General strike freezes Nepal as constitution deadline looms

KATHMANDU Sun May 20, 2012 4:07pm IST

Protesters use a drainage pipe to obstruct the road during a three-day general strike called by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) in Kathmandu May 20, 2012. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Protesters use a drainage pipe to obstruct the road during a three-day general strike called by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) in Kathmandu May 20, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar

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KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Thousands of schools closed, roads were empty and businesses shuttered across Nepal on Sunday at the start of a three-day general strike over a state boundary dispute that could push lawmakers past a May 27 deadline to write a new constitution.

At least two dozen vehicles were damaged by stone-throwing activists, police said, and 46 people were detained in the capital Kathmandu, where children played football on normally traffic-choked streets.

Instability has plagued Nepal since the end of a Maoist-led civil war in 2006, and the subsequent overthrow of the monarchy.

Trouble there could take on a regional dimension as China and India are jostling for influence in the Himalayan nation, which sits on the sources of rivers that supply fresh water to millions in south Asia.

Political factions have failed to agreed on a legal and administrative framework for the young republic, leaving the country governed by an interim constitution drawn up by the Maoists and main parties at the end of the conflict.

Home to Mount Everest, landlocked Nepal has more than 100 ethnic groups, many of which are pressing for individual states to be named after them.

"We will not accept the constitution if it does not provide an autonomous province in Madhes," said Upendra Yadav, chief of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Nepal party, based in the southern plains.

Unsettled politics has sapped business confidence, while disillusioned citizens endure daily power cuts, shortages of drinking water and fuel, and growing lawlessness.

A specially elected assembly dominated by Maoists has missed several deadlines to prepare the majority-Hindu nation's first federal constitution. Points of contention include the names, number and borders of the new states within the country.

Under a Supreme Court ruling, the politicians have only one more week to finalise the long-overdue charter. After that, the constitutional assembly assigned the task will be disbanded, which would plunge the country into political uncertainty.

It is unclear what would happen were the deadline missed, but lawmakers could choose to extend the assembly in defiance of the Supreme Court, some analysts say. Though unlikely, there is a risk an early general election could be called.

"It is very difficult to promulgate the constitution in time," constitutional lawyer Bhimarjun Acharya said.

"Technically there is not much time left to fulfill the procedures, and politically, state restructuring has not been done yet," he said.

ETHNIC BOUNDARIES?

The three-day nationwide shutdown is the latest in a string of protests called by groups which oppose a recent plan made by main political parties to create 11 federal states.

Some argue that if the states are demarcated along ethnic lines, it could raise tension in the impoverished country, which is slightly larger than Greece.

The debate has already triggered violence. Five people were killed in a blast this month in the southern town of Janakpur during a protest in favour of a separate state.

On Sunday, police and officials reached by phone in other areas including Nepalgunj, Bhairahawa, Pokhara and Birgunj said transport and businesses were "totally" shut by the strike.

Trucks bringing goods from India were stranded, they said.

"About 300 trucks are waiting to enter Nepal with essential goods on the Indian side of the border," said policeman Jitendra Kumar Basnet from Sunauli, a major trading point on the border with India, 171 km (107 miles) southwest of Kathmandu.

In temple-studded Kathmandu, tourists walked the 5 miles (8km) from the airport to the city centre, dragging wheeled luggage behind them while holding umbrellas against the scorching sun, forced onto the streets by a taxi drivers' strike. Flights operated normally.

Hundreds of police in riot gear stood along the streets, while shops closed, pulling down corrugated shutters.

(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Daniel Magnowski)

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