May 2, 2011

The Army Advances

By Yubaraj Ghimire

With Nepal’s constituent assembly unlikely to draft and deliver the constitution by the new deadline of May 28, and given the loss of credibility of the bickering political parties, the army is being seen by every major external player as the most important — if not the only — stabilising institution in the country. Clearly, countries near and far are keen to cooperate with it.

The Chinese army chief, Chen Bingde, was in Nepal a month ago to hold meetings with the president, the prime minister and the chief of the Nepal army. The army accepted 160 million yuan from Beijing for expansion and purchase of equipment for the military hospital in Kathmandu. Interestingly, Pakistan had earlier offered 1 billion Nepali rupees for the expansion of the military hospital, but the Nepal government declined it. Given its long and traditional relations with the Indian army on one hand, and the hostility between India and Pakistan on the other, the Nepal army was hesitant to accept the offer from Pakistan.

India’s army chief, General V.K. Singh, during his visit to Nepal about three months ago, confided to a small group of senior generals that he felt India’s new Nepal policy was not all that right. He did not explain the statement, but those present there read it in two ways. One, that the Indian establishment’s complete trust in the Maoists — who still treat Nepal’s army as their enemy — in 2006 was inappropriate. Two, that the overthrow of the monarchy, without mooting a credible, permanent and strong institution in its place, was counter-productive.

India is not the only country uncomfortable with China’s growing interest in Nepal — since China is perceived to be close to the Maoists, the biggest party today. The US, going by its recent Congressional report, seems as wary. General Chen’s efforts to develop closer ties with Nepal’s army will add to those concerns.

Chhatraman Singh, chief of the Nepal army, found that out when he went to Washington, DC less than a week after General Chen’s visit. Apart from the unusually warm welcome he received, the army chief was happy that the US did not raise the issue of human rights for the first time in many years, nor their violation by Nepal’s army.

The US’s deliberate omission and the usual promise of support as well as India’s External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s statement during his visit that the army’s professional and apolitical character must be maintained only signal the role the army will be playing in Nepal in the days to come. Perhaps the world outside has inferred that there will be more chaos and uncertainty in Nepal, and that the political process and parties are likely to be further discredited.

Political parties no longer indulge in cornering the army as an outfit loyal to the king. The army is neither branded as pro-king nor vilified as anti-democracy. The issue of “democratisation” of the Nepal army is no longer being raised, with no one having clarified or explained what that term means.

Although the perception of the army has undergone a major change at home and abroad, there are still concerns about differences at the top level and the role it should play in the future. With just about a month left for the extended deadline for drafting the constitution, Nepal’s political players are looking for an excuse to justify the failure of the constituent assembly. They are sure to face the people’s anger and non-cooperation. The four big parties, including the Maoists and the Nepali Congress, have fallen out, and a broad political consensus that almost all the parties swore by has evaporated.

However, chances of their coming together to give the House a further extension cannot be ruled out, given the fact that these parties will otherwise be dumped as a collective failure. The army may seek a larger recognition if that happens. It is likely to demand that it should not be treated on par with Maoist combatants, something which the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) promised, that the army will mainly decide on the conditions for integration of Maoist combatants in the security set-up and that political parties will abide by it if peace and political stability are achieved. The army in that context would have gained a lot, but the question that needs to be urgently answered is: what can a national army without credible political bosses or set-up, during an unduly prolonged transitional phase, do?

The army, despite regaining its lost image, cannot substitute for political parties. This is something political parties perhaps understand and one reason why they are not quite keen to get their act together.

(Courtesy: Indian Express)

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