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Nepal makes a brutal return to the feudal past

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,1406468,00.html For Nepal, a brutal return to a feudal past Randeep Ramesh in Pokhara Saturday February 5,
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 5, 2005
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      http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,1406468,00.html

      For Nepal, a brutal return to a feudal past

      Randeep Ramesh in Pokhara
      Saturday February 5, 2005
      The Guardian

      When his captors threatened to throw Dhruv Karki into
      the flashing white swirls of the river Seti, the
      student activist thought his life was over.
      Blindfolded and having been beaten with a rifle butt
      over the past four hours in an army camp in western
      Nepal, Dhruv was mentally and physically exhausted.

      His tormentors demanded to know the whereabouts of
      Maoists in the university campus, accusing him of
      lying when he said he did not know.

      Eventually Dhruv was marched down some stairs and
      thrown into a room half-filled with dust.

      There he found 60 other protesters who had dared
      challenge the king of Nepal's state of emergency.

      It is four days since King Gyanendra used sweeping
      dictatorial powers to close down newspapers and censor
      broadcasts in the mountain state. The new royalist
      government has also cut telephone lines and shut down
      internet links, cutting off the Himalayan kingdom from
      the outside world.

      Freedom of the press, freedom of speech, the freedom
      to assemble peacefully and the right to privacy have
      all been suspended.

      Yesterday paramilitary forces rounded up political
      leaders in the country's capital, Kathmandu, in what
      appears a concerted effort to silence critics of the
      coup d'etat.

      The crackdown against former members of the government
      and opposition groups confirms what many observers
      fear: a quick and brutal snuffing out of dissent.

      Sitting in his family's house, Dhruv, 27, said that
      after King Gyanendra announced that he had sacked the
      government and introduced martial law, hundreds of
      students gathered outside Prithwi Narayan campus in
      the picturesque tourist town of Pokhara and shouted
      anti-royal slogans and "long live democracy".

      In a matter of minutes stones were hurled and a
      motorbike set alight along with pictures of the royal
      family.

      The army responded with overwhelming force, spraying
      the air with tear gas and bullets. At least one
      student was taken to hospital after being shot.
      Soldiers rounded up suspected student leaders within
      hours of taking control of the university's grounds.

      "We were not given food or water or even allowed to go
      to the toilet," Dhruv recalled. "It must have been
      night but I did not sleep. They said that if we made
      noise we would be beaten more."

      Poked repeatedly with the barrel of a gun, Dhruv's
      right eye remains bruised and half-opened. He was
      released from the army's barracks a day after he was
      incarcerated and told to walk home.

      "The soldiers told me that if I am taken again they
      would not spare me. But I will not give up because we
      want democracy."

      The attempted justification for the return of absolute
      monarchy is that the country was sliding into chaos
      because ceaseless in-fighting between political
      parties had allowed an eight-year-old Maoist
      insurgency to spread to virtually every corner of the
      country.

      In squaring up to the rebels, the king has also
      invited a devastating response. The Maoist call for a
      three day general strike has been ignored in
      Kathmandu, where the government holds power.

      But in Pokhara, where the writ of the government
      barely runs, almost all schools, shops and offices
      have closed down. The only vehicles on the road are
      army trucks and taxis with their numbers blacked out
      for fear of Maoist reprisals.

      Once part of Nepal's political mainstream, the Maoists
      took their movement underground in 1996 and launched
      what they call a "people's war" against the state. The
      conflict between government troops and the leftwing
      guerrillas, who want to set up a communist republic in
      place of Nepal's Hindu monarchy, has claimed more than
      11,000 lives.

      One such death happened three months ago on a bright,
      clear morning in Pokhara. On his way to work, Indra
      Bahadur Acharaya, a political lecturer, was shot in
      the back of the head three times by a passenger on a
      motorbike. A Maoist spokesman claimed responsibility
      for the murder but said Mr Acharaya, 51, had been
      mistaken for someone else.

      His son, Narendra, who witnessed the shooting, said
      that the king could not defeat the Maoists on his own.

      "Since we do not have peace, a lot of innocent lives
      are wasted," he said. "The king needs political
      parties to be there. He cannot bring peace and
      prosperity on his own."

      Seen as "clever and intellectual," King Gyanendra has
      never hidden his disdain for political parties and has
      assumed an increasingly autocratic role since he
      dissolved Nepal's parliament in 2002.

      Although the king's most recent grab for power had
      long been the talk of Kathmandu, many were surprised
      by the swiftness and scope of the monarch's actions.

      The British ambassador to Nepal, Keith Bloomfield,
      said he had asked the king only a week ago whether he
      was going to take power.

      "We were aware that this was in the back of his mind
      and asked him. The king said 'No, no there has been a
      misunderstanding'. I made it clear that such a move
      would not be viewed favourably. He appears to have
      discounted that."

      Analysts said the monarch appeared to be trying to
      return to the days when his family ran the country as
      feudal autocrats and living Hindu gods, before
      democracy's arrival in 1990. The threat is that Nepal
      will simply end up with a monarchy propped up by an
      army.

      The civil war has already seen defence spending in the
      country spiral. To defeat the Maoists, Britain,
      America and India have all armed the security forces.
      In 2002 Britain provided the Nepalese government with
      two Russian built Mi-17 support helicopters and
      equipment for bomb disposal, logistics, communications
      and military intelligence.

      At �150m, the country's defence budget is as large as
      Nepal spends on social services, remarkable in a
      country where adult literacy is less than 50%.

      "The king does not understand that political parties
      are necessarily messy institutions," said Kanak Mani
      Dixit, publisher of Himal magazine. "Instead we may
      now get an expensive and coercive army which will
      stymie the development of the people.

      "It will be a mistake to think we can win the war this
      way. Nepal is a combination of Afghanistan's ravines
      and Vietnam's foliage and you cannot defeat a
      guerrilla army in such conditions."

      (Dhruv Karki is a pseudonym.)
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