The fact that the army is the most powerful state organ in Nepal is fairly unremarkable. It is an established norm of most countries, especially a post-conflict state managing a difficult democratic transition to peace. The interesting aspect of the Nepalese Army (NA), however, is its limited public role in national politics. This stands in stark contrast to other militaries in South Asia, such as Bangladesh or Pakistan, where the armed forces are more overtly engaged in political life.
Of equal interest is the absence of negative media coverage about the NA. It is seldom discussed in the national media, other than sporadic stories about high-level visits to China or the occasional arms deal with India. The more extreme conspiracy theorists aside, public perception of the army remains broadly positive. And as with so many fragile developing economies, the NA continues to be a popular choice for graduates and young people eager to escape the unemployment trap.
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In one light, the current dynamic appears odd. The NA has yet to address pressing issues within the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) – signed by the Government of Nepal and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in November 2006, which formally ended the country’s ten-year civil war – including grave human rights abuses it allegedly committed during the conflict.
A failure to support this process, and particularly the mandated formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has left it exposed to repeated criticism from human rights groups. The arrest of Col. Kumar Lama in the United Kingdom in January on allegations of torture during the Nepali civil war was a hugely embarrassing incident for the army, while other prominent generals have been denied positions in foreign peacekeeping missions.
Such public relations disasters notwithstanding, the army has successfully deflected several of its main responsibilities since the CPA was signed without ever compromising its core interests. As of July 2013, Nepal was ranked seventh in the per capita number of contributors to United Nations (UN) peacekeeping missions, a cash-cow for developing country armies, despite promises by the UN to review the country's place in foreign peace missions after Col. Lama’s arrest.
More important still is the rehabilitation and integration of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) combatants into the NA. Of the original 30,000 combatants proposed to be integrated into the army's ranks, only approximately 1,450 made the final cut and just 70 making the officer-cadet level. This result was welcomed by the army leadership who believe they have scored a significant victory over the Maoists.
The army’s apparent quiescence should not be misconstrued as reduced influence; on the contrary, this is a calculated political strategy, which recognizes that a fragmenting political landscape renders absolute power almost impossible in contemporary Nepal.
Of critical importance is the fact that Nepal’s newly democratically elected executive has yet to fill the vacuum created by the abolition of the monarchy in 2008. Since that year’s Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, major political parties – including the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) have been plagued by vicious factionalism. For some, such as the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum and United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – renamed from the CPN (M) – internal divisions have been so severe that key leaders have broken away to form splinter parties.