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POLITICS-NEPAL: Child Soldier Issue Slows Peace Plan

Damakant Jayshi

KATHMANDU, Jul 22 2007 (IPS) - A senior journalist recently likened Nepal&#39s fragile peace process to an overcrowded bus lurching uncertainly on this country’s mountainous roads, yet moving forward to its destination.

Few doubt that the road ahead is tricky and slippery and that there is a need to move forward collectively. But, of late, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) (Maoist) – erstwhile rebels and now partners in the eight-party interim coalition government – appears more and more demanding.

In their latest move the Maoists have blocked the second phase of an internationally supervised process by which their fighters, now confined to camps, would be screened for child soldiers or those recruited after the peace process began last year.

As per previous agreement, those assessed as aged below 18 on May 25, 2006, and those recruited into the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after May 25, 2006 would be disqualified and deemed ineligible to remain in the camps.

At stake is the timely conduct of postponed constituent assembly elections (newly set for Nov. 22) to elect members who will draw a new, inclusive constitution as well as decide the fate of 240-year-old monarchy in this impoverished country of 26 million. Many fear that another postponement could invite anarchy and lead to an uncontrollable situation.

From letting their highly criticised youth wing – Young Communist League – run amok across the country, intimidating and harassing common people and businessmen and picking up fights with various armed and unarmed groups in terai (Nepal&#39s plains), the Maoists have sorely tested their partners in the government, ordinary people and the international community.

While the Maoists&#39 actions have so far been ignored or mildly censured in the larger interest of the peace process, their latest act of blocking international monitors from carrying out the verification process has drawn serious criticism from the political parties, the media and the Nepal army.

The Maoists have now set a pre-condition that the government first come up with a plan to reintegrate their fighters under Security Sector Reform (SSR). The latest demand comes after the registration and verification of Maoist army personnel at the main cantonment site in Ilam (eastern Nepal) from Jun. 19 to 26 was followed by a significant number disqualifications.

During the first phase of registration in the seven main and 21 satellite cantonments, the number of Maoist combatants was 30,892 and the weapons 3,428. Almost all the political parties, the civil society and the Nepal army expressed disbelief at the large number of combatants and the disproportionately low number of weapons.

Although United Nations officials are tight-lipped as to how many of the 3,221 combatants from Ilam and neighbouring cantonments were registered and then disqualified, government-controlled media – headed by a Maoist minister – put the figure at 400. Party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal a.k.a. Prachanda, publicly accused the U.N. Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) of moving towards a premeditated target of disqualifying 40 percent of the People&#39s Liberation Army (PLA). He also accused UNMIN of a &#39conspiracy&#39 to destroy the PLA by trying to apply DDR (disarm, demobilise and reintegrate) model to it.

‘&#39Their (Maoists&#39) stubbornness has taken us all by surprise,&#39’ confided a senior officer of the Nepal army to IPS, requesting anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. ‘&#39The verification, which is going on as per previously agreed parameters, cannot be stalled.’’

UNMIN chief Ian Martin agrees. At a recent press conference in Kathmandu, he said the Maoists&#39 demands went ‘&#39beyond the issue of verification itself&#39’. He pointed out that a special committee of the interim government established in accordance with Article 146 of the interim constitution has been mandated to look into supervision, integration, and rehabilitation of the combatants of the Maoist army.

‘&#39However the important issue of security sector reform is primarily relevant to the future of those who remain in the cantonments after verification: it should not be a pre-condition to verification itself,&#39’ Martin told journalists at the press conference. &#39’I remind everyone that the Agreement on Monitoring the Management of Arms and Armies was negotiated between the Maoists and the then seven-party alliance (SPA) government: it was they who agreed upon the criteria which UNMIN has been asked to apply and it is their responsibility now to enable us to do so in a spirit of cooperation.&#39’

UNMIN was established in January this year after the Security Council cleared it. The SPA and the Maoists had urged the U.N. Secretary General late last year to send a mission here with two-pronged mandate: the monitoring of arms and armed personnel, and electoral support towards conducting free and fair constituent assembly election.

Several rounds of meetings, since the Maoists first asked for suspension of verification in the cantonment in Sindhuli district, have taken place between and among the ruling parties, CPN (Maoist) and the UNMIN to resume the process. On Wednesday, second-ranking Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai indicated willingness to resume the verification.

Kanak Mani Dixit, veteran journalist and respected political analyst, reasons that the Maoist leadership is embarrassed that their last minute recruitment drive has been exposed and all their recent statements in public are a face-saving exercise. ‘’Nobody believes that the actual number of combatants is more than half the number the Maoists have said they had in their army,’’ Dixit said. ‘’Now the worry for the Maoist leadership is what to do with the actual expectations of the people they recruited to inflate their army&#39s numbers.’’

Dixit says he is not surprised by irritants in the verification process. ‘’The U.N. is employing international standards, so there will be hiccups.’’

Sections of political and civil society as well as the international community (mainly the United States) have expressed concerns about the adverse impact of the Maoists’ breach of previous agreements.

In his last press conference here, former U.S. ambassador James F. Moriarty (who left on Jul. 13) accused the Maoists of being insincere and termed them – and the armed groups in the terai – as the biggest threat to peace and holding of constituent assembly election.

Ram Chandra Poudel, who heads the new ministry of peace and reconstruction, told IPS that the Maoists&#39 actions have taken the peace process to the brink. ‘’I do hope they realise that their current actions and behaviour would harm the peace process,’’ he said.

Poudel said the government is willing to provide &#39parting&#39 money to those found ineligible to stay in the camps besides providing a monthly salary plus living allowance of Rs 4,800 (approximately 74 US dollars) to combatants in the camps.

Dixit sees a positive side to what he calls Maoist leadership&#39s public posturing. ‘’That a former outlawed rebel force is worried about losing face in public is actually a positive sign,’’ he said. ‘’It shows the Maoists are trying to evolve into a political party.’’

The once outlawed CPN (Maoist) entered the political spectrum last year after the seven-party alliance and the rebels forced King Gyanendra to relinquish his absolute power after a successful people&#39s movement for democracy and peace. The &#39people&#39s war&#39 launched in February 1996 claimed more than 13,000 lives, many of whom are believed to be innocent civilians.

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