Tuesday, April 23, 2024

An opportunity to curb corruption

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In the annals of anti-corruption drive, big political changes as well as corruption scandals and incidents provide a window of opportunity to launch clean-up campaigns. Often they turn out as epoch-making events to initiate anti-corruption reforms and change.  

As an example, take the case of Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato in Spanish) in Brazil. The case involved payment of more than $5 billion to company executives and political parties. It involved more than 1,000 politicians, 16 companies, at least 50 congressmen and four former presidents. The case was not limited to Brazil, it spread across more than two dozen countries in South America and Africa.

The rise of former president Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022) was very much at the backdrop of Operation Car Wash. Refer to the anti-corruption drives in countries like South Korea, Singapore, Kenya and South Africa, they are perforated with high profile corruption scandals which helped to launch high profile anti-corruption campaigns.

Fake refugee scam

Recent media revelations of fake Bhutanese refugee scam has rocked the country. It is reported that the case involved extracting billions of rupees from Nepali people who wanted to travel to the US under the garb of Bhutanese refugees settled in Nepal.  These fake refugees have reportedly paid Rs 1-5 million per head to the agents.

The case involved a total of 875 fake refugees. So far the police has taken into custody nine people for investigation. They involve high profile people like government secretary, former security advisor of the Home Minister and sons of the high profile politicians. A former deputy prime minister and a sitting MP Top Bahadur Rayamajhi, expected to report to the police, has gone missing. This has added suspense like that of a thriller movie.

There is intense political lobbying to diffuse the case. On Sunday (7 May) when the House began its budget session, it opened up with heated debates among MPs charging and counter-charging each other for fake refugee scandal. One thing is sure that the case would not have come into light sans change in the government.

The investigating police reported that initially the case was reported as a fraud case that happens with foreign employment business. Now it has turned out to be a case of a highly organized crime involving multitude of actors and political party leaders. It is amazing to know how the scammers were able to capture the state apparatus, right from establishing a “feasibility” study team on Bhutanese refugees left undocumented in Nepal and hence denied re-settlement opportunities in the US. The team’s study report was used to enlist fake refugees.

An English daily reported the process as manufacturing refugees. Those people, who had paid advance money but were denied their travel, possibly due to change in government spilled the beans.    

A national shame

This is not just a high profile corruption case. This is a case of national shame; hence, the people involved should be charged of state treason. The case has tarnished the image of Nepal amongst the international community in general and the US in particular. A major chunk of Bhutanese refugees have been resettled in the US. Bhutan, which kicked out these refugees to Nepal in early 1990s, must be having a laugh.

This is not just a high profile corruption case. This is a case of national shame; hence, the people involved should be charged of state treason.

Simply because few apples turned out to be rotten, now a big question mark will be raised on the identity of tens of thousands of genuine refugees now resettled in the US and other countries. It is shameless to listen to a CPN-UML leader boasting in the media that fake refugees were provided a far safer and dignified alternative travel to the US. As a way to dilute or distract public attention one more CPN-UML honcho is demanding that the actions must be taken, not just against the public officials but also against the fake refugees as well. 

Lahara-pahara

There is a saying in Nepali, laharo tanda paharo tharkinchha. This is like pulling a thread from a woolen ball – the more you pull, the more it gets longer.

The case is expected to drag many political party leaders, their relatives and top-shot bureaucrats currently holding important positions. Even the opposition party leader KP Sharma Oli is reported to have met the prime minister twice, ostensibly, to exert pressure. Some opposition members have taken the case as a political vendetta because most of the accused turned out to be former Maoists who betrayed Prachanda and joined CPN-UML camp.

The Prime Minister himself has announced the case as a “trailer” before the release of a full movie. The opposition members are demanding the release of the full movie. The public in general are eagerly waiting to see how this “political hot potato” is going to be handled and settled in the days to come.

Make or break

An investigation into high profile case can easily lead to making and breaking of the government. This is the single reason why anti-corruption agencies often get entangled into catching small fish. The big fish have big friends and involve big risks.  

Given the wobbling nature of the government, it is too difficult to predict the outcome of this investigation. Nepal’s anti-corruption drive is perforated with high profile corruption crimes. A usual strategy to diffuse these crisis situations is to establish a commission or a task force to undertake investigative study. With enough time buying the results are swept under the carpet, thereby missing the opportunities to initiate reform and change.

Given the public outcry against corruption and bad governance, tabling of amendment bills related to corruption and anti-corruption in the parliament and anti-corruption agenda of some political parties, the revelation of refugee scam provide a unique opportunity for a coalition government headed by PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal to initiate a credible reform program. The scam could also come as a big backlash due to involvement of former Maoist leaders and the main opposition party CPN-UML playing dubious role. The scandal could easily make or break the government.

Leaf, tree and forest

Every incident of corruption must be analyzed in terms of leaf, trees and forest. An isolated case of bribery may represent a leaf but the study of a leaf or of leaves (micro-level) does not provide information about the tree. Similarly, the study of a tree with deep roots and branches (meso-level) in no way explains the nature of big forest (macro perspective). A forest is different from trees.

Who knows, refugee scandal could be a jungle in itself. It is easy to get lost and distracted inside a jungle. Comrade Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda who waged a decade-long Maoist war (1996-2006), literally, taking refuge inside the jungle has now another battle to fight inside the jungle of fake refugee scandal.        

Published on 8 May 2023

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