KATHMANDU, April 11: Apparent implosion in the cantonments has forced the Maoist leadership to resort to the desperate step of sending in the Nepal Army to take control of the cantonments, combatants and arms containers.
But the implosion did not happen overnight. Nor did it happen for no reason. There was long-simmering frustration and resentment in the cantonments and this initially seemed to be more due to lack of progress in the peace process. Having lived in the cantonments for so many years under physically taxing conditions, the combatants still had no idea how much longer they had to endure cantonment life.
All that changed last November when the political parties signed the famous seven-point agreement to conclude the peace process. The points agreed in the seven-point deal did not meet the popular expectations of the combatants, nor were they in line with what the Maoist leadership had promised them.
The combatants were unhappy especially with the provisions in the seven-point deal on education, age, rank and the role of the proposed NA directorate. Even after the deal, the Maoist leadership kept on promising that, irrespective of whatever was written in the deal, the combatants´ current level of education would be taken into consideration, there would be group entry into the Nepal Army, the proposed directorate under the Nepal Army would have a combat role and PLA commanders would make it to the higher ranks in the Nepal Army--at least to the level of Brigadier General. None of those promises materialized in the end as the combatants were never a part of the seven-point deal, and they felt let down, even cheated, by their leaders.
The combatants were also frustrated over the lack of any schemes for the future of injured combatants, women combatants with offpsring and disqualified combatants. They had gone so far as to obstructed the retirement process in February, pressing their demands.
Meanwhile, there were two parallel developments in the Maoist party and at the cantonments, that further complicated matters.
First, the growing rift in the Maoist party between the establishment faction led by Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and the hardline faction led by Vice-chairman Mohan Baidya began to be reflected in the cantonments also. Combatants belonging to the Baidya group declined to opt for integration in the army and instead chose voluntary retirement as requested by the hardline faction. Maoist Vice-chairman Baidya and General Secretary Ram Bahadur Thapa had issued a joint press statement asking the combatants to reject “unequal” integration and opt instead for voluntary retirement.
This created immediate divisions within the PLA rank and file.
The second, and perhaps more damaging, development was growing calls for transparency over the PLA fund.
The PLA fund possibly comprised billion of rupees but this money was not properly accounted for. So the combatants started demanding details.
The PLA fund mostly comprised money amassed from three sources. The first was the Rs 1,000 collected from each combatant every month with a promise that half the money would go to the Young Communist League and the combatants would get the rest at the time of their retirement. When the combatants demanded the money back no clearcut answer was forthcoming from the commanders.
Secondly, thousands of combatants had left the cantonments at different times but the PLA continued to draw salaries and allowances in the name of the absentee combatants. These possibly amounted to over a billion rupees also. This money was not accounted for either.
Thirdly, the PLA regularly took commissions from contractors supplying rations to the 19,000 plus combatants. This commission money possibly amounted to another billion.
The Maoist leadership initially promised the combatants that the status of the PLA fund would be made public, but this never happened.
Meanwhile, several combatants had their checks seized by their commanders after the former decided to opt for voluntary retirement during the first round of combatants survey. That created a furor in the cantonments.
There were confrontations at the Ilam, Shaktikhor and Surkhet cantonments between retiring combatants and their commanders.
"Objectively speaking, the disorder in the organization commenced following the release of those who opted for voluntary retirement. Earlier, the PLA was united by emotion, ideology and organization. But none of that exits any longer,” said Shyam Kumar Budha Magar, a brigade commissar, adding, “Thank god, they have not raised arms so far."
Things seem to have reached a tipping point when the combatants realized that they were being forced to either retire or join the Nepal Army without any clarity concerning standard norms, education or the army rank that they would get.
Many combatants also complained that there was nepotism and favoritism in the selection of those who would join the army.