Nepal's elected civilians, the military and the monarchy are tangled in a triangular tussle over who controls the Royal Nepal Army (RNA). Matters have come to a head because an indecisive and fractious government cornered by a virulent insurgency has appealed to the monarch to use the army of which he is supreme commander. The constitution leaves the question of who controls the army deliberately fuzzy: the king is the supreme commander but the army is supposed to obey orders from the National Security Council (NSC).
The RNA has not fought a war on Nepali soil since the Anglo-British conflict of 1816, and the last time it tasted action was when it successfully crushed a band of anti-Chinese Khampa guerrillas after hot pursuit in western Nepal in the mid-1970s. The army is clearly reluctant to get into a guerrilla war without a clear chain of command, rules of engagement and realistic goals.
Behind all this is the larger polarisation of those who support parliamentary democracy, and those who feel the country is in a mess and the time has come to restore strongman rule. This is how this latest round unfolded:
2-7 April: The Maoists massacre 70 policemen in several districts. The police chief says he can't fight them on his own anymore.
9 April: Koirala rallies his party and garners support for mobilising "all" security forces to tackle the Maoists. The NSC holds a series of meetings to assess the situation.
11 April: King Birendra holds court with a group of ministers, secretaries, the army and police chiefs and discusses the pros and cons of the government's plan to use the army.
12 April: King Birendra likes the plan to partially deploy the Army to deliver a hearts-and-minds programme in the seven districts hit hardest by the insurgency. Ordinances for regional administrators and a paramilitary force are re-promulgated.
20 April: Commander-in-chief Prajwalla Rana makes a controversial speech in Tokha saying the army will be involved only if there is unity among political parties. The government is rattled, the main opposition UML says it doesn't like the hearts-and-minds plan.
So this is where we stand: a military beholden to the monarchy is not listening to an elected government to tackle an insurgency that seeks to topple parliamentary democracy. The government's plan is fashioned after the US Army's Vietnam era counter-insurgency strategy known by its acronym IDAD-here it is called the Integrated Security and Development Plan (ISDP). Prime Minister Girija Koirala has been trying to get the ISDP up and running since December, and got the backing of the king only after the last strikes by the Maoists. The Rs 400 million plan would build roads, carry out development work in Maoist areas, and be protected by a 10,000-strong Army deployment headquartered in Surkhet.
It took a long meeting on 11 April at the Royal Palace of ministers, government officials and security chiefs to convince King Birendra that the ISDP was the most desirable plan. According to some officials present, the king listened attentively to the briefing, and had some tough questions on the "total picture" before giving the plan his official nod. A top government source explained: "The basic idea is to use the army to defend positions and create space for government, political parties and NGOs to go back and work to win back the people with serious development work."
The army has already begun planning deployment in six mid-western districts and Gorkha, even as the skirmishes continue in Kathmandu's corridors of power. Meanwhile, the army's top brass has been downplaying the C-in-C's Tokha speech, calling it "media exaggeration" and "political over-reaction". One senior army official told us: "All we were trying to say was that we have to be clear about the chain of command, we have to be sure the people are on our side. Because bringing the army out of the barracks is a last resort, it cannot fail."
But the early controversy does not bode well for the ISDP. The question of who is giving orders has not been sorted out to the army's liking, and the opposition UML and a coalition of left parties has declined to even discuss the ISDP . "The Maoist problem is mainly a political one and maximum efforts should be made to resolve it through dialogue. The Maoists have also said they will come to talks, but don't trust the prime minister. He has failed to win the trust of anyone," says Madhav Nepal, UML general secretary.
The ISDP is said to detail a week-by-week plan of action on how the process should move. It is headed by the prime minister and has sub-committees for political work (headed by the deputy prime minister), security (with the army chief), development (the National Planning Commission), and public information (the minister for communication).
This week, Maoist local commanders held open meetings in Sindhupalchok's Mankha Village, a three hour drive east of Kathmandu, and said they were ready to take on the army if need be. Maoist leader Prachanda also told the weekly, Janadesh: "In our opinion, army mobilisation will be proof of the new heights the People's War has reached. It will also practically end the political role of the parliament and parliamentary groups in this country."
Meanwhile, the army has also been preparing its scenarios, sprucing up its two battalions trained in jungle warfare, and upgrading weaponry. Military sources told us that the Maoists' strengths and strategies are being studied, and the army has drawn up a plan to locate hideouts and camps. Said the source: "We will not call them 'enemy', they are Nepalis and the idea will be to put pressure on them to give up arms and come to the negotiating table."