It’s go-go in Kathmandu, but Nepal frozen in crisis
By Terry Friel
Analysts expect no real breakthrough for at least three to four months, when the parties can organise protests after the monsoon and crop-sowing season
IT’S an hour before midnight and Kathmandu’s Go Go Bar, a portrait of the Dalai Lama by the entrance, is packed with the boisterous sons of Nepal’s new middle class stuffing cash into the dancers’ knickers.
Kathmandu is humming, its young people spending big on drugs, disco and drink. Sometimes, within sight of King Gyanendra’s palace, as in the Go Go Bar, where the dancers wear everything from full traditional dress to skimpy shorts and bra.
But while the capital parties, Nepal is paralysed by a political crisis and an increasingly bloody Maoist rebellion aiming to oust Gyanendra, who seized power in February, ended 15 years of democracy, arrested politicians and censored the media.
“Nobody knows what will happen - a kind of terror still exists,” says human rights campaigner Krishna Pahadi, freed this month after 143 days imprisoned in a room in a police camp. “There is a climate of fear. The rule of law is totally demolished.”
The military presence on the streets of Kathmandu is less overt than it was six months ago, except for occasional foot patrols and armoured cars. But political activists say 25,000 plain-clothes security men are on the streets, eavesdropping on anyone who stops too long.
Gyanendra said he was forced to take over because the politicians were incapable of quelling the Maoists’ “People’s War”, which has killed at least 12,500 people since 1996.
But five months on he is no closer to a deal with the guerrillas or with the seven mainstream political parties. Both the army and the Maoists concede they cannot win on the battlefield.
Compromise or turmoil?: “If there was a military solution, then the army would have done it by now or the Maoists would have taken over Kathmandu,” says S.D. Muni, a South Asia expert at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The political parties are slowly forming a united front and appear to be moving closer to the Maoists, who have appealed to the parties to talk with them to increase pressure on the king. The Maoists and the parties now agree there should be an election for a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and review the role of the monarchy.
“The two (parties and rebels) coming together would build up pressure on the king,” says Muni. “Either he makes compromises, or if he does not, then I think Nepal will see a lot of turmoil in coming years.”
But analysts expect no real breakthrough for at least three to four months, when the parties can organise protests after the monsoon and crop-sowing season. The political parties have so far failed to rally popular support against the king, despite his increasing unpopularity.
“The parties have to first understand what the people want,” says Nara Hari Acharya, a senior member of the leading Nepali Congress party who was imprisoned for five months. “The parties still have the same old leaders who have failed us in the past.” Even before the Feb 1 royal coup, the Hindu kingdom, one of the world’s poorest nations, had seen remarkable political instability, with 14 prime ministers in under 15 years.
In fact, for hundreds of years, it has seen bizarre power plays, murder, exile and takeovers between royalty and the upper caste Brahmins and Chettriyas who dominate the still largely feudal country.
Parliament has been dissolved since 2002, when Nepal was supposed to prepare for elections. Gyanendra sacked the then prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, for failing to hold them. The palace says Gyanendra is popular and adored, but many Nepalis are suspicious of the way he came to power, after his brother, King Birendra, and several other members of the royal family were gunned down by the then crown prince in 2001.
“His actions have definitely made him unpopular,” says Acharya. “But he was always unpopular, particularly after the royal massacre. People don’t have confidence in him. It is not easy to protect and save the monarchy in Nepal now.” Said one teenage girl, careful not to be overheard: “We don’t like monarchy. We want democracy. We will get it.”
Acharya, a 52-year-old former minister touted as a possible leader among the next generation of politicians, suggests the constitution be changed to allow periodic votes on whether the monarchy should continue. Analysts say support for a republic is growing.
During festivities marking Gyanendra’s 59th birthday last week a visiting priest from India’s holy Hindu city of Ayodhya, 63-year-old Swamy Sudarsanacharya, blessed the man revered as an incarnation of the Hindu god of protection, Vishnu, so that he could bring peace to his nation of 26 million. “There must be peace so that everyone in Nepal will be happy and prosperous,” he said, waiting in line to see the king. reuters