Nepal's Government Struggles to Keep Opposition in Line

MOB violence in Katmandu this week underscores the fragility of Nepal's new-found democracy. One week after the country's interim multiparty government came to power, demonstrators attacked and beat to death several people accused of belonging to right-wing vigilante groups. Police fired on protesters near the palace of King Birendra and at several other locations.

The outbreak came just two weeks after the Himalayan Hindu kingdom returned to democracy and highlights the touchy task for Nepal's first opposition-led government in almost 30 years.

``Since the new interim government came to power, many people believe that the king has revived these vigilantes to create problems and discredit the new leaders,'' says a Western diplomat in New Delhi. ``The government also is divided within and faces opposition against compromising with the king.''

The new government took office after more than two months of protests by pro-democracy demonstrators that left Katmandu in turmoil and scores of people dead.

For years, Nepal was controlled by a nonpartisan political system that included various levels of panchayats or councils with the king holding near-absolute power as head of state.

Political parties had been banned since 1961 when King Mahendra, the monarch's father, dismissed a Western-style party government for corruption and mismanagement.

However, after security forces opened fire on protesters, killing an estimated 50 people, the king lifted the three-decade-long ban on political parties. He later agreed to let an opposition coalition head the government until elections can be held.

The new government is headed by Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, an official of the formerly outlawed Nepali Congress Party who spent 14 years in prison for anti-palace agitations.

The pro-democracy movement was sparked by the middle-of-the-road Nepali Congress and by the United Left Front, which includes the Communist Party. Mr. Bhattarai has said that new elections would be held before next April.

However, since the new government took power, Katmandu has been hit by a spate of attacks, looting, and arson that is blamed on the mandales, an underground group that at one time supported the king and clashed with opposition groups of students.

The attacks, widely seen as an attempt by the king and old-line politicians from the former panchayat system to undermine the new leaders, triggered a backlash.

On Monday, armed gangs roamed the streets, kidnapped policemen accused of being mandales, and beat several to death. The dead and injured were then paraded through the streets as the protesters shouted, ``Birendra, thief, leave the country.'' Police then opened fire on the demonstrators. Curfew was reimposed on the capital.

The violence underscores the confusion in Nepal as anti-royalist feeling, unthinkable only a few weeks ago, spreads, observers say. The king, considered a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, is still revered by many Nepalese.

Nepal is one of the world's poorest countries. Its 17 million people have an average annual income of $150 a year, and 75 percent of them are illiterate.

Still, during the pro-democracy demonstrations, anti-palace slogans and charges of corruption became common. The king is often depicted as weak and dominated by his wife, Aishwarya.

To curb the growing chaos, Bhattarai, the prime minister, has called for the dismissal of some senior police officers whom he alleges oppose the new government. Observers say that the police, the press, and the bureaucracy remain in the hands of panchayat politicians despite the beginning of democratic reforms.

On the other hand, the interim government itself is torn by dissension. The new leaders do not command the support of extreme left-wing groups who demand more radical change and were believed to be behind the protests in Katmandu Monday.

At the same time, Nepal has been torn by labor unrest and its economy crippled by a year-long trade dispute with India.

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