Tremors of Global Insecurity Reach Shangri-La

As the South Asian nation of Nepal has seen, the forces of globalization may be both a blessing and a curse. While open borders helped to develop trade, manufacturing, and tourism as the country's economic pillars, a Maoist insurgency has devastated the country in recent years. Amidst this social and financial crisis, Nepali workers overseas now bear the onus of supporting Nepal's economy. A recent deadly attack on Nepali workers in Iraq and its domestic repercussion not only increases instability in the country, but also threatens to shake up the crucial labor export sector. Given the importance of the globalized labor force, writes Kesang Sherpa, "the Nepali government and the private sector must do all they can to keep this portal open." At the same time, decision-makers must find ways to restore domestic political stability to allow for economic recovery and, ultimately, help the country regain its global appeal as a tourist heaven. – YaleGlobal

Tremors of Global Insecurity Reach Shangri-La

Nepal's response to the brutal killings of 12 workers in Iraq threatens the country's vital labor export
Kesang Sherpa
Monday, September 27, 2004
Professional warriors abroad: Nepali men in the British army help sustain the economy at home, battered by insurgency. (Photo: Ministry of Defense)

NEW YORK: Most Nepalis once believed the name of their country was actually an acronym for "Never-Ending Peace And Love." This dream-image of Nepal as a peaceful Shangri-la resonated globally, for forty years when hundreds of thousands of tourists wanderd around the kingdom ringed by the majestic Himalayas. Since 1996, however, a bloody Maoist insurgency has stunted the country's previous growth. With two of Nepal's main economic sectors - tourism and trade - seriously in trouble, workers' remittances remain the only reliable source of much-needed foreign income. The recent execution of Nepali workers in Iraq reminded Nepalis, even that source is in jeopardy: Just as globalization opened the doors for an exodus of cheap labor, it has rendered Nepali workers abroad vulnerable to the same threat of terrorism that respects no borders.

Nepal has a 200-year history of exporting its labor. After the 1814-1816 Anglo-Gurkha War, many defeated soldiers, rather than face humiliation at home, sought employment in the army of Ranjit Singh of Lahore. Soon thereafter, the British recruited their former adversaries into their forces. A more contemporary trend has been the export of unskilled civilian labor. Malaysia, the most favored destination, hosts over 100,000 Nepalis working in the construction and furniture industries. The oil-rich gulf countries have also attracted Nepalis; Saudi Arabia and Qatar have absorbed 100,000 and 80,000 Nepalis, respectively. About 1 million Nepalis work worldwide as laborers, drivers, guards, cleaners and cooks. Last year, they sent home an estimated US$1 billion, a major source of income for one of the world's ten poorest countries.

In the past five years or so, the push factors forcing Nepalis abroad have multiplied at a dangerous pace. The Maoist insurgency, modeled somewhat on Peru's Shining Path rebels, has rendered millions of Nepalis jobless. In the name of the "People's War," the Maoist insurgents have established "people's governments" and "people's courts," which run the daily business of much of Nepal's rural countryside. To bring down the royal government the Maoists have kept attacking schools, airports, hotels, and other valuable infrastructure. Over 10,000 civilians have been killed in the cross-fire between Maoist and security forces. Increasingly, the Maoist cause has extorted "donations" from both rural and urban Nepalis. In response to unmet monetary demands, the Maoists have been known to set fire to factories and homes, and sometimes kill entire families. Maoist bombs, extortion, and forced closure of industries have severely affected trade and manufacturing, as well. As a result of the political instability and escalating violence, Nepal's tourist industry has been brought to its knees. Tourism had not only provided incomes and increased the standard of living of most Nepalis, but also shaped a valuable English-speaking workforce experienced in catering to people from every corner of the world. With the virtual closure of tourism and trade, Nepal has turned increasingly to labor export as the sole path to economic survival.

With no political or economic solution in sight, many rural Nepalis descend to Kathmandu, where they join thousands of disgruntled urban youths lining up outside recruiting agencies that send workers overseas. They typically borrow between US$1,500 and US$2,000 to cover agent's fees and travel expenses. If they are lucky, they will be able to pay back the borrowed sum after working abroad for a year or two.

In the Middle East, many Nepalis hope to fill the post-war reconstruction demand for cheap labor in order to send much needed remittances to their families back home. An estimated 15,000 Nepalis already work in Iraq, for the most part illegally. They earn about US$275 a month, and in some cases, their jobs include benefits and facilities, such as a tennis court, swimming pool, and a mini DVD theater. Many Gurkhas, Nepali soldiers famed for their bravery at war, are also in Iraq. Unlike other migrant laborers, they work mostly for British security firms as private bodyguards, armed escorts, and security advisers, earning as much as several hundred dollars a day, according to press reports. In a country with a per capita income of US$240 and 42 percent of its population below the poverty line, foreign labor provides thousands of Nepali families with an otherwise unattainable degree of economic security.

Among these Nepali laborers were twelve men who were recruited via a Nepali labor agency to work as cooks and cleaners in Iraq, but were intercepted while attempting to illegally cross the border from Jordan into Iraq. On September 1, 2004, Islamist fundamentalist group Jaish Ansar Al-Sunna brutally killed these workers, thus raising a big question mark over the future of overseas deployment of Nepali labor force. Using American symbolism, the Nepali media dubbed the events "Black Wednesday" or "9/1," to mark the day when Nepal faced the harsh reality of international terrorism and suffered equally violent consequences at home. In Nepal, angry mobs burned and looted Muslim homes and businesses, a mosque, offices of Middle Eastern and Pakistani airlines, and over 300 labor recruiting agencies.

During the 12 workers' captivity, Nepalis preparing to go to Iraq remained unfazed, viewing the danger in Iraq as comparable to the danger from Maoists at home. Now, many fear that the attempted revenge against Muslims and labor recruiting agencies will endanger the jobs and lives of thousands of Nepalis working in Muslim nations and, further, reduce the prospects for those who seek employment overseas. Nepali workers in the Middle East, Malaysia, and Indonesia have pleaded with those in Nepal not to worsen the situation, as they fear further persecution from Islamist fighters, their Muslim employers, and the larger society. The anti-Muslim attacks have received wide play in the Arab media, and some say this will reduce the number of Nepalis traveling to the Middle East and other Muslim countries. This will, in turn, undoubtedly hurt Nepal's economy, which was bolstered during troubled times with remittances sent by overseas workers.

Trade and tourism - two vital sectors of the economy - will only recover, predicts the Asian Development Bank (ADB), if the political and security situation improves in Nepal. Many analysts regard the foreign labor industry as a safety valve, without which Nepal would be far worse-off. The Nepali government and the private sector must do all it can to keep this portal open, while seeking a solution to the current political dilemma so that tourism and trade can be reopened and Nepal can regain its global appeal.

The execution of the 12 Nepalis, intended as a lesson to others for supporting what the Islamic militants call the "crusaders," was upstaged in the international media by a larger hostage crisis in Russia. If anything, 9/1 has helped Nepalis reflect on domestic problems: the Maoist insurgency and its violent kidnappings and killings, which have in large part contributed to the exodus of Nepalis overseas. Even the anti-Muslim riots are rumored to have been fueled by a Maoist youth faction. The government recently paid a visit to India, whose leaders pledged to lend their support in resolving the Maoist problem through peace talks. Although both Maoists and other political forces are wary of India's involvement in what is considered a domestic problem, the overwhelming desire for peace and economic recovery may eventually necessitate outside intervention in Nepal's future.

Kesang Sherpa graduated from Yale University in Film Studies and Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Studies. She has worked on several documentary films and is an Editorial Assistant at YaleGlobal Online.

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