Human rights the first casualty after Nepal's palace coup

THEY WERE still playing golf at the course outside Kathmandu airport yesterday. Next door, flights were beginning to arrive from the outside world again. But they were coming to a Nepal that seemed almost surreally oblivious to the political crisis engulfing it. The king might have just seized absolute power, sacked the entire government and put the Prime Minister under house arrest, but you would not have known it in the tourist bazaars of the Thamel quarter, which were doing the usual roaring trade in Buddhist devil masks and cheap Tintin T-shirts.

But then in Nepal, crisis is nothing new. The past few years have been one long, slow crisis. Yesterday every telephone line and internet connection had been disconnected by royal decree. The king had mobile phones cut off. But that's nothing in a country where, three and a half years ago, almost the entire royal family was wiped out, apparently after the crown prince went on a berserk rampage through the palace.

This is a country where people are moving to the capital in their thousands because it's the only place they feel safe from a Maoist insurgency that has already claimed more than 10,000 lives. The king may have seized absolute power, but Maoists camped half-way up the Himalayas can still bring his capital to a near standstill by calling a general strike any time they want.

King Gyanendra's move this week is just the latest episode in the long agony of Nepal. "People are angry about what has happened, they are not happy," said Resam Gurung, a former soldier working as a watchman. "I don't want an absolute monarchy, I want to live freely."

But not everyone in Kathmandu agrees. "Look, what we want is peace," said Suwoj, a bookseller in Thamel Mall, where the trekkers and backpackers hang out. "Now the king can act decisively. The Prime Minister couldn't do anything. But now the king can act decisively. He can bring peace with the Maoists."

King Gyanendra's palace coup may have caught the attention - and earned the condemnation - of the outside world, but for many Nepalese it is less important than the Maoist insurgency that has been slowly choking their country for years now. The Maoists already control large areas of rural Nepal. Their reach extends to Kathmandu, where people are scared enough to obey their commands for general strikes.

The strikes and blockades are crippling the economy. Although few tourists have faced danger from rebels, thousands have been scared away and the vital tourism economy is suffering.

Britain, the US and India all issued statements condemning the king for undermining democracy. But a trip to the parliament building is all you need to see what Gyanendra thinks of democracy. Soldiers in sandbagged positions guard the empty building. Razor wire is strung across the entrance.

But democracy was in trouble here a long time ago. Ask a Nepali when the last elections were held here, and most can't even remember which year it was. Sher Bahadur Deuba, the prime minister whom King Gyanendra has sacked and placed under house arrest, was not democratically elected. He and his government were appointed by the king last year.

But a trip to the offices of Congress, Nepal's biggest political party, tells another story. An iron gate at the end of a dusty cul-de-sac is barred shut. Behind it is a grand, new headquarters building, only half- completed. The giant portico is still swathed in scaffolding.

"You can't see anyone," said the doorman. "They've all been arrested." It is only a few leading politicians who have been placed under house arrest - the rank and file have been put in jail. The army came here four times, said the doorman, looking for anyone they failed to pick up the first time. In all, 42 party members have been arrested. Two are said to have fled to India.

"It's not right what the king has done in this situation," said the doorman. But he said it in a quiet, furtive voice - the voice of a man who can no longer speak his mind without fear.

The really serious thing King Gyanendra did this week was not sacking the unpopular Mr Deuba. It was the state of emergency he declared, under which he has launched the worst assault on human rights in Nepal's recent history.

Nepalis have had their most basic rights taken away. With his newly restored medieval powers, Gyanendra has "suspended" not only the right to free speech, but freedom of thought. He has subjected the press to strict censorship. The papers carried fawning accounts yesterday of the king's announcement that he was taking power. The king "suspended" the right to assemble peacefully, and the right to privacy. He also, according to the Kathmandu Post, suspended the right to own private property.

Most of these rights have long been abused by the military and the Maoists. But this week the king took it a step further. He said no Nepalese citizen could even claim he had those rights any more.

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