Nepal's peace process has advanced with relative stability in recent weeks despite major changes it is bringing in the country.
After a surprise win in April elections, longtime Maoist rebels will begin work as the leading political party of the Constituent Assembly, tasked with abolishing the monarchy and writing a new constitution, when it convenes for the first time Wednesday.
While folding ex-rebels into the government has proceeded smoothly, another crucial, more challenging task lies ahead: melding Maoist fighters, indoctrinated for years with revolutionary ideas, into a cohesive national Army.
Opposition leaders and military hard-liners fear that the merger could create an army within an army whose loyalty to the state are in question.
"An ideologically indoctrinated army cannot enter the national army," says Arjun KC, vice-secretary general and spokesman for the Nepali Congress, the country's oldest political party. "The Army has a historic role and must not be an instrument for any party. It must not be polluted."
Merging Maoist forces into the national Army was approved as part of a January 2007 interim constitution meant to draw a line over a brutal 10-year civil war that claimed more than 13,000 lives. The current document was a requirement of a peace deal signed in 2006, which also called for elections held in April for the Constituent Assembly.
In January, the Nepal Army Chief, Gen. Rookmangud Katawal, caused a stir when he spoke out against the integration of Maoist forces. Critics note that Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal – known as Prachanda – is poised to lead the government but has yet to officially give up his command of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). They allege that the Maoists' feared youth wing, the Young Communist League, continues to use violence and intimidation and is essentially a paramilitary group.
Fueling the controversy is the recent killing of a businessman who was beaten to death in a Maoist camp, allegedly at the hands of former rebels.
Commander Ananta, Prachanda's PLA deputy, maintains that, while integration is a "difficult and risky" task, it is the "most important feature" of the peace process and one that must be accomplished.
"Psychologically, yes, [integration] may take some time, and they will need to have plenty of joint training to really come together," he says, in an interview at Maoist party headquarters in the capital. "We are committed."
Indrajit Rai, a military specialist based in Kathmandu, points out that, just as critics question Maoist fighters' allegiance, elements within the military establishment could also be accused of having divided loyalties.
The Army was long known as the Royal Nepal Army, with traditional loyalties to the king, he explains. A fissure exists in the Army between senior officers – who belong to soldier castes, which have a hereditary connection to the king, and believe he should retain a symbolic role – and those who have worked their way up the ranks, he says.
Some observers say that military integration must take into account the already inflated size of the standing army, which swelled to its present level of 93,000 from 50,000 in 1996, when the Maoist insurgency began.
Such a large force is no longer required given the improved political climate and the military superiority of friendly neighbors China and India, says Lt. Gen. (Ret.) CB Gurung. Instead of being forced into the Army, he adds, Maoists should be offered practical choices such as entry into vocational training, universities, or reconstruction corps, to help rebuild Nepal.
For now, some 20,000 Maoist forces are stationed at seven main cantonments, which are monitored by the United Nations at the request of the existing government and Maoist party. The UN mission tasked with facilitating the peace process maintains a 24-hour presence at each cantonment to monitor fighters and the storage of weapons. It also helped oversee April's elections.
But UNMIN, as the mission is known, is set to leave the country for good by late July, when its current mandate expires. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon said this month that an extension of the mission was unlikely, although the UN would continue its development-related activities if the new government approved.
The UN's impending departure has created an undertow of concern that the loss of international attention and post-conflict expertise may hamstring the integration process. Privately, several Maoist and opposition leaders express hopes that the mission will be extended for at least six months. By leaving after elections and before the completion of military integration, UNMIN would have "fulfilled only half its duties," says Rai, the military specialist.
A four-hour drive south of the capital at a Maoist camp near Chitwan National Park, Hardik, a young PLA officer, and a dozen of his comrades agree that the UN has played an essential role in the peace process. A former biology student who left college to join the insurgency, Hardik says the prospect of serving alongside his former enemies in the national Army does not bother him at all – though he'd like to have a life outside of the military.
"I trained and fought in the jungle four years, so I think I am ready. But I'd also like to continue my studies," he says.
• This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.