By Kul Chandra Gautam
With historic elections to the Constituent Assembly, abolition of the monarchy, and formation of a new government in the offing, Nepal is now well poised to draft a progressive constitution for a new federal democratic republic.One pending issue yet to be resolved, is security sector reform, including “professionalization and integration” of the Maoist combatants still in cantonments; “democratization” of the Nepal Army and better representation of Madhesis and other under-represented groups in Nepal’s security forces, as agreed in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and other subsequent agreements. The CPA also speaks about “determination of the right number of the Nepali Army”, generally understood to mean the need to down-size Nepal’s security apparatus.
An early resolution of these issues is vital for bringing to closure Nepal’s peace process, and for lasting peace and tranquility. While these are complex issues which can only be accomplished over a number of years, a phased process of reform must begin right away with measurable steps taken in the short, medium and long-terms.
This article suggests some specific, perhaps non-conventional ideas on the issue of “integration” of the Maoist combatants, and making Nepal’s security forces more inclusive and democratic, as part of a broader, longer-term and comprehensive security sector reform.
While NA has a glorious history of many positive accomplishments for the unity and security of the country, and in international peace-keeping, it has never really been subservient to duly designated civilian authority, nor open to audit and accounting that is subject to parliamentary scrutiny and oversight.
Modern Nepal never had a functioning Ministry of Defense. Many knowledgeable analysts have dubbed Nepal’s Defense Ministry simply as a powerless post-box for the army, with real powers and responsibilities of the ministry vested in and exercised by the Principal Military Secretariat at the Royal Palace until mid-2006.
Since then, many of these powers and responsibilities have effectively shifted to Army Headquarters, headed by the Chief of Army Staff, reporting on a pro-forma basis to the prime minister who also serves as the Defense Minister.
In recent decades, the (Royal) Nepal Army has been accused of being rampant with corruption, especially at higher echelons; unable to provide motivation and boost the morale of the rank and file; misusing the Army Welfare Fund established with hard-earned income of ordinary soldiers serving in peace-keeping operations; unable or unwilling to hold violators of human rights within its ranks accountable, and frequently openly expressing contempt for political parties and civilian leadership.
On the other hand, it has been a mark of NA’s professionalism and sensitivity to the winds of political change that, although accused of being “royalist”, it has not attempted to intervene in Nepal’s dramatic political transition in the past three years, leading to the abolition of monarchy and coming to power of CPN (Maoist) through elections. It is worth noting that in similar circumstances, elsewhere in the world, it is not uncommon to see a restless military staging mutiny, bloodshed and acrimony, if not outright coups d’etat.
Nevertheless, the NA suffers from a negative image which may or may not be fully balanced and fair, but the fact that it has such an image calls for a genuine effort to transform both the perception and reality of NA.
The fact that the Maoist PLA too is accused of many brutalities and is seen as a tool of one political party, only reinforces the need for real modernization, professionalization and democratization of all of Nepal’s security forces.
During the decade of conflict, the ranks of NA more than doubled from some 46,000 to 96,000. With the integration of some of the Maoist combatants, Nepal army will have well over 100,000 personnel. In addition, there is a sizeable police force and armed police force.
As a peace-loving, democratic country, situated between the world’s two most populous countries, Nepal does not need such a large army. The main role of the military in today’s Nepal can only be to help keep internal law and order, provide VIP security, protect sensitive installations and to suppress internal rebellions and terrorism.
Nepal cannot really rely on its army to protect itself from any foreign aggression, as resolution of any conflict with our mighty neighbors is only conceivable through peaceful diplomacy. At best, NA can undertake routine border patrol and provide a temporary deterrence against any foreign invasion, but for that alone there is no need to have 100,000+army, costing over $100 million a year.
Given this reality, Nepal should gradually downsize its army to perhaps half of its current size, or to a level not exceeding around 50,000 soldiers, within 5 to 10 years, and reduce its military expenditures accordingly.
In the new peaceful Nepal, NA should probably be restructured to undertake 4 major tasks: 1) the traditional military functions of maintaining peace and security, 2) serving in international peace-keeping and peace-building operations, 3) supporting disaster relief and rehabilitation, and 4) providing certain specialized security services, eg VIP security, industrial security, protection of vital installations, etc.
Moreover, NA should be sufficiently versatile to support and undertake certain reconstruction and development activities, whenever there is a slack period when large numbers of soldiers are not busy with other assignments. For this purpose, NA should have a few specialized units, e.g. an army corps of engineers or medical personnel who can be deployed at short notice to development and humanitarian activities.
NA is already involved in all such activities to some extent. What is being proposed here is to make this more formal and systematic, including reallocation of the defense budget to reflect these priorities.
While building specialized contingents in each of the 4 key tasks of NA as outlined above, to ensure a sense of equity, common experience and shared pride, in the course of their career all Nepali soldiers and officers should have an opportunity, and indeed obligation, to rotate and serve in all the 4 key functions, including in peace-keeping operations, which are among the most valued assignments.
Here is a three-pronged proposal for Nepal’s security sector reform, including the professionalization and integration of the Maoist combatants, making the security forces more reflective of the diversity of Nepal’s population, and democratization of NA:
For immediate action
a) Agree on a clear separation of the military and civilian political functions among the CPN-Maoist leadership as they form a new government. All Maoist commanding officers elected to CA and appointed to other civilian political and administrative functions need to immediately relinquish their military functions. Correspondingly, all Maoist military commanding officers in and outside the cantonments should not assume any political functions.
b) Agree that there must not be two separate armies, or two separate chains of command, or the mixing of civilian and military functions in a democratically elected government. Accordingly, under the overall guidance of the multi-party special committee formed in accordance with the recently amended Article 146 of the Interim Constitution, entrust the temporary management of all cantonments to a cabinet level committee with technical support from senior UNMIN military advisors/specialists. Consideration might also be given to enlist the support of retired Nepali army officers who have had relevant experience in UN Peace-keeping operations in similar situations in other countries.
c) Immediately discharge all verified under-age combatants from all cantonments to a temporary holding centre, to be managed by a respected senior, non-political civilian administrator to be assisted by UNICEF and other recognized national and international child-welfare organizations.
d) Establish a high level National Security Council that enjoys the respect and trust of all Nepalis to provide guidance for long-term security sector reform and short-term transitional arrangements, including the integration of Maoist combatants.
e) Begin the process of transforming and upgrading a proper Ministry of Defense staffed with competent, non-controversial senior officials, with some knowledge and expertise of military and strategic affairs, and a respected civilian leader as minister.
Short-term action (3 to 6 months)
a) Under the overall guidance of the special committee formed under Article 146 of the Interim Constitution, and supervision of the National Security Council, establish a working group of experts to agree on the required minimum qualifications and criteria for recruitment into the various branches of Nepal’s security services. This working group will determine the eligibility of the Maoist combatants, as well as all future recruits from various previously under-represented communities to join different branches of Nepal’s security services. (Care should be taken in this context to exclude PLA combatants known to have committed serious human rights violations – just as action needs to be taken against (R) NA officers with a record of similar abuses).
b) With a view to significant downsizing of NA over the coming decade, develop a programme of voluntary early retirement from NA, and a severance package of financial incentives (say between 1 to 3 lakh rupees, depending on length of service) for the army personnel as well as for those Maoist combatants found ineligible or unqualified to join the security services, and for those who volunteer to take this option.
c) It is proposed that this facility for early retirement and financial compensation be made available for up to 10,000 soldiers and combatants every year for the next 5 years, with priority given in early years to the Maoist combatants. Such a package would cost about NRs 2 billion or US$30 million per year which could be financed partly through Nepal’s defense budget and partly through international assistance by interested donors.
d) Among Maoist combatants who are eligible and opt for recruitment into NA, organize a special professional training for up to 2000 women combatants, with a view to deploying them on a preferential basis as part of Nepal’s peace-keeping troops with the United Nations. As per Security Council resolution 1325, the UN is actively encouraging the deployment of more women officers in its peace-keeping missions. Nepal could make a very valuable and mutually beneficial contribution to world peace by having a dedicated contingent of women soldiers and officers by making NA a more inclusive, gender-balanced and gender-sensitive institution.
e) For the remaining women combatants (perhaps up to another 2000), arrange for them to be trained as community health workers, pre-school or primary school teachers, or women development officers – with guaranteed employment – based on their qualifications and interest.
f) Among the remaining Maoist combatants who meet the minimum required qualifications for various security services, and who opt to join NA, arrange for the recruitment and special professional training, on a preferential basis, of heretofore under-represented communities (e.g. Madheshis, Dalits, etc.) who should be given special training that combines some basic military/police skills as well as specialized modules dealing with all the four key tasks of Nepal’s security forces, including peace-keeping, community development and disaster relief and rehabilitation.
g) Following initial basic professional training of the Maoist combatants, e.g. of six months, they should be joined by existing NA soldiers for joint training in various specialized modules so that they all develop mutual understanding, respect, a sense of camaraderie and belonging to one national army.
h) For a small number of high ranking Maoist officers, who have not joined the political process or appointed to other civilian jobs, and who have basic officer-level qualifications, arrange for a high level specialized officers’ training partly in Nepal and partly at an institution abroad like the Sandhurst academy in the UK. Part of this training should also be joint with other NA officers to ensure a sense of camaraderie and bonding as officers of a non-political professional army.
i) Negotiate with friendly countries and donor institutions to provide financial, technical and training support for the above program.
Longer-term action plan
In light of the need to gradually downsize NA, a policy decision should be taken not to automatically fill posts, including at the senior officer levels, which become vacant through normal attrition, retirement or voluntary early retirement.
Instead, for the next 3 to 5 years, a special policy should be adopted to fill up to 25 percent of such “vacant” posts through an affirmative action plan of special recruitment that specifically seeks out qualified recruits from among heretofore under-represented segments of Nepal’s population, including women, Madheshis and Dalits, in NA.
“Democratization” of NA as called for in CPA, should include at least 3 components: 1) gradually changing the composition of NA, including at the senior officer level, to make it more inclusive of the diversity of Nepal’s population, 2) provide intensive training for all levels of NA, including at the officer level, on respect for human rights, humanitarian laws, gender and cultural sensitivity, and zero tolerance of impunity, and 3) ensure a strong culture of compliance with these democratic norms, not only in theory but in practice, through a rigorous system of internal monitoring and external civilian oversight.
Recognizing that military service, both in Nepal and in the Gurkha troops abroad, is an important source of employment and income for many impoverished families in Nepal, great care should be taken to ensure that alternative jobs are created, skill training is provided, arrangements are made for loans and financing for starting small enterprises and businesses by former soldiers, including the Maoist ex-combatants, as part of long term down-sizing of NA and demilitarization of Nepali society.
Such employment creation programs for ex-soldiers and combatants might include micro-credit and micro-finance schemes to start small enterprises, businesses and cooperatives. One could even envisage a special scheme for foreign employment for demobilized soldiers and ex-combatants, as several countries are known to be very receptive to employing retired soldiers with good professional training, skills and military discipline in certain occupations.
As Nepal is going to need several thousand additional primary school teachers and health workers in the coming years, demobilized soldiers and ex-combatants, especially women, should be given preferential training and placement opportunities in such civilian occupations. Even the private sector might be approached to help underwrite some of this retooling and to offer job opportunities for qualified demobilized soldiers and ex-combatants.
One of the saddest things introduced by the Maoists in their school curricula in areas under their control was militaristic education starting at a very young age in primary schools. In a subject called “military science” children were taught skills in making and using guns, explosives, grenades and booby traps; serving as sentries and informers, and glorifying revolutionary violence.
In the New Nepal, we must teach our children education for peace and non-violence. All militaristic training and indoctrination, including the Maoist proposal for compulsory military training for all adults, with regular refresher training, must be discarded as vestiges of a bygone era.
Finally, resources freed up from military expenses through the proposed security sector reform should be reallocated for poverty alleviation and human development, thus offering a genuine “peace dividend” for the people of Nepal, and making human security and prosperity the true basis of our national security in the 21st century.