Nepal opposition ends protests; Maoists reject king's speech

It remains unclear just what the split between the Maoists and the parties will mean.

Nepal AP 88 (photo credit: AP)
Nepal AP 88
(photo credit: AP)
Nepal's opposition alliance called off weeks of devastating pro-democracy protests Tuesday and named a former prime minister as its choice to head a new government, after the king gave in to a key demand to reinstate Parliament. But the Maoist insurgents who supported the demonstrators throughout their often-bloody standoff rejected the king's offer, a sign that the turmoil in the Himalayan country was not over. Opposition leaders, meanwhile, said former Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, a veteran politician and head of the country's largest party, the Nepali Congress, was the alliance's choice to head the new government. Koirala, however, made no immediate comment. King Gyanendra's late-night speech - a pivotal concession which effectively returned authority to elected politicians and could result in a dramatic reduction in royal power - was welcomed across Katmandu, and tens of thousands of people gathered in a park in the center of town to celebrate their victory. While dozens of riot police were lined up to stop marchers from heading toward the palace, the few people who tried to get past turned back when the police politely asked them. The demonstrators said they were thrilled by the return of Parliament, but some also remained skeptical of their political leaders, few of whom have much popularity outside their own parties. "Nepal is free again, and we're here to make sure it will remain free forever," said demonstrator Sunita Maharjan. The Maoists, though, called the king's speech "a conspiracy to protect the regime," according to a statement signed by rebel leader Prachanda and his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, and e-mailed to journalists. They said they had been betrayed by the opposition alliance, with whom they had become allied to oust the king, and vowed to press ahead with blockades that have sealed off major roads for weeks and led to serious shortages of food and fuel in the capital. "By accepting the so-called royal proclamation the leaders of these seven political parties have once again made a blunder," said the statement from the Maoists, whose 10-year campaign for power has left more than 13,000 people dead and given them control over much of the countryside. The king's announcement, which came near midnight Monday, followed weeks of mass protests that had threatened to force him from power. The protests sparked clashes with security forces that left 14 demonstrators dead and the country dangerously volatile. It remained unclear just what the split between the Maoists and the parties would mean. The seven-party alliance, which will take the lead when Parliament is reconvened in the coming days, had said it wanted to pull the Maoists into the political mainstream, and planned to declare a cease-fire with them once a new government was formed. "We will work together with the Maoists," Krishna Sitaula, a top Nepali Congress official and alliance spokesman, said earlier in the day, after emerging from closed-door discussions among party leaders. The opposition leaders also formally called off the protests and general strike that had nearly paralyzed life in Nepal for weeks. Parliament's main agenda will be to hold an election for a special assembly to rewrite the country's constitution, Sitaula said, a move that would almost certainly reduce the power of the king, or even eliminate the monarchy. "We have forced the king to his knees," said Rajan Sreshta, an opposition activist waiting outside Tuesday's alliance meeting. "It shows the people are the actual power." In his speech, Gyanendra also expressed his sympathies for those killed. "We extend our heartfelt condolences for all those who have lost their lives in the people's movement," Gyanendra said in the address, broadcast on state television and radio. By early Tuesday morning, life was almost normal in Katmandu, where the crisis had alternately filled streets with protesters or emptied them because of curfews. Mobile phones, switched off by the government in an attempt to disrupt protest organizers, were back on, stores reopened, volunteers passed stones hand-to-hand, clearing the roads of blockades. The king's address came just hours before the largest planned protest yet, with hundreds of thousands of people expected to attend. The opposition alliance would now "bear the responsibility of taking the nation on the path of national unity and prosperity," Gyanendra told Nepal. "We are confident the nation will forge ahead toward sustainable peace, progress, full-fledged democracy and national unity," said the king, sitting rigidly in front of a blue backdrop decorated with royal emblems. For much of the crisis, Gyanendra had remained silent behind the walls of his heavily guarded palace in central Katmandu, kept in power because of the loyalty of his army and police. Gyanendra dismissed an interim government 14 months ago and seized direct control over the government, saying he needed to bring order to the country's chaotic politics and crush the Maoists, who had since 2002 prevented elections from being held.