Royal command falls on deaf ears
Violence, few candidates and no opposition in the first poll since the king seized power
Randeep Ramesh in Nepalgunj
Wednesday February 8, 2006
There are no political banners, no flags bearing party emblems and no campaign posters draped across the thoroughfares of Nepalgunj, a Nepali town on the grassy flatlands abutting India.
Army trucks filled with soldiers in combat fatigues are the only vehicles barrelling through the dusty streets. Apart from the increased army presence, there is little sign that the country is today holding its first elections since King Gyanendra seized power 12 months ago.
Only eight of Nepalgunj municipality's 87 seats have candidates - and all are running unopposed.
The municipal elections, the first in seven years, were promised as a symbolic step towards "real democracy" but have instead exposed the limitations of the king's influence. Across the country there are candidates for less than half of the 4,150 seats in 58 cities and towns.
The king dismissed the elected government and seized power last February, a move he said was needed to end corruption, restore law and order and quell a Maoist insurgency that has claimed more than 12,500 lives in the past decade. Yet the violence and bloodshed have only intensified in the run-up to the polls. Two candidates have been shot, others kidnapped and the homes of putative politicians destroyed.
Last night, four attacks by Maoists across Nepal killed 13 people, including a taxi driver in Kathmandu. In Banke district, of which Nepalgunj is the headquarters, 17 soldiers, guerrillas and civilians have been shot or blown up in the last fortnight.
The fear of being caught between the ballot and the bullet has raised the stakes in the election. More than 600 candidates pulled out after filing their papers while dozens have resigned after being elected unopposed. Alarmed by the withdrawals, the government offered life insurance policies to the candidates. In Nepalgunj, would-be politicians have left town for the safety of Nepal's capital, Kathmandu, or gone on "pilgrimage" across the border into India.
"The king probably thought he could follow the example of Afghanistan or Iraq, where elections have been held under the threat of violence," said Dhawal Shumshere Rana, a former mayor of Nepalgunj, whose party shunned the polls. "But he cannot protect the voters or the candidates here. The whole thing has turned out as a joke. I mean, how can one campaign from India?"
Some have defied the Maoist threats, only to find themselves ensconced in army barracks or government offices unable to meet the voters. After the Nepalese army defused a bomb in his home, Surya Bahadur Thapa, a mayoral candidate in neighbouring Dang district, was moved to a heavily guarded municipal building.
"I am not scared of the Maoists but my family are," said Thapa, a retired soldier who served in the Indian army's Gurkha regiment. "I believe that the king is trying to build peace and that it is the people's right to vote. The old political parties were just corrupt and have to be removed."
Gyanendra became king in 2001 after much of the royal family was gunned down, apparently by the then crown prince Dipendra, who turned the weapon on himself. Clever but unpopular, the current king has surrounded himself with cronies and made it clear that the country's politicians have neither his friendship nor confidence.
The seven main political parties, which received 90% of the popular vote in the last parliament, are boycotting the polls that they claim are designed to legitimise the king's rule, marginalise their role and placate foreign donors. Their rejection and a week-long nationwide strike called by the rebels have damaged the poll's credibility. The stoppage has closed schools and businesses, and brought shutters down on most shops. Apart from the odd taxi, traffic has vanished from the country's streets.
Lining the roads out of Nepalgunj are red banners that proclaim an "understanding" between the parties and Maoists, a reference to an agreement that would see the guerrillas give up the gun and enter the political mainstream.
Yesterday the Maoist leader Prachanda surfaced for an interview in which he promised unconditional discussions if the government prepared a new constitution. Surprisingly he raised the possibility that the rebels would accept the king "if the people say we want an active monarch".
Aware that the impending electoral farce will erode royal authority, the government has been quietly manoeuvring to rescue the polls from complete failure. While turnout is expected to be tiny, the royalist administration has instructed all civil servants to vote, in what many observers say is a transparent attempt to bolster polling numbers.
A more blunt and successful strategy has been to impose curfews and lock up political leaders and human rights activists without trial to snuff out opposition from democrats.
Prashant Bist, a student leader in Nepalgunj, said he had twice found himself teargassed, beaten up by armed police and jailed for organising rallies against the king in the past 10 days.
"They come to the campus after we hold protests. They use sticks, fists, teargas, whatever they like. Then they take us away to the police station. Some are released, some are not. Two of my friends have been told they will be kept for three months," said Mr Bist, 27, vice-president of the Free Student Union. "It does not bother us. The king is on the wrong side of history. In two or three years he will be gone."
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for the release of 850 people detained under the public security act for "peacefully expressing their political opinion".
Civil rights campaigners say many of those in custody are being denied medical care and adequate supplies. "We have clients who are not getting clean water, not having access to toilets and some suffering illness who are not receiving medical treatment," said Sushil Lakhe, a human rights lawyer in Nepalgunj. "Without oversight and the rule of law, the army and the king can do what they want."
International analysts say the king should scrap the polls whatever the results, arguing that they will not be free or fair.
"The whole thing is a farce but the king looks like carrying on regardless. It is a big mistake," said Rhoderick Chalmers of the International Crisis Group, a thinktank based in Brussels. He said global patience with the king was wearing thin. Since the coup, the US, Britain and India have cut off military aid to Nepal.
The EU has described the elections as a "backward step for democracy".
Even China, which the king had looked to for support and arms as its relations with its other big neighbour, India, cooled, appears to have changed course.
"Last month Beijing called on 'all parties' to narrow their differences through dialogue. It's a seismic shift for the Chinese," said Mr Chalmers. "The signal to the king from the international community is that outside support is not unconditional and he could be dumped."
Nepal's year of anarchy began last February when King Gyanendra grabbed power, toppling elected politicians. To the 27 million Nepalis, he promised to end the civil war, crush the Maoists and return the country to democracy in 100 days. Instead there was chaos, with 430 journalists arrested and more than 1,608 people killed in violence between Maoists and the government. Today's polls are the first since the general election of 1999. The Himalayan state is the world's 12th poorest, with monthly income averaging £14. It is feared the economy is heading for bankruptcy, and the budget shortfall this year is estimated at £126m. With the World Bank and IMF refusing to lend more, economists say the country is in for a hard landing.
Anger rising after Nepal's "referendum" on king
Feb 9, 4:04 AM (ET)
By Gopal Sharma and Terry Friel
KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepali police clashed with protesters demanding King Gyanendra's ouster on Thursday, a day after a remarkably low turnout at local polls signaled a massive rejection of the monarch's seizure of power last year.
One analyst said the king's days could be numbered.
Police fired tear gas as protesters burned tires, hurled rocks and bottles and chanted slogans a few hundred meters (yards) from the royal palace in Kathmandu on Thursday. No one was hurt.
The demonstrators were protesting against Wednesday's elections for municipal officials and against the army's killing of a protester in the west of the country during a poll protest.
"We don't want a murderer government. You can't kill people," they shouted.
Later on Thursday, more than 1,000 people gathered in the capital to receive the protester's body from a hospital in Kathmandu and to honor him. Riot police stood guard as they shouted "Hang Gyanendra!" and "Give us the body of the martyr."
Shopkeepers were pulling down their shutters, anticipating more trouble.
One of the protesters was 88-year-old Chanya Devi Parajuli, wearing a red-and-white Nepali Congress party flag and a green cardigan over her saree. She has been arrested 44 times in previous protests, buffeted by water cannons and hit by tear gas.
"The king has to face the consequences. He is responsible," she said, referring to the death of the protester.
"I am not afraid. I don't care about myself. I care about my country, and I care about my people."
Only 20 percent of registered voters turned out on Wednesday -- less than a third of the more than 60 percent in the last such election -- and analysts said it was a clear vote against King Gyanendra and his seizure of power last February.
Washington described the polls as a "hollow attempt" by the monarch to legitimize his rule.
"These municipal elections were a referendum on the king's takeover one year ago," Kunda Dixit, editor of the Nepali Times weekly, told Reuters. "The message to the king is that 80 percent of people don't support him.
"I think his days could be numbered."
Analysts say King Gyanendra's position is becoming increasingly shaky and republican sentiment is growing, especially among the young, frustrated by the lack of democracy and the lack of jobs in an economy shattered by a decade-old Maoist revolt aimed at toppling the monarch.
"It's clear that the king does not have support," said Minendra Rijal, a leader of the Nepali Congress Party (Democratic) who is on the run from police.
"This was basically a ploy to sell to the international community that he is interested in democracy, which he is not," he said. "The world community now knows he has no support."
Rijal is one of dozens of politicians on the run. The United Nations estimates at least 800 political prisoners are in custody.
Rijal said the seven main political parties, which boycotted Wednesday's polls, will step up protests to force the king to talk with them and bring the Maoists into the political process.
So far, the parties, themselves unpopular after years of turbulent and volatile misrule, have been unable to ignite a large-scale people's movement against King Gyanendra.
King Gyanendra justified his seizure of total power as necessary to end the Maoist rebellion, which has killed more than 13,000 people and enters its eleventh year next week.
But there has been no major progress toward peace.
And since he took power, the rebels have increased their political strength and legitimacy by striking a deal to cooperate with the parties and by saying they are now prepared to lay down their weapons and accept whatever the Nepali people want.
"They want to enter mainstream politics. They are saying there has been enough bloodshed," Rijal said.
The United States and Europe want to avoid a Maoist takeover and Washington has urged the king to talk with the political parties.
But the parties refuse to consider any deal which excludes the Maoists. "This has to be tripartite," Rijal said.
Nepal police fire tear gas at protesters; pro-king candidates sweeping marred election
Feb. 9, 2006
Thousands of Opposition protesters marched in Katmandu on Thursday, as early results showed pro-government candidates sweeping local elections that were marred by rebel attacks, the shooting of protesters and low turnout. While the main protest was not stopped by security forces, who were heavily deployed across the city, police earlier fired tear gas to disperse two dozen students protesting the king's rule at the Amrit Science College near the royal palace. No arrests or injuries were reported. The elections on Wednesday were for the relatively powerless posts of mayors and local council members, and the dearth of voters at the polls was considered a serious blow to the rule of King Gyanendra, who seized power a year ago. Over 4,000 demonstrators swept through a densely packed neighborhood in Katmandu on Thursday afternoon, waving banners, shouting slogans and calling for punishment for the soldiers who killed a protester on the day of the vote. ``Hang the culprits! Down with autocracy! We will fight for democracy,'''' some chanted. The crowd gathered for a while to listen to speeches, and thinned considerably before about 1,000 protesters started marching toward a police line. They retreated when the police stood their ground. The protest later dispersed without incident. In initial returns for 15 of the 36 cities and towns where polls were held, the pro-government Rastriya Prajatantra Party won 10 mayoralties, the pro-government Nepal Sadbhawana won two and independent candidates won three, the Election Commission said. Six people were killed in violence on election day, including a protester shot by soldiers during the vote, which the United States called ``a hollow attempt'''' by King Gyanendra to solidify power. An international election observer said the vote had ``a number of flaws.'''' The country's seven main political parties shunned the elections to protest the king's power grab, which he said was needed to bring the country's Maoist insurgency under control. However, rebel attacks have intensified in recent weeks. ``We refuse to accept the results from these so-called elections,'''' said Krishna Sitaula of the Nepali Congress party. ``We will not accept (the winners) as representatives of the people and will not allow them to take their positions,'''' he said, without elaborating. Officials were not immediately available to comment on the results, but The Rising Nepal, a pro-king newspaper, quoted Home Minister Kamal Thapa as saying that Nepalis participated in the elections with ``much enthusiasm.'''' Chief Election Commissioner Keshav Raj Rajbhandari said turnout was estimated at over 20 percent, but that the final figure was still being tabulated. Many voters said they were scared away from voting by the rebels'' call for a general strike and their threat to kill anyone who took part, and a government warning that it would shoot anyone caught disrupting the elections. In the southwestern town of Dang, the army said ``soldiers were compelled to open fire'''' on some 150 protesters trying to interfere with the vote, killing one and injuring another. Billed by the royal government as a step back toward democracy, the municipal elections were intended to solidify King Gyanendra's position in a power struggle that has pitted him against the rebels and political parties, who have teamed up to press for democracy. The polling drew candidates for less than half of the country's 4,000 mayoral and local council seats. Twenty-two of the country's municipalities held no voting because they either lacked candidates or had contenders running unopposed. Three insurgents, a policeman and a civilian were killed in two separate election-day rebel attacks, one in eastern Nepal and the other in the west, the police and Defense Ministry said. The royal government rounded up hundreds of politicians, activists and journalists in the weeks before the elections. On Wednesday morning, police arrested about 30 politicians and activists who were trying to organize protests in an eastern border town. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the elections were a ``hollow attempt'''' by the king to legitimize power, citing intimidation of voters and low turnout. The Maoist insurgents'' decade-long fight for a communist state has cost 12,000 lives. Under Gyanendra's rule, the economy in the Himalayan nation of 27 million people has worsened, with per capita income less than US$25 (euro21) a month.
Municipal polls a 'hollow' exercise: US
KATHMANDU, Feb 9 - The United States Wednesday said that Nepal's municipal elections called by the King lacked public support and represented a hollow attempt to legitimize his power.
"The United States believes Nepal's municipal elections called by the King today represented a hollow attempt to legitimize his power," said Sean McCormack, Spokesman of the Department of State in a press statement issued in Washington DC yesterday.
The US said that the voter turnout in the capital is estimated at under 25 percent and outside Kathmandu "turnout was reportedly half that level in some places," indicating a clear lack of public support.
"The government detained large numbers of political activists before the elections, restricted media and refused to allow independent outside monitors," McCormack said.
Calling on the King to release all political detainees and initiate a dialogue with the political parties, the US said that the "continuing refusal to take these steps is leading his country further down the path of violence and disorder."
The US also criticized Maoist intimidation and killing of candidates during the campaign saying, "There is no political cause that justifies the use of violence."
"The only way to effectively deal with the threat posed by the Maoists is to restore democracy in Nepal," the statement said.
Elections held without broad support of people: Japan
Meanwhile, criticizing yesterday's municipal elections, Japan today said it deplored that the municipal elections in the Kingdom of Nepal were held without a broad support of the people.
Issuing a rare statement the Embassy of Japan said, "Japan also regrets that many persons concerned with political parties were arrested," and that it "strongly condemns the acts of violence including the killing of civilians."
Japan further called on the government and political parties to "reach out to one another with the spirit of reconciliation," and urged the Maoists to "halt the acts of violence and achieve peace through dialogue."
Participation of parties necessary for credible polls: India
Likewise, India today said any credible electoral exercise should have the "active involvement and participation of all the mainstream parties."
"The fact is that the elections have been held against the backdrop of a boycott by the major recognized political parties, sharp curtailment of their legitimate activities, and continued arrest and detention in various forms of many of their leaders," said Navtej Sarn, spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement issued in New Delhi today.
He said, "We are of the view that the grave challenges facing Nepal demand the initiation of a genuine process of national reconciliation, dialogue and participation which can facilitate a peaceful political settlement." (dds/snn)
Posted on: 2006-02-08 21:46:10 (Server Time)
Recent Developments In Nepal's Maoist Insurgency: Precursor To Decisive Phase?
Tuesday, 21 February 2006
By M.R. Josse
(Paper delivered at International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, 9 February 2006 at a workshop on Maoist Insurgencies in Asia and Latin America: Comparative perspectives, 9-11 February 2006, organised by the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) of Leiden University in cooperation with the International Institute for Social History (ISSH), Amsterdam, the Netherlands. )
Kathmandu, 19 Feb: This paper focuses on recent developments, vis-à-vis Nepal's Maoist insurgency, especially the past one year, while providing an overview of its genesis, social and political roots and locale.
While a substantial body of literature has emerged on the latter, commensurate attention has not been accorded the former. That is striking in that the insurgency has ostensibly entered into what is perhaps its most decisive or crucial phase, not necessarily in its favour.
Not enough mindfulness has probed its fascinating transformation from a largely indigenous Nepal-based movement into one with robust transnational connections. Many have surfaced in the past year or so.
Adequate research has not gone into its equally revealing metamorphosis from an "anti-Indian" revolutionary nationalist force - formally known as the Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist (CPN-M) - into one viewed as a virtual ally of the Indian establishment.
No less attention should be directed to King Gyanendra's decision of February 1, 2005 to take direct control of the affairs of state.
Read the paper
Are we witnessing the start of a revolution in Nepal? With each passing day the determination of the protestors has grown while the authority of the monarch has weakened and even curfew and orders to shoot on sight, have failed to deter popular sentiment and now even the US has said that King Gyanendra's direct rule has failed in every regard. Here is what the experts are reading into the messy scenario in Nepal.