Nepal: Last stand of a monarchy

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The Independent Online

They came in their tens of thousands, ordinary Nepalis who defied a curfew and shoot-to-kill warnings, and marched through their capital to demand the King give up his power and restore democracy. And he greeted them with bullets. Soldiers and police opened fire on the protesters, shooting them down in the streets.

At least three were killed, and more than 40 were in critical condition last night. A young man, one of the subjects who King Gyanendra claims to rule over, lay dead on the street yesterday, his head in a pool of his own blood.

And still the protesters came, refusing to be cowed. "These are not protests any more. This is a revolution," said Harish Dhal, a demonstrator. "We don't want a monarchy. We want real democracy."

King Gyanendra remained hidden in his palace while on the streets his people were dying. There were more than 100,000 people protesting in Kathmandu, despite warnings that anyone violating the curfew would be shot on sight.

"We are not afraid," said Mr Dhal, a young man who had come into the city from the countryside to demand democracy. "The King is not strong enough to stop us. If he does not give up power, we will march into the centre of Kathmandu and take him from his palace," added Mr Dhal.

Tourists were confined to their hotels as the protests raged. "Death to the King", the demonstrators chanted. "Cut off the heads of Gyanendra and his son."

The opposition parties that organised the protests are demanding that King Gyanendra gives up the absolute powers he seized last year and restores democracy. But most of the protesters on the streets want to go further, and are calling for the monarchy to be abolished.

In a desperate attempt to stop the outside world seeing what is going on in the country, security forces tried to keep diplomats and journalists off the streets and warned they would be shot as well.

In a ghoulish development, police stormed the hospital last night where the bodies of the three dead protesters were being held and took them away. But there were plenty of witnesses.

To stop the mass rallies called by the democratic opposition, the King had ordered a curfew across central Kathmandu. Determined to go ahead with the rallies, protesters began streaming into the suburbs of Kathmandu, gathering at the edge of the curfew zone in six or seven meeting places.

One was in Kalanki, a poor suburb on the edge of town. None of the protesters there had been stopped by police. But when they tried to advance into the centre of Kathmandu, towards the royal palace, police fired tear gas. When that did not work, they opened fire with live rounds.

Witnesses spoke of seeing a body being carried from the scene. Television pictures showed a young boy, still alive but with blood pouring from his head, being carried like a rag doll between two police officers. One television station, unable to get footage because of the draconian restrictions on journalists, instead showed still pictures of the bodies on its news bulletins.

Yesterday was supposed to be the culmination of a two-week general strike and daily protests against the King's rule. Instead it became the culmination of the King's bloody response. At least 10 people had been killed already in police shootings in other towns and cities. The protesters failed yesterday in their aim of reaching the city centre and the royal palace. But they insisted last night they would not be intimidated. "We will not leave these streets," said Marish Thapa. "We will keep protesting, and we will go inside the curfew zone, and we will go to the palace."

Even among the police who were keeping the protesters at bay, there was precious little support for the King. "The police are very tired," said a senior officer commanding the barricades. "Do the police support the King? That is a very difficult question for me to answer. Some do. As for the rest of us, well, you can guess."

The drama in Kathmandu was unfolding against the backdrop of the 10-year civil war with Maoist guerrillas that has brought Nepal to its knees. But now the Maoists are openly allied to the democratic opposition parties against the King.

Britain, the US and India used to back King Gyanendra against the Maoists, fearing a communist state in Nepal. But as he has dismantled democracy in Nepal and taken the absolute powers of a medieval king, they have distanced themselves from him.

"If the King doesn't act immediately ... the constitutional monarchy may no longer be on the table," the British ambassador to Nepal, Keith Bloomfield, said yesterday.

India dispatched a special envoy for urgent talks with the King yesterday, at which he was believed to have delivered a stark message from Delhi.

Karan Singh said on his return to Delhi that he expected a conciliatory statement from the King soon, but last night all that came from the palace was an announcement that the curfew was being extended into the night. The opposition parties called for more protests today.

Out on the streets, protesters were building barricades to keep the police out of their areas. They prised bricks out of the pavements and stones from the walls.

It was the opposition parties that began the protests, but on the streets the people say they are out of the parties' control now. "We have nothing to do with the parties," said Uttam Shrestha.

"We are the people of Nepal. If the parties make a deal with the King now, we will march against them. We don't want a monarchy any more."

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