Nepal votes in final round of historic polls

A Nepali voter casts her ballot at a polling station during the final round of parliamentary elections in Kathmandu on Thursday. (AFP)
Updated 07 December 2017
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Nepal votes in final round of historic polls

KATMANDU: Nepal votes Thursday in the final round of historic parliamentary elections aimed at drawing a line under years of conflict and political turmoil in the Himalayan country.
Thousands of police and soldiers have been deployed in the capital Katmandu and the volatile southern lowlands for the vote after pre-election violence that has left one dead and dozens injured.
It is the second phase of a watershed election for national and provincial parliaments under a new constitution that represents the culmination of the transition from feudal monarchy to federal democracy following a brutal civil war that ended 11 years ago.
“I’m feeling very happy to cast a vote because it can change the future of our country, which we are expecting,” said Katmandu voter Samita Joshi.
“As a young person I think that it will bring hope and opportunities.”
More than 12.2 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, the first phase of which passed off peacefully last month.
But the south is home to a mosaic of ethnic minorities who say the constitution leaves them politically marginalized, a cause that has sparked bloody protests in recent years.
Political analyst Chandra Kishor Jha said violence could return if the promises of a fairer distribution of power were not met under the new federal system.
“If they cannot fulfil their promises then the groups that have been part of the struggle will not stay quiet. There is possibility of conflict again,” he told AFP.
The vote will establish the country’s first provincial assemblies, devolving power away from a top-heavy central government that has cycled through 10 leaders in the last 11 years.
The newly-elected assemblies will be tasked with naming their provinces, which are currently referred to by number, as well as choosing capitals and negotiating budgets with Katmandu — all sensitive considerations that could rekindle tensions in the ethnically-diverse south.
Years of political turbulence have hampered development in the impoverished Himalayan nation, which is still recovering from a powerful earthquake that hit more than two years ago, killing 9,000 people and destroying over half a million homes.
It took nine years after the end of a decade-long civil war to agree to a new constitution. The charter adopted in 2015 mandated a sweeping overhaul of Nepal’s political system to give greater autonomy to the provinces.
But it also sparked deadly protests in the south by ethnic minority groups who say it leaves them politically marginalized, and have demanded it be changed.
The communist CPN-UML party is expected to sweep the polls, buoyed by its alliance with the main Maoist party comprised of former rebels who fought government forces for a decade.
But the nationalist CPN-UML has strongly opposed amending the constitution to address the demands of ethnic minorities that it views as being more closely aligned with India.
Many in the southern lowlands share close linguistic and cultural ties with Indians across the border.
Nepal’s powerful neighbor to the south has long played the role of big brother in the landlocked country.
But in recent years Katmandu has played diplomatic ping-pong with its two large neighbors, India and China, who use big-ticket infrastructure projects to vie for influence.
Counting of ballot papers from both phases of the elections will begin once polling stations close at 5:00 p.m. (1115 GMT). Results are expected in the next few days.


Six dead in fire at Rohingya camp in Myanmar

Updated 19 October 2018
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Six dead in fire at Rohingya camp in Myanmar

  • The UN Human Rights Council has accused top Myanmar generals of genocide over the bloody campaign, allegations the country strongly denies.
  • Myanmar has vowed to close nearly 20 of the camps around Sittwe in the coming months.

YANGON, Myanmar: Six Rohingya were killed early Friday after a blaze tore through an overcrowded camp for the persecuted minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, the local fire service said.
Global attention has focused on the 720,000 Rohingya Muslims forced from the state’s north into Bangladesh last year by a brutal military crackdown.
The UN Human Rights Council has accused top Myanmar generals of genocide over the bloody campaign, allegations the country strongly denies.
But less visible are the 129,000 Rohingya confined to squalid camps further south near the capital Sittwe following an earlier bout of violence in 2012.
Hundreds were killed that year in riots between Rakhine Buddhists and the stateless minority, who were corralled into destitute camps away from their former neighbors.
The conflagration in Ohndaw Chay camp, which houses some 4,000 Rohingya and lies 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Sittwe, started just before midnight and lasted several hours, fire department official Han Soe told AFP.
“Six people, one man and five women were killed,” he said, adding that 15 communal longhouses were also destroyed in the blaze thought to have been started in a kitchen accident.
“We were able to bring the fire under control about 1:10 am this morning and had put it out completely by around 3 am,” he said.
A total of 822 people were left without shelter, local media reported.
Conditions in the camps are dire and Rohingya trapped there have virtually no access to health care, education and work, relying on food handouts from aid agencies to survive.
Access into the camps is also tightly controlled, effectively cutting their inhabitants off from the outside world and leaving their plight largely forgotten.
Fires in the camps are common because of “severe” overcrowding, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“Many camp residents have built makeshift extensions to their shelters to create more space for their families. So when a fire breaks out, it is more likely to spread quickly,” said OCHA spokesman Pierre Peron.
Hla Win, a Rohingya man from a nearby camp, told AFP that fire trucks were slow to arrive along the dilapidated roads from Sittwe and the lack of water also hampered efforts to extinguish the blaze.
“We have no ponds near the camps,” he said. “That’s why the fire destroyed so much.”
Myanmar has vowed to close nearly 20 of the camps around Sittwe in the coming months.
Rights groups say the move will achieve little without ending movement restrictions or granting Rohingya a pathway to citizenship.