Friday, June 21, 2024

Fake refugee scandal and political fallouts

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Initially imagined as a case of fraud, the investigation into fake Bhutanese refugee scandal gives an impression of opening a can of worms. It sounds like having a bite of something more than one can chew. This could be Nepal’s Panama Papers in making. The police has roped in several high profile people that include former Home Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Security Advisor to the Home Minister, sitting Secretary and so on. Many more are in the list and some are reported to be absconding.   

On 13 May, Saturday, the country observed almost spontaneous anti-corruption demonstrations taking place in at least six places – two in Kathmandu, one each in Pokhara, Chitwan and Bhairahawa. Some anti-corruption demonstrations and public meetings are still being held. In the absence of some organized force working behind, it is near impossible to have this level of spontaneous events. So far, international experience do tell us that anti-corruption mass demonstrations are good at toppling regimes but they are little helpful in fighting corruption.   

At the surface level, PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his Deputy Narayan Kaji Shrestha are on limelight; some sections of the public are even giving them (undue) credits and look buoyed by initial gains. PM Dahal must be having in mind that he is going to kill, literally, two birds (NC and UML) with one throw. But in Nepali, there is another age-old adage, “excessively shrewd monkey often gets killed with its balls entrapped”. With this bit of humor, let us move on to serious part.

There is another line of thinking. The government and its (corrupt) police are not behind the investigations., Rather, it is Uncle Sam pulling the strings. NC President Deuba and his spouse are often projected as protégés of Uncle Sam. What could be their interest in offending the duo? In an hour-long interview given to Himalayan TV, dated 14 May, Mrs. Deuba did hint on “international investigation”, going back for the last three years and American Embassy alerting Ministry of Home Affairs in advance, because this is a serious crime of “human trafficking”.

The first fallout from this scandal is resetting of Nepal-US relationship. The scandal could have a cascading impact on Tibetan and refugees from other countries settled in Nepal. It could also affect re-settlement of remaining Bhutanese refugees, possibly triggering public debate on pending citizenship bill and leaving lots of question marks on the businesses of foreign employment and remittances. There are already writings on the wall that our immediate neighbors will raise security concerns. Given the fact that the scandal originated right inside the Home Ministry, definitely, they do have security concerns.   

The first fallout from this scandal is resetting of Nepal-US relationship. The scandal could have a cascading impact on Tibetan and refugees from other countries settled in Nepal.

On 18 May, CPN-UML leader KP Sharma Oli is expected to spill beans in the parliament. In his words, “the government is forced to undertake this investigation only because it became impossible to bottle them up". Reading between the lines, in the parliament, on Thursday, he is sure to defuse the scandal by stating something like this: The whole scam is designed to tarnish his image and that of his party.

Remember, CPN-UML’s recent demand to investigate cantonment corruption, particularly on enlisting fake PLA fighters, allowing the Maoists Party to feast on wages and allowances of thousands of absentee fighters. This is definitely going to raise heckles in our peace process. Opening up this can is expected to impact Nepal’s peace process and transitional justice system. This is going to be second possible as well as direct impact of fake refugee scandal.

Pro-monarchy, pro-hindu, anti-US and anti-establishment party Rastriya Prajatantra Party is making hue and cry over the scandal and raising political heckles on the ground bringing international shame and disrepute. Definitely, they do have a political agenda. But they should be aware that the then monarchy was the triggering factor behind Bhutanese refugee crisis in early 1990s. Had King Birendra not literally bundled up Tek Nath Rijal, Bhutanese opposition leader seeking asylum in Nepal, in a jute sack and pack him to Bhutan, Bhutanese royalties would never ever have dared to initiate massive ethnic cleansing of the Nepalese.  

Definitely, anti-corruption issues, raised by some vocal political opponents like Rastriya Swatantra Party, independent Member of Parliament Amaresh Singh and social media activists are concerns of the nation. They have been crying hoarse about controlling political corruption, growing institutionalization of corruption, state capture, capital flights and money laundering. But when opportunists like pro-monarchists and anti-democrats coming in the garb of social activists do slip into public rallies and demonstrations, the public often get confused by the leitmotif.

The political movement in 1950s was against the Ranas, referendum in 1980 was against the panchas, 1990 movement was against the durbar and 2006/7 was against the Shahs. Unless you have a clear opponent, it is too difficult to expect regime change with anti-corruption public demonstrations and mass rallies. When King Gyanendra took over power in 2005, there were two recurring themes; namely, anti-corruption and anti-terrorism. The first one was to gag multiparty politicians and second one was to gag Maoists. Literally, anti-corruption and anti-terrorism moves boomeranged into anti-Gyanendraism, a massive backfire against the regime. Hopefully, the opponents do have a sense of this formula in the current situation.

Published on 16 May 2023             

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