Popular protests ignite Nepal

Four protesters have been killed in clashes with police as rallies against the king have spread.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

A nationwide civil uprising gripped Nepal for the fifth consecutive day Monday as civilians from all walks of life brazenly defied a government curfew imposed in Kathmandu and half a dozen districts outside the capital. This is the first time a curfew has been widely defied here in 16 years.

The protests started after an alliance of seven democratic parties announced a four-day general strike from April 6 to 9 against the rule of King Gyanendra. The strike quickly gained a life of its own, with party leaders not seen at the forefront of the demonstrations.

Unlike past protests organized by the alliance since the king seized power last year, the demonstrations now are coming from the grass roots with spontaneous participation from women, children, and the elderly. Ordinary citizens - fed up with a decade-old insurgency that has crippled life, and a king who has curbed civil liberties - clashed with security personnel during curfew hours, decrying repression, demanding that the king be exiled, and declaring their localities republics.

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"The scale of this uprising is unprecedented," says Lok Raj Baral, head of the Nepal Center for Contemporary Studies in Kathmandu. "During the people's movement in 1990 that brought democracy to the country, the uprising was significantly smaller in size and scale. This time, every locality in Kathmandu Valley, and every district in the country are in spontaneous revolt."

Baral added that participation from unexpected quarters is a clear indication that the movement has now become a "people's movement" and can sustain itself. "Even the parties had not expected this degree of spontaneous participation," he says. "The massive participation from the people is more due to disillusionment with the royal regime than due to love for the parties. People have no expectations [of] the royal regime anymore."

Groups of protesters have swelled into thousands with ordinary citizens, students, teachers, professionals, doctors, and even civil servants joining in. Employees at government-run banks have locked bank vaults and joined the democratic movement.

Buoyed by the support, the alliance extended the general strike indefinitely "until the end of autocratic monarchy and restoration of full democracy."

After four days of tough security measures including nighttime and daytime curfews failed to drive demonstrators away from the streets, Home Minister Kamal Thapa Sunday said that "stricter curfew" would be imposed to "protect life of civilians and public properties."

The minister chastised youths, whom he called "hooligans," for injuring police with bricks and stones. Mr. Thapa had initially imposed the curfews out of concerns that Maoists would infiltrate the demonstrations. He said that "new faces" seen in the demonstrations bear out those fears.

Maoist rebels, who announced a cease-fire in the Kathmandu Valley during the strike, said Sunday that they are participating in the parties' protests.

However, many of the "new faces" are ordinary people.

Hari Chandra Koirala, a math teacher at a tuition center who has been demonstrating from Day 1 of the general strike, says many people who are like him have joined the protest on their own volition to put an end to violence and misrule.

"The Nepalese people have gone through enough duress in the last several years. It is true that the parties made mistakes during their 12 years of rule from 1990. But the king has outdone them in just over a year.... We want the king out of the country," he says.

Mr. Koirala says that while the king does not intend to solve the conflict that has already claimed over 13,000 lives, the parties have taken steps in that direction. Last November, the alliance entered into a 12-point agreement with the Maoists, in which the rebels committed to multiparty politics.

"All we want is peace. We won't stop the demonstrations until peace and democracy is restored. Even the parties cannot stop us now," he says, putting up a brick and stone barricade over a section of Kathmandu's ring road.

Individuals like Koirala have taken it upon themselves to barricade roads, burn tires, and chase away police in most localities in Kathmandu. Streets in the capital are littered with bricks, rocks, charred tires, and torched vehicles. The number of protesters coming onto the streets rises as curfews begin. In places like Gongabu and Kalanki in Kathmandu, thousands of demonstrators who have been defying daytime curfew since it was imposed Saturday, have asked Army personnel to shoot at them, saying they are ready for martyrdom.

The killing of four protesters, one each in the towns of Pokhara, Banepa, Chitwan, and Janakpur, by Army bullets and batons, has inflamed tensions. Daytime curfews imposed there to control riots have been defied. Demonstrators even declared Chitwan the country's "first republic region" after chasing away security personnel and taking control of all government offices.

On Sunday, the government denied curfew passes to independent media. Eyewitnesses say security personnel, who had shown relative restraint during the defiance of curfew the previous day, used brutal force on demonstrators in Kathmandu. Four dozen protesters were injured around the country when security personnel resorted to firing, while hundreds were injured during a baton charge.

The head of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Nepal said in a statement Monday that "the use of force against peaceful demonstrators is not acceptable."

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