With the agreement among the four major political forces to restart the integration process on September 6, the peace process seems to have entered a decisive stage. Obstructed for the last two months by Maoist ex-combatants unhappy with strict selection criteria for integration into Nepal Army, Monday’s agreement lays out a more dignified integration path by relaxing certain entry criteria. Biswas Baral spoke to Balananda Sharma, Coordinator of the Special Committee (for supervision‚ integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants) about how the rest of the integration will proceed, the revised criteria and likely hurdles to the process.
Monday’s agreement seems to have opened the way for conclusion of the integration process. Can you brief us on the developments on integration so far?
Recent developments step on the seven-point agreement between the four political forces on November 1, 2011, which laid out three paths of integration, voluntary retirement and rehabilitation before the cantoned combatants. It also decided that a maximum of 6,500 combatants would be recruited into a specially created Nepal Army directorate. When we presented the three options before the cantoned combatants, 3,123 opted for integration. But the process was stalled owing to objections of cantoned combatants on strict age and education criteria for integration. It didn’t help that in the aftermath of the Constituent Assembly’s demise, no dialogue was taking place between the stakeholders in the peace process.
How did you arrive at a new agreement on integration now?
In order to kick-start the stalled process, it was decided that the integration would be pushed ahead by setting aside other political differences. Meanwhile, the Special Committee started deliberating why integration had to be stopped in the first place. New points of view were incorporated from both the Nepal Army as well as the Maoist sides on how to break the deadlock. The work of the Special Committee so far was based on the basis of verification carried out by the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN). But an UNMIN certificate is of no use while applying for government posts. On the other hand, the citizenship certificate is mandatory for any government job. This is the reason we decided to follow citizenship certificates in determining the age of combatants. But since it was UNMIN records that established the identity of combatants, its records couldn’t be sidelined either. Thus we decided to use information from both the documents to find a middle-way solution.
Can you elaborate on the revised criteria for integration?
Earlier, points of disagreements were over four issues: age, education, organization structure of the body that would take in the combatants and dignified integration. Let us first take up the issue of dignified integration. In the seven-point agreement the Maoist leadership accepted certain criteria for integration. If the integration moves ahead according to the agreement, we have to say that such a process is dignified. But some combatants expressed their discomfort at the measurement of their chests and stripping them off their clothes in public. We thus decided that the whole selection process would be done away from public view. We also decided to treat combatants on one-on-one basis.
As regards the issue of age, the seven-point agreement stipulated that the age of combatants and the date of their entry into PLA would be determined on the basis of the identification certificates provided by UNMIN. The agreement was that those who had joined PLA when they were 18 or above would be considered genuine combatants. The recent agreement gives the combatants three years concession on the date of their entry into PLA as per UNMIN certificates. But the problem was that if we determined the age of combatants on the basis of UNMIN certificates, a big section would be ineligible for integration. Besides, we decided that age mentioned in citizenship certificates were more authentic even while we would adhere to UNMIN data on date of entry.
On the issue of education, any revision of earlier criterion would be grossly unfair on those who have already chosen voluntary retirement option as they didn’t qualify for integration on academic grounds.
What about the revision of the provision for a special directorate under Nepal Army?
The special directorate was envisioned with the calculation that 6,500 combatants would choose the integration option as per the seven-point agreement. But now the situation is that even the 3,123 who have chosen integration might not qualify. In this situation, a special directorate is not feasible. We decided that, first, we will arrive at a final number on integration, and only then design an appropriate body to absorb them.
Do you have any idea how many of the 3,123 combatants will be ineligible on education grounds?
It is difficult to say. But we assume the number will be around 80-100.
The integration process is to restart on September 6. How will it proceed?
We will set off for the cantonments on September 6. The selection process will start by September 7-8. During the process, those eligible for integration would be selected from among the 3,123 combatants. Those ineligible or those who do not choose the integration path would be given the option of voluntary retirement or rehabilitation. The combatants would be divided into two clear groups. The Nepal Army will take the arms stored in cantonments under its control.
Can we consider the dismantling of cantonments as the end of the peace process?
First, we should be clear about what the term ‘end of peace process’ means. We may consider emptying of cantonments and state forces taking of arms from cantonments an end of the peace process. Or we can say that those who have been integrated should first complete their training and only then will the peace process end. As regards those who have already chosen voluntary retirement, they are still to get their second installment of voluntary retirement package. We might consider the distribution of such funds as the end. It depends on the context.
The term of the Special Committee has been renewed for three months. When does its relevance end?
The Special Committee’s tenure will end the day Nepal government believes it can settle the remainder of peace process on its own. But if the Special Committee is to strictly adhere to its mandate, its tenure might yet be prolonged. This is entirely up to the government though.
What will happen to the combatants who chose integration but have been living outside cantonments?
As there is no official data on the exit of combatants, we will go on the assumption that they are all living inside the cantonments. Whoever presents themselves at the cantonments on the dates we carry out selection for integration will be eligible.
How long do you think the committee will take to end the process starting September 6?
We believe integration will be completed before Dashain (which is two months away). The only remaining task will be distribution of the second installment of cash to those who have already taken the voluntary retirement route.
Do you foresee any dangers that could still hinder integration and the larger peace process?
One, there must be many who are against the current integration and voluntary retirement process. These forces could create some obstacles. Two, incidents like strikes and bandas that hinder our movement could also delay it. I don’t think there will be many obstacles on the political front as all the major forces are more or less in favor of the current process.
Even the combatants have been requesting us to complete the whole process soon. The only thing is we have been telling them that those who were under the age of 18 during UNMIN’s verification cannot be considered for integration. They might create some trouble. But again, there are unlikely to be many of them. That said, we don’t envision a smooth ride either. No stage of the integration process has been plain sailing.