Clampdown on rights has Nepal's political parties on the run
Monarch orders army to oversee newspapers
KATMANDU, Nepal -- The gates to the party headquarters are locked, the offices empty. But around back, a party official gestures to a group of visitors to follow him and drives a few blocks away on his motorcycle. He stops along a busy road, hoping no one will notice him amid the clamor of Katmandu's morning traffic.
"I'm just in and out," said Shovakar Parajuli, who risked arrest for his quick trip yesterday to the office of the Nepali Congress, the country's main opposition party, slipping in for a few sheets of party stationery.
He had been on the run since the day before, when King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency and ousted the government, saying it had failed to bring Nepal's growing Maoist revolt under control. Parajuli now avoids his house and office, stays with friends, and moves around the city constantly, dodging police sweeps.
This is what passes for political activity now in Nepal, where all the phones lines are cut, soldiers oversee newspaper newsrooms, and most political activists are either in jail or have gone underground.
The upheaval has officials in neighboring India worried that an unstable Nepal could cause regional turmoil, if refugees or militants spill across the border.
"The king is taking the country back to the Dark Ages," said Parajuli, an intense man who is, he says, the highest-ranking member of his party still able to work. "We don't even know how many of our people have been arrested." He estimated at least 50 party leaders had been rounded up.
He wants to organize a protest against the king, but with the phone lines down and so many people under arrest, he has spent all his time trying to stay out of jail and keeping in touch with colleagues.
"I don't mind getting arrested, but somebody has to coordinate," he said.
Technically, political activity remains legal in Nepal. But the severe legal measures ordered by the king and the swift deployment of security forces, has frozen the political scene. The measures include suspending constitutional provisions protecting freedom of speech and public assembly, and outlawing preventive detention.
The turmoil threatens the stability of a nation where some of the world's worst poverty exists alongside some of its most spectacular scenery. The Arkansas-sized country of 25 million people is home to eight of the planet's 14 highest peaks, including Mount Everest, and is a key destination for trekkers and mountaineers.
In neighboring India, dealing with a decades-long dispute with Pakistan, the concerns go far beyond tourism.
A statement Tuesday by India's foreign ministry called the king's actions "a cause of grave concern." Yesterday, Shyam Saran, India's foreign secretary, complained that New Delhi officials could reach their embassy in Katmandu only by satellite telephone.
"We are unable to really make a comprehensive assessment of the situation in the absence of communication," he said.
Even in Katmandu, few people had a full assessment.
Yesterday, it was hard to find a politician operating openly: Bahadur Deuba Sher, the ousted prime minister, was in his house under armed guard, and the offices of the Nepali Congress were locked down. At the headquarters of the United Marxist Leninist Communist Party, a caretaker said the building was empty, and at the home of the party's leader, Madap Kumar, at least a half-dozen soldiers were making sure no one visited him.
Only at the sprawling royal palace, behind high walls, politicians worked in peace.
Gyanendra swore in a 10-member Cabinet yesterday, with himself as its head. Later, officials said the new government would try to bring the rebels back to the peace table.
"The king has the chief executive authority now, so it will be easier for the rebels to come," Home Minister Dan Bahadur Shahi said on state radio.
The rebels, who say they are inspired by Mao Zedong, the founder of Chinese communism, control much of rural Nepal. They broke off peace talks in August 2003.
Most of the new ministers are fierce supporters of the king, who came to power in 2001 after his brother, King Birendra, was gunned down in a palace massacre apparently led by Birendra's son, the crown prince, who also died.