Politically neutral army must for civilian supremacy

Kathmandu, May 20: Civilian supremacy has been the catchword of Nepali politics in the recent days. The largest party in the constituent assembly, UCPN-Maoist, has been protesting from the streets and parliament, demanding the civilian supremacy over the Nepali Army and the President.

Principally, no one can disagree about the civilian supremacy because it is a genuine demand of any political party, which is committed to democracy, rule of law and pluralism.

In the case of Nepal the demand may be even more relevant and justified, as we witnessed many coups in the past backed by the army.

Maoists are repeatedly pushing this agenda but they have failed to garner the support of the political parties, the civil society and other sections of the society. This is because parties feel that it isn’t the appropriate time to raise this issue.

Political parties like the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML claim that the UCPN-Maoist’s ill-intention is behind the agenda.

Parties have accused the Maoists of trying to establish their own supremacy in the name of civilian supremacy.

The Maoists raised this issue when their bid to sack army chief Rookangud Katawal from his post was foiled by the President. Analysts and political parties claim that the Maoists sacked the army chief to seize the state power.

Parliamentary party leader of the Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum and minister in the Maoist-led government Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar recently claimed that Maoists sought clarification and sacked army chief in an effort to seize power.

Civilian control can support or sustain democracy, but civilian control is only one aspect of democratic rule; civilian control is necessary for democracy but not sufficient.

Without a stable and legitimate governmental system, the military may be induced to

intervene to protect society from chaos, internal challenge, or external attack — even though intervention may perpetuate instability and destroy the legitimacy of the government.

Nepal has lacked complete civilian supremacy ever since 1950 when the democracy was first established in Nepal. Because of lack of civilian supremacy late King Mahendra sacked the elected government in 1960 with the help of the army. Former king Gyanendra staged a coup in 2005 with the help of army.

Maoist leaders often quote late BP Koirala on civilian supremacy. They claim that BP was in favour of civilian supremacy but the Nepali Congress has been opposing the same.

But analysts claim that it is not an appropriate time to raise the issue of civilian supremacy.

They reason that Nepal is in a transitional phase and peace process is yet to be taken to a logical conclusion and integration of Maoist combatants into the national army remains a vital and challenging issue.

Political parties have vowed to make army more democratic. Nepali Army, which was under the monarchy for 240 years, is yet to fully embrace democratic norms and values.

In this context, Nepali Army should be carefully handled but in the name of civilian supremacy the Maoists tried to intervene into the functioning of army.

Military expert Deepak Bhatta said the government should formulate policies to ensure civilian supremacy upon the national army.

Bhatta says,”Leaders only talk about civilian supremacy but pay little attention to make necessary legal and other changes to ensure the civilian supremacy.”

According to Bhatta, Maoist leaders are raising this issue in an immature manner. He added, “In the name of keeping army under the civilian control, the Maoist-led government took a unilateral decision, which was wrong.”

He accused the Maoists of defining civilian supremacy in way that suits them without taking into account the universal principles.

Some argue that the Maoists have their own army so they don’t have the authority to advocate civilian supremacy. Constitutional expert and lawmaker Agni Kharel says, “Maoists still have the army and the weapons in the cantonments so they don’t have the authority to talk about the civilian supremacy.” He added that the Maoists were also trying to influence the Supreme Court while talking about civilian supremacy.

Civilian supremacy has been a concern of the 20th century democracies like the United States and France, of communist countries like Russia and China, and of fascist dictatorships like Germany and Italy. According to a 10-year-old study, army was at helm in more than 70 countries.

Throughout the formerly communist world, societies have been struggling to build institutions for democratic governance. NATO has made civilian control a prerequisite for joining the alliance. In encouraging democratisation, the United States and other western powers use civilian control of the military as one measure of progress towards democratic process.

Newly-emerging democracies like Nepal, which don’t have much experience in combining popular government and civilian control, the challenge is bigger to ensure that the military will not attempt a coup or defy civilian authority. In many former autocracies, the military has concentrated on internal order or is deeply involved in politics.

All said and done, the chief requirement is to establish a tradition of civilian control, to develop a foolproof system of political neutrality within the military establishment, and to prevent or forestall on permanent basis any possibility of a coup or military intervention in political life.

In our context all political parties have agreed that democratisation of national army is a must.