Monday, May 4, 2009

Why Nepal is Divided Over the Sacking of Army Chief?

Why Nepal is Divided Over the Sacking of Army Chief?

It’s not so important to ask why the Maoists are sacking the Army Chief as it is to ask why the other parties are apposing this so strongly. Three reasons:

By Neil Horning

In a democracy, the Army should not be a center of power in the slightest. It is supposed to carry out the will of the elected government within the confines of the constitution. To illustrate, when Obama was elected, it was considered a novelty when he did not replace the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Thus, in assessing this development, I feel it’s not so important to ask why the Maoists are sacking the Army Chief as it is to ask why the other parties are apposing this so strongly.

There a couple of reasons why this could be so. In increasing importance:

1. The Army Chief has important friends in elite circles

Even in the US it’s common to say, “it’s not what you know. It’s who you know.” This could not be truer in Nepal. While the country has gone through tremulous upheaval recently, nepotism, corruption, and crony-ism have hardly abated. While the Nepali Congress and The UML formally apposed the Palace, their upper crust, mostly Brahmin-Chetri members ran in the same social circles with royals and royalists, dined with them, attended the same wedding receptions, ran the same civic organizations, served on the same boards, etc. All in this elite class share the goal of, to one degree or another, preserving the power of their own class-caste. These are social contacts that nearly all Maoist members severed while going underground, if they existed to begin with, and they hardly have had time to return. The Army Chief Surely has many friends within the CPN UML and NC, if not relatives (which trump all), and many favors to call in.

2. The other parties want to use the army as a power center to balance the Maoists

While social ties are important, concrete interests are paramount. The other parties, who, blinded by their own triumphalism in “bringing the Maoists into the mainstream,” dismissed the Maoists electoral chances little more than a year ago, are terrified by the Maoists electoral gains and their subsequent political power. These fears likely reflect a genuine concern that the Maoists will abandon their embrace of multi-party democracy and return to their original goal of single party dictatorship. However, functionally equivalent and more genuinely felt, is the fear that the parties will permanently loose their dominant position in society. This would not just be through the loss of their seats, but through the reforms the Maoists have planned. It’s important to keep in mind that elites stand to lose quite a bit even if the Maoists don’t turn Nepal into a socialist/communist utopia. Nepal is not even a meritocracy yet, it still has a semi-feudal economy based on patronage. It’s pre-capitalist. Thus, even the introduction of an equal opportunity based social structure, championed by the United States and denounced by hard core reds everywhere, is highly threatening to Nepalis in the political class. They will stop at nothing to maintain their power, and the principle of civilian supremacy falls victim to this end. While some of them express the concern that the Maoists will use the army to dominate the country if it actually follows their commands, what they want is an army as a separate power center to use as check on the Maoists growing influence. Whether this is in their long term interest provided they defeat the Maoists is secondary to their immediate concerns.

3. The other parties appose army integration

In keeping with this theme, the mainstream parties, as well as the elites in the army, view army integration in an apocalyptic light. While integrating the PLA into the NA was agreed upon time and again in the course of peace negotiations the Non-Maoist parties made their agreements under the assumption that the Maoists could not possibly win electoral victory, and would not be in charge of implementing the integration. They counted on returning to the long standing Nepali political habit of agreeing to a demand in negotiation and then reneging on it later when the opponent is not in a position to make a challenge. They are trying to do the same now by continually insisting that Maoists combatants be “Rehabilitated” rather than integrated, but it is they who have lost their bargaining position. Yet, Why can’t they let it happen in the first place? The Maoists don’t have more than 20,000 troops to integrate into the more than 90,000 currently in the Army. This would hardly make the army into a force at the Maoists beckon call. We return to the previous point. It’s not that the army would become the private force of the Maoists, but that it would cease to be a check on them. With at least 25 percent of troops and officers being a former Maoist partisan. The possibility of a reactionary coup (of exactly the type outlined by Kantipur Publications recently) becomes impossible. The troops needed to suppress the public would simply turn their weapons on the command. Therefore, the army would cease to be a check and social change would continue unabated.

Hopefully indicated above are the reasons why these have become non-negotiable issues for both sides. At stake is the existence of either one; Whether the PLA will be integrated and protect the Maoists from a violent overturn of the will of the electorate, or whether they will be “rehabilitated” exposing the current leadership to the whim of south Asian political militarism and the overbearing inertia of the status quo.

Neil Horning, an American expert on Maoist movement, maintains a personal blog at Neil’s Nepal where this post first appeared.

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