Nepal government agrees to give autonomy to southern plains
Saturday, 01 March 2008

Reuters, Kathmandu

Nepal’s government agreed on Thursday to give autonomy to its southern plains after the forthcoming national election in a deal to end an ethnic strike that had strangled the capital, officials said.

The move, which came after days of talks between government negotiators and ethnic Madheshi protest leaders, has cleared the way for a twice-delayed election set for April 10.

The election will choose a special assembly meant to map the country’s political future and write a new constitution. That assembly may double as an interim parliament.

‘The ongoing protests have been withdrawn with immediate effect,’ both sides said in a statement. The government agreed to grant autonomy to the Terai, home to half the country’s population, and other regions after the election was held. ‘I assure you that the government is not just sympathetic to your demands but will fulfil them,’ said the prime minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, 83, after signing the deal with the protest leaders who flanked him.

Under the deal, different ethnic groups, including the Madheshis, will be given more representation in state institutions, including the army. The Madheshi protests, which reignited this month in the Terai, blocked supplies of virtually all essential goods, including fuel, from the Indian border to Kathmandu. Five people died in the latest protests, while at least 45 were killed in violence in the Terai last year.

The crisis had overshadowed a 2006 peace deal with Maoist rebels after a decade-long civil war that killed more than 13,000 people. The United States, a key donor, welcomed the deal in a statement and urged both sides ‘to fulfil the terms of agreement’. Many Madheshis were happy.

‘The deal is very good not only for the Madhesh but for the entire nation,’ said Ramananda Gupta, a resident in the south-eastern town of Lahan, the heart of the protests.

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