General strike continues strong in Nepal

Tens of thousands of peaceful protesters against the autocratic rule of King Gyanendra continued to fill the streets of Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, and cities and towns throughout the country this week despite brutal government repressive measures, including a daytime curfew and orders to shoot on sight. Attacks by government forces have killed several demonstrators and injured hundreds of others. Thousands of protesters have been arrested.

In one report April 11, the online news service E-Kantipur said police “launched an unrestrained attack” on protesters in Kathmandu, firing tear gas shells and rubber bullets into a crowd that included women and children. “Protesters were severely beaten as large numbers of armed police personnel baton-charged the agitators in the surrounding streets,” the news service said. The director of a nearby hospital reported that 90 percent of demonstrators treated there had suffered head injuries.

A general strike demanding restoration of parliamentary democracy was launched April 6 by the Seven Party Alliance (SPA), comprised of the seven major parliamentary parties including the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), the trade unions, women’s groups and other people’s organizations. It has now spread even to remote villages in the Himalayan mountains.

The GEFONT trade union federation reported that workers and their unions had closed down the country’s factories, while government, telecommunications and bank workers challenged the king’s Essential Services Act by joining the general strike. GEFONT said lawyers, artists, teachers, doctors, businesspeople and disabled people had joined the protests.

On April 15, thousands of women, students and local residents participated in a peaceful rally in Kirtipur, initiated by women’s organizations linked to the SPA.

Meanwhile, villagers in Butwal decided not to send vegetables, milk and other foods to urban areas, saying city dwellers weren’t protesting vigorously enough against the monarchy. Reuters reported April 18 that food and fuel was running short in Kathmandu and that popular anger against Gyanendra was mounting. It quoted an unnamed diplomat: “We could see him toppled if he doesn’t do something in the next few weeks or days. I am very afraid we are moving into a revolutionary situation.”

The SPA has been waging a struggle to return to democratic government since Gyanendra dismissed the constitutionally elected government in October 2002 and took over absolute power in February 2005. In recent months the alliance has negotiated an agreement with Maoist rebels who had conducted a decade-long armed struggle.

Last week senior UN human rights commissioner Louise Arbour said she was “shocked by the excessive use of force by security forces in Nepal, as well as the arbitrary use of detention.”

Even before the current protest began, the head of the CPN(UML), Madhav Kumar Nepal, had been under house arrest since January. On March 23 police ransacked his home, arrested him and sentenced him to three months’ detention.

GEFONT said over 30 trade union leaders had been arrested since the general strike started. In an April 12 statement, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unionists protested the jailing of “a long list of trade unionists” and other activists, and called on the Nepalese government to release them and to end the use of violence against peaceful demonstrations.

On April 14 Democracy Now featured an interview with E-Kantipur’s editor, Nepali journalist Akhliesh Tripathi, who described the severe beating he and colleagues received at the hands of Kathmandu police as they sought to cover a protest earlier in the general strike.

On April 12, the U.S. ambassador, John Moriarty, told SPA leaders, “We support the parties’ peaceful movement for democracy.” But speaking on Democracy Now, Ashok Gurung, head of the New School University’s India China Institute, said the Bush administration has provided the Nepali Army with financial support and weapons. In an April 12 statement, the SPA called for intensification of the movement to restore democracy. It urged medical providers to treat injured protesters and called on security forces not to suppress the people’s movement, saying a new democratic government would compensate hospitals and doctors, and would be prepared to “take strong action” against leaders of security forces attacking the protests.