By Annapurna Expressspublished on 2019-07-12 15:07:00
The integration and rehabilitation of Maoist combatants were major parts of Nepal’s peace process that started in 2006. Of around 19,000 Maoist combatants eligible for integration, around 1,300 were integrated into the Nepal Army. But many child soldiers who went through the verification process were disqualified for integration and for rehabilitation packages.
In January 2010, 3,000 young ex-combatants who were under 18 at the time of the ceasefire were let go as minors. They were assured of formal schooling, vocational training, and help with setting up small businesses. Lenin Bista, a child solider who had joined the Maoist insurgency at the age of 12, was among those disqualified because of his age. In the past few years he has been fighting for justice for minor Maoist soldiers and other disqualified personnel.
He has sought to internationalize the issue of the use of child soldiers in Nepal, a war crime. He currently serves as the President of Peace Envisioners, an NGO. Bista talked to Biswas Baral and Kamal Dev Bhattarai about his campaign.
In 2010 the Madhav Kumar Nepal-led government had decided to discharge minor soldiers in the Maoist ranks with some kind of compensation. What did you get?
At that time, the state had assured us jobs and education. There was a tripartite agreement between the government, the Maoist party and the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) on our issues. But they did nothing for us. They made commitments but did not keep them. We were discharged with no more than Rs 10,000 in cash.
You mean there was no follow-up from the state after you were discharged?
Yes, there was no follow-up. We waited for six or seven months before we organized ourselves and formally made our demands. First, we urged the Maoist leaders to settle our issues. Later, we tried to draw the government’s attention by submitting a Memorandum of Understanding, but again to no avail.
How many of you were disqualified as minor soldiers in the UNMIN verification process?
Around 4,000 were discharged after being labelled ‘disqualified’. Of them, 2,973 were child soldiers and the remaining were late recruits. There were also more than 10,000 minors who had served as child soldiers during the insurgency but were not part of the verification process. Many child soldiers were killed. The first Maoist cadre killed by the police was Dil Bahadur Ramtel, who was 12 when he was shot dead. After their discharge from the cantonments, eight of our friends committed suicide as they faced social humiliation due to the ‘disqualified’ tag.
Similarly, there were no jobs, and there was the question of livelihood. Many of our friends, fearing humiliation and harassment, did not return to their original homes and stayed in other places to hide their identity.
We had joined the Maoist movement to change the society but we ended up being tagged ‘disqualified’. It was not easy to adjust in the society. Around 25 percent of child soldiers went to Gulf countries and India in search of jobs. Around 15-20 percent have joined the Biplav-led Maoist party believing that the objectives of Maoist movement remain unfulfilled.
But child soldiers were offered either continuation of education or vocational training. Why didn’t you take them?
That was not the case. I am a witness. After the peace process began, I completed my Plus Two studies from inside the cantonment. In a meeting at the UN, I expressed my desire to pursue a Bachelor’s degree. They said they could not help me with that. No one was given such an option. We had been told we would be part of the national army. With that mindset, we could not accept training to become mechanics and cooks. Such trainings were a humiliation. We had been told that verification was just a show for foreigners and we would all be integrated into the national army.
Now you are raising the issue of child soldiers in international forums. What are your demands?
The first thing is responsibility for and justification of the Maoist war. Another is accountability. Many people were killed and several child soldiers were used but who is accountable for that? We also want a guarantee that child soldiers will never be used in Nepal again. We should also get some kind of a package that’s enough to support our lives.
Some in the government say international organizations are using you to wreck the peace process.
It is the responsibility of state agencies to find out who is using us. I would welcome such an investigation.
You threaten to register cases against former Maoist leaders in international courts. On what basis?
First we should be clear that the issue of child soliders relates to war crimes. In this case, international law can be invoked because Nepal is a signatory to several international treaties and conventions. We wanted to resolve these issues through national mechanisms but they closed all doors for us. At the same time, the issue of human rights does not have borders. No one can prevent us from filing cases in international courts. If we settle this issue, we can set an example for the rest of the world.
You have been making many foreign trips of late. Why?
My purpose is to raise the issue of child soldiers. The Nepali state and political parties wanted to wipe out the history of the use of child soldiers, which amounts to erasing our contributions. So I informed the International Criminal Court, the European Union, the German Parliament and other several organizations of the same. Now, the world knows the issue of child soldiers is alive in Nepal.
What did you learn on those trips?
Some in Nepal are saying that the cases of rights violations during the war cannot be taken to international courts. But that is not true. Even the cases of Iraq and Myanmar have reached international courts. First, the UN Security Council can take such cases to the ICC. Second, some state party can take such cases to international courts. Third, the victims themselves can register such cases. This last option has been concealed in Nepal. But we want to settle the case within the country, and we child soldiers want high-level security trainings.
What type of high-level training do you want?
We could opt for various trainings such as fire-control, industrial security, forest security and hydropower security. Our friends have knowledge and expertise in these fields. We cannot be taxi drivers and barbers. We need training in keeping with our abilities.
Have you given the Nepali government a deadline to fulfil your demands?
We have given it three months to meet our demands. The Acts relating to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons should be amended to incorporate the provision of child soldiers. We want to settle the issue domestically. There should be a political consensus on it. If they are reluctant, we will register our case in the International Criminal Court.
What kind of resistance are you facing?
It is all about political will. They do not want to resolve this issue.
Why didn’t you lodge your complaints with the TRC?
We have objected to the TRC process right from the start. The Act does not address the issue of child soldiers. We submitted a memorandum but our voices were not heard. On the other hand, appointments to the TRC were based on political consensus. The commissioners cannot act against political leaders who appoint them.