In April 2008 Nepal turned a corner. More than 60 percent of eligible voters turned out for elections to choose a new government tasked with abolishing the monarchy and forging a stable republic after a decade-long insurgency that claimed over 13,000 lives. Despite pre-election violence and intimidation, international observers agreed the elections were for the most part free and fair. The Maoists, once outlaws in the forest who are still on the U.S. government's terrorist list, in the end received a convincing popular mandate to lead the tiny Himalayan nation.
They have responded by toning down Leftist rhetoric, calling for greater foreign investment to revive one of the world's poorest economies. But Nepalis are not out of the woods yet. Daunting nation-building work lies ahead, none more critical than the integration of Maoist forces into a unified national army. Nearly 20,000 battle-hardened cadres are presently living in camps monitored by the United Nations, whose mission is set to expire in late July. Some within the military establishment fear they could become an army within an army if certain steps are not taken.
There are also concerns that the army is already too swollen after years of civil conflict, and must be reshaped – a massive project in and of itself. The former guerillas, for their part, say they are ready to live and fight alongside their one-time enemies so long as they are treated as equals. However, many are concerned that without a neutral mediator such as the U.N. to oversee integration, the process could unfold against their interests.
A violent relapse is not out of the question. It has happened before. Given the still-volatile climate in Nepal, ever prone to party infighting, the formation of a national army wholly committed to democracy will require patience, flexibility and an excess of good will on all sides. Jason Motlagh reports.