On Scene: An End to the Nepal Crisis?

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BINOD JOSHI / AP

Nepalese celebrate in the street after a television and radio address to the nation by Nepal's King Gyanendra in Katmandu, Nepal, Monday.

They have stripped the young man of his shirt, and are pummelling his skull. His hair and face are covered with blood and he is reeling about in a daze, too weak even to protest; yet blows from sticks and fists of the angry men keep raining down on him. This kind of scene, taking place on a main road in the neighborhood of Chabhail, a suburb of Kathmandu, has been all too common in the past two weeks in Nepal, where the police have often brutally attacked peaceful protestors with sticks and batons.

But Sunday it was the protestors themselves who were dispensing the brutality. Word had spread among the crowd gathered in Chabahil, a hotbed of the protest movement, that a dozen or so police informers had infiltrated the crowd. No sooner were at least three men, despite their protests of innocence, beaten so badly that they were taken away by ambulance to a hospital. Then a rumor broke out that another informer had escaped into a neighboring four-story building. The crowd surrounded the building, and demanded that the owner open up. The owner shouted back that the informer had gone, but the crowd did not believe him. Bricks, iron rods, and stones started flying towards the second floor of the building, which houses a coaching center called "Bright Future Institute"; women began shrieking from inside. The windows were smashed, one by one. The owner came up on the roof and flew a red flag to show that he too is a sympathizer of the movement. Even so, the bricks kept flying at him.

Nepal's struggle against its King, now entering its nineteenth day of street protests and violent police reprisals, may be close to a resolution. Late Monday night, Nepal's King finally capitulated to relentless pressure from street protests and agreed to meet a key demand of his nation's pro-democracy movement — thus offering hope for a resolution to the nineteen-day-old political crisis that has ravaged Nepal. Appearing on national TV half an hour before midnight, King Gyanendra offered to reinstate Nepal's parliament, which was dissolved in 2002 — thus meeting an important demand of the pro-democracy movement not met by his first offer to the political parties heading the movement, which was rejected. The King's offer was met with loud cheers and firecrackers from the streets in parts of Kathmandu, the capital, where protestors were gearing up for a gargantuan rally that was due to be held on Tuesday. However, it was still too early to say if the King's offer, even though it is the biggest concession he has so far made to the pro-democracy movement, will be enough to defuse Nepal's political crisis. The more radical of the street protestors have said that they will be happy with nothing less than the King's exit from the country; adding to the uncertainty is how the Maoist guerillas, who control large parts of the country and whose influence has steadily grown during the crisis, will react.

If the offer does manage to defuse the crisis, it won't come a day too soon, because the movement for democracy in Nepal is at an ominous tipping point. For the first two weeks of this struggle, picking the good guys out from the bad has seemed to be relatively easy: a long-suppressed people has risen up in courageous protest against a remote and autocratic monarch who repeatedly unleashed a brutal police on them. But the longer the demonstrations for democracy go on,the greater the danger that the mass movement turns into a tyranny itself. By Monday, the U.S. State Department ordered all families and non-emergency staff to depart the country.

The beating of suspected police informers is only one sign that the idealism that has sustained the pro-democracy movement so far may be on the verge of deteriorating. The strike imposed by the leaders of the popular protest — and enforced by the protestors, who throw stones and sticks at shops that dare to stay open — has meant that very little food or fuel has come into Kathmandu for nearly twenty days. The result: there is barely three days' supply of fuel left in the city, prices have shot up for food staples, and the hardship is ruining the lives of many in Nepal, already one of the world's poorest countries. Nepal's economy was expected to grow by just 2.5% this year before the strike began; it is certain to grow by much less now. "We have apologized to the people for the hardships caused by the movement," says Arjun Narasingha K.C., a key member of the Nepali Congress, one of the seven parties spearheading the anti-King movement. "But in every country's history there is a period of struggle and hardship. Freedom comes at a price," he says.

Many people on the streets of Kathmandu agree with him. But not everyone. In the Kathmandu neighborhood of Kalanki, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting — at least three people were shot dead here by the police a few days ago — the locals say that the price of every vegetable except carrots, which are grown locally, has shot up by 500% or more: lemons, for instance, two rupees apiece a couple of weeks ago, now sell for fifteen rupees. "We are already facing a problem," says Umesh Gupta, a teacher. "We get by because we help each other, and because shopkeepers give food on credit. But if the protests go on four or five days more, there will be nothing to eat."

Most of those gathered here for today's protests say that they blame the King for their hardships — and that their suffering makes them only more determined to protest. Indeed, some of the leaders of the protest seem glad that the economic situation is getting desperate. One Communist protestor handing out anti-King pamphlets says: "If people start starving, then they'll get out into the streets, won't they? That'll really make the King listen to us." Standing next to him is Mohadatta Adhikari, a local Communist politician. He nods vigorously in agreement. He's not worried about himself: he knew the strike was coming, and stocked up on a month's worth of food. Standing nearby and watching without a word, Mohammad Farooq, a construction worker, suddenly blurts out in bitterness, once the protestors have gone away. "Look here, if the construction workers and the poor of Nepal were asked, they would want this strike to end right this moment," he says. "The local politicians have food stocked up; we are poor, and we have nothing with us. As for those stories they're telling you about food being given on credit by the shopkeepers, I can tell you that the poor are getting nothing on credit." He says some of the poor of Kalanki have started walking to Birgunj, a place on the Indo-Nepal border some 100 miles away, just to look for food. He might do the same if the protest continues.

Some of the less committed Nepalis have begun defying the movement quietly, by opening their shops, or resuming their work at construction sites, whenever the protestors are not watching. In a small alley away from the main road in Chabahil, hidden from the eyes of the protestors, Tulsi Ram has reopened his bakery shop, after keeping it closed for seventeen days: most of the restaurants in around him have opened too. "None of us supports the king, but we have to earn our living too," he says. Like all his neighbors, Tulsi Ram keeps the shutter of his shop one-quarter closed; he's ready to pull it down the moment one of the pro-democracy protestors throws a rock at him.

In the neighborhood of Gangabu, another hotbed of protests, the police have just fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protestors, and many have scattered. Ram Bahadur, a stone cutter, is watching the protestors flee from behind the safety of the wire-mesh screen in his backyard. He is surrounded by large pieces of marble, which he cuts for people building their houses — white marble, good for making stairs, and imitation green mable for the kitchens. Since the movement began, though, no one has bought any marble. "I want all this to end, I'll tell you that," he mumbles. "I don't support the King, but I want life to be normal again." Then there is another shot in the air: the firing of rubber bullets has resumed, the police are coming in with glass shields and sticks, and Ram Bahadur runs for cover.