On Scene: A Revolution in Nepal?

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Bodriganal and I watch the battle from his rooftop. A student with a dyed Owen Wilson cut who lives on the top floor of a three-family building, he'd leaned over his balcony rail to tell me it wasn't safe and that I should come up. Sure enough, minutes later, five protesters sprint around the corner to his street and try to leap a barbed wire fence into an onion garden, quickly followed by 13 Nepalese riot police in full battle gear. One of the fleeing demonstrators, with a student's lanky hair and in a white shirt, catches the bottom of his jeans on the wire and falls, tangled, to the floor. Seven or eight of the police, crowding in, start to beat him, bringing their canes down from behind their backs like choppers.

Bodriganal's roof is four stories up, so we can also see around another corner, where shouts alert us to ten more policemen caning a passer-by, ramming him into a metal shutter, dragging him by the T-shirt and cracking their sticks over his head. We look back to the first demonstrator. He seems unconscious, but the police are still beating him. A woman on the terrace of her house three floors directly above screams and throws a pail of water over them. The police respond by picking up bricks from the ground and throwing them through two of her windows. Then they drag the protester's body away, and walk back down the lane towards us, laughing. One of them spies me and my notepad and shouts: "Do not write motherf***er." Bodriganal sighs. "It's been like this for 14 days," he says. "There's no human rights here. If that guy's dead, you'll never find the body. And if he's alive now, believe me, he's dead anyway."

That, in short, is the sad state of affairs in Kathmandu, and much of Nepal, which is suddenly experiencing something like its own intifada. After sacking three governments in three years, King Gyanendra took power 14 months ago in a coup backed by the Royal Nepalese Army. In a country facing what was then a nine-year-old Maoist rebellion that was making steady advances, many citizens actually applauded what they saw as decisive action against the rebel threat. In addition, Nepal's political parties had proved themselves singularly inept at much of anything since democracy arrived in 1990, their power squabbles producing 14 prime ministers in as many years and their corruption eating away at the economic development that each new government promised.

But the King never followed through. The Maoists continued to kill, maim and extort at will in the countryside. And instead of reinvigorating democracy as he promised, Gyanendra concentrated on an autocratic gutting of civil society, periodically arresting hundreds of political activists, lawyers, journalists and human rights workers. Facing a collapsing economy, a future as the laggard of Asia, and three bad choices in front of them — the King, the Maoists or the corrupt political parties — Nepal erupted in early April.

Mass demonstrations are taking place in almost every major city. So far more than ten people have been killed by the police, although the protesters claim the security forces have carted off many more bodies. And as much as the parties and the Maoists try to claim ownership of the protests, they are bigger than any one organization. Professors, civil servants, lawyers, even a gay rights group, have declared their allegiance to "the movement." But the movement itself is largely made up of teenage or twenty-something kids in Nirvana and Metallica T-shirts. "You cannot say this is the Maoists, or the parties," says Bodriganal as we watch another pitched battle a street away, where police and demonstrators hurl bricks at each other over a barricade of burning tires. "Doctors, engineers, pilots are all there. It's the people."

The downside of that is that with no leader, no ideology and no apparent organization, the protests have no discernible direction. Political party leaders had promised that today hundreds of thousands of people would march on the palace and demand Gyanendra's head. Instead, with the palace merely a few miles away, the demonstrators chose to confront the police and army deployed along Kathmandu's ring road, turning it into a circle of fire around the capital. At least three people died when police opened fire on one protest in Kalanki to the southwest, and all afternoon the entire city was wailing with ambulance sirens.

Protesters chant that they want the King to go. But in conversation they admit they cannot envisage their kingdom without a monarchy. Some speak of their frustration. Others, some mere children, are simply exhilarated at the chance to throw rocks at authority: before the violence started, many were singing and dancing in the streets."We're having some fun here, aren't we?" one shouted to me as he hurled brick after brick. Perhaps. But people are dying, and neither Bogriganal or I see anyone with a plan that will stop it.