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Strike by Ethnic Groups Shuts Down Southern Nepal


In Nepal, an ethnic group demanding greater political representation has shut down the south of the country with a campaign of strikes and protests. Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi on the new trouble spot that has emerged in Nepal, which is recovering from a decade-long Maoist insurgency.

A general strike spearheaded by the Madhesi People's Rights Forum shut down schools, shops and businesses across Nepal's southern plains.

The ethnic Madhesi community lives on a strip of flat, fertile land in the south. Since last week, a transport blockade has choked vital supplies such as fuel and food to northern towns.

The Madhesi People's Rights Forum is resuming a campaign that erupted in mid-January for greater political representation. The protests were briefly suspended last month after Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala promised to increase electoral seats for the Madhesis and give them more autonomy.

The head of the Madhesi Forum, Upendra Yadav, is accusing the government of failing to create a favorable atmosphere.

Yadav says the government has not taken steps to hold talks on how to end discrimination against the Madhesis.

The Forum is also demanding the resignation of Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula, who it blames for using excessive force to quell earlier protests that killed nearly 30 people.

The editor of Katmandu Post newspaper, Prateek Pradhan, says there is little rationale for the new protests, as the government is trying to address complaints of the Madhesis.

"Grievances of Madhesis have been quite justified, but since the prime minister has already agreed to most of their demands, now calling for a strike I believe is not justified. I strongly believe the public is not with them this time," said Pradhan.

The Madhesi ethnic group accounts for more than one-third of the country's population, but has long complained of being sidelined in favor of people from the hill regions. They say they do not hold enough seats in parliament or adequate jobs in the administration.

Nepal is preparing to hold elections in June to choose a body that will write a new constitution.

Political analysts say groups such as the Madhesi People's Rights Forum are stepping up protests to ensure that their voice is heard as the country heads toward radical changes in its system of government.

But the new protests suggest that striking a peace deal with Maoist rebels is not enough to end Nepal's political headaches.