Nepali Times
Democrats vs Republicans


The current national debate about who controls the army, and who it should be answerable to, has brought into sharp focus the condition of state-military relations in Nepal. The issue emerged after the tragic events in Dunai in September when the army stood by while 14 policemen were massacred by Maoists, nearly triggering a constitutional crisis. A breakdown or unacceptable deterioration of state-military relations is dangerous for the country, to the parliamentary democratic process, to the necessary system of checks and balances and to the autonomy of the army. Unless immediate and appropriate corrective measures are taken to get this relationship on the right track, events may snowball out of control.

Now that the armed forces have been partially deployed in some districts, a rectified civilian military relationship is going to be crucial not just to manage any future escalation in the insurgency but also for any future dialogue between the government and Maoists. Insurgents increase the level of violence either when they feel that their political base is narrowing both externally and internally, or when they desire to strengthen their negotiating position vis-?-vis the government. The government, for its part, should always attempt to talk formally or informally with the insurgents and their political allies whenever an opportunity presents itself: even if the guerrillas themselves shun peace overtures.

All legitimately elected governments battling insurgencies must be able to display an ability to survive politically and militarily. We have seen with peace talks elsewhere that the level of violence actually increases during peace talks because both sides try to bolster their bargaining power. Violence could escalate when peace talks are deadlocked, as has happened now. And it is when the prospects of peace are tantalisingly near that the government must be even more vigilant to prevent violent radicals of the right and left who may feel compelled to try to derail the peace process.

As we have seen time and again in Sri Lanka, Palestine and in Central America, the role of mediator and external factors are crucial. In El Salvador in 1990, for instance, it was the trust both parties vested on the mediation role of UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar who was proactive and able to get both parties to accept him as the sole arbitrator to settle the bloody 14 year near-civil war. What helped was that the Cold War was over and Washington gave its blessings to the talks and promised economic aid. And it worked.

Every conflict is different, and every mediation effort too must differ. When there are two warring factions with diametrically opposing views engaged in a low intensity conflict as there is in Nepal, it is not easy to agree to talk peace. Each insurgency requires specific and surgically precise tools to defeat. A display of physical and moral strength, honesty, flexibility and mutual trust backed by corresponding actions by both parties involved in the conflict are needed to create the right environment for negotiations.

Historical records reveal major crises when the military is deified as the only saviour of a nation. Under the cabinet government system from 1885 to 1945, when Japan followed niju siefu or dual government, the civilians had no say in matters military, but the military could trample on civilian turf with its political and other influences. The 60 years of niju siefu saw 30 prime ministers heading 42 cabinets, with half of the prime ministers coming from the military and three of them generals-Yamagata, Katsuri and Taruchi-governing for half of the period. In China, the vehicle of the revolution was the peasant army that overthrew the forces of oppression and the tenet that power flows from the barrel of the gun is yet to be harmonised with a normative state-military relationship. The sacking of Admiral Vishnu Bhagat in India by Defence Minister George Fernandes last year, and the overthrow of the Nawaz Sharif government in Pakistan can also be viewed as a collapse of state-military relationship in our immediate neighbourhood.

When it becomes evident that democracy under elected civilian leaders is not serving the national interest, the military option does acquire some degree of legitimacy. The military coming to the rescue of a beleaguered state has sometimes worked well as in the Philippines in 1986 when Gen Ramos gave crucial support to the People's Power Revolution and so also in Turkey. But these were exceptions to the rule, and the credit for the initial success in both cases went to the professionalism of the armed forces.

The modern state no longer functions as a division of various departments, it is a single, invisible unity, a comprehensive machinery. Consequently, no affairs of the state could be considered outside the province of the military. It is also essential that the autonomy of the military must not be interfered with, but at the same time, the military must be made to understand that it is not an extra-government authority, and cannot act as one. Under this arrangement, civilian control of the military becomes essential and non-negotiable.

Effective civilian control of the military must be governed by the rule of law, and proper legislation anticipating future scenarios and potential future crises. When the civil bureaucracy takes advantage of political reluctance or inaction to manipulate or arrogate to itself powers not rightfully theirs (and they are not capable or qualified to handle) state-military relationship quickly deteriorates. The principle that is being violated here is that the authority has been taken over by the bureaucracy, and has not been legislated. Arrogation by civil servants with all the authority, but with no responsibility, ultimately leads to a condition where the superficial veneer of "all is well" persists, but there is chaos under the surface.

In every democratic society, the military has to be brought into the mainstream of decision-making simply because if you keep it out it will remain an extra-government authority. It is also equally impractical to claim that you have a democracy when the military has been excluded from or pushed out of all committees. Integration of the military in the decision-making process will make the military part of the policy formulation of the government, and this will enhance morale as well as give a feeling of belonging to the military establishment. Non-integration of the military will most likely lead to a crisis. More things than just working relations have to be rectified, but this is only possible if the military is considered a part of the government machinery.

To have a balanced state-military relationship, political leaders must have the will and vision to nurture and develop it. The civil service should not expect a slave-master relationship with the military and the military should not expect the civil service to rubber stamp all their recommendations and actions. In an ideal situation, the relationship must be governed by legislation and not by personal contacts and whims, likes and dislikes. Civil control of the military must be confined to matters of policy framework preferably arrived at in consultation with the military leadership on matters of strategy, peace and war. For its part, the military should be equally open, more transparent and adhere to the law of the land.

(Gyan Jung Thapa recently retired as a Colonel from the Royal Nepal Army. He is a graduate of the US Army Command and Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, from which he has a Masters in military arts and science.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)