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Bhutanese refugee scam takes its toll, Nepal’s former PM Oli now in firing line

Former Nepal Home Minister Bal Krishna Khand

KATHMANDU: In a major setback to Nepal’s big political parties which appear to be losing popular support, some of the key leaders of the ruling Nepali Congress and main opposition—CPN (UML) faced criminal charges for their alleged involvement in a fake Bhutanese refugees scam.

District Attorney Office, Kathmandu on May 24, filed criminal cases at Kathmandu District Court against 30 individuals including former Deputy Prime Minister Top Bahadur Rayamajhi and former home minister Bal Krishna Khand, accusing their involvement in collecting money from several people with the promise of sending them to the US in disguise of Bhutanese refugees.

Since the scandal broke out, the UML suspended Rayamajhi from the party’s leadership position where he was a secretary at the central secretariat, the high command of the party.

But Khand continues to remain as a central working communist member of the ruling Nepali Congress despite the scandal.

Rayamajhi’s son Sandeep and Former Home Minister and UML Vice-chairperson Ram Bahadur Thapa’s son—Prateek have also been implicated in the scam.

It is one of the rare incidents where senior leaders of the major political parties have been implicated in criminal charges. They have been charged with four types of crimes—treason, organised crime, fraud and forgery.

Of nearly 120,000 Bhutanese refugees staying in different camps in western Nepal since early 1990s, as many as 113,500 were resettled to eight countries from 2007-2016 due to the lack of voluntary repatriation prospects, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Even though the UNHCR closed the chapter on resettling the leftover refugees in the third country, the Nepal government formed a task force in 2019 to recommend how the refugees, who were supposed to be resettled in the third country but were left behind.

But the defendants made efforts to send the Nepalis to the US in disguise as Bhutanese refugees after collecting millions of rupees from people. Busting of the plan led to the prosecution of senior political leaders, Home Ministry officials and others.

The incident has taken place at a time when popular support for the established political parties appears to be waning and new political forces are emerging.

Nepal’s political analysts said that it is a major setback to the country’s major political parties as they are losing credibility and new political forces like Rastriya Swatantra Party (RSP) are emerging and gaining support among the masses.

The RSP founded by Former Journalist Rabi Lamichane in June last year, is now the fourth largest political party in Nepal with 21 seats out of 275 in the country’s House of Representatives. Nepali Congress, UML and CPN (Maoist Centre) are the major three parties.

The growing popularity of the RSP was evident when the party won two of three vacant seats for the House of Representatives, with wide margins in the by-polls held on April 23.

“In my view the biggest beneficiary of this scam will be RSP,” Muma Ram Khanal, a political analyst told the India Narrative. “The scam highlighted the political decay of the major three parties—Nepali Congress, UML and the Maoist Centre even though none of the Maoist leaders have so far been implicated in the scam.”

He said that people consider the Maoists also part of the establishment who have no clean image when it comes to corruption and irregularities.

“Amid a crisis of confidence towards major political parties, a fertile ground for alternative forces to grow was being prepared before last elections in November,” said Khanal. “Now, the graph of mistrust towards the major parties grew further, widening the road for alternative forces to emerge and flourish.”

But the ruling Maoist Centre appears to be making all efforts to take credit for the prosecution of those allegedly involved in the scam.

Prime Minister and Chairperson of the Maoist Centre Pushpa Kamal Dahal said at an event in Kathmandu on Saturday that he had jumped into the fight against corruption like he did when his party launched a ‘people’s war’ between 2006 and 2016 against the state.

Rekha Sharma, minister for communication and information technology from the same party said at the same event that the government was facing pressure from all sides for launching a crusade against corruption.

Responding to the lawmakers at the parliament on May 27, Prime Minister Dahal said his government would not tremble under any pressure to give up the action against the corrupt. “Those involved in the fake refugee scam will be punished at any cost,” he said.

However, political analyst Khanal said the ruling Maoist Party is unlikely to take much benefit because Former Deputy Prime Minister Rayamajhi has its roots in Maoist Party and Former Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa whose son has also been implicated in the case, was also the senior Maoist leader before he switched to the UML’s fold. “Technically, they are not with the Maoist Party now. But their history is associated with the Maoist Party and the scam is unlikely to benefit the Dahal’s party,” he said.

Analysts said that Former Ministers Sher Bahadur Deuba, president of the ruling Nepali Congress and KP Sharma Oli, chairperson of the main opposition—UML suffered the biggest setback from the scam.

Recently, an audio tape appeared on social media that suggested Deuba’s wife Arzu Rana also allegedly received cash from racketeers who were making all efforts to send fake Bhutanese refugees to the US. Oli’s former advisor Ajaya Kranti Shakya also allegedly received NPR 10 million as per the statement of a defendant in the case.

“The scam is especially a big setback to Oli, who really feels it as he asserted in an event that his party leaders have been targeted selectively for the scam,” said Lok Raj Baral, a professor of political science and former ambassador of Nepal to India.

Speaking at an event organised at the headquarter of the party on May 23, Oli said that the accused in the Bhutanese refugee scam were forced to name the UML leaders selectively as responsible for the scam to smear the image of his party.

“I know how the investigation takes place in Nepal,” he said. He also said his party would not tolerate if anybody tries to smear the image of his party by compelling the accused to name his party leaders as participants in the scam.

With leaders of the major two parties being implicated in the case and names of the insiders of both Deuba and Oli embroiled in the case, political analysts said that it would be difficult for Prime Minister Dahal to initiate major action to bring all those responsible for the scam to book.

“He will be compelled to balance his approach between the need to retain the current ruling coalition intact and do something to calm public anger with limited action against those involved in the scam,” said Baral. “As his government is reliant on Nepali Congress, he does not have much room to anger Deuba.”

The government led by Dahal also decided to release former lawmaker Resham Chaudhary who was convicted for murdering a number of police personnel in 2015, through a presidential pardon, as he wanted to retain support from Nagarik Unmukti Party, a ruling coalition partner. On the occasion of Republic Day on May 29, Chaudhary was pardoned among 501 pardoned by the president as per the recommendation of the cabinet.

“This will help Dahal to continue to enjoy the support of the Nagarik Unmukti Party, which had long demanded the release of Chaudhary, who had founded the party,” said Khanal.

However, analysts say that the Bhutanese refugee scam is less likely to benefit Dahal. They said the RSP could be a major beneficiary. “The RSP has already posed huge challenges to the established political parties,” said Baral. “This scam appears to have benefited the RSP further which could help to galvanise more support as the public support for traditional parties is faltering.”