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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 February, 2005, 20:34 GMT
Too scared to protest in Nepal

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Nepalese riot policeman in Kathmandu
Security has been beefed up across the kingdom's capital

Even with a backdrop of Himalayas pink in the evening sun, Ratna Park in central Kathmandu could not be described as beautiful.

Yet this broad street and open area in the hub of the Nepalese capital has big importance for pro-Democracy agitators in the country.

Since the restoration of democracy in 1990, the place has become the city's main rallying point for those campaigning against kings or governments they do not like.

After the last time a king sacked a government in October 2002, a slogan was daubed on the wall there, deeming it to be the "democracy wall".

The slogans and party insignia such as hammers and sickles may still be there - but Ratna Park this week is characterised by mundane things.

Innumerable pavement stalls sell brightly coloured clothes and winter quilts or delicacies like deep-fried river fish. Minibuses fan out to all corners of the city.

There is nothing to be seen of the demonstrators, the smouldering tyres, the flags, podiums and megaphones.

The people who usually demonstrate at the slightest excuse are simply too scared to do so.

Military muscle

It is little wonder given the suspension of vital rights, including the right to privacy, the right against preventative detention and many more.

The stepped-up military presence all over the city is a reminder of the new muscle King Gyanendra is now bringing to bear in effectively imposing absolute rule.

NEPAL IN CRISIS
June 2001 - Gyanendra is crowned king following royal massacre
July 2001 - Sher Bahadur Deuba becomes prime minister following Maoist violence
Oct 2002 - King Gyanendra sacks Deuba and assumes executive power
June 2004 - Deuba reappointed prime minister in place of Surya Bahadur Thapa
Feb 2005 - Deuba sacked, king assumes direct power

Residents of Kathmandu are well accustomed to soldiers, police and members of the Armed Police Force patrolling and checking on their movements.

Now there are simply more of them. Big army lorries carry dozens of men with guns and truncheons at the ready.

They are guarding places where they seem thoroughly out of place - such as a media office in the city centre.

But it is not surprising, as the censorship here has become so complete.

Inside, journalists lounged around with nothing to do.

They say that on Tuesday, the day of the king's takeover, they "smoked... had tea, [and]... went".

The outward normality of life here is an illusion.

"With no phones functioning," someone remarked, "What about crime or medical emergencies?"

Action king

Plenty of people do support the king, however.

Back at Ratna Park, two young hotel employees and friends shared their views with the BBC as they waited for the microbus home.

It's... good what he's done. Our democratic parties have never worked in Nepal's favour
Kailash
Hotel employee

"It's... good what he's done," Kailash said.

"Our democratic parties have never worked in Nepal's favour."

He said the king should start talking to the Maoists - and might bring peace.

"I don't agree," Keshab said.

"The king is just playing games again. He'll do us no good."

Less than 10 minutes walk away in the city centre looms the royal palace of Narayanhiti, a place of strange modernity amid Kathmandu's ancient temples.

Surrounded by lush gardens, clusters of bamboo spilling over its walls, it is the citadel of an enigmatic and isolated monarch, a man whose real intentions few Nepalis would claim to understand.

But he has now lived up to his own promise to be a king who will not just watch - but will also act.


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