Monday, February 28, 2005

STUDY: Nepal - Civil-Military Relations and the Maoist Insurgency Part 2

Civil-Military Relations and the Maoist Insurgency in Nepal - Part 2

Prakash Nepali and Phanindra Subba
From: Small Wars and Insurgencies, Volume 16, Number 1 (March, 2005)


The Army During The Panchayat Era

King Mahendra took power after dismissing the first popularly elected government of the Nepali Congress headed by B. P. Koirala in 1960 and introduced the party-less Panchayat system. He quickly moved to centralize power and tighten personal control of the military by taking a number of steps. Following in his father's footsteps as supreme Commander-in-Chief of the army, King Mahendra carefully weeded out overly ambitious officers and cultivated loyalties by taking a personal interest in the careers of those in the senior ranks. Moreover, he ensured that the army continued to be well-paid.[3] Some senior army officers were retined from active military service and appointed in the civil administration. Former army officials went on to become the bureaucratic heads of the crucial Home and Defence Ministries and enabled the palace to tighten its grip of the civil administration.

The process of broadening the ethnic and social base of the officer corps that started with the military reforms of 1952, which opened recruitment in the army to all eligible Nepalese citizens, also gathered pace. (This is discussed in more detail later.) A career in the army remained a socially prestigious profession because of the monarchy's identification with it and the continued prospects it offered for social mobility as a result of the royal patronage. This development enabled the monarchy to accommodate and co-opt newly educated members of underrepresented groups such as the Hill Ethnic groups into the system and widen its support base as well as balancethe different caste and ethnic groups. These policies were successful for the palace also to the extent that it helped bring about political restraint among sections of the growing middle class. Along with these moves King Mahendra, in order to show his appreciation for the military's support and his empathy towards it, sought to symbolically enhance the army's importance by granting it the right to use the prefix `Royal' before its designation in 1965.

King Mahendra wooed the army while simultaneously emasculating it as a political force.[4] The Military Secretariat, which was established in the palace in 1954/55 (B.S.2011), was the principal mechanism by which the King sought to keep the army under close control and prevent any ambitious generals from establishing an independent power base. The Panchayat system was a party-less system with the monarchy at the apex and real power was vested in the king and not the council of ministers. Thus the Secretariat vetted the list of promotions and postings forwarded by the military headquarters and the Defence Ministry had little say in it. This enabled the palace to influence the command structure of the army. The posting of junior officers on deputation to the palace as adjutants to the King and members of the Royal Family also helped to socialize officers, who were likely to rise to key positions in the future, in elite values. The Military Secretaries and senior military aides to the King, because of their direct and regular access to the King, became very powerful during the more institutionalized but bureaucratic style of governance adopted by King Birendra during his reign. The emergence of key actors, who functioned in many ways as more powerful alternative power centres to the formal command structure, distorted the chain of command and caused resentment within the regular army circles. However, care was taken to provide the army chiefs with the adequate status. Almost all retired chiefs of staff during this period were rewarded with honours/diplomatic postings after their retirement.

Nepal's ability to avoid becoming entangled in any potential conflict between its neighbours during the Cold War, especially after the Sino-Indian war in 1962 tilted the balance of power between these two countries towards China, hinged on the credibility of its efforts to reassure both the neighbours that no security vacuum would develop within its territory. Therefore, even though diplomacy was considered the main line of defence and military security was never given the pre-eminent position among the country's priorities during this era, the army was provided with an adequate budget, although modest, to increase its force level. During the early 1980s Nepal spent less than 1 per cent of her GNP on defence (US $30.353 million in 1983–84).[5] Even though the strength of the army was increased, the army was never given an explicitly political orientation or role and was kept aloof from the political process. As many as 56 per cent of the independent Third World countries experienced military rule at least once by 1974.[6] However, in Nepal as the army was used very sparingly in internal conflicts during this period and since the police force was used to deal with political disturbances the army did not become politicized.[7] But as postings and promotions for key posts largely continued to be dependent on personal connections, the prevalent culture discouraged individual innovation and initiative. The army also continued to put inordinate stress on pomp and pageantry and in some cases the rank and file were used for private benefit. As part of this trend a significant percentage of the trained manpower began to be used for orderly duties in the officer's homes. The quality of the army units was also uneven as over the years the combat arms of the army had also begun to see erosion in its status as the more qualified and well-connected officers tended to opt to serve in the support units based in Kathmandu. These factors hindered the development of professionalism in the army to the desired extent.

Socialization of Civil and Military Elites

The socialization in the socialist ethos of the key leaders of the Nepali Congress during their formative years in India made/makes them uncomfortable with the country's military origin. This unease with the military was further reinforced by their memories of the Royal takeover of 1960 in which the military had played a key role. `Is the democratic system in Nepal compatible with the preponderance of the Nepalese Army?' B. P. Koirala asked in his posthumously published Jail Journal. There is a lack of empathy for the military among key segments of the Nepalese political establishment, media and the academic circle. Many influential actors, in the euphoric and hopeful early days of the restoration of the multi-party system, questioned the necessity of maintaining an army in the absence of concrete danger to the nation in the horizon and the disparity in force level and military power between her and the colossal neighbours.

Different historical narratives can suggest different ways for nations to act in the present.[8] This is true for national institutions as well and when key institutions subscribe to different narratives it makes it hard to formulate mutually acceptable prescriptions for the present problems and develop a common vision for the future. The different formative experience and early socialization process of the elites of the civil and military institutions and their divergent interpretation of the country's past have created some discrepancy in the core values and worldviews of the military and civilian establishments. This has led to mounting distrust and miscomprehension on both sides. Since the Nepalese Army has never been seriously indoctrinated in the concept of the supremacy of the civilian authority this sort of intra-elite clash of self-interest and perspective is bound to have a grave implication for civil-military relations in a transitional democracy such as Nepal's. Every military system has an ethos which embodies, especially for the officer corps, the principles on which that system is based. War, revolution, defeat or political change may on occasions produce an historic re-examination of the ethos.[9] But since major changes came to Nepal through negotiated settlements, the military continues to be taught to understand the country's history in a very different way than the civilian leadership. The army derives much of its mythology and legitimacy from its role during the birth of the nation. The army was central to the ambitious goals that Prithivi Narayan Shah, the founder of modern Nepal and the ruler of the tiny principality of Gorkha, had set out for himself more than two centuries ago. Prithivi Narayan Shah conceived of the state as resting on two sturdy pillars, a contented peasantry and a loyal army.[10] It was the resolute performance put up by the Gorkha (Nepalese) Army in the Nepal-China (1792) and Nepal-Britain War (1814–16) that convinced them that the long-term occupation of Nepal would be a costly affair. The Nepalese troops impressed the British more than any native troops the British had faced on the field of battle in India.[11] The basis of the formidable reputation that the term `Gorkha' came to subsequently acquire in military circles was thus initially laid during this phase of Nepal's history. This `self-image' subsequently came to play an important role in the identity of a segment of the population. The military thus takes pride in the role it played in the creation and consolidation of the Nepalese state and sees itself as the ultimate defender of the country. This belief and outlook is inculcated in the officers in army training institutions throughout their careers and the task is made easier by the culture of conformism prevalent in the army.

Many civilian leaders, belonging to the two major political parties, the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), on the other hand, do not identify with the role of army in the country's history as their parties were formed to represent the interests of those constituencies that were not part of the original establishment. They have shown little interest in
national security issues, and due to different historical memories strongly identified themselves only with the history of the struggles conducted under the leadership of their respective parties. On the other hand, army publications still continue to refer to the armed struggles carried out by the NC party as a movement conducted by `anti-national elements'.[12] The interconnection between the
leadership of these two institutions is also very weak as almost none of the key leaders of the major parties have had experience of military life and are not conversant with military ethos and security affairs. However, all of the army's chiefs so far have come from families with an aristocratic/military family background that have traditional links to the monarchy. These senior officers have exerted a disproportionate influence and have given a conservative bearing to the military as well as a strong sense of historical continuity.

The ethnic and caste composition of the leadership structure between these institutions also differs to a significant extent and is an important element in the power equation. For historical and religious reasons (Hindu caste-based division of roles), Ranas, Thakuris, Chhetris and hill ethnic groups who have a tradition of valuing military attributes, dominate the military leadership structure. On the other hand, the top leadership of both major parties consists almost exclusively of hill Brahmins, especially from Eastern Nepal, whose caste-based occupation being priests and astrologers did not largely have a dominant role in the original military-class dominated power structure of Nepal. The top three ranks in the army are at present held by a Chhetri, a Gurung and a Chhetri while the Acting Military Secretary to the King comes from the Limbu community. There was only one non-Brahmin among the top 10 positions (i.e. Sher Bahadur Deuba, No.8) in the Central Working Committee (CWC) of the NC (formed on 1 July 1999).[13] Within the main opposition party, the CPN (UML), it (Brahmin domination) is even stronger than in the NC, even though there is slightly more democracy in the election of the central organs and top officials of the party.[14]

In a rigidly structured and caste/ethnicity conscious society such as Nepal's, where personal connection is very important and forms the basis of group fealty, this difference in composition indicates that there are few familial and marital links between the elites of these two institutions. This has contributed to the fragmentation of the potent informal power structures. The relative lack of kinship networks across this divide and the uneasiness of the old elites (Thakuris, Ranas and certain Chhetri clans) that still dominated the military's top ranks with their subservient status to the new governing elites (especially some Brahmin groups from Eastern Nepal) that occurred with the substantial readjustment of the elite structure in the new dispensation had an impact on institutional relationship. This may be one of the factors that might explain the dearth of supportive climate among key elements of the military establishment for the political class.

Multi-party Era (Post-Panchyat)

There are clear indications that it had not been King Birendra's intention to merely remain a titular head of state in the post-1990 Nepal and cede total control of the army. The army suggested to the Constitution Recommendation Commission headed by Bishwanath Upadhyaya that `both the army and the police must remain under the king's control'.[15] The palace thus sought to retain certain prerogatives concerning the army in the new constitution, but international pressure and street protests tilted the relative power balance towards the proponents of the multi-party camp. The palace then agreed to comply with the provisions concerning the army incorporated in the constitution drafted by the Commission. The issue of control over the army was resolved by providing the king with the authority to mobilize the army, but on the recommendation of a Security Council, comprising the Prime Minister, the Defence Minister, and the Army Chief (which, theoretically, gave the civilian government the upper-hand).[16] However `… according to the `Act on the Right, Duty, Function and Terms of the Service of Commander-in-Chief (1969)', the Commander-in-Chief is responsible to His Majesty rather than the government'.[17] This arrangement enabled the monarchy to retain its hold on the military, one of its vital sources of power, by requiring the consent of the monarchy on key issues pertaining to the army. As a result the Defence Minister in the multi-party system became more powerful than in the Panchyat era, but did not enjoy the sort of control and leverage the Home Minister came to acquire over the police force in the post-1991 Nepal. The ambiguity of this clause (Article 118), drafted to reflect the compromise between the two sides, and the fact that the army continued to function under the Army Act (1959) was to prove controversial as the Maoist insurgency intensified in 1999–2000.

The parties that led the movement for the restoration of democracy had been in the wilderness for 30 years and had been untainted by ties to the establishment. Their persistent refusal to compromise with the Panchayat system and their clean image was the key source of their legitimacy and strength. Flush with confidence after the election victory in 1991 and invigorated by an international environment conducive to new democracies, the newly formed government led by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala initiated large-scale changes in the leadership structure of the civil administration and the police force. The Ministry of Defence in the initial years of the Koirala administration was also able to exert considerable control over the army and reduce its autonomy. There were, however, obvious limits on how far Koirala could go in redefining the role of the army and restructuring its officer corps given the army's history and close relations with the palace. The fact that the movement for the restoration of the multi-party system in 1990 had ended through a negotiated settlement also meant that compromises were inevitable. Therefore, he sought to curtail the military's institutional powers through indirect means.

During the Panchayat era, the military had been given a dual role. Its primary mission was to defend the country from external invasion and its secondary role was to act to stabilize the internal security situation when required. The Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) of the RNA functioned as the chairman of the Central Security Co-ordination Committee and the army was represented in the Security Committees set up at the zonal and district levels. But after 1990 the army was not given representation in the security committee at any level, either at the centre or in the districts; it was only kept as `invitee member'.[18] The post-Panchayat government thus sought to reduce the army's part in internal security.

The government also sought to modify the army's role by giving more thrust to its developmental activities. Militaries as institutions, like all large bureaucracies, are very resistant to change but the army was agreeable to a certain re-orientation in priorities. Thus more focus on such as `non-military tasks' was acceptable to the army, although not beyond a certain point. But as the government manoeuvred to manipulate promotions to fill the top ranks with its preferred candidates and strengthen its grip over the army, it ran into resistance from the palace and a significant segment of the army hierarchy. Prithivi Narayan's own exploits had been sufficient to allow his direct descendents to live in reflected glory and this is one reason for the loyalty of the army during the years of internal crisis (in the mid-nineteenth century).[19] The constitution had given shared prerogatives on defence issues to the king and government, but it was largely the still resilient informal powers derived from the historical links between the Shah dynasty and the army and the personal relationships cultivated with the senior officers during the Panchayat era that King Birendra utilized to block the government's moves in this regard. The tussle for the control of the army exposed clear limits on the civilian government's power and authority. It is not that the King enjoyed exclusive control over the military thereafter. The civilian government's Finance Minister's control of the national budgetary appropriation process meant that annual budget estimates had to be submitted to the Ministry of Finance (through the Ministry of Defence, which usually is a mere formality), and all plans that had major financial implications had to be cleared by it. This provided the government with powerful leverage and it used this lever to contain the army.

Although there was some alteration in emphasis with the rapid changes in governments in the ensuing years, in most respects the army was largely left alone with its internal autonomy intact.[20] This was also partly because the mainstream politicians did not provide consistently strong political leadership because they became preoccupied with political survival as political instability increased after the mid-term polls for the parliament of 1994 yielded a hung parliament.[21] Political life, under the cover of multi-party politics, in many ways, began to resemble the extreme individualism that had characterized party-less politics in the Panchyat era, as many of the basic societal circumstances remained the same. In this context the insecure politicians considered national security issues peripheral to their core interests and the defence portfolio was low in the list of the priorities of the more powerful politicians. It is widely believed that those portfolios with the highest money-making potential are assigned to the most influential political leaders, regardless of their expertise in the subject.[22] The circumscribed power of the Defence Minister and the tight budget in the defence sector also meant that this portfolio did not have the same allure as some other ministries. It thus took the government 11 years after the new constitution was promulgated, to set up the secretariat of the National Security Council in January 2002.