Monday, February 28, 2005

STUDY: Nepal - Civil-Military Relations and the Maoist Insurgency Part 1

Civil-Military Relations and the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal - Part1
Prakash Nepali and Phanindra Subba
From: Small Wars and Insurgencies, Volume 16, Number 1 (March, 2005)

This article examines the role of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) in the current Maoist insurgency in Nepal. The RNA has largely escaped public gaze until recently when it has come to play an increasingly important part in the Nepalese national life. The authors examine its structure and doctrines and argue that the army can only provide a structure of security while more basic political reforms are pursued in order to take the heat out of the insurgency.


Nepal's political systems have been to some extent a product of the prevailing international environment of each particular period. Major political changes in Nepal, both in 1951 and 1990, began with exogenous shocks. The passing of the British Indian Empire was the major factor for political change in Nepal in 1951. In 1989 India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal to punish the Nepalese government for importing arms from China. Fortuitously for India its blockade coincided with the third wave of democratization underway all over the world and India sought to advance its security objectives in the guise of democracy promotion in Nepal. Political changes, however, were not the product of exogenous factors alone. The internal dynamics of the country also made a key contribution to these developments.

Re-distributive policies, the setting of import-substituting enterprises and the growth of civil service and quasi-government public sector had enabled the one-party Panchayat regime established by King Mahendra in 1960 to co-opt many newly educated segments of the population. The adoption of nationalistic policies also provided the regime with a certain ideological orientation and enabled it to rally support from important sections of the society. Furthermore, the growth of foreign aid in the 1970s also helped the political system to keep a step ahead of its internal contradictions. However, the very process of modernization began to create cracks within the closed political system. By the early 1980s the option of migration to the Terai plains of Nepal for the rural people of the hills had been drastically reduced and the public sector, a major employer of the educated middle-class, was in deep economic trouble. The safety valve provided by these mediums to the Panchayat system was fast being constricted and corruption was increasing. The growing middle class, the beneficiaries of the developmental gains of this period, began to demand a more meaningful political role and pressure began to grow for increased political liberalization of the system. The Nepali Congress party and the United Left Front launched the movement for the restoration of multi-party democracy in February 1990.The urban-based movement gradually gained momentum and after a large demonstration in Kathmandu on 6 April 1990 ended in violence when it tried to move towards the palace, King Birendra lifted the ban on political parties after 30 years.

Nepal has always been an inequitable society. The vital difference from the past was that the change of 1990 expanded the political rights and loosened the constraints on ordinary people. The old ways of doing things began to be perceived as unacceptable. The people had positive and to a large extent unrealistic expectations of the new political establishment. These expectations were further fuelled by expansive promises made by the leaders in the hopeful early days of the new era and during the ensuing election campaign. The ability of a soft state like Nepal to manage both socio-economic and political transition simultaneously without severe dislocations had always been suspect. A smooth transformation would have required leadership of the higher order but at this critical juncture the Nepalese establishment was found wanting. The launch of the `people's war' was not, however, the result of only an opportunistic response to the evolving situation but the product of a rational and considered decision. Some of the more radical offspring of the leftist movement in Nepal had always believed in a violent revolution. A generation of cadres had worked towards this goal but their aspirations had never been fully realized. An attempt in 1971 by some youthful communists in Jhapa, inspired by the Naxalite movement in neighbouring West Bengal in India, to spark an armed uprising was swiftly crushed by the police force.

Although the international situation was not favourable, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) had discerned the weaknesses of the internal system and they believed the moment of opportunity they had been waiting for so long had arrived. On 13 February 1996 the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) formally launched the `people's war'. The Maoist insurgency has brought the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) (henceforth referred to also as the army/the military), an institution that was largely shielded from public glare and criticism in the past, under close scrutiny due to its re-emergence as an important factor in national life. The RNA is now passing through one of the most crucial phase of its history and the issue of civil-military relations has generated interest and concern. Samuel Huntington has stated that `the most important causes of military intervention in politics are not military but political and reflect not the social and organizational characteristics of the military establishment, but the political and institutional structure of society'.[1] Although the situation in Nepal is more complicated due to the role of the monarchy and its reciprocally empowering ties with the army, the basic premise of this observation still holds true.

If loyalty to the central authority, in the person of the king or ruler, is the most primitive of the centripetal forces in bringing about the unification of a country, the loyalty of the military in Nepal was the strongest expression of the force.[2] Although the Nepalese society has grown more complex since then, the army had continued to be constant in its loyalty to the crown. The traditional reverence for the monarchy and its symbolic role as locus of people's allegiance was, however, weakened after the political changes of 1991 and further compromised by the massacre of King Birendra and his family in a domestic feud in the palace on 1 June 2000.The failure of the civilian political institutions to gain the confidence and the loyalty of the army at this juncture might lead to the development of the army as a political force in its own right and further complicate the dynamics of the Nepalese polity.