By John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
KATMANDU, Nepal, April 10 -- Despite a daytime curfew that kept most people in their homes, protesters took to the streets in the capital and elsewhere Monday to press their democracy campaign against the government of King Gyanendra. His security forces retaliated with batons and rubber bullets.
There were few reports of injuries, but the continuing turmoil underscored the depth of the political crisis in this Himalayan kingdom, where mainstream political parties have made common cause with Maoist rebels in the most serious challenge to Gyanendra's rule since he assumed absolute power 15 months ago.
Clashes between police and protesters over the weekend left three people dead, and neither side has shown any sign of backing down. The parties have vowed to continue their protests indefinitely, and the government has responded with curfews that have paralyzed life in major cities for the past three days. More than 1,000 people have been arrested, according to Subodh Pyakurel, chairman of Informal Sector Service Center, a human rights group.
In the capital on Monday, businesses were shuttered and the streets in many neighborhoods were deserted, except for the heavy presence of riot police in light-blue camouflage uniforms. In other areas, raucous protests erupted, with some young people throwing rocks before fleeing down streets and alleys with baton-wielding officers in pursuit.
For the most part, the only other curfew violators on the streets were occasional groups of Western tourists. They were ignored by police and protesters as they roamed the city on foot in the absence of taxis.
Nepal is supposed to be governed as a constitutional monarchy, but Gyanendra, citing a decade-long Maoist revolt, has engineered a narrowing of political freedoms. He suspended elected government in 2002, appointed a series of prime ministers and cabinets and assumed direct rule on Feb. 1, 2005.
Many Nepalis were fed up with the country's political parties and initially welcomed the move. But the mood has soured as Gyanendra's government has proved incapable of containing the insurgency or charting a clear path to restoring democracy. An alliance of the country's seven main political parties sought to capitalize on the disquiet by calling a general strike last week, touching off the current round of protests.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that "direct palace rule in Nepal has failed in every regard" and called on Gyanendra "to restore democracy immediately and to begin a dialogue with Nepal's constitutional political parties."
After the daytime curfew ended at 6 p.m. Monday, protesters gathered on Naya Bazaar street in a light drizzle, chanting anti-government slogans and burning effigies of Gyanendra as local residents watched. Police soon arrived in two open trucks. One of them fired a shot, to no apparent effect other than to scatter the protesters as police charged.
Watching from the relative safety of a nearby gas station, Smita Malla, 18, expressed no doubt about her sympathies. "Whatever the protesters are doing, it's okay," said Malla, a high school student. "They're trying to get the democracy back. They're trying to throw the king out."
On Sunday, Home Minister Kamal Thapa said security forces had acted with restraint, despite authorization to shoot curfew violators, but warned of harsher measures to come. He accused the rebels of using the cover of protests in the capital to shoot at police. Used ammunition cartridges were found in one area, he said.
"This is baseless. He says he found cartridges. Anyone could have thrown them there," Ram Sharan Mahat, a senior Nepali Congress party leader, told the Associated Press. "This is a peaceful movement. By alleging that Maoists have become part of it, the government is trying to legitimize its oppression."
Leaders of the rebel movement have expressed support for the protests and said the rebels would observe a cease-fire in the capital.
Once part of the country's political mainstream, the Maoists declared in 1996 that democracy had failed in Nepal and launched an insurgency against the monarchy.