Nepal: PM Prachanda resigns
A World to Win News Service.
Prime Minister Prachanda (Pushpa Kamal Dahal) resigned 4 May in a crucial dispute over whether or not the head of the Nepal Army would be allowed to thumb his nose at his government’s authority.
Prachanda, Chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), had sacked Army Chief of Staff Rookmangud Katawal for continual and deliberately provocative insubordination to the civilian government, in defiance of the interim constitution and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that brought an end to the decade-long people’s war in 2006. But President Ram Baran Yadav overrode Prachanda’s decision and ordered the army head to remain in his post. (General Katawal had already refused to accept the government’s letter informing him he was sacked.) He also overrode the decision of the Defence Minister, Ram Bahadur Tapa, supposedly in charge of the Nepal Army, to appoint another general as interim army chief to take Katawal’s place “until an agreement is made”.
In his resignation speech the next day, Prachanda denounced the president’s move as “unconstitutional and illegal” and “an attack on this infant democracy and the peace process”. He said, “I will quit the government rather than remain in power by bowing down to the foreign elements and reactionary forces.”
President Yadav accepted his resignation and asked him to continue as caretaker prime minister pending the formation of a new government. The president called for an all-party meeting to discuss the way out of this crisis. The UCPN(M) responded that they would block all parliamentary business until the president came before that body to apologize for reinstating the general, and organise protests in the streets as well.
Asked by a correspondent whether or not his party would join a new government, UCPN(M) leader and Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai said, “The so-called president who is directly dictated by New Delhi has been sent messages to act against the elected government and has restored the sacked army chief. The president should (admit that it is an unconstitutional decision) and then only we can think of joining the government, otherwise we will go to the streets and gather the masses to fight against the anti-democratic party.” (The Hindu, 4 May) The “anti-democratic party” refers to the Nepal Congress Party, the pro-Indian opposition party to which the president has ties.
After initially waffling, the other major party in the UCPN(M) government, the Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist-Leninist (UML), along with a smaller party, quit the cabinet to protest Prachanda’s firing of the general. This meant that the UCPN(M) faced a no-confidence vote in parliament that it may not have been able to survive even if Prachanda had not resigned. But this should not obscure the more basic issues at stake in this confrontation, which is not a parliamentary squabble.
There is the “parallel power” of the presidency, as Prachanda called it in his resignation speech, an office created to make sure his government could not weaken or disorganize the army, and most centrally the existence and role of the army itself. The armed forces are the central pillar of any state power, no matter who holds office. This general truth has specific applicability in Nepal, which has one of South Asia’s biggest armies proportional to its population. There the military has played a particularly important institutional function in society and an open and naked role in keeping the ruling classes in power through violence against the people, while working closely with India.
How this happened
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement was followed by the rebels’ surprise victory in the Constitutional Assembly elections, the abolition of the monarchy and eventually its formation of a government in August 2008. (The party adopted its present name earlier this year when the CPN (M) merged with the Unity Centre [Masal] from which it had originally split. Masal had opposed the concept of Maoism and the people’s war.) Despite the fact that it had won more votes than the other two main parties combined, in return for the UCPN (M) being allowed to lead that new government, those parties forced it to accept the creation of the post of a president who would be head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. At the time, the presidency was shrugged off as mainly ceremonial. But the president’s power turns out to be very great when used to legitimise the Nepal Army.
General Katawal is a man who has been entrusted with putting down revolution all his life. He won honours in his training by the U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets) and counter-insurgency Rangers, and command teaching in the UK, as well as in Indian and Pakistani military schools. As head of the Royal Nepal Army’s Western Division in 2003-04 and then RNA Chief of General Staff, he oversaw some of the most hard-fought battles during the people’s war in which his army was severely battered by the revolutionary forces. He also played a major role in the army’s murder, rape, torture and wanton destruction of homes and villages. He became overall head of the Royal Nepal Army a few months after the April 2006 ceasefire and before the Comprehensive Peace Agreements that brought a formal end to the war in November 2006. Adopted by the Nepali royal family as a child, he grew up in the palace. While undeniably a product of the monarchy, he showed even greater loyalty to higher interests when a consensus emerged among the Nepali ruling classes, political parties and foreign powers that Nepal could preserve social stability only by becoming a republic. In this way, he became a symbol of the political and social continuity of the armed forces.
While not opposing the abolition of the monarchy, what he has opposed is any attempt to touch what is now called simply the Nepal Army but is little changed. According to the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the People’s Liberation Army should be “integrated into the security forces”. This would mean that the revolutionary army would go out of existence; the contention has been over how that would happen. For the time being, some 19,000 PLA members have been living in UN-supervised camps, with their main weapons under UN-supervised lock and key.
Katawal has opposed allowing PLA commanders to retain their officer rank and PLA units to join the Nepal Army in bulk. In fact, he flatly stated that he would not allow the “politicized” PLA members into the Nepal Army, as if his army were any less politicized. As a result, there hasn’t been the slightest “integration” of the two armies.
Instead of allowing PLA members into its ranks, the Nepal Army has been recruiting on its own. There have been at least three recruiting campaigns, all widely advertised in the media and carried out with public rallies, most recently in late 2008 and early 2009. In reaction, the UN envoy in charge of the peace process, Ian Martin, declared that any recruitment by either side was in violation of “the spirit and the letter” of Comprehensive Peace Agreements. (23 December 2008 press statement, cited by the International Crisis Group, “Nepal’s Faltering Peace Process”, 19 February 2009) Yet none of the foreign powers that have taken it on themselves to oversee the process have found this reason to complain. Instead, the general has held meetings with foreign ambassadors, or perhaps better said, foreign ambassadors have met with him, as if he were the real head of state.
Meanwhile, Prachanda’s government hasn’t been allowed any say about the army command. The current crisis began to come to a head earlier this year when the government refused to extend the terms of eight generals who had reached mandatory automatic retirement age. (The king had often extended terms, in a gesture that made them even more beholden to him.) Katawal ignored the Defence Minister and reinstated the generals anyway. In March the Supreme Court suspended the Defence Minister’s decision.
In mid-April, the government formally asked Katawal for “clarification” as to why he violated its orders on three issues: the recruitment drives, the eight retired generals, and, in a gesture whose only purpose was to provoke, the Army’s withdrawal from the National Games between various branches of the military and police, because it refused to play in an athletic competition against teams made up of its former enemies, members of the People’s Liberation Army. The general was given 24 hours to reply; two weeks later, Prachanda’s cabinet voted to sack him.
The general and the “international community”
The general’s defiance is not simply a particular character trait or the residue of his lifetime of royalist training. Whatever his personal desires may be, he has been told to stand firm by greater powers.
The Nepal Army’s “strongest international ally, India,” as the well-informed International Crisis Group wrote in its February 19 report, “shares most of its concerns over integration and can be relied upon to resist any steps that appear to threaten its existing structure and culture.” The Brussels-based ICG is a consulting organization run by former Western heads of state, their advisers and other people they’ve trusted. When they say, “rely on India”, they mean exactly that: the interests of Indian expansionism are what the imperialist powers are relying on.
But the major imperialist states and other powers have done more than that. They’ve intervened directly on the political level.
During the period of political crisis when the UCPN(M) was proposing that the general be fired and its coalition partners were wavering, “envoys from eight countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, India, China and Japan reached the PM’s residency to discuss the issue collectively. The meeting is undergoing where Finance Minister Baburam Bhattarai is also present. The international community has expressed dissatisfaction on the government move to sack the army chief, saying it would hamper the peace process.” (Nepalnews.com, 12 April). How does asserting civilian control over the army “hamper the peace process”? Isn’t this really a reminder that the “international community”, like Nepal’s domestic reactionaries, intends for the monopoly of the means of armed violence to lie in the hands of people they can trust to serve their interests? In fact, isn’t this an implicit threat of violence against the UCPN(M) if it doesn’t behave as wished?
Following that “collective discussion” held in the most unconcealed gangster style, the Indian ambassador returned to New Delhi for consultations, and “warned that the current Maoist-led coalition would be overturned within days if the government ousted the army chief. Reports also say, the Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee also telephoned UML chairman Jhala Nath Khanal and told him not to support the Maoists’s plan to oust the CoAS [chief of army staff Katawal].” (Nepalnews.com, 25 April) Later a UML leader was to announce that while the civilian government had “a right to ask for explanation from its army chief for defying its order, ‘it did so with wrong intentions.'” (Nepalnews.com, 1 May)
The U.S. sent its own unmistakable signal: on 30 April, as the political crisis in Nepal reached a crescendo, the U.S. State Department released a statement declaring that the UCPN (M) would remain on its official list of terrorist organisations (Terrorist Exclusion List), despite the end of the people’s war and the Maoist electoral victory.
The pretext was alleged violent acts by the party’s Young Communist League. Of course, the U.S. is now waging two wars of occupation, with the Iraq war being illegal according to “international community” UN rules, and the Afghanistan war merely criminal in human, moral terms. So it is hardly in a position to condemn anyone else for alleged petty violence. Further, when did it protest the massive crimes of General Katawal’s army? But it should at least be noted that similar charges have been levelled against the UML’s youth organisation without that provoking international condemnation. The point was that the “boss of all bosses”, the gangster-in-chief of the “international community”, the Obama government, had spoken.
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