THE site of world’s highest mountain, Nepal has established a romantic reputation with tourists drawn to its spectacular scenery and wildlife.
But now one of the world’s poorest countries is in chaos, under siege by Maoist rebels who have blockaded the capital, Kathmandu.
As the blockade enters its fifth day, amid escalating violence, experts last night said the insurgents’ growing stranglehold was the consequence of successive governments’ failure to address political corruption and rural poverty.
Edinburgh-based anthropologist Dr Colin Millard, author of Democracy and Dissent in Nepal, said the recent escalation in action by the rebels reflected long-running dissatisfaction dating back to 1990, when democracy was established in a relatively peaceful manner, but failed to solve the key problems affecting the country.
Millard said: "Since 1996 [when the Maoist rising began] thousands of people have been killed.
"There was this ‘peaceful’ revolution, but all those centuries of different castes and social classes continued to exist, and maybe that is what is manifesting itself now, through this bloodshed.
"The democracy that came about in 1990, which people had invested so much hope in, did not solve the problems of corruption in Kathmandu and rural poverty."
The academic, who spent two years in the Dhorpatan Valley in north-west Nepal in the mid-1990s as the Maoist uprising began, said many rural Nepalese had become rapidly disillusioned by the form of democracy that was in place.
He added that the deeply entrenched caste system meant it was almost impossible for people of lower castes to assume any position of power.
"Nepal was the last Hindu kingdom in the world. The ruling elite moved into [democratic] politics and just became leaders in the new system and the framework didn’t change," Millard said.
The political situation in Nepal was further complicated in October 2002 when, in the face of increasing Maoist violence, King Gyanendra dismissed Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister and assumed executive powers himself, putting off elections set for November indefinitely.
He appointed Lokendra Bahadur Chand to head the government, but in May 2002 Chand resigned as prime minister and the king appointed his own nominee, Surya Bahadur Thapa, as the new premier.
Then, in May this year, the royalist Thapa resigned following weeks of street protests by opposition groups, and King Gyanendra reappointed Sher Bahadur Deuba as prime minister.
The Maoist leaders have been attracting growing numbers of supporters. It is estimated they now have 10,000 to 15,000 fighters and are active across the country, with many parts completely under their control.
Millard said: "The Maoists in rural areas are seen to have presented to people another viable political option."
And although the rebels used violence to establish themselves in many parts of the country, government retaliation has pushed many people towards the communist cause.
About 9,000 people have died in violence between the rebels and security forces since 1996.
"The Maoists took control of certain areas and killed the local police and threatened people they saw to be aligned to the Nepalese government, and then killed them if they thought they were continuing to align themselves to the government," said Millard.
"The government responded very heavily by going out into the Maoist areas, where they tortured and threatened those they believed were Maoists.
"But many of those tortured and threatened were not necessarily Maoists and inevitably that led to an escalation of the problems."
Although it has been nearly nine years since the Maoist insurgency began in Nepal, it is only recently that the rebels began to make their presence felt in the areas around Kathmandu.
The move on the capital follows increasing violence after the Maoist rebels pulled out of a seven-month truce in August last year, when talks with the government on the role of the constitutional monarchy broke down.
Then last Wednesday the rebels cut off all land routes to Kathmandu, disrupting food and supplies to the city of 1.5 million people.
Since then, the insurgents have shot and seriously wounded one policeman and set off two powerful bombs. Yesterday, a senior police officer was fatally shot by two men on motorcycles, believed to have been rebels.
Although reports from inside Kathmandu yesterday said there had been an increase in the movement of both passenger and cargo vehicles in to the capital after escorts and security personnel were provided, concern was rising over the upsurge in violence.
The Maoists are demanding the release of colleagues held by the government and say they would maintain their blockade indefinitely until detained rebels are set free and the killing of others is investigated.
Following the explosions, which were set off on Friday, the government said it would investigate what happened to a number of left-wing activists who have disappeared over the past few months.
But information minister Mohammad Mohsin also said the government would not bow to Maoist pressure. Tourists and thousands of other travellers have been left stranded by the blockade in Kathmandu, which doesn’t have any rail links. Most of the city’s food, fuel and other supplies are brought in by lorry, and the blockade has left stores with only a few days’ supply of fresh produce and cooking fuel.
The insurgents have not set up a single roadblock, but they have cut off the capital from the rest of the country by threatening to attack vehicles.