I have been involved in Nepal for many years and thus am acutely interested in the civil strife and unrest that has plagued the nation for so many years. When the Royal Family was executed and King Gyanedra seized power, there was some hope, although he seemed distinctly “stiff” and unyielding.
Those initial judgments proved to be true, and his lack of flexibility in dealing with poverty, corruption, and the social problems has fed the flames of the Maoist’s in Nepal. I had dinner with a member of parliament in Nepal, when a college aged daughter commented at the dinner table that “the Maoists are right, all of our college friends agree with them”. Their mother was shocked when her child spoke so openly. Since that time, things have not improved. The Parliament was dissolved by King Gyanedra, and he has kept absolute power since.
Freedom of the press, how precious it is, comes to mind when I read of the government imprisoning dozens of reporters, because they want to report the facts.
When I think of American reporters, and how easily they have been manipulated by the United States government over Iraq and the “war on terror” I realize how quickly a nation can lose freedom of the press, in light of pressure or intimidation from a government, or from big business.
But in Nepal, there is willingness to fight for press freedom and on April 15, 2006, about 200 reporters marched in Katmandu, asking for freedom of the press and the release of their friends who have been held in jail for years now. The police fired on them and charged them, and at least a dozen were seriously injured.
It should be of interest that nearly 13,000 Nepalese have died in violence during the Maoist insurgency, in the past decade. How has the King responded?
The Associated Press and Reuters reported that the Nepalese capital ran low on fresh food and fuel April 16, 2006 because of a general strike that shut down the city, and thousands of angry pro-democracy demonstrators clashed with police firing rubber bullets. The emboldened opposition urged the people of Nepal to stop paying taxes to the government of King Gyanendra, who responded by further banning protests on the capital's outskirts.
Sunday's pro-democracy rallies across the Himalayan kingdom attracted tens of thousands of people and were the biggest since opponents of Gyanendra's royal dictatorship began their campaign of protests and a nationwide strike that has cut off Nepal's cities for 11 days. The rallies included small protests in Katmandu's tourist hub and commercial heart - the first in the capital's center, where rallies are banned.
In Katmandu, many of the capital's 1.5 million residents struggled to find everything from fresh vegetables to gasoline. "I pushed my motorcycle all the way here. I have no choice but to wait for hours to get petrol," said Sundar Thapa as he lined up at one of the few open gas stations. Customers could only buy about $4 worth of gasoline, enough for about a gallon. At most stations, signs read: "No petrol, no diesel."
The prices for what few vegetables could be found have risen fivefold since the strike started April 6, and the prices of chicken and mutton have doubled. "We have not had a single truck come in the past 11 days. Whatever we are selling was what we had in stock, or grown locally in Katmandu," vegetable vendor Raj Maharjan said at the city's Baneswor market. He had no green vegetables and was running low on potatoes and onions. There also was a scarcity of water buffalo meat, popular with Hindu Nepalis who do not eat cows because they are considered sacred.
The protests are the worst since Gyanendra's move, and the opposition sought to increase the pressure Sunday, appealing to Nepalis to stop paying taxes, custom duties, interest on loans from state banks and even their electricity, phone service and water bills with state-run utilities. They also urged the estimated 1.6 million Nepalese working abroad to stop sending money home. The $1.2 billion in remittances have in large part kept the economy afloat.
Sunday's biggest rallies took place in two neighborhoods on the outskirts of Katmandu. One attracted 15,000 people and was peaceful. About 10,000 people marched along the ring road skirting Katmandu for hours when riot police massed to stop them. The protesters then charged the officers, who responded with a volley of tear gas and rubber bullets that sent most people fleeing.
But a hardcore group, mainly students, retreated onto the hills overlooking the road, hurling stones and shouting obscenities at police in a skirmish that stretched across terraced rice patties and lasted into the night. "I'll find you and kill you in seven generations!" one officer shouted after firing rubber bullets at a protesters about 20 yards away.
Thousands participated in at least a half-dozen others protests in Katmandu, while marches in the cities of Pokhara and Bharatpur attracted about 10,000 people each, officials and Nepali media reported. Police also arrested about 20 more journalists who were protesting to demand press freedom.
In Thamel, the capital's ordinarily throbbing tourist hub, dozens of shop owners, hotel workers and trekking guides burned tires and taunted police along streets lined with shuttered stores that usually sell trinkets, traditional fabrics and beautiful Buddhist Tangkhas and statues. "The king is killing our work, we have not enough customers," said C.V. Shresthra, a 36-year-old trekking guide. Tourism is Nepal's second-largest foreign exchange earner, but visitor numbers have dropped from an estimated 500,000 in 1999 to 275,000 last year.
Associated Press reporter Binaj Gurubacharya contributed to this report as did Ben Boothe and Reuters.