Nepali Times
Militia in our midst



A UN team is due here next month to assess needs in a future monitoring mission, but the world body and the seven party government have so far overlooked an important source of Maoist strength: its militia.

Up to now, the government, the Maoists and the UN have agreed to cantoning and confining the Maoist 'People's Liberation Army' into fixed camps and the Nepal Army in its barracks. The political use of weapons by Maoist militias in the countryside has not been addressed.

We asked a top official if the government raised the issue of the Maoist militia during the UN-backed negotiations this month. "No we didn't," the official, who didn't want to be identified, replied. "But we can raise it in future negotiations."

The fact that government leaders are unwilling to put their names to those concerns underscores the sensitivity of the subject. One government leader fears that the Maoists will dig in and become difficult to manage if the issue is raised now.

Maoist leaders, on the other hand, argue that no one should suspect the role of their militia. "They serve as a policing force and are disciplined party cadres," Maoist leader Deb Gurung told us, "the government police is providing security in certain areas, and our militia is carrying out security patrols in rural areas."

But the worries continue because the Maoist 'Peoples' Militia' with its 100,000 or so young cadres, who support both the PLA and local party committees in various tasks ranging from enforcement to providing logistics, are seen by experienced conflict analysts as potential spoilers in the peace process.

Add to that the risks posed to the Maoists by army-backed village vigilantes, border-area Hindu fundamentalists, traditionally armed tarai farmers and 'splitist' tendencies within the Maoist movement, and the UN's task does not appear easy. This is especially because it lacks an enforcement mandate.

In the absence of a strategy to manage any of these complicating factors, the peace process contains as many potential points of trouble as routes to resolution.

What is a militia?

Historically, any guerrilla group ultimately needs to transform itself into an organised army if it hopes to win wars in the conventional sense: by seizing and holding on to territory. The Maoist 'Peoples Liberation Army' (PLA) also grew out of an irregular band into an organised force.

In an internet article, Maoist leader Hisila Yami (Babu Ram Bhattarai's wife who goes by the nom de guerre Comrade Parvati) defines the militia in these terms: 'There are part-time and full-time militias who are in essence future PLA recruits. Thus the function of people's security is also to expand the local military recruiting base for the PLA...In big raids they participate as a supporting force. They also give basic defensive armed training to the local people.'


FACES OF A MILITIA: Near Thawang in Rolpa these young Maoist militia members posed for a photograph. They carried socket bombs in their knapsacks and did sentry duty.
"We're not worried about the PLA, we're worried about the militia."

Discussions with the UN on arms monitoring so far have focused on visible institutions: the Maoists and their PLA, the seven-party government and the Nepal Army. Missing from negotiations between the two sides is discussion of the other potential faultlines: Maoist militia, vigilantes and other armed groups.

"The Maoist militias, vigilante groups, and weapons in the tarai citizenry will be the biggest problems in the peace process," predicts Naresh Bhatta, a Nepali electoral affairs specialist who has served in UN missions at hotspots around the world, including in Cambodia and Afghanistan. "The UN could have a difficult time here, though its presence should bring peace if all sides allow it to work for peace."

Though arms in the civilian population is still not seen as a big problem here, the open border and easy availability of weapons in India's lawless areas could rapidly change that in the coming months, especially if groups within the Maoist movement remain dissatisfied with the peace process.

For these reasons, some analysts fear a repeat of post-1979 Cambodia where a UN peace mission was hounded by ruling party intransigence, Khmer Rouge deception and small arms proliferation in the citizenry. Even some of the arms cantoned by the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia eventually leaked into the general population due to lax UN oversight and local corruption.

"The Cambodia mission was problematic because the UN did not rely on local knowledge, focusing instead on international experts who had little understanding of the country and its history," says Natalie Hicks, a disarmament expert who worked in Cambodia and Vietnam. "If the UN hopes to succeed in Nepal, it must revisit its notion of neutrality and rely on local knowledge, engage the civil society, and boost local capacity to strengthen the peace process. We have seen what the lack of these did in Cambodia."

In Nepal though, the worry is that militia activity will most likely remain outside the purview of the recent UN-brokered agreement. The Maoists are in the midst of spirited recruitment drive into their militia. Most of them carry weapons ranging from crude knives and khukuris to pistols. Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal on Sunday indirectly acknowledged this fact when he told a press conference in Jhapa, "Our people's militias number over 100,000 but all of them do not carry weapons."

These abundant Maoist arms outside the organised PLA could easily influence the outcome of constituent assembly elections, analysts say. The pervasive fear in the rural citizenry, even four months after the peace process, is largely due to militia roaming the villages.

A shopkeeper in a village in Makwanpur district said recently, "It's not the PLA we are worried about. They seem to be very disciplined. It's the jholes (militias) who come and harass us, demand food in the middle of the night, and ask for money."

Maoist leader Deb Gurung sees it differently. "Why all these worries about our militia? We can talk this over at a political level after the interim government is formed. We are willing to discuss the security roles of the government police and our militia."

This underscores the Maoists' mistrust of the police and vigilante groups-a legitimate concern which has to be addressed by the government, the Maoists and the international community, say experts.

"The international community, particularly the UN, must help build trust between the different sides," says Hicks, "it must be a bottoms-up approach. Listen to the districts and villages. Give the militia incentives to lay down arms."

Having dealt with militia during peace processes elsewhere, Naresh Bhatta says the UN has experience of what has worked. "Donors can fund a weapons buy-back program aimed at removing arms from the civilian population and the militia," he says, "this has been tried successfully elsewhere."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)