Nepalese protesters dismiss King's pledge of democracy

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The Independent Online

King Gyanendra of Nepal made a desperate attempt to save his throne as hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of Kathmandu yesterday calling for his overthrow.

In a televised address, the King promised to restore democracy and hold elections, and revert to being a constitutional monarch. But his words were dismissed by the opposition parties which have been leading the protests as too little, too late. "The King has not clearly addressed the road map of the protest movement," said Krishna Prasad Sitaula, spokesman for the largest opposition party, the Nepali Congress. "Our protest campaign will continue."

On the streets too, the people vowed to continue their rallies. There were spontaneous demonstrations in reaction to the King's speech, with people chanting: "Democracy is coming! Gyanendra leave the country!"

Looking tense before the camera, King Gyanendra said: "We are committed to multi-party democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Executive power of the kingdom of Nepal, which was in our safekeeping, shall from this day be returned to the people."

He was speaking after the biggest protests yet in Kathmandu, which saw protesters breach many of the defences of the police and army and march deep into the city centre, which is under strict curfew. They marched in a column that filled the wide avenue and stretched for two miles. Local television news put the size of the crowd at 150,000, but that seemed a severe underestimate.

"Death to the monarchy!" they chanted as they marched. And as they walked, the people of Kathmandu lined the streets to cheer them on. This was a nation on the march. Several police lines fell back before them. Soldiers guarding the airport grinned and gave them signs of support.

At times, the crowd had a carnival atmosphere. They danced in the streets and shouted with joy that they had defied the curfew. "It is a tragedy for Nepal if Gyanendra lives," they sang.

At one moment, the crowd suddenly turned and headed for the city centre with a surge of purpose. Several protesters shouted: "To the palace!" But they met more sustained resistance from the army lines deeper inside the city, and several protesters were injured after soldiers opened fire with rubber bullets.

It was with these scenes raging outside his palace that the King made his attemptto defuse the crisis. Sitting in front of a backdrop similar to the one he appeared before when he seized the absolute powers of a medieval king last year, he said he was acting "in the greater interest of the nation and the people, and our unflinching commitment toward constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy".

He called for talks with the seven-party opposition alliance which has been leading the protests and asked it to nominate one of its number to serve as interim prime minister until elections could be held. Nepalese analysts said that was a clear attempt to split the seven-party alliance, which have never agreed on anything except their opposition to the King's rule.

The opposition parties said their leader would meet today to discuss the King's proposals. But the biggest parties were quick to dismiss them. "We haven't been demonstrating for the premiership," said one senior figure.

"The people will not accept this speech," said Chakra Sijapatki, a security guard at a hotel who was listening to the speech on a car radio. "We have been fighting for democracy and a republic."

Many on the streets complained the King had said nothing about bringing the Maoist guerrillas who have been fighting a 10-year civil war into the mainstream. The opposition parties have agreed a frameworks for peace talks.

There was positive reaction on the streets. "Now the King can become a ceremonial monarch," said one protester, Utsav Koirala. King Gyanendra has offered elections before. What people want is a new constituent assembly to debate whether Nepal should have a monarchy at all.

"How can the King remain? He must take responsibility for all the people who have been killed in these protests," said Prakash Dhidal, another protester. A protester who was injured by police gunfire in Kathmandu on Thursday died of his injuries yesterday, bringing the number killed in Kathmandu to four.

There is a huge swelling of anger against the violence used by police on protesters. Doctors at the hospital where the bodies were taken wore black armbands yesterday. On the spot where the police fired on the demonstrators, some one wrote in chalk "Martyrs' Square".

Kantipur newspaper yesterday printed the name of one police officer who it said shot an unarmed protester in the head and killed him - which may well lead to reprisals against the officer.

Changing regimes

* 1991 Nepali Congress Party (NCP) wins first multi-party democratic elections

* 1994 NCP government dissolved and replaced by Communist regime

* 1995 Communist government dissolved. Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) begins insurrection to abolish monarchy and establish a "people's republic"

* 1 June 2001 Royal family is killed in drunken shooting spree by Crown Prince Dipendra, who then shoots himself

* 4 June 2001 Prince Dipendra, declared king on 2 June, dies. His brother, Prince Gyanendra, becomes King

* July 2001 Maoist rebels step up violence. Sher Bahadur Deuba becomes Prime Minister, heading 11th government in 11 years. He announces peace with rebels, truce begins

* November 2001 Peace talks fail and Maoistsattack army and police posts

* November 2001 King Gyanendra declares state of emergency

* February 2005 The King dismisses the government and assumes direct power

* November 2005 Rebels and opposition parties agree on programme to restore democracy

* April 2006 Protests against the King lead to fierce clashes in the capital; at least four are killed. King promises to give power back to the people but gives no indication of how or when