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Q&A: Will Agreement Over Fate of Former Maoist Combatants Advance Nepal’s Peace?

November 9, 2011

George VarugheseLast week, Nepal’s political parties reached agreement on the future of 19,602 Maoist ex-combatants, breaking years of political log jam. In Asia spoke with Asia Foundation Nepal country representative, George Varughese, on the implications for political progress, reactions on the street, and how this agreement rescued the peace process from collapse.

What effect will this agreement – which some observers describe as “historic” – have on moving Nepal’s peace process forward?

This agreement is indeed historic for some important reasons. First, the Maoist party had been living with a strategic contradiction over whether to fully embrace the course of peace and a new constitution while also hewing to revolutionary rhetoric and dogma. With this agreement, the Maoist party establishment overcame this internal dilemma despite serious resistance from its radical faction. Second, given that November 21 will be the five-year anniversary of the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and that the Constituent Assembly will have exceeded its original mandate of two years by one and half years by then, the original enthusiasm for negotiations, ownership over the peace process, and people’s general faith in the political process has gradually eroded. If this agreement had not taken place when it did, there was a real risk of collapse of the peace process and of the constitution drafting exercise. The November 1 agreement has rescued the process from potential collapse and rekindled hope in the average Nepali.

Agreement on the numbers for integration, norms, modality, and rehabilitation packages constituted one of the most contentious issues of the peace process. The effect will be far-reaching on both the progress of the peace process as well as on holding the parties accountable.

The latest deadline for a new constitution is up in less than a month. Does this deal bring the nation closer to a constitution?

Despite last week’s 7-point agreement, the parties are not likely to come up with a new constitution by the November 30 deadline. At best, they will have resolved the manner in which to deal with the most contentious issues in constitutional deliberations while tendering a less-than-complete draft constitution. This means the parties are likely to extend the tenure of the Constituent Assembly for another six months or so in order to have a complete draft available for debate within and outside the Assembly.

The deal allows up to 6,500 ex-combatants to be integrated into a to-be-formed directorate of Nepal’s military along with current members of the Nepali security forces, while the remaining ex-combatants will receive a rehabilitation package including cash to restart their lives. The government has said it will seek donors’ assistance for this. How is this being received?

Those who opt for rehabilitation will get between Nepali rupees 0.6-0.9 million ($7,500-11,500), and those who opt for voluntary retirement will get between Nepali rupees 0.5-0.8 million ($6,500-10,200). Between rehabilitation and retirement options, the donors are generally positive about supporting the rehabilitation package while they are balking about supporting the retirement package, the main sticking points being the issue of payment in cash and the quantum of total funds that would be required. The government’s Ministry of Finance and Ministry for Peace & Reconstruction are meeting regularly with donors to seek support. It is clear that there will be support, but how much and in what manner this support will be given remains unclear. Surely, a significant portion will have to be borne by the government.

Meanwhile, some are dissatisfied with the agreement, saying it represents a “humiliating defeat” and a “surrender.” What are your thoughts on this reaction?  

Indeed, the radical faction of the Maoists, led by Senior Vice-Chairman Mohan Vaidya “Kiran” and General Secretary Ram Bahadur Thapa “Badal,” have publicly stated that this agreement is akin to a humiliating defeat and surrender. This faction has had difficulties for some time now in supporting aspects of the unfolding peace process. But such reactions from a faction within the party were bound to come whenever a deal was made on integration and rehabilitation. The Maoists had hoped to get the leadership of the yet-to-be-formed army directorate (of integrated ex-combatants) but they did not. And the Maoists had also bargained until the very last minute for unit-wise integration of their forces with the Nepali army, but in the end they had to agree to individual integration with some flexibility on age, education, and marital status. In our estimation, this is what the radical faction is perhaps most dissatisfied with in this particular agreement.

However, as mentioned earlier, the Maoist party has had to balance their radical faction’s longstanding disagreement with the strategic course of the party while choosing to move ahead with peace and constitution per past agreements. This agreement represents a break with that faction of the Maoists and reconciliation will be hard to achieve.

What’s the word on the street? Does the average Nepali hold hope that this will help bring closure to the aftermath of the nation’s decades-long civil war?

The enthusiasm and hope is palpable. The public was certainly upbeat this past week, and even detractors have reluctantly applauded the agreement. Unless of course in the days leading up to the November 30 constitution deadline, political exchanges descend once again into squabbles over who would be the next prime minister.

What types of concerns are there about reintegrating the ex-combatants – particularly women – back into society? What action is being taken to ensure this is successful?

The 7-point deal does not have specifics about the plan for reintegration. The Technical Committee under the Special Committee and the Secretariat are preparing plans for it. But there are a lot of concerns about this, including those pertaining to women ex-combatants. Some women ex-combatants were reported to have opted to go for reintegration as they have young kids to look after. Many women ex-combatants lost their husbands, who were also fellow combatants, during the insurgency, and they want to return to a civilian life. Things remain unclear, and the sooner rank and file Maoist ex-combatants are heard on what their needs and interests are the better off the process will become for managing their return to mainstream society. Meanwhile, they remain cantoned, somewhat bewildered by the sudden acceleration in plans that directly affect their futures.

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