to “disarm and push the Maoists into the national mainstream.” As a result of their operations, Prachanda was forced to publicly admit that the Maoists could never take over the state militarily. After resorting to other measures, the Maoists are currently in the process of joining the mainstream. Can this be labeled a “feudal” achievement of the NA? If maintaining the “feudal” status quo was the sole objective of the NA, why stop when it did during the April uprising? Though tragic, 19 dead during the course of Janaandolan II is a small number compared to the 50 or so who died in Janaandolan I (1990) and to the hundreds who’ve died in similar revolutions elsewhere. Is 19 just a plain old “feudal” number? On the contrary, it is a testament of the NA’s clarity of purpose and the resolve with which they stuck to it. Maintaining security and preventing any situation from getting out of hand are the main objectives of the NA. A far cry from the “bloodbath” that other forces regularly promise us in order to have their way.
Continuing on, the “feudal” NA has committed no violations of the Code of Conduct while we’re losing count of those committed by the “liberating” Maoists. Ethnically speaking, the top brass of the NA is probably more representative of national diversity than the central committee of any political party (including the CPN (M)). In social work, the NA has built over 500 kms of roads in the country, and mind you, they didn’t use “forced labor” for it. No statistic could fully capture the disaster-relief work the NA has done over the years.
The current national mood verges on the insane. Students, teachers, doctors, patients, dealers, traders, laborers, Maoists and Maoist victims are all out on the streets clamoring for their demands, sensible or not. The government is confused over its own decisions. Amidst all this madness that invariably brings the entire nation to a halt, the NA soldier still mans his post sweltering heat or drenching rain.
Soldiers are human beings too. They too must want higher wages, compensation for damages and so on and so forth. Yet they have the discipline and the patience to postpone their desires and do their duties even as everybody else goes rampaging, and even as the mudslinging against the “feudal” NA continues unabated. Insurgency or insanity, the NA trudges on. Rudyard Kipling must have had our soldiers in mind when he wrote: “If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”
Despite a concerted effort to condemn, demoralize and humiliate it, the NA still continues on with its duty with quiet dignity and discipline. When the nation was reeling under the petrol shortage, it was the army pump (and some others) that provided raahat to the Kathmandu-basis. If there were a national emergency now, without doubt an NA unit would be dispatched to bring the situation back to normalcy. The stone-throwers from the student unions might pull in a medal or two if such a sport is invented in the next SAF games. For now however, it is Kamal Adhikari, groomed and trained in the disciplined barracks of the NA, that has won us a gold and done the nation proud.
The immense pressures the NA suffered from all quarters—including those who enjoyed its protection—could have broken up any institution from within. We’ve seen our political parties split at the slightest provocation. An army that has been through an insurgency surely must have had differences within its ranks too. Yet the army still functions as a single, well-oiled machine. Throughout the 90s when every institution in the country was politicized to its marrow, the army retained its integrity. Even in today’s fluid situation, the NA remained steadfast in retaining its “chain of command,” to which the political leadership wisely consented. As the parliament embarks on “democratizing” the NA, it would do well to heed the counsel of an institution that is as old as the nation itself.
Swept away in the emotionalism and rhetoric whipped up by demagogues we easily forget that ours is an army with a proud history. An army that has never seen defeat in war, it is a force that has continually risen to the challenges of securing the nation. An institution as old as the NA has surely developed, over its 238-year-old history, a set of traditions and customs that may seem quaint, alien or outdated to many of us. But let this not blind us to all the hardwork, danger and drudgery that our soldiers have gone through in the service of the nation (and even that of world peace). Different and exclusive as their customs and activities may seem, the same could be at the core of their many successes.
As Fareed Zakaria argues in his celebrated book, The Future of Freedom, the most credible and effective institutions even in the U.S. are not necessarily the most open and democratic ones. The Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court are successful precisely because they operate in a closed and exclusive environment. For the good of the country, the NA’s political independence and neutrality should be maintained even as we make it more responsive to elected bodies.
Old and venerable institutions like the NA, can take some time adjusting. But time and again we have seen that our old institutions are malleable and willing to move with the times. They will, no doubt, rise to present-day challenges as well.
In short, the manner with which the NA has conducted itself through the vicissitudes of Nepalese politics bespeaks a strong, dependable, professional and maturing institution. If all this amounts to little more than “feudalism” then we’re probably better off with a “feudal” army. It is likely still the better option to a recalcitrant and untrustworthy “liberating” one!
Thursday, August 10, 2006
For the latter group, the prospect of going to elections with an armed political competitor does not sit well; for the former group, any action that retards immediate progress toward a constituent assembly is “Royalist instigation,” “war-mongering” or in direct contravention to the aspirations for which 21 individuals died and an estimated 4 thousand were injured.
Form another perspective, the difference of opinion is between those who have regained power and those who aided in the process of reversal (and themselves, aspire to wield authority). Representing the latter group is a loose alliance of civil society and Maoist elements that have begun to express disenchantment with the pace of progress towards constituent assembly elections. The former group is comprised of an equally shaky amalgamation of political parties that enjoy international support, but are the subject of growing criticism at home.
The source of such criticisms originate partially from the Parliament’s less than glorious (past) track record and partially because this government personifies so many of the social, ethnic, gender and moral inequities that underpin and fuel conflict in Nepal. Behind closed doors, even representatives of international governments (that extend support to the resurrected Parliament) are under little illusion about the collective (in)capacity this lot has the potential to display.
Still, the current setup is widely perceived as several tiers above the post-February-1 world because it offers prospects for outcomes that were formerly unattainable – peace and stability. Furthermore, the environment now enjoys a stamp of democracy which endows a sense of legitimacy that was previously absent.
More to the point, regardless of whether the current setup is perceived as dysfunctional or partially functional (whichever way one chooses to view it), it is still democratic by conception and thus, enjoys uninhibited (but not unconditional) support from the international community.
Naturally, key players in the international community are much more at ease when dealing with agents who are beholden to their advice. Additionally, such advice is provisioned with much greater comfort when doled out under the umbrella of democratic auspices.
Also exemplified is the tide of shifting alliances whereby the congregation of forces necessary to topple the King, finds diminishing mutual interests. Each constituent now, is poised to pursue its own priorities as the entire polity embarks on a path of competitive politics.
New alliances are being formed, old ones discarded and complementing this process of changed circumstances are diverging agendas, priorities and interpretations of agreements that less than six months ago, were hurriedly fomented in the interest of defeating a common enemy.
The resurgence of such differences today, is an expected outcome of the on-going political evolution. These emerging disparities certainly have the potential to, but need not necessarily be, peace process “deal killers.”
Whether diverging priorities are permitted to drive the overall peace process or are forced to the backburner is as much a function of this parliament’s convictions (and the international community’s insistence that an armed faction not be permitted into the interim government), as it is, willingness on the part of the Maoists to reciprocate with concessions.
The ultimate outcome of this rapidly transforming environment is also likely to be a function of Nepalese civil society’s ability to endorse a non-aligned and apolitical platform, that is unequivocally free of political ambition.
This view has been re-enforced by those of Deputy PM Oli and other senior members of Nepal’s resurrected Parliament. To this end, the unanimous and official, American, Indian and European endorsement of the Nepalese government’s stance is of immense significance.
The Maoist leadership for its part, has categorically dismissed the idea of decommissioning arms. The Maoists remain open to the idea of their fighting force being monitored by UN observers but de-commissioning arms prior to elections has been termed “unthinkable.”
Furthermore, in return for allowing their fighting force to be placed under the UN’s purview, the Maoist negotiating team has indicated that the national army should also be subject to the same conditions, namely, disarmament. This request of course, has been flatly refused by government officials who cite the legitimacy of the state’s security apparatus as a basis for dismissing the Maoist demand.
There may be several reasons that underlie the predictable Maoist rejection of disarmament.
First, without the threat of force, there is no guarantee that the claim of representing the “people” will hold true. This notion remains especially suspect for a group that has committed or orchestrated numerous documented and undocumented atrocities against the very people it claims unconditional support from.
Second, the issue of disarming has the potential to reinvigorate fissures within the Maoist ranks; it is counterintuitive for a group of hardened fighters (who for years have been led to believe that power comes form the barrel of a gun), to abruptly acquiesce to the reality that their mantra was in fact, a lie.
Third, the Maoist leadership has practical fears such as the increasing likelihood for the SPA to shed its tactical belief in an 8-Party interim government and instead, assert its constitutionally granted powers over Nepal’s legitimate armed forces. In other words, the phobia of the SPA finally waking up and exercising its legal prerogative over the state’s security forces as a bargaining lever, is probably a thought that keeps the Maoists awake at night.
In fact, given the very militarily (and strategically) oriented group they are, the thought of a “betrayal of convenience” by moderates within the SPA’s ranks, probably weighs heavily on the minds of Pushpa Dahal, Baburam Bhattarai and their advisors from RIM (Revolutionary Internationalist Movement).
Fourth, despite claims to the contrary, there are most certainly ties between Indian and Nepali Maoists that exceed ideological similarities. As evidenced (most recently) in a joint press release made by Indian and Nepali Maoists, they appear united by common hatred for American involvement (“imperialist intervention”) in their respective theatres.
Various Maoist organizations in South Asia are also connected by broader concepts such as the CRZ (Compact Revolutionary Zone) and CCOMPOSA (Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organization of South Asia).
Such fraternal ties, cultivated during 12 years of hospitality extended by the Indian Maoists (and tolerated by successive Indian governments), is not likely to pass without a debt of gratitude owed by the Nepali Maoists to their Indian brethren.
With the common perception of an all out victory close at hand, there is bound to be discontent from Indian Maoists at any prospect of their Nepali brothers, decommissioning arms. The same logic applies when considering the extremist position that other like-minded organizations likely maintain. An “option” that is currently “in the money” is not an instrument that the Nepali Maoists’ affiliates will easily walk away from, without attempting to “exercise” their right to “cash in.”
It is no secret that during its infancy, members of the Maoist movement were brutally suppressed and persecuted on the orders of the State. Nepal had not yet ascended the pole of prominence on the human rights agenda at that time, but it is anyone’s guess as to whether the Geneva Convention was honored by Police forces sanctioned by the State to “quell” the growing Moist rebellion in the early nineties.
Contemporary analysis tends to hinge on the insurmountable suffering that Maoists have inflicted on cadres of the UML and NC but conveniently discounts the horrors that Maoist cadre were subjected to at the hands previous governments. The parties that essentially spawned the armed Maoist insurrection are currently represented in the SPA and are members of the resurrected Parliament. This is not likely to be consideration the Maoists and their supporters take lightly.
Additionally, if there is any truth to the statement made by Maoist negotiator Dina Nath Sharma (that “the Thankot Police Post was attacked at the behest of the SPA”), this elicits a whole new dimension of complexity in an already convoluted sphere. Unverified “chatter” of the deployment of Maoist hit squads (at the SPA’s request) to disrupt previously sponsored municipal polls, is another troublesome rumor.
Should either the statement or rumor alluded to above, be substantiated in the future, the legacy of the peaceful “rhodendron revolution” that was celebrated across the globe will most certainly be called into question. In the context of this writing, should Dina Nath Sharma’s claim hold merit, it would most certainly explain the elevated expectations from the fighting ranks in the Maoist command, that naturally factor into demands tabled by Maoist negotiators.
Also, the Indian government’s maneuver (manifested in the 12 Point Agreement) that used the Maoists to accelerate the reversal of the February-1 move, is probably not lost on the Maoist leadership. Today, the Maoists find themselves too far into the mainstream to reverse this trend and too far from their ultimate objective (of capturing state power), to be comfortable with their current position.
Contrary to the much hyped view that the Maoists have gained new-found appreciation for the utility of non-violent protest, it is more likely that the Maoists have gained new-found appreciation for their political predicament vis-à-vis India’s changed tone.
India’s stance on the Nepali Maoists appears increasingly on par with that of the world’s sole super power. India’s refusal to release Maoist prisoners and her insistence on Maoist disarmament lends creed to this perception.
Sitaram Yechuri’s assertion that the Nepali Maoists should serve as a model for their brethren in India may have been intended as a double-edged sword: What’s happening in Nepal is a strong demonstration of what India’s extremists should look forward to, should they shun the prospects of joining (or rather, being forced to join) mainstream politics – domestic and international isolation.
The question now is how Pushpa, Baburam and the political echelon of the Maoists will position themselves with the fighters they’ve promised a communist utopia to, for the past 12 odd years?
On the surface, a feasible compromise appears to be international legitimacy for the Maoist ranks that UN involvement accompanies, and a die-hard republican platform that will spearhead their political campaign moving into constituent assembly elections.
However, neither of these platforms is a guaranteed safe landing for the Maoists – at least not of the variety a group that has waged a 12 year civil war, probably expects. The parity in treatment that UN observers will bring requires the disclosure of 36 thousand combatants the Maoists have declared (along with 10 thousand arms, ammunition and a number of yet to be determined socket bombs and IEDs). While the inflated number of Maoist troops may have been publicized with a view to attain greater than proportional representation in a future, national security force, for now, this tactic appears to have backfired on the Maoists.
Confinement to pre-determined areas (as indicated in the joint-letter sent to the UN) is much more easily achieved by the state’s security forces. The tranquility that such “confinement” offers is likely welcomed by battle-weary troops who have been deployed in combat conditions for over 4 years.
While the boots on the ground have been the targets of Maoist wave attacks, booby traps and roadside bombs, the boots in Army HQ have been the victims of inadequate political cover, public denigration and general dereliction by the political masters who committed them into the battle.
The army’s image has also been thoroughly tarnished by a brutal information warfare campaign that the military’s hierarchy neither demonstrated the capacity to rebuke, nor accept responsibility for. For Nepal’s military, the current environment offers a respite from what can only be described as a violent roller-coaster ride down a tunnel of disrepute. It also provides time, sorely needed for structural reforms within the military, many of which have already begun.
But for the Maoists, having to track their arms inventory against a list of missing munitions provided to UN monitors (by the state forces) and having to account for and confine 36 thousand fighters (who are probably also militia, local enforcers and a material portion of the Maoist vote-bank), probably isn’t the brightest idea they’ve committed to.
Is this a sign that the Maoist leaders are truly in search of a safe landing on the political playground? Perhaps. Could this be a hedging strategy by the Maoist leaders’ against reprisals from within their own ranks? It’s likely.
More to the point though, is the Maoist leadership’s gradual convergence with the government’s position (despite public threats of foregoing negotiations) an indication of Pushpa, Baburam and their ranks’ comprehension of the weakened position from which they are bargaining? Now we’re talking.
There is both theoretical and realistic impetus for this line of thought. With the right-wing extreme having been largely neutralized, the polar opposite left-wing’s utility is also severely impaired. With the King no longer in a position to be leveraged as a political scapegoat, the mainstream parties (and specifically those individuals associated with party leaders by kinship) are no longer beholden to the Maoist position.
This is probably another realization that keeps Pushpa Dahal and Baburam Bhattaria awake at night. Thus, the sprint to try and make things happen as quickly as possible. And by this logic, rumored suggestions of a potential alliance between the Palace and the Maoists seems comprehensible.
However, such an alliance also seems very implausible because it would be suicidal for any ceremonial aspirations the Palace may hold and it would also be a complete invalidation of any and all rationale the Maoists have touted as justification for their armed struggle. The goal of transforming Nepal into a communist republic has been a consistent Maoist theme, one that they are identified with and have used to distinguish themselves from their peer-competitors.
Unfortunately for the Maoists, the SPA knows this, the Indians know it, the Americans know it, the British know it and having borne the brunt of the Maoist-initiated siege against the State, the Nepali people (including the civil society leaders who for the most part are toeing the Maoist line), know it. So any murmurs of a conspiracy in the works to form an alliance between the King and the Maoists is probably nothing more than an unsubstantiated rumor, aimed at elevating the non-Maoist, republican platform.
Despite all the political maneuvering in the background, there is much to look forward to in Nepal. The UN’s cautious optimism is easily overwhelmed by the uncontrollable optimism emanating from Nepal’s politically savvy elites (at home and abroad). Such uncontrolled optimism is likely rooted in the resurrection of the old Parliament but probably has some of its origins in the restitution of kinsmen in key positions, also.
However, more noteworthy are the genuine rays of hope for sustained peace and tranquility, that ordinary Nepalese have begun to express. For the hopes and aspirations of non-politically motivated individuals (arguably the most impacted by the conflict) to be met, there are several guiding principles that must be upheld.
A unique window of opportunity has presented itself – an occasion when Nepal’s current leadership team must look beyond partisanship, beyond the immediate future of competitive politics and adopt a holistic view that benefits the nation-at-large. The SPA, the Maoists and all other major power brokers have to seize the present opportunity to convince their respective constituents that a return to hostilities is not a credible option.
For their part, the Maoists need to start taking more responsibility for the documented discrepancies between their actions and words. Pushpa Dahal, Baburam Bhattarai and the rest of the Maoist leadership needs to impart a realistic interpretation of the post-April fallout within their organization’s rank and file. They must be upfront with their cadre about the ramifications of a continued refusal to disarm – both the unnecessary loss of human life and the accompanied loss in political capital that an irreconcilable position will invariably yield.
The Maoist leadership should also consider refraining from blurting out inflammatory remarks directed towards either specific entities (e.g. Mr. Dahal’s degrading comments about Nepal’s security forces) or towards the peace process-at-large (e.g. Baburam Bhattarai’s emotional charge against PM Girja P. Koirala followed by Dina Nath Sharma’s convulsions suggesting that Maoist military assets were deployed at the directive of the SPA). These trends are clearly counterproductive.
The Maoists must understand that although their “sell” to the cadre-base has been that peace talks are happening at their behest, this time, there is no credible “invisible” force to point a finger at, should the talks collapse. Whether they like it or not, the Maoists will be held equally accountable for actions / speech that jeopardize the peace initiative at hand. The potential of having to perform the way the state’s military did (when it was fighting on both the political and military fronts, against domestic and international actors) should be cause for anxiety; even for the “fearless one.”
From members of the SPA (and more specifically their representatives in the current government), an overt recognition that their role is an historical one, but also an interim one, has to emerge. The insinuation here is that standing members of this interim government need to proceed in a manner that is largely detached from on-going obligations to their respective partisan platforms. Any hint of partisan behavior will likely be a major risk to the overall peace process.
With significant guidance from international friends, the SPA has managed to keep the ball rolling, generally in the right direction. Engaging the services of the UN in the current environment is a positive step. However, the SPA and Maoists need to work more closely and negotiate more earnestly over the issue of arms decommissioning. The joint letter sent to the UN is a start in this direction but falls short of actionable targets toward which to drive.
The level of generality on the mode of arms management (as outlined in the joint letter to the UN) is perhaps warranted to uphold the perception that talks are progressing. However, it is apparent that the proposed UN involvement in Nepal extends only to civilian observers who will execute on a jointly agreed-upon mandate between the respective parties and the Maoists. The UN team under consideration is definitely not a multinational force with a Chapter-7 mandate, empowered to strictly enforce terms that desist the resumption of hostilities.
Rather it appears that the sought-after UN team will function in the capacity of a “project management office” that implements and tracks progress towards mutually agreed-upon milestones. “The modalities to be worked out” (according to the revised letter sent to the UN), are exactly what these milestones represent.
In terms of substance then, the most recent letter to the UN amounts to a technical modification – removal of the term “decommissioning” of Maoist arms. Again, a compromised beginning but far short of the type of concrete targets that UN monitors will require, in order to function as effective observers.
In the true fashion of institutional risk management, it is highly unlikely that an impartial UN observer team will ever recommend compromised milestones for the disputing groups to uphold. They may facilitate the process of dialogue that culminates in mutually agreeable objectives, but the onus of formulating the objectives themselves, falls squarely on the government and the Maoists.
The resurrected Parliament has done well to introduce reforms in some of the key areas of tension that underlie the social fiber of the Nepali state. The challenge now is to institutionalize these changes through forward looking legal interpretations that create a conducive political landscape in the period approaching, but also beyond constituent assembly elections. Space that accommodates Nepal’s entire population along ethnic, social, caste, class and gender lines has to be engineered so that everyone has something to look forward to during the constituent assembly elections.
This process will undoubtedly involve sacrifice at multiple levels but nonetheless, such forfeitures are the only sustainable avenue that will yield security, stability, territorial integrity and national cohesion. Understandably, this process is also a monumental undertaking that in order to be executed with minimal flaws, requires time, patience, persistence and most important of all, compromise.
Wednesday, August 09, 2006
Remember the movie High Noon don’t you? Described by many as the definitive Western; it was made in, ugh, 1952. Ok, that’s a while ago pardner; even before an old geezer like me. When movies today are churned out for either maximum pyrotechnic effect or pretend to explore tough issues but come up with the usual answers (i.e., Bush is bad and the clueless Americans are behind all the ills of the world), High Noon is a relevant blast from the past.
Well at least Thucydides, Hobbes, and Churchill might agree as might many of the Nepali security forces that fought so hard the last ten years.
Minimalism is the movie’s strength. Shot in grainy black and white, the story unfolds in the span of a few hours in a town called Hadleyville. Frank Miller, a brutal killer, was sentenced to death some five years ago but manages to receive a pardon from, er, politicians” we are told (how about that, isn’t that a shock?).
His three partners (one of them a very young high-cheekboned Lee Van Cleef who plays “Bad” opposite Clint Eastwood in The Good, Bad, and the Ugly) are waiting for him at the train station where he is to arrive at Noon. They plan to proceed to town and kill Will Kane, the Town’s Marshall, played by the legendary actor Gary Cooper, who put Frank Miller away in the first place.
News spreads amongst the townsfolk of Frank Miller’s imminent arrival and there isn’t a soul willing to stand up to Miller and the boys. The judge skips town, the deputy Sheriff is too self-absorbed, would –be posse members are either too cynical or believe Frank Miller can’t be defeated, and the town criers and leaders think it best that Marshall Kane get the hell out of town. And Kane is ready to get out himself.
You see, he just got married that morning and plans to ride off into the sunset with Helen, his Quaker wife, played by yet another beautiful legend, Grace Kelly, the real life tragic Princess of Monaco.
Ahh, what a conundrum Kane faces which are thankless vicissitudes of being the guy in charge of security and telling the townsfolk that they have to stand up to Frank Miller. And the townsfolk and criers really don’t want him around. He is persona non grata in Hadleyville. He is the main obstacle to peace.
Does he leave? There would be no movie if he did of course. The moral struggle is simple yet relevant (at least amongst realists) and the suspense as the clock tick-tocks away towards High Noon is managed with finesse. The dialogue (very little action in this movie) makes it great. Take this nugget of a response he gets as an old friend declines to help him:
“You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you're honest you're poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.”
One knows exactly how the Nepali security forces and some plain-spoken diplomats feel right now.
And then there is his wife’s alternative take:
“My brother was nineteen. I watched him die. That's when I became a Quaker. I don't care who's right or who's wrong. There's got to be some better way for people to live.”
The theme of High Noon is classic and, therefore, stands up even today in 2006. Stand up and fight the bad guys because you see them for who they are even in the face of massive resistance from those that have an “alternative” plan for peace – even if that peace could ultimately corrupt one’s values? Or, skip town and just let it be? Watch this movie with your kids, if you can.
As an end note: any resemblance in the above of Prachanda and his deputies to Frank Miller and his boys; Ambassador Moriarty to Marshall Kane; the Nepali media and “activists” to the town leaders or criers; and Ian Martin to Helen (Marshall Kane’s wife) intentional.
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