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Siege history repeats, almost
- Maoist blockade of Kathmandu begins to bite
Stranded passengers at Kathmandu's bus terminal ( Reuters)

Kathmandu, Aug. 20: Nothing in Kathmandu would immediately suggest that the city is facing a siege of sorts. But on the third day of the Maoists’ indefinite economic blockade today, allusions are already being made to two other sieges the city faced in its modern history.

And, on both those occasions, the existing system collapsed, dramatically changing Nepal’s history.

The first one was in the 1760s, when Prithvi Narayan Shah, a warlord from the eastern mountains, laid siege to Kathmandu. He conquered the Kathmandu valley and founded the present Shah dynasty of Nepal.

Then there was the Indian economic blockade in 1988-89, which forced the then King Mahendra to capitulate before the agitating political parties and led to the introduction of multi-party democracy in Nepal in 1990.

No one here is suggesting that the Maoists’ blockade and their guerrilla war would overrun Kathmandu and end in the setting up of a communist republic in this Himalayan kingdom.

But no one — either in the government or in the political parties — can afford to take the Maoist blockade lightly. After all, Maoist insurgency has been here in Nepal for nearly a decade and there is general agreement that the rebels run a parallel government in nearly two-thirds of the country.

After all, the Maoists needed no physical blockades or even skirmishes with the army or the police to enforce their ban on the movement of supplies to the Kathmandu valley. Just a statement issued by its underground leadership struck enough terror for vehicle operators to stay off the highways leading into and out of Kathmandu.

There are not enough army escorts to protect all such vehicles. Although the Maoists have kept tourist coaches out of the ban, practically no tourists are venturing out of Kathmandu.

That is terrible news for the economy of this city and the whole of the country. “It’s going to be much tougher in the coming days. My kitchen is fast emptying of essentials,” says Rajiv Singh, the executive chef of the Shangri-la Hotel in the Lazimpat area.

In the tourist hub of Thammel, every white-skinned backpacker is treated like a royal by the small hoteliers. “This is just the time when the rains start stopping and the trekkers from abroad start arriving,” says a sad-faced staffer of Pushka Hotel in one of Thammel’s winding lanes.

The rows of Thammel’s shops selling local craft and sundry other items for tourists are deserted the whole day. Long before nightfall, the area, earlier known as one that never goes to sleep, is silent and deserted.

But sadness is slowly giving way to people’s anger. Yesterday, most major political parties were out on the streets, protesting against the rise in prices of essential commodities and petrol. The Maoists want precisely that — public anger against the government and also against King Gyanendra.

The Prime Minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, today called an emergency cabinet meeting and offered to hold peace talks with the Maoists. Girija Prasad Koirala, a former Prime Minister and leader of the Nepali Congress, the largest political party, yesterday offered to hold talks with the rebels if the government allowed the situation to drift.

But Koirala’s move is seen more as a political gesture than a real attempt at peacemaking. Political leaders and analysts here say the rebels had laid the blockade to force the government to talks.

Sceptics, however, say the talks are easier suggested than held. There have been many rounds of them until the ceasefire broke exactly a year ago in August last year.

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