Monday, July 23, 2007

Premier Koirala’s Military Maneuvers

Is he wooing the generals or is he wilting under them? Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s new-found habit of dropping in on Army HQ for national security updates had already raised eyebrows. The latest foray has been truly hair-raising.
The abruptness with which a new group of soldiers descended to protect Maoist ministers has triggered one of the most serious crises the Eight-Party Alliance has faced. Army HQ insists the men were not from the Bhairabnath Gan the Maoists seem to dread. Our ex-rebels remain so unimpressed that they have threatened to quit the government.
If Koirala’s intention in hobnobbing with the top brass is to intimidate the Maoists into the democratic mainstream, the outcome could go either way. Today’s army may have shed its royal prefix, but it mission has not. The Maoists, of all political forces, understand that the Nepal Army’s primary and conventional role is to defend the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Nepal. The military’s official website clearly mentions that providing assistance to the civilian government in the maintenance of internal security is the force’s secondary mission.
On the other hand, the Maoists, like the rest of us, recognize how different today’s Nepal is than that of February 2005 or April 2006. The military, moreover, remains the most segregated institution. With the Terai in flames, it’s hard to see how a band of armed and professional pahadis could help solve the problem. (Installing Upendra Yadav as premier of an army-backed government might be a good first step but it certainly won’t be sufficient.)
But there are other dynamics at play, which both Koirala and Maoist supremo Prachanda recognize. By meeting him at the party office, British Ambassador Andrew Hall – and the European Union he represents for the rest of the year – may have conferred a smattering of legitimacy on Prachanda’s former warriors. But The Fierce One must have been flustered by London’s eagerness to roll out the red carpet for Army chief Gen. Rookmangad Katuwal.
Nepal’s army always has had a political color. After November 2001, when it was deployed against the rebels, it has exuded greater political assertiveness. The generals have had powerful external allies.
In early 2002, Colin Powell, then US secretary of state, chose to confer with the incumbent army chief, Gen. Prajwal Shamsher Rana, without the presence of a single civilian official hosting America’s top diplomat.
A few months later, when President George W. Bush received Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in the Oval Office with an admonition to “finish off” the rebels, Gen. Katuwal was part of the delegation waiting outside.
The generals may have persuaded King Gyanendra to assume direct power. Fifteen months later, they also counseled the monarch to restore the House of Representatives.
After the palace’s capitulation, they were scolded for having offered the traditional salute to the king at Hanuman Dhoka and Dakshinkali. Their absence from the royal birthday bash raised new ominous questions. One recent opinion poll even showed the military as the most trusted national institution.
As for our original question, with this kind of convolution, it really doesn’t matter whether Koirala is wooing or wilting.