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Dying to make a living

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

The turmoil and terrorism that has engulfed the entire crescent from Pakistan, though Iraq and Syria to Libya seems a world away from Nepal. But once more, the violence of that region has spilled over. It was brought home with the tragic deaths of 12 Nepali citizens in the bus bombing in Kabul on the morning of Monday, 20 June.

Once more, families in Nepal grieved for sons killed faraway. We were again reminded of the fragility of Nepal’s remittance-driven economy. More than half the four million Nepalis working abroad are located in the volatile Gulf region. The migrant economy now makes up nearly one-third of the country’s GDP, and it is the blood, sweat and tears of our workers, the money that they send home, that sustains their families and keeps Nepal’s economy afloat.

It was only 12 years ago that 12 Nepali workers who had been taken hostage by the Ansa al-Sunnah group in Iraq were gunned down. When the  killings were broadcast live on international tv channels, riots broke out in Kathmandu. It was later revealed that Nepali Congress cadre used the tragedy to stage coordinated attacks on recruiting agencies and mosques to fan communal flames in an attempt to destabilise the royal regime.

At least a dozen Nepalis, most of them private security guards or soldiers with the British Army, have been killed in Afghanistan in the past decade. But this week’s attack on Nepalis guarding the Canadian Embassy in Kabul was by far the most serious loss of life and underscores the fact that Nepalis are literally dying to make a living.

Such is the desperation for jobs and for a better life, that Nepalis are one of few nationalities willing to put themselves in harm’s way in dangerous jobs that no one else will do. Fatalities involving NATO troops in Afghanistan have fallen due to cutbacks, but also because Nepalis have taken up frontline sentry duties and convoy escorting.

Monday’s killings were full of glaring coincidences and ironies. It happened even as there were events in Kathmandu to mark World Refugee Day. Nepali workers overseas may not be classified as refugees, but they are economic migrants forced to leave because of the lack of jobs and prospects at home.

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A tweet on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation handle with breaking news of the attack said: ‘All Canadian Embassy staff safe …’, raising questions about what that mission had done to ensure the safety of its own security personnel. Who guards the guards? Who is responsible for the safety of foreign workers when security itself is subcontracted?

In a world numbed by violence and tragedy, we were once more reminded of the hierarchy of news. To trend, an event has to be sudden, there have to be dramatic visuals, the loss of life has to be above a certain threshold total, and even that depends on where the fatalities take place or where the victims are from. The death of a dozen Nepali security guards did not make the kind of headlines that a similar loss of life of NATO troops have commanded in the past.

But even in Nepal, there was a glaring discrepancy in coverage. A sudden terrorist attack with heavy loss of life got more prominence than coverage of the tragedy that unfolds more slowly — the deaths from ‘natural’ causes of Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf and Malaysia . There aren’t any banner headlines about the deaths of at least 1,000 Nepali migrant workers every year in Malaysia and the Gulf.

For example, 603 Nepalis died in one year (2014-15) just in Malaysia and Qatar. In the six years between 2008-14, 1,121 Nepali workers died in Malaysia, 880 in Saudi Arabia, 739 in Qatar and 264 in the UAE. But these deaths did not happen suddenly in one place, they were scattered across the region, the workers mostly died quietly in their sleep, and the only visuals were of coffins arriving at Kathmandu airport. So they never made it to the news.

The deaths of our soldiers fighting in foreign armies and security guards protecting embassies and airports in war zones around the world also opens up the vexing question of pride and sovereignty. We Nepalis are, on the one hand, proud never to have been colonised and being labelled the oldest nation state in South Asia. And yet, in this day and age we allow our citizens to fight and die for foreigners. Even more surprising is how much recruitment of Nepalis by the armed forces of India, Britain, Singapore, Oman or Brunei is accepted by the public here.

Nepali soldiers have been  mixed up in a war between two neighbours with whom we have good relations (as happened in the India-China war of 1962), and Gurkhas fought each other in 1816, and on opposite sides during World War 2 in Imphal. We have accepted these profound contradictions, and taken them in our stride.

Recruitment of Nepali citizens in foreign armies is a historical incongruity that can only be set right by stabilising our politics and straightening out our economy. This involves politics, and once and for all getting our governance right. If we don’t, we will continue to depend on overseas remittances to prop up our precarious economy, and tragedies like the one that befell our compatriots in Kabul this week will keep on repeating.

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4 Responses to “Dying to make a living”

  1. yam gurung on Says:

    Late Dr Harka Gurung said in the Gurkha organised conference held in Kathmandu.
    #1 fact,because of the Gurkha recruitment,especially the martial race,Gurung,Magar,Rai,Limbus were unable to compete within the power of Nepal.
    #2 fact,Gurkha recruitment introduce Nepal to the world, remittance and nagrikta.
    #3 fact,with Gurkhas royalty the regime built,Singha Darbar (present maobadi & khaobadi’s regime are enjoying the office facilities etc),Sital Niwas,Hetauda factory,Hetauda ropeway,Trichandra Hospital etc.
    #4 fact,neither the Nepal nor the British government got the authentic records of the killed Gurkhas during the two bloody wars or during the maoist insurgent,or in India,Afghanistan etc.
    #5 fact innocent Nepalese been killed in Kabul etc. But the Nepalese regimes are only interested in “money and power” game.

  2. pasoda on Says:

    When asked what he thought of the western civilization, Gandhi said it’d be a good idea. Thing are even worse now. Two rich western countries blatantly exploit the poors, then they don’t even feel remorse for that. Western do-good image is just that, a PR farce.

  3. Bal Yonjan Tamang on Says:

    This article raises many pertinent issues and questions that have been repeatedly neglected by the mainstream media. I feel there is a need for a national policy with regard to lahurays. I will be interested in seeing how many concerned lahurays or their educated offsprings will actually provide their feedback. Almost all of them seems to have given up their hopes with whichever government comes to Singha Darbar. All they get is a well polished lip service.
    On a somewhat related point, it would be proper for the government to seriously think and act on the prevention and preparedness learning a lesson from the recent Dhaka killings by the terrorists. The experience of the exGurkha may come in handy in this regard.

  4. Marfat on Says:

    This is the real cost of political parties affiliated with manpower agencies make money at the expense of the real people. As Yam Gurung said above, nothing has changed since the days of British empire, except the benefiters.

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