Maoists begin Nepal shutdown as PM refuses to quit
With a constitutional crisis and President's Rule threatening Nepal, its former Maoist guerrillas Sunday began an indefinite general strike paralysing the entire nation after talks with the ruling parties failed and Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal refused to quit.
After an impressive show of might in Kathmandu and other major cities on May Day when red-flag waving Maoist cadre and supporters turned the capital red, the sea of protesters continued to roll through Sunday cutting off transport, closing shops, markets and industries and disrupting school examinations.
Former Maoist ministers, MPs and top leaders led protesters at major intersections to clamp the general strike that Maoist chief and former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda vowed would continue as long as the prime minister remained in power.
"This is not a protest by the Maoists alone but a people's movement," said Maoist MP Janardan Sharma, who was also one of the deputy commanders of the party's guerrilla army, the People's Liberation Army that fought a 10-year war against the government from 1996.
"The desire for peace, a new constitution and change is a desire shared by all, not just the Maoists," said Sharma who led a march of protesters in the capital early Sunday, defying an overcast sky and a drizzle.
"People have assessed which party is loyal to the aspiration and joined the movement. Ask around and you will see they include supporters of the ruling parties as well."
The protests have crippled the capital, central Nepal, the Terai plains adjoining India in the south and the farwestern area, cutting off the two highways connecting Nepal with China in the north and India in the south.
Despite government fears that the protests would turn violent, the Maoist leadership Sunday reiterated the strike would be peaceful as long as the state did not seek to suppress it with force.
"Our protests were peaceful yesterday and would remain so today and in future," said Maoist MP Sabita Bura, who was leading another march in the capital. "However, we can't guarantee what will happen if the government tries to infiltrate them."
Women were present in large numbers at the rallies, so were observers from UN agencies and human rights organisations who began monitoring the protests after urging both the government and the opposition party to show restraint.
Ambulances, diplomatic vehicles, essential services and the media were allowed to move around freely and the former rebels, in a bid to prevent panic-buying of foodstuff, said the blockade would be lifted for two hours from 6 pm.
Vehicles carrying tourists to the city from the airport were also allowed to proceed.
In places, the blockade turned into a carnival with protesters singing and dancing.
A few skirmishes were reported in Dang in western Nepal where Maoists torched a vehicle and in Mahendranagar town in the farwest where a policeman was hurt after Maoists prevented schools from holding 12th grade examinations.
Sunday's strike hit hard students and people seeking medical treatment.
"I came to Kathmandu for treatment for my father who is 82 and has a heart problem," said Dinanath Pokhrel, who had come from Palpa district. "I am a poor farmer and will soon run out of money if the strike continues."
"I walked for two hours to reach my exam centre in Dillibazar," lamented a 12th grader who did not want to be named. "But our exam was cancelled and now there's uncertainty about when it will be rescheduled. A 12-hour daily power cut and now this fear and uncertainty has added to our woes."
Prachanda said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had pledged support for the current government while meeting the Nepali premier during the recently concluded SAARC Summit in Bhutan. That, he alleged, stiffened the latter's resolve not to resign.
Embattled Prime Minister Nepal addressed the nation Saturday, saying his coalition government was elected constitutionally and would not be brought down by street protests.
He also urged the Maoists to call off their strike and return to dialogue, a plea that was rejected by the former guerrillas after late-night talks for an agreement broke down.
Home Minister Bhim Rawal Sunday said the government was showing full restraint but would be forced to take retaliatory measures if the protesters crossed the constitutional limit.
The general strike makes it certain that Nepal would not be able to get a new constitution by May 28, as agreed during a peace pact signed between the Maoists and the government in 2006 that ended a decade of Maoist insurgency.
Should the May 28 deadline fail without an agreement between the warring sides, the nation would be plunged into a constitutional crisis.
Parliament would be dissolved and the government lose its validity, leading to President's Rule and the declaration of a state of emergency.