Will the King's Retreat End Nepal's Turmoil?

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A pro-democracy activist takes to the streets of Kathmandu in protest of King Gyanendra on Friday

After a fortnight of defying the mass pro-democracy protests that have roiled his country, Nepal's King Gyanendra on Friday finally gave in: In a somber television address to the nation, he promised to restore democracy to this picturesque Himalayan nation, and agreed to hand over executive power to a prime minister picked by the pro-democracy coalition.

"Executive power of the kingdom of Nepal, which was in our safekeeping, shall from this day be returned to the people," the King said. Gyanendra, who had suspended democracy and seized direct power in February 2005, undertook to hand the reins of government to a prime minister picked by the alliance of seven political parties that has spearheaded the campaign against him.

His speech came after a tense day that saw thousands of protestors defying curfew laws to take to the streets of Nepal to demand change. Friday's protests were reported to be largely peaceful, but at least ten protestors have been killed in clashes with the police since the mass protests against the King began on April 6.

Nepal's powerful neighbor, India, quickly welcomed the King's announcement, although many of the protestors dismissed Gyanendra's announcement as too little, too late. While welcoming the monarch's decision to hand over power to the political parties, Minendra Rijal, a spokesman for the Nepali Congress (Democratic), was angered by the King's failure to express any remorse over the killing and injuring of protestors over the past two weeks. The King has been accused by his detractors of being remote and cut off from everyday reality in Nepal — an impression reinforced for many by his failure to appear contrite or reconciliatory in his speech. "This man simply does not understand how people have been hurt, how people have been wounded, during these protests," said Rijal.

Three of the seven opposition parties responded by slamming the King's failure to agree to the election of a democratic constiuent assembly that would rewrite Nepal's constitution, and allow the electorate to determine the political role of the monarchy.

The seven-party alliance will meet Saturday to formulate a response to the King's announcement. But in an ominous sign that the turmoil is likely to continue, protests continued in parts of the country even after Gyanendra's speech; curfew in the capital, Kathmandu, was extended to midnight to forestall any violence.