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NEPAL: Stalemate, One Year After King’s Coup

Marty Logan

KATHMANDU, Feb 1 2006 (IPS) - One election candidate is dead, another is recovering from a gunshot wound and dozens more live in fear in army barracks across Nepal. Nearly two weeks of daily skirmishes between armour-clad police and rock throwing, tyre-burning protesters have filled jails and turned town centres into zones of fear.

One election candidate is dead, another is recovering from a gunshot wound and dozens more live in fear in army barracks across Nepal. Nearly two weeks of daily skirmishes between armour-clad police and rock throwing, tyre-burning protesters have filled jails and turned town centres into zones of fear.

This is not the future Nepal’s king promised when he pushed aside his own prime minister to grab the reins of government one year ago.

“Today… the nation has taken a step forward towards democracy and progress, leaving behind violence, insecurity and conflict. At a time when the country is in the grip of terrorism, all those who believe in democracy and peace must unite,” announced King Gyanendra on government television Feb. 1, 2005.

Since then, this small nation, wedged between giants India and China, has seen bitter rivals in seven political parties forge an unlikely alliance against the monarch’s rule. The people watched those parties ink an “understanding” with Maoist rebels despite threats that they could also be labelled “terrorists”, and heard the international community repeatedly urge the king to sit for peace talks with the two other players in this three-sided impasse.

Instead, the monarch has stuck to his roadmap: local elections in 58 towns on Feb. 8 followed by parliamentary elections in 2007 and a return to multi-party democracy within three years.


But even the first goal now appears elusive. The party alliance, which took some 90 percent of votes in the last parliamentary polls, has boycotted the municipal vote and the Maoists appear to have already fulfilled their promise to disrupt the election by murdering one candidate Jan. 24 and shooting and wounding another on Monday.

On Tuesday, they battled with soldiers and police in the western town of Palpa. Twenty policemen and 50 rebels died while 140 police were missing, said early media reports.

More than 600 election hopefuls withdrew their names from contention last Saturday, many of them claiming not to have registered in the first place. Other candidates, including in the country’s most secure hub – the Kathmandu Valley – are now staying in army or police quarters for protection.

“There is no more election now; this is a committee,” says former Kathmandu mayor Keshab Sthapit, who almost ran. “I had a proper team set up – these people have no teams. Where are their plans, visions? There are no choices,” he added in an interview in his home in the city centre.

Sthapit says the small party he leads decided to contest the election to defeat the royalists. But it reversed that stand because the government appeared ready to portray him as the palace candidate. “If they painted me with that label I wouldn’t be able to wash it off for years,” he said.

The former mayor was also unnerved by the daily phone calls from Maoists warning him not to contest, the reason he gave up his post in 2004.

Last year, a vice-chairman of the king’s hand-picked council of ministers declared that the army had seriously weakened the rebels, who launched their uprising from the impoverished western hills almost exactly 10 years ago.

Earlier in 2005, an army spokesman estimated the rebels’ strength at 6,000-7,000 hardcore fighters, 20,000-25,000 militia and about 100,000 sympathisers.

About 13,000 people have been killed since the insurgents launched their war, said local human rights group INHURED in January, most of them innocent villagers.

In September, the Maoists, who say they are fighting to end monarchy and deliver justice to disadvantaged groups such as Dalits (so-called “untouchables”) in this officially Hindu kingdom, declared a three-month unilateral ceasefire. That fuelled rumours that peace talks would follow.

But the government dismissed the one-month ceasefire extension, and right after it expired Jan. 4, the Maoists unleashed a series of bombings and attacks on police and government targets. Next they astonished observers with a coordinated set of assaults on Jan. 14 around Kathmandu that killed a dozen policemen.

Applauding the monarch on Feb. 1, 2005 was Rajendra Khadga, an administrator working at an international non-governmental organisation (INGO). Like many Nepalis, particularly wealthier and educated Kathmandu residents, he was happy to see the king sideline the constantly bickering political leaders, whose biggest achievement since 1990’s peoples’ revolution appeared, to many, to be growing their own bank accounts.

Today Khadga is totally disillusioned. “We don’t see how the king is different. He’s exactly like the politicians – saying one thing and doing another.”

But he says the past year has been positive in one way: “we always thought the monarchy was the solution but now we know that it’s not”.

In contrast, King Gyanendra declared in a televised speech Wednesday morning that, “the Nepalese people have experienced the nation grow in confidence and (their) self-respect restored within a short span of one year, with the cloud of pessimism dissipating”.

But many others still remain pessimistic, including those seen as palace supporters. Last week, China, which for one year had described Nepal’s political crisis as an “internal matter”, said, in what experts called a significant departure, that it “hopes all parties in Nepal can narrow their differences through dialogue”.

Many people here have started asking if the international community has done enough to pressure the players to forge a peace plan. India, Britain and the United States earlier suspended lethal military aid but King Gyanendra appears to have shrugged that off as a nuisance and turned to cultivating ties with rival nations like China and Pakistan.

The monarch also constantly reminds world leaders that he too is “fighting terrorism”, a declaration that seems to be especially sensitive in Washington.

But while local activists geared up for a giant opposition rally in central Kathmandu on Wednesday afternoon, the United States also signalled that it is tiring of the king’s intransigence, sending the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral William J Fallon, to Kathmandu on Wednesday.

His visit is “to convey serious concern by the US Government at the situation in Nepal, including both the threat posed by the Maoist insurgency and the king’s decision just one year ago to sideline Nepal’s political parties and establish rule from the palace”, said a press release.

Sthapit, a long-time supporter of the moderate Marxist-Leninist wing of the Communist Party of Nepal, says the king’s opponents – political parties, civil society, “even football clubs” – must come together under a non-partisan banner if they want to restore democracy on their own terms.

“In the districts they are ready but the Kathmandu Valley is not ready. Once this valley comes out in support, the royalty will be finished. Because once people here come to the streets, they will fight to the end,” he added.

 
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NEPAL: Stalemate, One Year After King’s Coup

Marty Logan

KATHMANDU, Feb 1 2006 (IPS) - One election candidate is dead, another is recovering from a gunshot wound and dozens more live in fear in army barracks across Nepal. Nearly two weeks of daily skirmishes between armour-clad police and rock throwing, tyre-burning protesters have filled jails and turned town centres into zones of fear.
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