Not so long ago the Nepal Army (NA) and the PLA were at war and hence enemy to each other, or that at least was how one referred to the other. Since the formal end of the fighting and the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2006, the two armies remained in separate camps and under the separate chains of command of their respective institutions. That state of affairs came abruptly to an end on Tuesday as the NA took control of the seven PLA cantonment sites along with the combatants and their arms, as per the decision of the Special Committee chaired by Prime Minister and Maoist Vice-chairman Baburam Bhattarai. From now onwards, the PLA will remain under the control of the national army until the combatants either choose to retire voluntarily and leave the cantonments or join the NA through integration.
The dramatic handover of the cantonments to the NA was precipitated by the no less dramatic events that were unfolding across the cantonments: Tensions that had been simmering there for weeks, even months, morphed into chaos and confrontation in the last few days. In several cantonments, the combatants, who had so faithfully followed the PLA chain-of-command, dutifully taking orders from their commanders, had suddenly gone ‘berserk’, questioning and challenging those very commanders and even engaging them in physical confrontation. At the PLA’s First Division at Chulachuli, Ilam, things escalated out of control, forcing the PLA commanders to flee and seek the protection of the Armed Police Force. Faced with the prospect of violence flaring in the cantonments, the Maoist leadership took a desperate measure, proposing to send in NA personnel to restore order. The Special Committee’s decision to hand over the cantonments, containers and combatants to the NA immediately, though it has come about under desperate circumstances, is a wise one. Allowing chaos to rein among the PLA could have triggered violence and even seizure of the arms sealed up in the containers, and that would have been a huge setback not just for the Maoist leadership but for all those who have worked and wished so hard to see the peace process conclude.
It’s true that Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal did not handle the overall peace process, and more specifically the issue of integration, terribly well. Prolonged vacillation between peace and revolt, his tall promises to PLA combatants that he knew were impossible to fulfill, and his underestimation of the resentment growing among their rank and file, have all contributed to the present anarchy in the cantonments. But without this man’s commitment, especially during this critical phase and at this crunch time, to seeing the peace process through — one could well argue that he didn’t have any choice— things might have taken a nasty turn. No one else has risked as much as Dahal in bringing the peace process to a seemingly dramatic end. It will take a few more days before the curtain finally comes down but we want to extend our thanks to Chairman Dahal for the role he has played in winding up that whole process and give him due credit.