Losing our moral compass

The fake refugee scam is a reflection of everything that is wrong with Nepal and the people who run it


The fake refugee scandal that is rocking the government is only the latest outrage that Nepalis have witnessed. Indeed, they are so inured to corruption in high places that most have taken it as a given. 

But even by the standards of Nepal’s kleptocracy, this one is blatant in its planning and execution, implicating the very ministries entrusted with internal security, and one that has tainted Nepal’s global standing. It is proof that Nepal’s ruling class has lost its moral compass.

For the moment we can only take some comfort from the fact that Nepal’s independent media is taking its check and balance role seriously at a time when the three other pillars of our democracy are tottering. The Police has also so far been conducting their investigations diligently.

Because of the intense scrutiny by the media, civil society and individual Nepalis on social media platforms, any attempt to prevent the prosecution of the culprits will now be seen as an even bigger crime than the scam itself.

In so many ways, the fake Bhutanese refugee scam is a reflection of everything that is wrong with the people who have ruled Nepal since 1991, and they tend to be the same people and parties.

Read on: Rot at the top, Shristi Karki

The attempt to trick desperate Nepalis to pay up hefty sums to go to America when third country resettlement of Bhutanese was closed seven years ago itself speaks to the brazenness of the crime.

As Nepal’s newest MP, Swarmin Wagle of the RSP, put it during a discussion in Kathmandu this week: this is fraud, corruption, human trafficking, transnational organised crime, and sedition, all rolled into one.

“There has been a meticulous legalisation of corruption through amendments in Parliament. So we seem to be creating a corruption-friendly regime,” said Wagle. “Our legal system needs to be able to catch up with those who are corrupt.”

The scam was possible in the first place because Nepal’s legal system allows it. Our Parliament is a farce, the judiciary is guilty of abetting the guilty, and impunity prevails upon the land. 

Despite widespread concern, the Transitional Justice Bill which allows war criminals to literally get away with murder was rushed through Parliament. It gave a clean chit to Maoists and state-side perpetrators of conflict-era atrocities. The Bill even made the disingenuous distinction between ‘murder’ and ‘extreme murder’.

In 2020, then communication minister Gokul Baskota was caught on tape soliciting a Rs700 million bribe for a security printing press. Less than two years later in the 2022 November federal elections, Baskota was voted to Parliament from Kavre-2.

There are scandals involving Maoist leaders pocketing compensation money meant for their guerrillas, kickbacks on international airport deals, payoffs for hydropower licenses. The list is so long it will exceed the word length for this Editorial.

Despite all these elephants in the room, Nepal’s conservative male politicians are obsessed about what RSP MP Sumana Shrestha wears in Parliament. The fact that her t-shirt and Chino was even a topic for discussion exposes not just blatant misogyny, but also a collective inability to discern our priorities and address the real issues affecting Nepalis. The contrast to a male MP who dared disrobe on the floor of the House not being an issue could not have been more stark.

Read on: In a Federal Kleptocratic Republic of Nepal, Shristi Karki

When impunity is rife and morals become elastic, we cannot fault desperate Nepalis attempting to break the law by trying to make fake refugee documents.
The scandals are coming thick and fast. A respected 75-year-old agriculture expert in Khotang is caught in a Setopati exposé abusing girls in a school he founded. 

Elsewhere, rapper Balen Shah who campaigned as the voice of the impoverished has since started upsetting the apple cart of street vendors in the name of cleaning up the streets. What happened to his election promise of segregating Kathmandu’s garbage at source?

The media also needs to self-reflect. Although it was the relentless pursuit of the story by Kantipur and other media that the fake refugee scam is throwing up more high profile guilty, the proof of the pudding will be in the persecution of the guilty.

The media cannot be an island of integrity when society has been hollowed out by corruption and wrongdoing. Journalists need to be even more careful to be objective, and not become mouthpieces for the highest bidders. This is even more crucial at a time when populism and ultranationalist sentiments have permeated all sectors of the state.

Sonia Awale