ONE OF THE LAST UNRESOLVED ISSUES of the peace process that followed Nepal’s bloody 10-year civil war was the status of the 19,000 fighters in the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who had been confined to makeshift rural cantonments after the signing of the 2006 peace accord. The PLA combatants were to be rehabilitated and some integrated into the ranks of the Nepalese Army, a process that had been delayed until last November, when nearly half of the former combatants chose to join the national army, a number that clearly exceeded expectations.
On 10 April, during a meeting of the Army Integration Special Committee (AISC), a cross-party mechanism set up in October 2008 that was tasked with determining the future of the Maoist combatants, the fate of the PLA took a sharp turn. The chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known as ‘Prachanda’, had proposed to hand over control of the Maoist cantonments to the army. Subsequently, the Maoist-led government mobilised the army to manage the 3,129 former combatants (reduced from 9,705 when 6,576 chose the Voluntary Retirement Scheme) awaiting integration into the army, and 15 cantonments under the protection of the United Nations Mission in Nepal. Prachanda’s decision was hailed by the international community and Nepal’s political parties as “historic”: it had effectively ended the “one nation, two armies” problem, a negotiator with the Nepali Congress said. But it deepened an ongoing conflict within the Maoist party, with leaders of the party’s radical faction, including senior vice-chairman and ideologue Mohan Baidya ‘Kiran’, condemning the move as a betrayal of the revolution that could be seen as no less than “surrendering to former enemies”. “This is disarmament of the People’s Liberation Army,” CP Gajurel, the faction’s most vocal leader, said. “This is not integration—it is recruitment.” Indeed, the decision was taken amid reports of clashes among PLA combatants who had set fire to two vehicles in a cantonment. Word of a virtual breakdown of the already tottering chain of command reached Prachanda, prompting him and other Maoist leaders to put the brakes on the decision to allow the army to move in.
The process had been halted the day it began—10 April—at the request of the Maoists leadership after clashes broke out inside the cantonments when the army entered to scoop up the estimated 3,000 weapons still in the possession of the former combatants; but the handing over was restarted on 12 April and concluded on 19 April.