Kathmandu seethes in silence after King's coup

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The Independent Online

Nepali television started broadcasting again last night. But all it offered were newsreaders reciting the official propaganda line from King Gyanendra. Soldiers had been posted in every newsroom to ensure all broadcasts were suitably loyal. A country that had a lively free press just three days ago has now been reduced to Soviet-style television.

Kathmandu's streets are lined with soldiers armed with tear gas and assault rifles. Staff in newspaper offices are on edge. Conversations stop at the sight of an unfamiliar face. The reporters are suspicious of everyone. "We cannot speak freely," one journalist said. "We have to live here. We can't write about politics now. What are we going to put in the newspaper? Love stories."

A tape recording is circulating, apparently of the leader of Nepal's biggest political party, Congress, calling for street protests against the King's coup. The Congress leader, G P Koirala, is under house arrest and it was not possible to confirm if it was his voice.

Suddenly, information has become a limited commodity in Nepal. For three days, Kathmandu has been almost completely cut off, not only from the outside world, but from the rest of the country. No phone lines, no internet, no news reports.

It is causing growing discontent. "The political parties never did any good," said one student. "We are not worried about them. But this is the 21st century. We have a right to communication. He cannot take it away." And this is in a country in the grip of a Maoist insurgency that has cost more than 10,000 lives, where the daily news bulletins usually carry reports of the latest violence. For three days there has been no word from the rest of Nepal. No news from the rural areas controlled by the Maoists, or the towns still under government control.

"It's as if the Maoists had stopped the violence and stopped killing people," said Sushil Pyakurel of the National Human Rights Commission. "I don't think the Maoists stopped. I don't think either force stopped operations. Maybe the next time we meet I will be in prison. I fought for democracy before and I will fight for it again."

Nepalis contacted by phone when lines were briefly open last night in the government-held town of Dharan Bazaar said many government troops had been deployed in the town.

A general strike called by the Maoists was being observed in rural areas under their control. But it was largely ignored in Kathmandu. Usually shops close and life halts when the Maoists call a strike; everyone fears being singled out as an example. That Kathmandu ignored the strike calls may have been a sign that the policy of blocking information and communications had worked.

"The right to communication has been withdrawn," Mr Pyakurel said. "The right to information has been withdrawn. Compare the newspapers on 1 February with the night before. There was a complete change."

Despite the apparent call for protests yesterday from Mr Koirala the only demonstration was a rally in support of the King. Still, even there, students openly denounced his seizure of power in front of his supporters, and the watching soldiers.

"I think it is not right what the King has done," said Dipendra Distan, 20, a student. "It is against the Nepali people. Nepal is going to end up like Cambodia, Romania or Somalia." A crowd gathered around him, many nodding at what he said. With the Maoists watching events from afar, it is the comparison with Cambodia that will have most resonance in Kathmandu.

On the campus of Tribhuvan University, Nepal's main university, overlooked by the Himalayas, discontent is simmering and the students are on strike. But they say it has nothing to do with the Maoists' call for a strike. They are holding their own protest against the King's actions. Many student leaders have gone underground to avoid arrest. Unusually for Nepal, there is no welcome when you arrive at the university campus. There are no smiles, the students are grim-faced. These are angry people.

"All the students are against the King," Amrit Kumar Shresta, a 28-year-old postgraduate and student leader said. "We need democracy and we will fight for democracy. The situation is critical. We are prepared to die for democracy. We don't believe the King wants peace with the Maoists. And even if he does, it will be a dead peace, without freedoms."

It is a considerable headache for the West. Two months ago, Britain, the US and India warned King Gyanendra not to sack the government and take absolute power. Now he has called their bluff, trying to present himself as the only bulwark against the Maoists. That leaves the West with a dilemma: back Gyanendra, and his assault on human rights, or let Nepal fall into the hands of the Maoists, whom the West has condemned as "terrorists". For the West, either choice is unacceptable.