Time running out for Nepal
By Sudeshna Sarkar, www.reliefweb.int
March 23, 2007
Kathmandu (23/03/07) – It was a solemn occasion on Friday at Kathmandu’s Tundikhel park, one of the foremost venues in the Nepalese capital for political meetings and cultural events.
Only last week, the ground had seen a colorful display of horsemanship and daredevil stunts by soldiers of the Nepal army. But now, instead of the usual air of festivity, there was grief, anger and shock as 28 bodies – brought to the site for mourners to pay their respects – lay on the platform in a grim reminder that things were not going right in a country finally looking forward to peace, progress and elections after a decade-old civil war.
Though the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) signed a peace accord with the seven-party government last year and pledged to lay down arms under UN supervision, fresh violence erupted in the southern plains on Wednesday, resulting in the death of at least 29 people.
The clashes occurred in Gaur, the main town in Rautahat district, about 160 kilometers south of the capital. Town residents told the media they had feared violence since an ethnic organization, the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), and the Maoists vied to hold mass meetings in the same area at the same time.
“MJF supporters tore down the podium built by the Maoists,” eyewitnesses told television channels. “Then the Maoists struck back, lobbing bombs and firing guns.”
According to officials at the Maharagunj Teaching Hospital in Kathmandu, 28 bodies had been brought there so far. The toll could rise, with nearly 70 people still lying in various hospitals and at least 50 missing.
“The killings have shocked the international community,” the UN’s top official in Nepal, Ian Martin, said. “This confrontation could and should have been avoided.”
Martin heads the UN Mission in Nepal, mandated to assist in peace negotiations between the government and the Maoists and help with elections that are to be held by mid-June, as pledged by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala.
Though the UN envoy does not say out right that free and fair polls are impossible by June, he however, calls it an “ambitious electoral timeline” under “very difficult circumstances.”
There are three reasons why the prime minister’s poll plans could fail.
First, there is the question of time. The government has to complete the updating of the voters list, create new election constituencies and promulgate five election laws. It also has to form an interim government and parliament, which will conduct the election.
Then there is the issue of creating a conducive environment for peaceful elections.
“A credible election requires not only the management of arms and armies and the right laws and technical preparations, it requires a climate in which all political parties can campaign freely in all places, and all voters can vote free of any intimidation or fear of reprisal,” Martin said at a Thursday press briefing.
So far, the Maoists have proved the biggest hurdle to that.
Emboldened by the fact that they are no longer banned as a terrorist organization and poised to join the interim government, the rebels have unleashed a virtual reign of terror. They attacked mass meetings held by opposition parties, especially those linked to King Gyanendra, whom they want to unseat in the June election. They have also stepped up extortion and abductions of people they regard as enemies.
Last week, the Maoists abducted a hotelier from the capital who refused their extortion demands. “They tied my hands and legs and punched and kicked me in the face and head for two hours,” Hari Lal Shrestha, owner of Hotel Woodland, told the media after his release. “I was allowed to go only after I had signed a paper agreeing to pay them and let them use 10 rooms in my hotel free.”
The incident caused Nepal’s business community to announce an indefinite strike this week. It was lifted on Wednesday night only after the government and the Maoists gave written assurances that such crimes would be punished.
The third factor casting a dark shadow on the election is the new unrest simmering in the plains, which along with those killed in Gaur, has seen 60 people killed since January.
At least seven groups are demanding an autonomous state in the plains and an end to the exclusionary policy of not allowing plains people in the government, bureaucracy, judiciary or security forces. While the MJF, which has become the strongest plains organization, says it is unarmed and believes in peaceful protests, the others are armed. (continued at the link below)
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