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Fear, Ennui and Doubt Underlie Calm in Nepal's Capital

Published: April 3, 2005

KATMANDU, Nepal - In the din of the old market square came the illicit rumblings of dissent.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, as the market women sat on their haunches hawking cabbages, and the riot police milled about with eyes darting this way and that, Nepalis revolting against their king's emergency rule decree straggled up the narrow alleys in ones and twos.

A man holding a political party flag walked up one lane. A few minutes later, up another lane, came a second, holding up his arms in defiance. Up a third alley, a man approached shouting pro-democracy slogans. Within moments, the police had stuffed them into a waiting van.

No sooner had they pulled away than the market vendors continued their business, peddling cotton candy and balloons. Cycle rickshaws scooted by. This is Nepal midway through the king's self-declared 100 days of emergency rule. Even as a Maoist rebellion continues in the countryside and vast swaths of territory turn into no man's land, a disquieting calm prevails in Katmandu. The capital carries on its daily routine with a combination of fear, ennui -- and most striking -- a collective uncertainty about the future.

What the king will do to restore law and order remains a mystery. If he has a plan, it has not been revealed, beyond what many here see as creeping repression that threatens to poison popular opinion against the monarchy.

''Uncertainty is what authoritarian regimes want, because that makes them indispensable,'' said C.K. Lal, a newspaper columnist. ''People think this regime cannot last, but they don't know who is going to replace it. For normal nations, it would be incredibly stressful.''

On that Sunday, the incipient pro-democracy protest, one of a handful called by political party advocates since King Gyanendra declared emergency rule on Feb. 1 in an effort to crush the rebels, was finished in less than an hour. Fewer than 10 protesters showed up; nationwide, 158 people were arrested, the state news agency reported.

More than 900 have been detained, according to the United Nations. [On Friday, the government freed at least 257 people who had been detained since Feb. 1, The Associated Press reported, citing Nepali government officials. Reuters reported that on Saturday, people suspected of being Maoist rebels set off bombs west of the capital that killed one person.]

The press is still gagged, and FM stations are not permitted to broadcast news. Mobile phones, disabled on Feb. 1, have not been restored. And those who want to use their cellphones in the future must reregister with the authorities and be fingerprinted. A local human rights group has documented a surge in extrajudicial killings, but because of restrictions on the press and restrictions even on the National Human Rights Commission in publishing its findings, it is impossible to know who had been killed where.

''We don't know what's happening,'' said Jörg Frieden, country director here for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. He pointed out his office window at a hill that marks the boundary of Katmandu Valley. ''You go over a path, and a new country begins,'' he said. ''Anything can happen to anybody.''

Political party campaigners, especially the younger rank and file, are increasingly talking about overthrowing the monarchy. Even supporters of the king, who rules over the world's only Hindu monarchy, acknowledge that imposing emergency rule was hugely risky.

''He has put his throne on the line,'' said Sharat Chandra Shaha, a prominent businessman and one of the king's confidants.

In mid-March, foreign donors, including the United States, Britain and the European Commission, declared in a statement, ''Insecurity, armed activity and Maoist blockades are pushing Nepal towards the abyss of a humanitarian crisis.''

Only a few donors have suspended all aid. No British or Indian military aid has come since the emergency decree. The United States, which until recently trained and armed Nepal's military, says it is considering whether to continue. Britain has also suspended some aid. Bristling at what it calls foreign interference, the palace has suggested that it would look for aid elsewhere. It has repeatedly said that it would welcome help from China, though no public offers have come. Pakistan recently proposed increasing military aid, no doubt as a check on its rival, India.

In Katmandu, as its advocates note, the royal takeover has brought rewards. Political protests no longer snarl traffic. The rebels have not set off bombs in the capital.

Nepal, said Rajan Sakya, a hotelier here, may not be ready for democracy. ''We talk about freedom, but we abuse freedom,'' he said.

The king's chief strategy has been to raise the specter of his enemies. The Maoists are a disease, said Tulsi Giri, deputy vice-chairman of the king's handpicked governing council, and they must be rooted out.

''When you start treating the disease, there may be some side effects,'' he said, referring to the latest restrictions. There is wide agreement that the king cannot crush the Maoists by military might alone. Nepal has a young and traditionally ceremonial military, and much of its energy today is spent guarding the capital, the provincial headquarters and the main roads around Katmandu.

The Maoists have lately invited politicians to work in their areas, and guaranteed their safety. That promise has not gone over well among party workers whose colleagues have long been attacked and assassinated by insurgents. But the king's decree has soured even those anti-Maoist politicians against the palace.

''The Maoists see opportunity in this divided body politic and wait until the rotten fruit drops off the free,'' said Keith Bloomfield, the British ambassador here. ''Popular support for the king is likely to erode unless he delivers peace.''

The king has begun to institutionalize changes that are likely to outlast emergency rule. A new anticorruption law allows people suspected of corruption to be jailed for a month.

The palace has created a panel to manage the work of the National Human Rights Commission a move that Sushil Pyakurel, one of the most outspoken commissioners, said could compromise the group's independence. Since 2002, when the king first suspended the prime minister, local elected officials have been scrapped for government appointees.

On a Saturday afternoon in the heart of the city, dozens of political prisoners drank tea in the courtyard of the King Mahindra hostel. A former member of Parliament was picked up three weeks ago on the way to a political demonstration. A former law minister was also detained. A woman had been picked up for attending a March 8 International Women's Day protest.

Two foreign journalists approached on that afternoon, only to be shooed away by police guards at the gates. A handful of prisoners approached the fence. They waved and blew kisses from under a statue of King Mahindra, Gyanendra's father. King Mahindra dismissed a short-lived elected government in 1960 and ruled for more than 20 years.

Behind the hostel, members of a family living in a wooden shack shrugged when asked about their new neighbors. Maybe they are thieves, they ventured. Or maybe the central jail is full. Had they talked with neighbors about the detainees?

''They might come and arrest us also just for gossiping,'' Kumari Lama, 18, said.

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