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The Deft Politicking of Nepal’s Army

The Nepalese Army remains powerful and yet largely unremarked, a tribute to its political acumen.

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.

The Peace Process

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.

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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.

Politics, Softly-Softly

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.

These divisions tend to be driven largely by personal spats and fighting over patronage networks rather than a divergence of political ideology. A comparable fate has beset civil society too, whose close relationship to political parties and a multitude of goals and identity-based interests has served to divide rather than unite, and precludes effective action in holding those in power to account.

The result has been intense political instability; Nepal has had six prime ministers in the past five years alone. Today, the country has no functioning parliament – its CA-cum-parliament was dissolved in May 2012 – with elections for a new elected chamber promised in November.

The current Interim Election Council is an 11-member group of technocrats, with the sole aim of holding elections as quickly as possible, although doubts persist as to whether polls will be held this year. It, and the Election Commission of Nepal (ECN), are persistently undermined by a High-Level Political Mechanism, formed of Nepal’s largest parties with the mandate of supporting the interim government. The president essentially holds ceremonial constitutional powers and has no effective power base, in spite of the incumbent president’s fleeting efforts to force Nepal’s political leaders into dialogue and rare public wins.

Within this environment, the army’s relative power vis-à-vis political parties has appreciated. An early illustration of this dynamic was the failed attempt of UCPN (M) Chairman Pushpa Kumar Dahal “a.k.a. Prachanda” – Nepal’s first prime minister in the new republic – to oust former Chief of Army Staff Gen. Rookmangud Katawal in May 2009 for the military’s perceived failure to integrate PLA combatants into the NA. This clearly politicized decision was quickly overturned by President Ram Baran Yadav and led to the prompt resignation of Prachanda as prime minister.

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Regional Rebalancing

The NA has applied similar deference in its approach to foreign relations. Nepal's primary political partner remains India, which has applied heavy pressure on the NA to keep its distance from Kathmandu politics. Leverage has been maintained in the post-conflict era through the continued suspension of lethal arms sales from December 2005 to July 2013. New Delhi's decision to resume the supply of arms was precipitated by a series of bilateral security talks with Kathmandu in March and April, and led to immediate requests from the NA for military equipment, joint exercises and military education exchanges worth approximately US$18 million.

However, the NA has also sought to rebalance its dependence on India in the wake of China’s expanding influence in South Asia. In late July, NA Chief Gen. Gaurav Shumsher Rana completed a ten-day trip to China culminating in an US$8 million military assistance package to the army. The visit follows increasingly frequent visits made by Nepali political party leaders to Beijing, as well as military and police training provided by the Chinese. These have focused on border security, with Beijing keen to prevent the migration of Tibetans into Nepal and to bolster its regional ambitions.

When the CPA was signed and the UCPN (M) was elected, many expected that the influence of the NA would be dramatically curtailed. Given this context, the success of the army in navigating the post-conflict transition is both surprising and testimony to its political acumen. Whenever Nepalis next go to the polls, they will hope their elected political representatives can demonstrate the same deftness when they draft the country's new constitution.

Oli Housden is a South Asian political analyst and former Deputy Country Director for an international non-governmental organization in Nepal.