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NEPAL: An Unusual Combination of Fear, Ennui and Uncertainty

Sonny Inbaraj

KATHMANDU, Apr 10 2005 (IPS) - Though spring is in the air in the Himalayas, there is not much cheer in Nepal – now under emergency rule. The mountain trekkers have failed to arrive in numbers and tourists, that are the lifeblood to the economy of Kathmandu Valley, are staying away.

Though spring is in the air in the Himalayas, there is not much cheer in Nepal – now under emergency rule. The mountain trekkers have failed to arrive in numbers and tourists, that are the lifeblood to the economy of Kathmandu Valley, are staying away from the kingdom out of fear of Maoist rebels who have blockaded the capital.

”This is our last chance to make some money before the monsoon rains start in August and trekking spots in the Himalayan range become inaccessible. But we just don’t have enough tourists. They are just too scared,” Raju Lama, a guesthouse owner, told IPS.

”I only have three guests this week; no one comes to my restaurant and my staff morale is really low. If this goes on for another month, I might have to pack it in and close this place,” said Lama desolately.

The number of visitors arriving by air in Nepal last month fell 35 percent compared with March 2004, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation announced last week. It didn’t give the figures for how many tourists arrived.

According to the Nepal Tourism Board the number of arrivals by plane to the landlocked Hindu kingdom fell to 14,001 in February, 43 percent fewer than the same period last year. The month began with King Gyanendra sacking the government, seizing absolute power and imposing emergency rule.


Tourism keeps about 80,000 Nepalis directly employed in the industry, while some 300,000 depend on it indirectly out of a population of 24 million.

Last week the Hotel Association of Nepal warned of repercussions in the hospitality sector with the imminent closure of hotels and guesthouses and demanded immediate government assistance. There are about 850 hotels and guesthouses in Nepal offering a total of 45,000 beds.

To add to the country’s woes is a 11-day nationwide transport strike organised by Maoist rebels on Apr. 2 to block routes to the capital Kathmandu and other major cities. The blockade ends on Tuesday, two days before the Nepali New Year.

While there is no sign of the strike or its immediate impact in the capital, other centres of population have been paralysed, according to aid workers.

They point out that the Maoist blockade has worsened the food situation in remote districts as rural Nepalis who are dependent on market places in big towns and cities are unable to travel from their villages to reach these areas.

In the mountainous districts even traditional means of transport, like mules and porters, have stopped moving there due to fear of looting by the rebels.

Nearly 11,000 people have been killed in the nine years since the Maoists began their fight to replace the country’s constitutional monarchy with a kingless communist republic.

The Kathmandu-based rights monitoring group, Informal Sector Service Centre (INSEC), revealed in its just released ‘Human Rights Year Book 2004’ that more than 2,600 people died in the insurgency last year, with 1,077 killed by the Maoists and 1,604 by government forces.

Over 12,000 Nepalis were internally displaced last year but INSEC said most of the displacements went unreported.

Last month, United Nations and international agencies warned that Nepal is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis as the fighting between security forces and the Maoists have cut off vital aid supplies and medical help to civilians.

”The United Nations and bilateral donor agencies in Nepal urge all parties to ensure that movement of supplies and vehicles intended to alleviate the suffering of civilian populations are not restricted,” stated a statement signed by the U.N., European Union and nine Western aid agencies.

According to the organisations, Nepalese are often denied access to humanitarian and medical supplies because of security roadblocks set up by Maoists.

In the statement, they said, children and women are the worst affected. Credible reports have emerged in recent weeks that some women died in childbirth because they were unable to reach medical help, the statement adds.

Nepal staggered into the current crisis when King Gyanendra dismissed the government and declared emergency rule on Feb. 1 in an effort to crush the Maoist rebels. In his announcement over state-run television, the king accused the government of failing to conduct parliamentary elections and being unable to restore peace in the country.

According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, over 600 rights activists, journalists, lawyers, students and political activists remain detained since Feb. 1.

The rumblings of illicit dissent are almost a daily occurrence in the capital that now has groups of rifle-armed policemen in riot gear at every street corner in downtown Kathmandu.

It is a common sight to see pro-democracy demonstrators and police engaged in a cat-and-mouse chase in the main shopping centre in Kathmandu’s New Road and the city’s main marketplace at Durbar Square.

A demonstrator with a political flag will often walk up one lane, while another will soon join him shouting pro-democracy slogans. From another alley, another will join them screaming ”Down with Gyanendra.”

Within minutes they will be set upon by the riot police and chased through ancient Kathmandu’s numerous cobble stone-paved alleyways, while market vendors and shoppers just look on.

”In the end they are often arrested after the chase,” said Yuba Nath Lamsal, Nepal representative of the South Asian Free Media Association.

”But the police often have nowhere to detain these protesters as the city’s jails and lockups are all full with political dissenters,” added Lamsal in an interview. ”So they often released after a few days.”

There is a weird combination of fear and ennui in Kathmandu this spring. However, there is collective agreement that the country’s future is uncertain.

”Nepal has to address the root causes and real contradictions underlying the war with the Maoists,” Lamsal pointed out.

The media rights activist said the underlying causes of the insurgency are just being ignored. ”In many communities, people’s basic needs have been severely neglected, and in some cases withheld on the basis of caste, gender, and social group,” he added.

”There’s creeping repression that threatens to poison popular support for the monarch. Moreover the palace elites want the current status quo to remain because it makes them indispensable with the banning of political parties.”

”Over 60 percent of Nepalis live below the poverty line; some have been very badly discriminated against by the higher castes. So when the Maoists hand them weapons and say ‘take revenge’ what can you expect?” asked Lamsal.

 
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NEPAL: An Unusual Combination of Fear, Ennui and Uncertainty

Sonny Inbaraj

KATHMANDU, Apr 9 2005 (IPS) - Though spring is in the air in the Himalayas, there is not much cheer in Nepal – now under emergency rule. The mountain trekkers have failed to arrive in numbers and tourists, that are the lifeblood to the economy of Kathmandu Valley, are staying away from the kingdom out of fear of Maoist rebels who have blockaded the capital.
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