“Disqualified” Maoist ex-combatants threaten to step up protests

 Thousands of disgruntled former Maoist combatants are blocking roads in major cities and towns along Nepal’s main east-west highway, as part of an ongoing effort to highlight their plight.
 
The protesters are mostly ex-Maoist soldiers who were discharged in 2009 from the Maoist-run People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after they were disqualified as Verified Minors and Late Recruits (VMLR)
 
Most of the 4,008 disqualified VMLRs were minors (born after 1988). Just over 1,000 were “late recruits” who joined the PLA in 2006 after the start of the peace process to end the country's decade-long conflict. None of them were eligible for inclusion in the PLA and are therefore not entitled to the same benefits as former full-time PLA combatants.
 
Although the former combatants (disqualified VMLRs) have been protesting every year since 2006, it appears they are intensifying their protests, which they claim will be violent unless their demands are met.
 
“We have suffered from total injustice by the government and we will continue with our protest as long as it takes to get proper attention,” Raju Gahatraj, one of the leaders of the “Discharged People’s Liberation Army”, told IRIN in Nepalgunj, the mid-west region’s largest city, 600km southwest of Kathmandu.
 
As part of their demands, the men are calling for the immediate removal of the `ayogya’ or `disqualified’ label, as it is fast becoming a derogatory term among local communities, implying “useless or “incapable”.
 
Additionally, the former combatants are demanding resettlement benefits in line with the voluntary retirement payments given to verified Maoist army combatants discharged from cantonments in February.
 
According to the UN, the protesters have been intensifying their activities in recent weeks, declaring a series of strikes or `bandhs’ countrywide.
 
The Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (UCPN-M) has indicated a willingness to address the concerns of the protesters, but the latter are threatening to step up their campaign - something that will directly affect local communities and the movement of humanitarian and development workers.
 
Rehabilitation failure?
 
There have been different views on the success of the government’s reintegration programme.
 
“The rehabilitation process has been a failure because the international norms in the local context were not followed when they [disqualified VMLRs] were discharged,” said independent conflict analyst Bishnu Uprety.
 
After being disqualified, the government should have followed up with a counselling programme, found economic opportunities, built trust among communities, created an environment to discourage engagement in armed activities, and monitored their movement for another two to three years, he said.
 
The Maoist Party also said that rehabilitation had been a failure, given that many Maoist ex-combatants were now unemployed, had no future, and had no choice but to protest.
 
“The rehabilitation package was not realistic enough to make them self-empowered or build a future,” Maoist leader Ashok Pokhrel told IRIN in Nepalgunj.
 
He explained that if the government continues to neglect them, there was a danger of a violent uprising, which not even the Maoist Party would be able to control.
 
The Ministry of Peace and Reconstruction, however, denies the government is neglecting the ex-combatants, saying it is continuing to help them through various rehabilitation schemes.
 
“We are also looking for alternatives if the rehabilitation needs to be done differently,” the ministry’s secretary, Dhruba Sharma, said.
 
UN support
 
According to information provided by the UN Inter-agency Rehabilitation Programme (UNIRP), which has been supporting the rehabilitation process at the government’s request since mid-2010, UNIRP has been offering vocational skills training, micro-enterprise development, health-related training and education, and formal or non-formal education, to the ex-combatants, and also provided toll free phone calls to help them consult about the rehabilitation programme.
 
As of February 2012, more than 2,149 disqualified VLMRs were enrolled in one of four different UN-sponsored rehabilitation packages providing vocational training, school education, health education training and support for small business initiatives.
 
Of these, 1,198 have graduated and 649 are employed or have started their own business, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which manages education and psychosocial counselling and peace-building activities, reported.
 
So far, 489 disqualified VMLRs have been referred to UNICEF for education support. Of these, 432 were enrolled. Among those enrolled, 16 percent are currently studying in lower-secondary level (grades 6-8); 42 percent in secondary level (grades 9-10); and the remaining 40 percent in high-secondary level (grades 11-12). Around 1 percent have completed grade 12. The disqualified VMLRs receiving education support are enrolled in 254 different schools in 49 districts across Nepal.
 
UNICEF said it has also been providing psychosocial support in 60 districts; in 2011 alone around 981 disqualified VMLRs saw counsellors.
 
“Many of these people lost their chance of an education when they were manipulated into joining a movement at a young age. These are young people living with trauma but with limited support, and a government which does not even recognize the existence of trauma in former combatants,” said Richard Bowd, a specialist in conflict transformation.
 
“What they need now is support from their families, communities, the media, and civil society,” he said.
 
nn/ds/cb