The general strike that has paralyzed Nepal this week went four days with only minor incidents, but violence and counter-demonstrations have been reported throughout the country on Thursday. Despite the early concerns of security forces, Maoists demonstrating and enforcing the indefinite strike they called on Sunday have been peaceful. But public frustration over the strike has boiled over, causing numerous clashes between Maoists and the public today.
Anti-Maoist protests were reported in at least five places in Kathmandu during the day, with more than a dozen people said to have been injured. Elsewhere in the country, marches led by other political parties have challenged the strike, with police intervention required to separate the groups. Local media reports that members of an anti-Maoist group, the Hindu Youth Association, wrecked the temporary accommodations of Maoist demonstrators in the town of Birgunj. Only persistent rain during the afternoon throughout most of the country kept the situation in hand.
The counter demonstrations weaken the hand of the Maoists, who have threatened to maintain the strike until the prime minister steps down to make way for a “unity” government led by the Maoists. If public disapproval of the strike continues to spill into the streets, they will be forced to compromise with the government to bring the strike to a rapid end.
But the counter-demonstrations pose grave risks for the government too, destabilizing an already-weak system and angering the Maoists. The Prime Minister defended his position that the Maoists must mend their ways while speaking to a group of western diplomats on Wednesday. Despite the fact that many of them will have agreed with him privately, the group’s communique issued Thursday was anything but supportive: They called on the Prime Minister to negotiate a compromise by the weekend.
At least with both sides under pressure to end the strike soon, some real negotiating may take place. But the two sides remain far, far apart. The Maoists demand the PM’s resignation and formation of a government headed by their chairman, Prachanda. Only then will they negotiate over substantive issues, they say, and the strike will end only after agreement on those issues.
The coalition government has in turned called for the Maoists to end the strike immediately and to put their fighters under government control, disband their militia and agree to extend the Constituent Assembly’s term, all by May 24th. Only then, says the Prime Minister, can talks about a new government begin.
The likely compromise: The Maoists will agree to extend the term of the assembly and agree, vaguely, to some of the government’s other demands. In turn the PM will commit to step down within a few weeks once the assembly’s term is extended. That wouldn’t solve any of Nepal’s real issues, but it would give both sides a face-saving way out of the current dangerous deadlock.
Progress on substantive matters would still be slow, hindered by mistrust and self-serving politics. It could take another year to write Nepal’s new constitution. But at least the Maoists would be inside the tent rather than mounting a destructive opposition from outside. The last year has shown that to be a recipe for instability.