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Heightened political tensions over monarchy's rule

[Swaziland] Political opposition leader Mario Masuku (centre) leaving police headquarters in Mbabane after their release from custody at the weekend.
Opposition leader Mario Masuku (centre) wants change (IRIN)

The People's United Democratic Movement (PUDEMO), a banned political party opposed to the rule of sub-Saharan Africa's last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, has announced more aggressive tactics to achieve political reform.

"We have tried peaceful marches, but they have been dispersed brutally and violently by the state. No unreasonable person can blame us at this point in time if we engage means of preventing the aggressor from being aggressive," PUDEMO spokesman Bonginkosi Gama said in a statement.

This week, riot police and army patrols converged on the southern provincial capital, Nhlangano, to prevent a PUDEMO rally marking the group's 20th anniversary.

"Our intention is always a peaceful demonstration. But political meetings of any kind are banned by royal decree," PUDEMO president Mario Masuku told IRIN.

While confirming that PUDEMO will be taking a more aggressive stance to press for democracy in Swaziland, Masuku said the organisation did not condone terrorism.

"We have been beaten, arrested, harassed, and tortured in police custody. Whatever course of action we follow will be in self-defence," Masuku said. However, he would not specify what actions were likely to be taken.

The number of PUDEMO's followers is not known. Political observers say membership is likely in the tens of thousands, but the following is underground.

Dissatisfaction with royal rule has been on open display this month as commoners complained about unbridled palace power before Mswati's Constitutional Drafting Committee, which is meeting with communities across the country.

Citizens have been expressing opinions that would previously have been considered treasonous in this conservative kingdom. Some want Mswati's image replaced on local coins by a maize plant, while others want members of the royal family banned from top government positions.

Mswati's father, King Sobhuza II, outlawed political opposition to royal rule by banning political parties in 1973. Mswati had this condition written into a draft constitution he plans to make national law by November, despite growing protests from human rights groups, labour organisations and political formations.

PUDEMO was formed just months after Sobhuza's death in 1983. Until recently, police confiscated the group's publications, which called for an end to the monarchial system, and arrested people found in possession of the literature.

Masuku was held for eight months on sedition charges last year, but was found innocent by High Court Chief Justice Stanley Sapire in August 2002. The ruling outraged the palace and Sapire was fired a few months later.

Political commentators have suggested in the local media that PUDEMO might lose support and sympathy from the international community if the group turns violent.

But PUDEMO member Vusi Thwala responded: "We are talking about civil disobedience, as defined by Mahatma Gandhi and the Reverend Martin Luther King."

In light of the arrest of four PUDEMO members on conspiracy charges, it would seem that the police view PUDEMO as a terrorist group. The four, whose alleged ringleader is a labour organiser, were allegedly found with petrol bombs in the boot of a car during last month's national workers strike, called to protest Mswati's undemocratic governance.

A string of unsolved petrol bombings in the country date back to 1995, when the House of Assembly chamber in the Parliament Building was gutted by arson. A bomb destroyed the Deputy Prime Minister's office in downtown Mbabane in 1998, killing a security guard. And a police barracks in Mbabane was petrol bombed earlier this year, resulting in three injuries.

Prior to this week's attempted meeting at Nhlangano, police dispersed a group of PUDEMO activists who sought to convene in the southern border town of Lavumisa.

Attempts by PUDEMO members to meet this week at the home of Kislon Shongwe, an Mbabane attorney, were also blocked by police.

"Political rallies and demonstrations are still banned in the country, and there is no way we could have allowed that. It is difficult to say police violated individuals' rights, when those people were violating a standing legal principle," police spokesman Vusi Masuku told the Times of Swaziland.

"The 'principle' itself is wrong. The king's decree is a violation of freedom of speech and assembly. This is what the meetings were about," declared Thwala.

PUDEMO president Masuku said future rallies were planned, and the group will participate in a national strike next month to coincide with parliamentary elections.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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