What do military generals have to teach us about building open societies? In the case of Lieutenant General Balananda Sharma, the answer is plenty. General Sharma spent 39 years in Nepal’s army, a decade of that fighting the Maoist rebels in the country’s brutal civil war. When peace broke out in 2006, General Sharma received his greatest challenge of all, leading the demobilization of nearly 19,600 Maoist combatants who had been placed into camps by the UN Mission in Nepal.
I first met General Sharma two years ago in Kathmandu on the day that the last group of Maoist rebels was reintegrated—some into the Nepalese Army, others into civilian life. He was joyful: an assignment successfully completed that had seemed nearly impossible at its start, and had gotten even harder as politicians blocked his early plans. Yet six years later it was done—the combatants integrated and the threat of their weapons gone. There was a broad smile on his face as he said to me that evening, “It took six months to negotiate the peace, but six years to implement it.” Still, it succeeded.
On a recent afternoon, colleagues from Open Society and I sat in the general’s office in Kathmandu, listening to his account of what went surprisingly right, and what he would do differently with the benefit of hindsight. Our conversation took place on January 22, the same day the government had promised the new constitution would be delivered.
But there was to be no constitution—it is not even close. General Sharma’s demobilization is one of the few promises of 2006 that has actually been fulfilled. What, I asked him, did he learn that might be helpful to those hoping to demobilize rebels in Burma, in Colombia, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or elsewhere today?
Lesson one: Build trust. “It was hard, because these were people we had been fighting, and they would spit on us,” he explained. But over time the Maoist commanders came to trust him, recognizing his genuine concern for the former combatants, treating them as he had his own company.
The trust became so strong that a group of about 20 Maoist commanders came to see him to tell him in advance that they were planning an attack on their own political leadership. General Sharma says he told the prime minister, he told the security services, and he left the matter to them. A few days later, the political leader of the Maoists was attacked in an ambush, though he survived.
Lesson two: Don’t expect candor. The UN Mission in Nepal had gotten the Maoist combatants into camps and had given them each an identity card with their name and date of birth—or at least some name and some date. Once the much-reviled UN mission was gone, General Sharma discovered many, perhaps most, of the names and birth dates were fictitious, and that the former combatants wanted their real names, or at least different names, on their cards.
Rather than try to determine the truth, General Sharma ordered new ID cards with two names and two dates of birth. “Just put them both on there,” he decided—a very tangible example of the ambiguity within which all such operations must work.
Lesson three: Remember it’s all politics. General Sharma was appointed chair of a “professional” commission to manage the demobilization, a commission with the legal authority to decide how to proceed. But the members had each been appointed by a political leader, and the general quickly discovered that the “professional” commissioners refused to decide anything without checking back with their political masters. Moreover, the political bosses wouldn’t decide anything, and the result was paralysis.
At first, General Sharma appealed to his commissioners to make the decisions themselves: “Don’t go running off to the bosses, let’s talk together and make a plan,” he urged, but to no avail. Then he went to the politicians: “If this is how you want it, then sit here yourself,” he told them. “Is sitting on the commission beneath you? Either take the decisions or let those you appoint take them.” But still he had no results. Finally, he gave up on the commission and dealt with the prime minister, abandoning the pretense of professional decision making. The outcome was a deeply flawed plan, but at least something that allowed him to get started. “No plan is ever executed as designed,” he explained. “The point was not to get a perfect plan, but simply to get a plan approved that let us begin.”
Lesson four: Take advantage of the gaps that open between the combatants and their former commanders. The new government provided each of the camp residents a monthly allowance, and General Sharma was careful to explain to the former combatants that the government was giving that money to them, not to the party. “If it was meant for the party, we could have given it in a big block, but this was meant for the individuals themselves.” In this way, the demands that the party placed on the camp residents to hand over half of their payments became understood as the corruption it was. When the former combatants came to him complaining, he organized a press conference and invited the journalists to ask the young former soldiers what their former commanders were demanding.
Similarly, General Sharma insisted that the decisions on which former combatants would be recruited into the Nepalese Army were based on ability and commitment; the Maoist officials wanted to be able to determine themselves who got the highly desirable army posts, and the lists they submitted gave primacy to their relatives and loyalists, not the best soldiers. General Sharma made the lists public, revealing to the best soldiers that their former commanders did not value them. “Where were your nephew and your cousin when the war was on?” the former combatants would ask rhetorically of their political leaders, and the loyalty of the best soldiers began to melt away.
Lesson five: Build trust. It’s worth repeating. When General Sharma talks about the boys and girls he was demobilizing, he is not being condescending—many were literally children. And his commitment to them matched or exceeded the commitment of their commanders. Who doesn’t respond to that kind of commitment?
General Sharma was recently visited by three insurgent commanders from Burma. “I asked what they want from the peace,” he told us. “And of course they want what everyone wants: they want protection, to know they’ll be treated fairly, and mostly they want their dignity.” Delivering dignity to former combatants turns out to be a rare ability.
The Royal Nepalese Army has been accused of gross human rights violations during the conflict, as have the Maoists. But this doesn’t mean that regular fighters on either side should be deprived of their dignity. In fact, true reconciliation will be impossible in any conflict without respect for all, and especially for those who then contribute to a subsequent peace.
We don’t know enough generals like Balananda Sharma, but they are there, in every army. And with armies continuing to play pivotal roles in their own domestic societies on every continent, there’s a strong argument for getting to know them and appreciating what they can do. The Open Society Foundations will be making an assessment of who we know in the military, and how we and our grantees work with them.
It isn’t just about demobilization. The U.S. Senate’s torture report might never have been released if it weren’t for Human Rights First assembling a group of former generals adamantly opposed to the torture program. And the work ahead on limiting the use of armed drones will require human rights advocates to engage with military leaders.
Nepal is barely an open society, still struggling to draft a postwar constitution and still suffering from the trauma of recent war. But its elections are far freer and fairer than those of many of its neighbors, its politics boisterous but not deadly. That space for heated, passionate debate is possible to maintain in large part because the former combatants are no longer armed or engaging in combat. And that, to a great extent, is the work of General Sharma.