Nepal ruled out on Sunday granting autonomy to the Madhesh plains in the south until this year’s key elections, despite deadly protests that threaten to jeopardise chances of long term peace in the country.
At least 45 people have died in the violence over the past year, two of them in the recent cycle of protests by ethnic Madhesi groups shutting down shops, factories and schools in the region, which borders India.
The turmoil has clouded the twice-delayed elections for a constituent assembly, the centrepiece of the 2006 peace deal with the former Maoist rebels who ended their decade-long civil war.
The protesters want the government to turn Madhesh, home to nearly half of the 26 million people, into an autonomous state with the right to self-determination before the polls set for April 10.
They also want electoral reforms for greater representation in the assembly to prepare a new constitution, proportional representation in government institutions including the army, compensation for everyone killed or injured in the protests, and peace talks with rebel groups in the region.
“We are ready to meet their demands except the one for the autonomy before the elections,” said Jhalnath Khanal, a senior leader of the Communist UML party, the third biggest group in the alliance.
“This government does not have the mandate to delineate the geographical borders of just one autonomous province which can be done only by the elected constituent assembly.” The government has already committed to turn Nepal into a federal state after the vote, giving more power to the provinces. But protest leaders are not satisfied.
“The seven political parties could not address the genuine demand that the whole Madhesh be declared as an autonomous state,” said Upendra Yadav, chief of the Madheshi People’s Rights Forum, a leading protest group. “Our protests will continue.” The government says it will go ahead with the elections despite the crisis.