Sporadic violence marks Maoists' bandh in Nepal
With a constitutional crisis and president's rule threatening Nepal, its former Maoist guerrillas on Sunday began an indefinite general strike paralysing the entire nation after talks with the ruling parties failed and embattled Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal refused to quit.
While the capital remained largely peaceful, sporadic violence was reported across the nation as protesters clashed with security forces, attacked at least one government office and sought to prevent a major high school examination from being held.
There was fear and panic in Chitwan, the picturesque town in southern Nepal visited by droves of tourists, after a powerful grenade was found near a bridge. Though security forces were unable to say immediately who had planted it, Maoist involvement was suspected as last week a Maoist platoon commander of their People's Liberation Army was arrested while travelling towards Kathmandu with a grenade.
Students affiliated to the Maoists stormed the centres where 12th grade examinations were being held and forced the examinees to leave. As security forces intervened, a battle ensued with the invaders hurling bricks and the forces retaliating by firing teargas shells.
Exams were prevented nationwide, including in the capital, leading to clashes.
In Pokhara city, another popular tourist destination, protesters were reported to have been intruding into houses and intimidating people.
In Birganj, Nepal's biggest trade centre after the capital, a pressure cooker bomb was found at a public place, adding to the fear.
In Butwal town close to Kathmandu, a government office was attacked for defying the strike call.
After an impressive show of might in Kathmandu and other major cities on May Day when red-flag waving Maoist cadre and supporters turned the capital red, the sea of protesters continued to roll through Sunday cutting off transport, closing shops, markets and industries and disrupting school examinations.
Former Maoist ministers, MPs and top leaders led protesters at major intersect ions to clamp the general strike that Maoist chief and former prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda vowed would continue as long as the prime minister remained in power.
"This is not a protest by the Maoists alone but a people's movement," said Maoist MP Janardan Sharma, who was also one of the deputy commanders of the party's guerrilla army, the People's Liberation Army that fought a 10-year war against the government from 1996.
"The desire for peace, a new constitution and change is a desire shared by all, not just the Maoists," said Sharma, who led a march of protesters in the capital. "People have assessed which party is loyal to the aspiration and joined the movement. Ask around and you will see they include supporters of the ruling parties as well."
The protests have crippled the capital, central Nepal, the Terai plains adjoining India in the south and the farwestern area, cutting off the two great highways connecting Nepal with China in the north and India in the south.
Women were present in large numbers at the rallies, so were observers from UN agencies and human rights organisations who began monitoring the protests after urging both the government and the opposition party to show restraint.
Ambulances, diplomatic vehicles, essential services and the media were allowed to move around freely and the former rebels, in a bid to prevent panic-buying of foodstuff, said the blockade would be lifted for two hours from 6 pm.
In places in the capital, the blockade turned into a carnival with protesters singing and dancing.
Though Prachanda, who announced the strike at a May Day rally in the capital on Saturday asked the business community and hotels to bear the inconvenience as it was for the sake of peace and a new constitution, Sunday's strike hit hard students and people seeking medical treatment.
"I came to Kathmandu for treatment for my father who is 82 and has a heart problem," said Dinanath Pokhrel, who had come from Palpa district. "I am a poor farmer and will soon run out of money if the strike continues."
"I walked for two hours to reach my exam centre in Dillibazar," lamented a 12th grader who did not want to be named. "But our exam was cancelled and now there's uncertainty about when it will be rescheduled. A 12-hour daily power cut and now this fear and uncertainty has added to our woes."
Prachanda said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had pledged support for the current government while meeting the Nepali premier during the recently concluded SAARC Summit in Bhutan. That, he alleged, stiffened the premier's resolve not to resign.
Embattled Prime Minister Nepal addressed the nation on Saturday, saying his coalition government was elected constitutionally and would not be brought down by street protests.
He also urged the Maoists to call off their strike and return to dialogue, a plea that was rejected by the former guerrillas after late-night talks for an agreement broke down.
Home Minister Bhim Rawal on Sunday said the government was showing full restraint but would be forced to take retaliatory measures if the protesters crossed the constitutional limit.
The general strike makes it certain that Nepal would not be able to get a new constitution by May 28, the deadline agreed to during a peace pact signed between the Maoists and the government in 2006 that ended a decade of Maoist insurgency.
Should the May 28 deadline fail without an agreement between the warring sides, the nation would be plunged into a constitutional crisis.
Parliament would be dissolved and the government lose its validity, leading to president's rule and the declaration of a state of emergency.