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Maoist Threat Molds Nepalese Reaction to King's Takeover

Last week, Nepal's King Gyanendra sacked the government and ordered a crackdown against his political rivals - putting politicians and activists under house arrest and censoring the media. Rights activists call the moves a coup, but the king says he acted to end months of government stalemate and to fight a Maoist insurgency in the countryside.

Teachers at the Bal Mandir school in the town of Dulekhel consider the area safe from the threat of Nepal's Maoist insurgency. But one teacher, Dhruba Prasad Chaulagain, had to flee his home village - just 60 kilometers away - when his life was threatened by the guerrillas.

Mr. Chaulagain says he believes in democracy and has full faith in it, but if you do not agree with what the Maoists say, they threaten to torture you, kill you or beat you.

Mr. Chaulagain's experience is unusual in Dulekhel, a small town 32 kilometers from Nepal's capital Kathmandu. Most here say they have not come into contact with the Maoists - a guerrilla organization that occupies about two-thirds of Nepal's countryside, contributing to the nation's political turmoil.

Nepal's government has been at a virtual standstill since 2002, when King Gyanendra first dismissed the government and handpicked a new prime minister. The move led to months of bickering between the king and political parties, in part over how to end the Maoist insurgency. The instability also led to the government turning over twice before King Gyanendra again dismissed the government last week.

This time, the king went further, putting political leaders and activists under house arrest, censoring the media, cutting off telecommunications, and deploying troops to the streets of the capital. He also made it illegal to criticize the government or the armed forces.

King Gyanendra says he acted because the political parties failed to organize elections or end the Maoist insurgency. The moves were widely condemned by rights groups and much of the international community. But some Nepalese are grateful the king took matters into his own hands.

In Dulekhel, shopkeeper Bhagwan Das Shrestra says he worries about the threat posed by the Maoists, who have been accused of stealing private property. He says that before, it was democracy in name only and there was not any sort of rule. But now that the king has taken over, he is happier because earlier, if anyone came to loot his shop, he could not have said anything. Now, he says, law is going to be restored to the land and that sort of thing will not happen.

The Maoists launched their insurgency in 1996, in an effort to topple the monarchy. The group loosely models their rebellion on the teachings of China's late communist leader, Mao Zedong. Since then, about 11,000 people have died - many in attacks by Maoists for opposing them, or in attacks by the military for supporting the rebels.

In Kathmandu, politicians and rights activists charge that King Gyanendra is using the Maoist rebellion as an excuse to strengthen his power.

Sujata Koirala of the Nepali Congress Party wants the international community to stop all support to the government, including military assistance it receives from several countries, including the United States, to fight the Maoists.

"We are hoping that … democratic countries like America, the European Union and our neighbor country India will not support the king's move and they will not support by giving this undemocratic country financial support, [and] aid," she said. "And we hope that they will not give aid to the army. That is the only way how we can stop this king taking power, because he has only guns with him."

Nepal's new foreign minister, Ramesh Nath Pandey, says he is confident the donor countries will continue to support Nepal, because of the international community's broader interest in fighting all forms of terror.

"To support this government, to support our move, our efforts to restore peace and security here, our commitment to defeat terrorism - that is in accordance with the commitment of the free world on democracy," said Mr. Pandey. "To do anything contradictory to it would be contradictory to their own fate."

In Dulekhel, many people say they were angry about the king's actions - especially his decision to cut off phone and Internet lines. But many, like this woman, also voice a certain resignation. She says, that whatever steps the king has taken, they are done, so people can just hope he can establish peace and security.

In Kathmandu, political party leaders say they are planning to take to the streets to protest against the government. But it may be difficult to convince many people that protests are the way to establish stability for Nepal.