Strike paralyses Nepal ahead of Constitution debacle

The protesters seek a new Constitution within the May 28 deadline.

Updated: May 13, 2011, 15:13 PM IST

Kathmandu: Life came to a standstill in Nepal as ethnic groups enforced a nationwide general strike on Friday, accusing the government of backpedalling on an agreement, and defying the warning by major western donors that their aid would be cut.

Capital Kathmandu and major cities remained deserted with roads emptied of traffic, schools and colleges closed and markets and industries forced to down their shutters.

The protest called by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities left thousands of tourists in the remote areas and labourers returning from India across the border stranded on highways, their woes compounded by a series of shutdowns outside Kathmandu valley.

The protesters are demanding that the coalition government of Jhala Nath Khanal promulgate a new Constitution within the May 28 deadline and speed up the work of restructuring the nascent republic into autonomous states on the basis of ethnicity.

They are also calling for proportional representation for ethnic communities in all state organs - the bureaucracy, judiciary and Army.

With only 15 days left for a constitutional chaos to descend on Nepal, various groups have begun calling general strikes to pressure the government into conceding their demands.

Earlier this week, two separate shutdowns, one called by a former ruling community and the other by one of the most disadvantages groups, paralysed western and southern Nepal respectively for a day each.

Now a "struggle committee" of six more organisations have called a general strike on May 24 while a breakaway faction of the ruling Maoist party has threatened an indefinite shutdown from May 28.

The fresh turmoil comes as the three-month-old government admitted it would not be able to get the new Constitution ready and has now sought to amend the interim Constitution so that Parliament gets an additional year to complete the task.

Though the Prime Minister says he enjoys two-third majority in Parliament and will get the extension, the largest opposition party, the Nepali Congress, as well as some smaller parties have objected, rearing speculation that Khanal, who floundered for three months to form a cabinet, will be forced to quit.

The strikes have come as a double whammy for the government`s effort to boost tourism this year and draw one million visitors.

Upset tourism entrepreneurs took out a procession in Thamel, the hub of foreign visitors in Nepal, protesting against the strike.

However, the federation remained unmoved. It also ignored a call by the government earlier to call off the strike as well as a warning by six major western governments.

The embassies of Britain, the US, Germany, Australia, Denmark and Switzerland as well as the office of the European Union issued a joint statement, saying while they respected the right of organisations to express their opinions through democratic and non-violent protest, strikes used the threat of violence to restrict freedom of movement and people`s rights to a normal life and could not be approved of or supported.