Saral Sahayatri was never scheduled to speak at last month’s Maoist party conference in Kathmandu. But in a hall decorated with images of Chairman Mao, Marx, and Lenin he and a group of former Maoist fighters stormed the stage and seized the microphone to the visible shock of party leaders.
Speaking to 5,000 gathered Maoist cadres arranged in rows of plastic chairs, Sahayatri demanded party leaders halt integration of the last remaining fighters into the Nepal Army, the final stage of a peace process which follows a decade of civil war that ended in a 2006 peace agreement between the government and Maoist rebels.
“The country has been able to see the change because of your selfless dedication,” said a conciliatory Puspa Kamal Dahal, the leader of the Maoists, in response to the protest.
But how much has Nepal changed?
Following six years of political uncertainty that has seen Maoist fighters holed up in barracks across Nepal awaiting orders, lasting peace has remained elusive, so too the prospect of stable democracy.
While the Nepalese army began integrating the remaining 3000-plus Maoist fighters on July 4, two months after first announcing the integration, the process ground to a halt days later amid combatants’ claims they were being sold out by the party and forced to sign up like new recruits, a charge the army denied.
Many have been disqualified following arguments about their age and qualifications which means their future remains uncertain. Protests by these former combatants quickly followed in Kathmandu.
Deepak Shahi, a former fighter that has spent the last six years in Shaktikhor Camp 100 km outside of Kathmandu awaiting orders from the Maoist leaders, says that if the process is not done properly it may as well not be done at all.
“I still feel responsible to help bring all this to a logical end,” he says, still using his nom de guerre Suresh.
“[But] much of what goes on at higher levels among our leaders and the political parties and the Nepal Army – I feel it’s politics.”
Recently, a day after Shayatri’s brazen defiance of his party leadership, 12 former Maoist commanders resigned en masse amid a corruption scandal after funds collected from former combatants to be used for a welfare fund went missing.
“Add a party split which saw a hard-line faction break away last month, and you have a ruling party in crisis,” says Rabindra Khanal, a lecturer in political science at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University.
He cautions that the recent Maoist meltdown is all just a dangerous power play that threatens to derail Nepal’s long march towards lasting peace.
“The Maoist combatants wanted to integrate to spread their influence into the Nepalese army and the question of dignified entry is an excuse as the strict criteria has reduced their ranks,” says Khanal.
Party leaders are more interested in protecting the money and power they acquired following their victory, he adds, despite claims at the time their bloody campaign was being waged with the aim of ending the monarchy and bringing democracy to the country.
“They weren’t fighting the ‘people’s war’,” says Khanal, using the Nepalese mantra used by the Maoists to describe their fight, jana yuttha. “People now say they are fighting a money war.”
Meanwhile, the Maoists have found the hum-drum of everyday politics more difficult to execute than their victorious insurgency.
Maoist Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, the fourth Nepal leader in as many years, is facing increasing calls to step down after dissolving parliament at the end of May without finalizing a new constitution. The three main blocs in Nepalese politics have since failed to agree on how to exit the impasse which recently led the election commission to cancel polls that had been scheduled for the end of November.
Although these political parties agreed to a deal in November that would complete the integration process, they now cannot agree on anything. Says Khanal, “Once you don’t have to worry about this [army integration] there will [be] progress.”
For the moment though, Nepal has hit a political dead-end which has led the parties involved to demote the importance they are placing in this final stage of the peace process, which threatens to derail it altogether.
“Integration of the combatants in the army could place a legal bind upon them but now there is always the threat that these combatants could be used by the Maoists in any kind of disturbance when they are not in power,” says Khanal, a situation which led to the start of Nepal’s civil war in the first place back in 1996.
Bala Nanda Sharma, the former Nepalese army lieutenant-general in charge of the integration process, says last year’s political deal on integration was a fragile political compromise that is unraveling. Meanwhile, the Maoists have a stockpile of 3,500 unspecified weapons, according to Sharma.
All of the 3,123 former Maoist combatants – including 218 women – that agreed to join were supposed to be stationed in a separate division responsible for disaster management, industrial security environmental protection, and national development. In other words, after integration the Maoists would retain a military powerbase but one tasked with performing benign operations, an agreement that is part of a delicate balancing act designed to facilitate the transition to a stable democracy.
“In my opinion, this process must be brought to an end. This ensures that the weapons are under government control,” says Sharma. “Then the concept of two armies will be over.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.