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Nepalese Respond Tepidly to Crackdown

Despite Suspension Of Freedoms, Dissent Is Muted in Capital

By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page A21

KATMANDU, Nepal -- Krishna Pahadi, the founder of a prominent human rights group, welcomed his guest with a wan smile. "I'm really sorry," he said, standing in the garden of the small townhouse that serves as the group's headquarters. "I can't talk to you now. I am just being arrested."

As his office staff looked on helplessly Wednesday afternoon, the human rights campaigner was surrounded by four plainclothes police officers, who marched him toward a waiting car without producing a warrant or an explanation. Colleagues and family members haven't heard from him since.


Nepalese riot police in Katmandu, the capital, detain a protester on Friday during a demonstration against King Gyanendra's move to fire the government and suspend civil liberties. (Binod Joshi -- AP)

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Such scenes have become common in Nepal since Feb. 1, when King Gyanendra shocked the nation and surprised the United States and other allies by firing the government, detaining more than 100 political opponents and suspending basic constitutional liberties, including freedom of the press and the right to assembly.

In Washington and other foreign capitals, Gyanendra's action was condemned as a miscalculation that will frustrate the search for a peaceful end to the nine-year Maoist insurgency that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and paralyzed the economy in this picturesque and impoverished Himalayan kingdom.

But the reaction in Nepal has been muted. Almost two weeks after the royal coup, the capital remains mostly quiet, a testament both to the ambivalence of Nepalese disillusioned by their short experience with democracy and to the chilling efficiency of the government's measures to suppress dissent. On Thursday, a protest that had been billed as a major pro-democracy demonstration attracted 10 participants. All were promptly arrested.

"It must be said that outside the capital's intellectual, activist and media circles there was general approval" of King Gyanendra's move, the Nepali Times, an English-language newsweekly that has often been critical of the king, said in an editorial published Friday. "There is cautious hope that this could be a way out of long years of instability, anarchy and violence."

Some call it false hope. Sushil Pyakurel, a member of the semi-official National Human Rights Commission, warned that Gyanendra's crackdown on political parties may drive them to make common cause with -- or at least turn a blind eye to -- a brutal insurgency whose methods and ideology they have previously abhorred. "The contradiction between the king and the political parties, it has widened," Pyakurel said. "Maoists may use this situation as an opportunity."

Brig. Gen. Dipak Gurung, the spokesman for the Royal Nepal Army, said the king had moved against the country's political parties in part because they had been staging protests that were distracting security forces from their fight against the Maoists. "If there are no internal disturbances, then we can focus on the main issue," he said.

The situation poses a challenge for the Bush administration, which along with the Indian government is providing the army with training and weapons to strengthen its capabilities against the rebels, who now roam freely in much of the country.

On Friday, U.S. Ambassador James F. Moriarty said U.S. military aid to Nepal was "at risk" as a consequence of the king's action. He also said the U.S., British and Indian envoys in Katmandu, the capital, had made it "crystal clear" that their governments would oppose a move by the king to dismiss the prime minister and cabinet. He sounded them out on his plans this winter.

"We were as emphatic as we could be," he said.

Democracy is a relatively recent innovation in Nepal, a landlocked, mostly Hindu nation of about 27 million people, strategically situated between India and China. The country has been under the sway of the Shah dynasty since 1769. Many Nepalese still believe that the Shah kings are incarnations of the Hindu god Vishnu. In 1990, following massive public protests, the country became a constitutional monarchy under the leadership of King Birendra, Gyanendra's older brother, who ceded many of his powers to a parliament and prime minister.

But Nepal's democratic transition has been fraught with disappointment, as governments repeatedly collapsed and politicians earned a reputation for greed and incompetence. In June 2001, democracy lost a key patron when Birendra and other royals were assassinated in a palace massacre, apparently by Birendra's deranged son. Gyanendra inherited the throne. The following year, he sacked the government and appointed the first of its several successors, the last of which he dismissed earlier this month.

A dour, remote figure who often appears in military uniform wearing oversized dark glasses, Gyanendra has spent most of his adult life as a businessman, looking after the royal family's interests in tobacco, tea and a five-star Katmandu hotel. He also established a reputation as a conservationist, serving as chief patron of a land trust named after his late father, King Mahendra.

In part because of the bizarre circumstances of his accession, Gyanendra never won the hearts of Nepalese. Political analysts say the king's standing has been further eroded by the reputation of his son, Crown Prince Paras, for loutish and even dangerous behavior, including one episode in which he allegedly killed a popular singer in a hit-and-run car accident. He was never charged in the incident.

Gyanendra has made no secret of his disdain for Nepal's elected officials. Kanak Dixit, a prominent editor of Himal Magazine, recalled that when he asked the king last year why he disliked the political parties so intensely, Gyanendra replied, "Kanak, if you want me to hand over power to the corrupt and those who misgovern, I will do it tonight."

On Feb. 1, Gyanendra characterized his action as part of a war against "terrorists." He never mentioned the Maoists by name, asserting only that his ultimate goal was the enhancement of multiparty democracy, and he accused the government of failing in its duty to hold elections and curb the insurgency.

For three days, army officers stationed themselves in newsrooms, television studios and radio booths to enforce strict censorship rules that remain in force. About 130 people have been detained or are being held under house arrest, including party leaders, former prime ministers and human rights activists, according to the human rights commission. Telephone lines and Internet access were shut down, although they have since been restored. Cell phone service is still suspended. Demonstrations have been vigorously suppressed, except for those supporting the king's move, of which there have been several.

"It came suddenly, so people are shocked, and it takes time to reorganize," said Pyakurel, the human rights official, explaining the relative lack of public outcry.

After nearly a decade of bloodshed and political turmoil, perhaps the most pervasive sentiments among ordinary Nepalese are fatigue and confusion. Sitting in his small computer shop on Thursday afternoon, Sundar Pandey, 29, could see the police in their blue camouflage uniforms as they rounded up the handful of protesters who had turned up for the demonstration that Pahadi, the founder of the Human Rights and Peace Society, had planned to lead before he was detained 24 hours earlier.

A slender man with a bashful smile, Pandey said at first that his sympathies lay with the demonstrators. But after reflecting a moment, he appeared to change his mind. "If the king's move leads to the resolution of the conflict, then of course I support it, because we want to run our business in a peaceful atmosphere," he said. "If democracy guarantees a means of livelihood, of living in peace, then of course that's a better option. But in the last 12 years, democracy has proved to be a bad omen."


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