Nepali Times
Guest Column
An uncivil society


When the state fails to protect citizens (or even to harass and hound them in the name of counter-insurgency) it loses the hearts and minds of the people. If this is how the establishment plans to fight this insurgency, then we have a lot to lose and a long way to go.

The Thapa government seems unwilling to reverse its decision to form civil defence forces to resist Maoists in the countryside. Thapa may mean well and he may not have ulterior motives, but he must remember the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Good intentions without logical direction can spell disaster. A risk assessment analysis of the formation of the civil defense force doesn't seem to have been carried out, and there is a danger of this spiralling out of control. (See: 'Turning civilians into combatants', Seira Tamang, Nepali Times #175). As we have seen from other counter-insurgency theatres, this is a recipe for spiralling human rights violations.

When the Algerian government cancelled elections in 1992 because Islamicists would have won, it triggered an armed uprising against the ruling class. Unable to subdue the rebels militarily, the government began arming civilians in 1995 to fight the militants. By 2003, many of the remote home guards had morphed into mafia bands, warlords, and local strongmen became militia leaders. Tens of thousands of Algerians perished.

Civilian casualties and human rights violations became a matter of grave concern, but anyone who dared raise them were arrested, or even killed. There are other horrific examples from recent history of massacres by out-of-control government-sponsored militias in Lebanon, Guatemala, Peru, Columbia and El Salvador.

A civil society unified by common vision must complement a well-meaning and benign centralised power. But this is hardly the case in Nepal today. Legitimate parliamentary forces are sidelined and humiliated, the current government does not feel accountable to any party or any political institution, and says so openly. With checks and balances gone, vested interests will make their presence felt. But if the past 12 years have taught us anything, it is that an election-focussed illiberal democracy can falter.

The decision about civil militia has been taken by a government that is neither representative nor accountable, and appears to be vastly unpopular. Many people are saying "give us security, not guns". The last Nepali Times Internet poll was overwhelmingly (69 percent) against arming civilians. Sadly, a policy of such import with such potentially far-reaching and deadly consequences has been enacted through fiat without any debates and participation.

What guarantee is there that armed and poorly-trained militia will not turn against the state and plunge the country into a full-fledged civil war? The thinly stretched state apparatus is already in trouble because it has lost control of large swaths of territory. How can you trust them to monitor these civilian militia, while their own kind within the ranks are being accused of rights violations?

After all, the civil defence forces will not be fighting an imperialist foreign force in Kumaun or Gharwal. They will have to hunt down their own brothers and sisters. This strategy is just too high-risk.

On the political front, the reaction is predictable. Notwithstanding his wild threats, Girija Koirala's response to the proposal is logical. He knows that you can't win elections against well-endowed armed opponents, and so he announced his own plans to form local militias. Thapa's nemesis, Pashupati Rana, also saw the dangers of having an all-too-powerful openly defiant prime minister from his own party. He had no choice but to demand his resignation. This is Politics 101, you can't blame these gentlemen for following text book paranoia.

The Nepali people have suffered a lot and have been extremely patient. They have refrained from joining the street protests to give two Panchayat-era prime ministers a chance to bring peace. The people\'s growing apathy is reflected on the current Nepali Times Internet poll, which is going fifty-fifty on republic vs monarchy.

Many Nepalis are at a loss, and their patience will run out eventually. It appears that an all-party government with parliamentary forces at the helm is the only rational course. How long can the monarch remain silent?

Alok K Bohara, PhD, is professor of economics, University of New Mexico

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)