nepal cracks down on pro-democracy student groups
Activists press on despite campus arrests, strikes, and 2 deaths
(This article appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education in May 2005).
Gagan Kumar Thapa, a graduate student at Nepal's Tribhuvan University, chats and laughs with a friend as he waits to discuss the government crackdown that has him on the run.
Clad in sweat pants and a T-shirt, the chubby, soft-spoken sociology student does not seem like a rabble-rouser or a revolutionary in the style of Nepal's Maoist rebels, whose violent, nine-year insurgency is aimed at replacing the monarchy with a communist regime. Mr. Thapa, an outspoken leader of the Nepal Students Union, is a different brand of rebel. He is a pro-democracy activist who strongly opposes the Maoists. But like a growing number of university students, he also strongly opposes the monarchy, and his strident calls to make the Himalayan kingdom a republic have made him a prime target for King Gyanendra and the army he controls.
Mr. Thapa was forced into hiding on February 1, when the king, a constitutional monarch, sacked Nepal's democratic government, assumed power, and declared a state of emergency, which was withdrawn late last month. The king said the elected parliament and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba were incompetent and that without absolute control over the country, he would not be able to defeat the Maoists. Several political activists were then put under house arrest.
Mr. Thapa blames royalty for earlier failures to challenge the Maoist rebels, who say they are fighting on behalf of Nepal's poor. Since 1996 more than 10,000 people have died in the insurgency waged by the rebels' Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and its now-banned student wing. The Maoists' tactics have included killings, torture, abductions, strikes, roadblocks, and the conscription of child soldiers, according to human-rights groups.
"Nepal's youth have to fight the war on two different fronts, the monarch and the Maoists," Mr. Thapa says.
Most student associations in Nepal, except the banned Maoist group, have come to share that view. In March seven student unions affiliated with different political parties formed an alliance that has staged protests, distributed pamphlets, and burned effigies of the king. They have also demanded the withdrawal of security personnel from campuses.
The king has taken notice. Since the dismissal of the democratic government, the Royal Nepal Army has arrested thousands of human-rights and pro-democracy activists, many of them students and faculty members. It has also deployed soldiers, some in uniform and some in plainclothes, in most public places and on all university campuses. On February 1, the army, without warning, fired from helicopters on student protesters at Prithvi Narayan College, in Pokhara, about 125 miles northwest of the capital. Two students were killed and some 20 were injured.
Here in the capital, signs of the coup are not immediately evident except for an increased presence of armed police and army personnel. But in the bustling market streets filled with tourists and local people, there is a genuine fear of the security forces. People hush up when police officers pass by.
The king's actions have resulted in disruptions and tensions at Nepal's universities, which had already been crippled by frequent strikes staged by the Maoists and other student groups. Last year alone, Tribhuvan lost almost half of its 150-day academic calendar due to strikes and shutdowns.
At the Institute of Agricultural and Animal Sciences, in Chitwan, in east Nepal, "we lost close to two months of study in 2004," says Bikash Pandel, 24, now a graduate student at Tribhuvan. "They didn't finish teaching us the courses, and we were unprepared when the exams were finally held," he said. "The strikes called by the Maoists scared away the teachers and the students, and now we have all these students being arrested."
Guns on the Campus
Every couple of days since February 1, soldiers have entered university dormitories in the dead of night and arrested dozens of students, according to student groups.
Mr. Thapa managed to avoid being arrested immediately after February 1 because he was not at his home when the army came looking for him. A recent meeting with Mr. Thapa had to be arranged through a local journalist, who changed the location twice in an hour before the meeting. "He cannot be too careful," the journalist says.
The journalist's fears are valid. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned that Nepal has had an alarmingly high number of extrajudicial "disappearances" in recent years. Government security forces fighting the Maoists are alleged to be behind many of those, and local and international human-rights groups say abuses by security forces have intensified since February 1.
Government officials, appointed by the king after he sacked those appointed by the prime minister, refused to comment for this article, but have publicly defended the king's actions. In March Nepal's minister of foreign affairs told the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that King Gyanendra's coup was a drastic attempt to save democracy and human rights in Nepal, and he urged the international community to support the king's actions. The king, under increasing pressure from foreign nations and human-rights groups, has since agreed to allow the U.N. high commissioner for human rights to monitor the situation in Nepal . Many students remain gravely concerned.
"They came one night about a month ago and arrested several people, including me," says Chhabi Barat, a graduate student in geography at Tribhuvan. He was released in early April after being detained for 25 days, and only after he agreed to sign a document stating that he supported the king, he says.
Rupesh Khatiwada, secretary of the student union at Tribhuvan's campus in Kirtipur, outside the capital, believes he, too, will be arrested soon. A master's-degree candidate in politics, he points to the gun-wielding soldiers posted on the campus one recent afternoon. They did not stop him and 20 other college students from burning an effigy of the king later that day, as students chanted: "Shame on the royal proclamation, shame on the king, long live democracy."
Like Mr. Thapa, those students also feel stuck in the middle. "We don't want the Maoists with their guns, and we don't want the king with his guns," says Mr. Khatiwada.
"The minute the Maoists stop their violence, we will support them," Mr. Barat says "We understand their concern for the poor."
Another student, 24-year-old Narayan Kharel, a vocal member of the Nepal Students Union, adds that the alliance of the seven students' unions is the best thing to happen in Nepal. He says he supports Mr. Barat and Mr. Khatiwada, even though they belong to another party.
"We are stronger together, and we will fight this together," he says.
Unlike their senior party leaders, who during the pro-democracy movement of the 1980s continued to back a constitutional monarchy, the student activists see royalty as a stumbling block to Nepal's progress. (King Birendra, brother of the current king, acceded to the demands of the pro-democracy movement in 1990. Gyanendra was crowned king in 2001, after Crown Prince Dipendra shot and killed his father, eight other members of the royal family, and himself.)
"There is a generational divide," Mr. Thapa says. "In 1990 the leaders campaigning for democracy felt it was OK to have a constitutional monarchy. For them, the king is still a symbol. But we young people don't believe in such things."
Since the royal takeover, even faculty members who vocally denounced the Maoists in the past for calling strikes and disrupting education are participating in protest marches and demonstrations, as their colleagues are also being arrested.
One day in early April, police and army officials posted outside Padma Kanya College here refuse to allow members of the Nepal University Teachers Association -- who have called a meeting to discuss the arrest of several academics -- to enter the campus. "They are refusing to let us in to hold a meeting, which is our basic right," Bhupati Dhakal, president of the association, told journalists who gathered outside the gates of the college. "How long will this go on? For how long can we be stopped like this at gunpoint? One day they will have to give up." Mr. Dhakal would be arrested two days later.
Undaunted, the association has released a statement condemning his arrest and those of several other faculty members. The statement accuses the king of complicating the political situation instead of trying to resolve it. "Such a condemnable act of the state, amid commitment to respect academic freedoms, has agitated the entire academic field," it states.
In and Out of Hiding
Although King Gyanendra withdrew the state of emergency on April 30, he has held on to major powers; has not released hundreds of detained political activists, including students and faculty members; and has continued to maintain press censorship and bans on political parties and public demonstrations.
The king has also extended the term of the Royal Commission for Corruption Control, a body he set up after removing the government. The commission has sweeping powers to arrest politicians and bureaucrats.
A day before the state of emergency was lifted, security forces fired on student protesters gathered in a college compound in western Nepal, seriously injuring four of them.
Mr. Thapa, the student leader on the run, appeared sporadically in the weeks after his meeting with this reporter, delivering fiery speeches against the king in different parts of the city before going back into hiding.But his luck ran out on April 26. Police officers surrounded the house where he was staying, and Mr. Thapa, along with two colleagues, was arrested and taken into custody.