No Room for a New Junga Bahadur
The government must not establish a dangerous precedence of selective justice by firing junior security chiefs and police officers but providing a free pass to the army chief, argues HARI BANSHA DULAL. His advice: Tame the army before another Junga Bahadur or a Mussaraff emerges.
The April revolution has once again made Nepali citizens hopeful of peace and prosperity. Our leaders, who have time and again missed many opportunities to solve the country’s problems, must now exhibit the much-needed courage and vision to really bail us out from the existing insecurity. Everyone, from a layman to a technocrat, looks hopeful that this time round we are inching towards durable peace in Nepal.
The new government has taken some historic steps towards social change, including women’s empowerment. Unfortunately, it has already set a bad precedence in some critical areas, including one of the most important of democratic principles—establishing the rule of law. Take the example of the government’s posture towards the army leadership. True rule of law does not only mean controlling the streets, it also means checking the excesses of people in high offices.
While three security chiefs as well as nine top police officials got suspended for suppressing the recent peoples’ movement, the army Chief General Pyar Jung Thapa continues his stint uninterrupted. If the government cannot ruffle the army chief’s feathers, they should not establish a dangerous precedence of selective justice. If the suspension of other security chiefs was an absolute necessity for a fair investigation, why let the boss free? Can we say that investigation is truly fair? What does the non-expulsion of the current army chief imply?
Interestingly, the watchdogs of power seem the least interested in this important issue. The civil society and the mainstream media, including human rights groups—much-hyped for their vocal stance against anomalies and injustice— have maintained a strange silence on this topic. Should some get a free pass when it comes to human right violations while others must suffer punishment?
The army’s intervention in politics ends only when the civilian polity has tamed the warrior class. However, the taming of the military is only possible when the principles of governance and laws are observed by the government and politicians. The government’s inability to take action against the army chief shows that the current government, with an unprecedented support of the public and Maoists, is not capable of investing the civilian system of government with authority. Nepal as a nation is undergoing a process of radical change, and if not tamed, Nepal Army can become a stumbling block towards the peaceful transition into a well functioning democratic nation. If we cannot put a system in place now that will ensure accountability and loyalty of the country’s national army towards the parliament, we may never be able to do it again.
The generals in the Army do not reflect the general ethos of the rural Nepalis, who constitute the majority of the country’s population. The army officers, who maintain a taste for aristocracy, are insulated from the rest of the Nepali society. They represent a class that is privileged and luxury-seeking, in a vast ocean of poverty and misery. The recent gala wedding of army chief’s daughter says it all.
Thus, in order to develop it as an important player, the government must take some concrete actions. It must devise means to enforce stringent rules and code of conduct over the army leadership. Otherwise, the generals could engage in destabilizing the democratic process. The army leadership may deliberately program this democratic experiment to fail. If that happens, the royal palace could once again become powerful by default.
Too often history repeats, but public memory is short. We must not forget that Junga Bahadur Rana, long before he became Shri Teen, was merely an army officer. He helped establish the powerful Rana autocracy that ruled the country for 104 years. The monarchs were merely figureheads then, too.
An empowered, ambitious, and unrestrained military is by its very nature a potential threat to new democracies. The threat from the military establishment is less manifested in well-established democracies and mature political cultures because of well-maintained civilian supremacy and well-established rule of law. In an underdeveloped country like Nepal, there is a great possibility of potential hazard, if the army is not well-controlled and held accountable for its misdeeds and unwarranted arrogance.
At the pleasure of their generals, the army can easily subvert the government, under whose authority they are raised and established. The world’s history, too, has witnessed such scenarios in the past.
In Rome, the liberties of the commonwealth were destroyed by none other than Julius Caesar who was appointed to command the army by the constitutional authority of that commonwealth. Power-hungry Caesar changed Rome from a free republic to the most absolute despotism. Civil liberties remained strangled for ages during which most horrid crimes, carnage, and bloodshed continued unabated. It is regarded as one of the most devilish, beastly, and brutal vices that mercilessly disgraced mankind’s quest for a free society.
In Britain, General Cromwell took power into his own hands and dissolved Parliament on June 22, 1655. The army that once vindicated the liberties of the people from the encroachments and despotism of a tyrant king, assisted General Oliver Cromwell in wresting liberty, which Britons had dearly earned and wanted to safeguard for generations to come. Thus, what happened to an English House of Commons, from an English army; that was raised and paid by that very House of Commons and that was commanded by generals appointed by them could easily happen in Nepal. The current government should take every step necessary to ensure the balance of powers, from suspending arrogant human right violating generals to making army a more inclusive institution.
There are more current cases worth noting. In Pakistan we saw the rise of General Pervez Musharraf in October 1999. He was highly favored and promoted by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Apparently, Musharraf backstabbed Sharif and hijacked democracy in the broad day light.
Thus, hope is not a method. Let us not vainly imagine that an army, raised and maintained by the authority of the parliament, will always remain submissive to the parliament and act in a responsible and accountable manner. They may very well fake submissiveness as long as the parliament does not disoblige their top ranking generals. Or else, instead of the parliament dismissing army generals, the army will dismiss the parliament like in Pakistan.
Musharraf hijacked the power in Pakistan while he was still in the airplane, returning home from his official visit to Sri Lanka. Paksitan’s is a case study of what can happen if the army is kept unrestrained. Inability to tame the army, right after the country’s independence, has proved to be costly for Pakistan. After nearly six decades of independence from the British, their colonial masters, Pakistan has never been able to survive as a democratic nation. Every time it tried to take a fresh air, the army generals choked democracy before it could be consolidated.
It has happened in the past and can happen in the future too. It’s just a matter of change in venue or the time. In order to establish an example that the generals are not above impunity, the government should punish those who violated the rights and make the military a more inclusive institution. It should undo the supremacy of a certain caste or creed in the military by making it a more inclusive institution. The army must represent all castes and religions. That’s the best available means to weaken the influence of the army towards the royal family and vice versa.
The current government should strike while the iron is still hot. If the government can not dismiss the army chief now, they will not be able do it in future and that will definitely send a wrong signal. If generals perceive that they are above impunity, they may not obey the orders of the parliament in future. The parliament will be rendered helpless; the 205 or so parliamentarians inside the parliament building will not be able to do anything in case of an army takeover. Premier Girija Prasad Koirala must not have forgotten the Holeri fiasco whereby the army refused to take orders from him, which subsequently prompted him to resign couple of years ago. Maoist rebels had abducted 70 policeman in the July 2001 incident at Holeri, Rolpa.
Many Holeris could happen in the future if the military is not tamed now. The current government may have reasons for not dismissing the army chief. It may be that the army chief is submissive now. It may as well be that that the government is yielding to international pressures, particularly from the Indian establishment, who maintain close relationship with the Nepali army leadership.
Whatever the reasons, the government should not set a precedence of selective justice by dismissing other security chiefs. The government also should not reinforce the already existing notion that the country’s army is elite among the security forces in Nepal. Doing so will dampen the spirit of Nepal Police and other security agencies. Their spirit has already hit rock bottom with the suspension of their bosses.
All citizens should be treated equally before the law of the land. If you can not administer justice in its entirety, do not provide a free pass to some and make others a sacrificial lamb. It will further corrupt an already problem-ridden and a hungry nation.
The author is a doctoral candidate of Environmental Science and Public Policy at George Mason University, Virginia. He can be reached at email@example.com
Posted by Editor on June 12, 2006 4:23 PM