Nepal Strike Empties Kathmandu's Streets

With Nepal's Maoists blocking the streets of Kathmandu in the fourth day of their general strike, the only Nepalese appearing to benefit are the children honing their cricket skills in nearly empty streets.

Despite the growing strain, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal restated his refusal to resign under what he called "street pressure" and hand the government over to Maoist leaders. Talks between the Nepali Congress and the Maoists are deadlocked with each side refusing to budge. Local civic leaders arranged a meeting for Wednesday, demanding that the Maoists use their majority government and the interim constitution to pave the way to a peaceful outcome and the writing of a new constitution.

Beyond that, the Maoists' ambitions appear muddy. "No one knows what the Maoist agenda is," a restaurant owner in the Pokhara District told Asia Sentinel.

Nepal has been the scene of turmoil for months over a demand by the Maoists to integrate their combatants back into society and for the prime minister to resign. Although the Maoists ended a decade-old civil war that took thousands of lives and joined the peace process in 2006, their attempts to rule have largely been thwarted. After they won 2008 elections and briefly led a coalition government, a dispute over the firing of the Nepal Army's commander split the coalition, leading to the formation of the current administration which the Maoists now are seeking to topple.

Nepal took up the post after Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, known more by his nom de guerre Prachanda, quit months ago over the army chief issue. The Nepali Congress has demanded that the UCPN-Maoists disband the paramilitary elements of the Young Communist League (YCL) and return property that was seized during the insurgency.

The strike called was called a day after an array of buses adorned with red flags and crammed to the roof racks with cheering supporters blew into major cities demanding the resignation of the Prime Minister. However, it appears to be slowly losing support from farmers and small business owners who depend on daily earnings. The protest was already on shaky ground earlier in the week as hospitals in Kathmandu reported high incidences of dysentery and diarrhea among demonstrators as many sought to return home to their villages.

The supporters who attempted to leave Kathmandu after last weekend's demonstrations were shocked to find that the free bus ride was only a one-way ticket. Stranded in the capital, many chose to make multi-day treks home with no food or funds instead of remaining in the city. The lack of transportation resulted in the government offering to foot the bill for the dissenters' return to their homes.

With the increased health threat and organizational issues, some are wondering where the "donations" from local businesses went which Maoist representatives collected to pay for "Dhal Bhat (rice topped with a souplike mixture of lentils and vegetables) for the protesters." Mid-sized restaurants in Pokhara's tourist district reported being asked by local Maoist cadres to contribute upwards of NPR3 lakh (US$4,200) to the demonstrators. As one small-business owner stated, "we have to contribute, soon they'll be in control". Beyond monetary donations, guest houses, schools and hospitals have been asked to donate rooms to the demonstrators.

The loss of income for local businesses is being compounded each day, spurred on under the aggressive policing of the Young Communist League who head up the Maoists' paramilitary branch – part of the controversy hindering unilateral consensus. In Pokhara, the YCL assaulted 30 sand miners along the Seti River who, earlier in the week, had taken part in protests alongside the League but had returned to work out of desperation and lack of money.

The economic impact will be especially devastating during a slow year, which doesn't bode well for the upcoming Nepal Tourism Year 2011 promotion. Hindered further by the recent volcanic eruptions that grounded many European flights, several trekking tours and mountaineering expeditions – which make up a sizable contribution to the local economy – had already been forced to cancel even before the current situation ignited.

Early on Wednesday, strike organizers attempted to scale up protests by encircling the road surrounding the government buildings in Kathmandu with a human chain to stop officials from entering the district. Both sides claimed success since most officials had entered the government offices pre-dawn ahead of the chain formation. Maoist leaders saw in their efforts an example of increasing support from the people.

Although only a handful of reports of vandalism and violence have occurred since the beginning of the general strike Sunday, the demonstrations turned increasingly violent Wednesday when two shots were fired during a confrontation between the YCL and the Youth Force, a group associated with the Unified Marxist Leninist party who were protesting the indefinite strike, near the capital's historic Bhaktapur Durbar Square.

As support for the strike dwindles, many business owners are opening shop or operating through back doors to make up for lost income. As of Wednesday, residents across the country have been increasingly taking to the streets in protest of the strike and opening businesses, resulting in clashes with the Young Communist League.

With the Maoists patrolling the streets with bamboo sticks, it's difficult to determine how their political ambitions involve supporting the people or retaining a majority government. Local analysts say that this may be a move for one-party rule as consensus among the parties seems unlikely.