Nepal’s nationwide shutdown, begun by the Maoists on May 1, aims to force the Prime Minister to resign and hand power back to the Maoists. With human rights observers and TV crews walking the streets, it feels more like a street festival than an angry protest. Groups of young people with red flags and headbands sit on stoops and sidewalks, singing propaganda songs, playing traditional drums, and even dancing. Marching protestors hold hands, smiling, laughing, and waving their flags. Watermelon and cucumber vendors sell their cool slices in the day’s heat. Assembled riot police seem more at ease than on guard. As with everything in Nepal, however, what is on the surface is rarely the whole story.
At dusk on the second day, I stopped by a tourist restaurant just as a large group of boys were pushing their way inside. I knew immediately what was happening, so I followed them in, not daring to pull out a camera. They started yelling at the owner, demanding to know who was there, if there were staff inside. The Maoists force everyone to shut down their businesses, not only to show their power to the government but also because they want all those employees out marching in the streets.
The owner stood in the courtyard alone, surrounded by this gang of 20 or more. He said only the hotel guests and a bare bones staff were there, no outside tourists. Nonetheless, the Maoist youth continued yelling and started to threaten the owner with a beating. Other Maoists held back the angriest few, preventing them from giving the owner a beating–yet. More heated words. Demands. The owner, to his credit, kept his cool and promised the Maoists he would remain closed, just taking care of the guests who had rooms there (which is allowed). The gang of boys finally departed, still looking for someone to thrash. They went into every shop, every hotel, every restaurant, ensuring that business ceased.
A few minutes later, another handful returned, forcing their way inside the building, checking on who was really there, yelling at the owner, slamming doors and stomping on stairs. After they left, I was fiery inside with rage at these pompous, angry, young men and the impotence of everyday people. Morning and night, Maoist youth gangs patrol the strike and threaten people who dare to defy them. That’s not democracy; it’s dictatorship.
Maoists say the government isn’t upholding the “people’s wishes,” but plenty of people wish to work. While surely the rich incur an economic loss when their businesses are shut, it is the poor who are hit hardest by the strike.
People who live hand-to-mouth can’t afford to be out of work for a week. Day laborers return home empty-handed by 11am, and their families go hungry. Farmers have dumped their produce on the road in protest of the strike. Fruits and vegetables sit rotting because they cannot be brought to market due to the strike. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, rickshaw peddlers, everyone at the bottom of the labor pyramid–totally out of work. Workers at a sand pit attended the protests for two days to show their support. On the third, they returned to work, needing to feed their families. Maoists beat them, with over two dozen injured. Stores trying to open are vandalized and robbed, owners and workers threatened. This is what the strike really means for Nepal’s people.
Are the Maoists using force to gain power? What about the thousands of people in the streets? Aren’t they supporters?
–Under threat of violence, Maoists required every household in some villages surrounding Kathmandu to send one person to the May 1st protest or pay a $70 fine. (That’s over 10% of annual per capita income!)
–The Maoists promised some protestors $20 per day plus transport, food, and lodging–the cash to be paid when they return to their village.
–The Maoists arranged buses to the capital, and people now find themselves sleeping in partially constructed buildings and in closed schools, hundreds getting diarrhea from bad water, and having no money to return home.
–The “protestors” are brought in a group from the shelters to the city center, seated on the ground for speeches and rallies, and are then surrounded by loyal party members who prevent them from leaving.
–Rains came to the hills this week, and villagers need to return home in order to plant their crops for the season. They have trouble convincing the Maoist leadership to let them leave, even though the year’s livelihood depends on the timing of planting. Now, with all buses and vehicles stopped, the villagers sneak away and walk for days, without money for food, to return home to their fields. The newspaper reports that they are “avoiding the highways for some unknown reason.”
The strike is having a profound negative impact on both democracy and the economy. With political process not yielding what they want, the Maoists resort to force. Attempts to rule by force undermine Nepal’s nascent democracy and make the Maoists a menace–to poor villagers, to stable society, and to an already desperate economy.