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People’s Liberation Army post-2006: integration, rehabilitation or retirement?

How to contain, disarm, rehabilitate and reintegrate members of the Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were key questions after the end of the decade-long Maoist conflict in November 2006. Here Chiranjibi Bhandari charts the lengthy and complicated demobilisation process of PLA members, arguing that many former fighters feel abandoned by the Maoist political party and continue to face the discrimination they had fought to eradicate.

Statutory provisions for demilitarisation

Three major peace process documents came one after another at the end of the war that were central to the post- war fate of the Maoist rebel fighters: the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA – 21 November 2006); the Agreement on the Monitoring of the Management of Arms and Armies (AMMAA – 8 December 2006); and the Interim Constitution of Nepal (15 January 2007). All of these dealt with the future of the ‘Maoist Army’ (as the PLA was referred to). Section 4 of the CPA addressed the ‘Management of Army and Arms’ while the AMMAA detailed the procedural and technical provisions related to that. Both agreements were included as Schedule 4 of the Interim Constitution.

Between February and March 2007, seven cantonments and 21 sub-cantonments were set up across the country to house the Maoist fighters. Arms monitors from the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) were deployed to supervise the management of arms and armed personnel of both the Nepali Army and the PLA. Thereafter began the verification process by UNMIN of all combatants in the cantonments. UNMIN also chaired the Joint Monitoring Coordination Committee (JMCC), the body consisting of members of the Nepali Army and the PLA that was responsible for ensuring compliance with the CPA and the AMMAA by both sides.

The CPA and the Interim Constitution also had a provision for a special committee to ‘supervise, integrate and rehabilitate’ the combatants of the Maoist Army. The cross-party Special Committee for Supervision, Integration and Rehabilitation of Maoist Army Combatants was formed after the election to the first Constituent Assembly in April 2008.

The significance of the Special Committee’s role increased dramatically with the withdrawal of UNMIN on 15 January 2011 at the behest of the government [see article on international support for peace and transition in Nepal p.27]. A crisis was averted when an agreement was reached between the government and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) on the eve of UNMIN’s withdrawal, granting the oversight role for monitoring of combatants, cantonments and weapons to the Special Committee. Accordingly, on 22 January 2011, all the combatants came under the charge of the Special Committee.

Endless differences

The fate of the ex-combatants in the cantonments was subject to debate and discussion for close to five years, with both sides refusing to compromise on their respective stances. The major issues of contention revolved around the integration of the PLA into the Nepali Army, the handover of Maoist armaments and the mode of rehabilitation. Table 2 outlines the contrasting positions held by the two sides.

Despite continuing differences, there was some progress such as the December 2009 agreement on the discharge of minors and late recruits (see Table 3 for definitions). Accordingly, over January and February 2010, 4,008 combatants were disqualified due to their age or time of recruitment. Other disagreements were finally resolved in November 2011 with the Seven-Point Agreement, which outlined three options for ex-combatants: 1) integration into the Nepali Army; 2) rehabilitation; and 3) voluntary retirement. The agreement also specified that up to 6,500 Maoist combatants would be integrated into the Nepali Army, but only if they fulfilled its ‘fixed standards’ for entry – although there was some relaxation of these standards in terms of age, educational attainment and marital status.

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Integration, rehabilitation or retirement?

By the time of the Seven-Point Agreement, the number of combatants had decreased considerably. A total of 32,250 combatants had entered the cantonments at the beginning of the peace process. Only 19,602 had got through the verification process conducted by UNMIN: 8,640 were absent during verification and a further 4,008 were disqualified for being minors (2,973) or late recruits (1,035). When the regrouping process began along the three options outlined in the Seven-Point Agreement (integration, rehabilitation and voluntary retirement), 94 combatants were recorded as being dead, suspended or having deserted. A further 2,456 were found missing, a fact that led to some tensions at the political level, particularly on the perceived misuse of allowances that had been provided on the basis of the headcount of combatants.

Of those remaining, initially 9,702 chose integration into the Nepali Army and 7,344 voluntary retirement; only six opted for rehabilitation. These choices also reflected a simmering internal rift within the UCPN-M, between factions led by party leader Prachanda (which favoured integration) and Vice-Chair Mohan Baidya Kiran (which favoured voluntary retirement). The latter saw integration in the terms agreed as a humiliating choice for ex-combatants and a new form of recruitment for the national army. The number of those in favour of joining the army declined still further after the Special Committee allowed combatants to take the final decision over their own fate: in the second and third rounds of the process, only 3,123 and then 1,460 decided to go for integration. Indeed 38 of these later chose voluntary retirement due to health or other reasons. The final tally of ex-combatants who opted for the army was only 1,422 (104 of whom were women), while 15,630 sought to reintegrate back into society.

The concept of voluntary retirement was unique and is not part of common international practice. International actors and donor agencies had in fact rejected such an option given the experience of the lethal combination of money, guns and combatants in other post-conflict societies. Their emphasis was more on the rehabilitation package that consisted of around three dozen schemes related to formal and vocational education.

The rehabilitation option proved to be the least attractive, however, with just six ex-combatants choosing it. And, contrary to the assumptions and expectations of both national and international stakeholders, voluntary retirement proved to be overwhelmingly popular, with 90 per cent of the ex-combatants deciding to take the one-time cash payments that ranged from NPR 500,000– 800,000 (approximately USD $5,000–8,000) depending on rank. Given international donors’ hesitancy about the cash package, the Government of Nepal had to come up with the funds from the national treasury.

Despite all the delays in the demilitarisation process for the PLA, Maoist former combatants were successfully demobilised. And, unlike in many other post-conflict societies, there has been no violation of the peace process; nor was there any challenge from the ex-combatants to decisions made by the government or the Special Committee. At present, a number of former members of the PLA are active in all the Maoist political factions, but a significant majority are not and appear quite alienated from party politics, primarily as a result of the many fissures seen in the party they had fought for.

It is believed that 15 to 20 per cent of the ex-fighters are working as migrant labourers in the Gulf and other countries. Of those who have settled down in Nepal, most reside near the cantonments that were home to them for five years, and where there are better facilities and livelihood options compared to their own places of origin. Yet, there are questions about continued discrimination against ex-combatants and the problem of integrating them into the very social order dominated by exclusion on the basis of caste, class and gender, which these former guerrillas sought to fundamentally transform and dismantle. [see interviews with Suk Bahadur Roka and Lila Sharma on pp.50 and 52]