The Golden Triangle

Published On: July 28, 2023 09:00 AM NPT By: Narayan Manandhar

Akin to Burma, Laos and Thailand – also called the Golden Triangle or a hub for smuggling of drugs in South East Asia, China-Nepal-India is becoming another Golden Triangle in South Asia.

Reading the news related to the smuggling of nearly one quintal of gold from the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) gives an impression of watching a new sequel of Jatra - a Nepali blockbuster comedy-crime thriller.

The opposition parties, as well as the party in power, have stalled house proceedings, demanding the government conduct proper investigation into gold smuggling. While the CPN-UML, the main opposition party, is demanding the formation of a high-level investigation team, an MP from the ruling Nepali Congress has warned of launching a fast-unto-death inside parliament if no actions were taken against the culprits! Devendra Paudel, an MP from the Maoist party, quips, “Why is the opposition demanding the ministers’ resignation when, in fact, they should be given due credit for busting the scandal?” Clearly, this is a ploy to distract government investigation.

The most ludicrous argument comes from Rabi Lamichhane, the RSP President. He said the following in parliament: “Instead of nabbing the smugglers right at the gate of the airport customs office, the smugglers should have been closely watched, monitored and followed (like in Hollywood, Bollywood crime movies!) and the whole gang could have been busted right at their HQ.” A reasonable mind could only ask: what would have happened if the investigating team had lost that trail? 

Meanwhile the police are busy confiscating cartons of motorcycle brake pads from the warehouse of the trading house implicated in the smuggling crime. They reported even snatching a device used for melting gold. But they have not found a clue of where the gold, said to have been imported over 2000 kilos in the past, must have disappeared. One can add a pinch of salt to the thriller movie: the day 100 kilos of gold was seized outside the airport, the chief of the airport customs office and the airport security chief were on leave. The airport custom office chief has been transferred (ostensibly as a punishment or to hide the evidence?); the men nabbed so far are mules or small fries used to carry gold. The proprietor of the trading house implicated in the case has turned out to be a laborer in construction works. Someone has misused his citizenship certificate to register a trading house under his name.

Earlier, I wrote in this paper explaining the jungle of corruption in Nepal. The security people nabbing 100 kg of gold is just a tip of the iceberg. It is like reading a leaf – an isolated case, not even a tree; forget about understanding the whole jungle of corruption out there.

In the media, one has been reading accusations and counter-accusations related to gold smuggling since the bad old days of monarchy in Nepal. Now, the home minister, perhaps looking for a media stunt, irritated the opposition party by indirectly pointing at the residence of their party leader as the HQ of the smuggling racket. Why would the finance minister be any less? He made the comment that “the latest detection of gold smuggling was possible due to prize money.” Those who have keenly watched such seizures of smuggled gold in the past know that the prize money or incentives provided to the informer has been a big source of corruption in Nepal.

For a long time, Nepal has been a safe haven for money laundering, illicit financial flows, cartelling of drugs, gold and other counterfeit items including human trafficking. In fact, the whole economy has survived and thrived due to corruption and black economy. Akin to Burma, Laos and Thailand – also called the Golden Triangle or a hub for smuggling of drugs in South East Asia, China-Nepal-India is becoming another Golden Triangle in South Asia.

These days we don’t get much news about the smuggling of red sandalwood from India to China via Nepal simply because Nepal is a signatory to CITES. So, trading in sandalwood is illegal in Nepal but not in China or India. In the early 1990s, gold smuggling from Hong Kong to Nepal was perpetrated by the uncertainty over the recruitment of Gurkha soldiers in the British Army as Britain was preparing to relinquish its control of Hong Kong to China in 1996.

With President Xi Jinping steadily strengthening his anti-corruption drive in China, there is a steady outflow of gold or black money from China. Obviously, there is insatiable demand for gold in India. Chat Gpt reports that, historically, India has been one of the largest consumers of gold globally, driven by cultural and religious traditions that consider gold as a symbol of wealth, status, and auspiciousness.With China as a source and India as a destination country, Nepal, with its nearly free, unregulated open border in the South, is an easy transit point for smuggling of gold. The involvement of Chinese, Nepali and Indian citizens in the smuggling of gold clearly points to the fact that Nepal is merely a transit point. With the poor and small size of the economy, no one can imagine the demand for that much gold inside Nepal. Political diplomats speak ad nauseam how the political rivalry between China and India has badly squeezed Nepali politics. What I see here is how the economic growth in China and India is badly squeezing the Nepali economy. Earlier, the border points in the South (India) were the centers of illegal trades. Now, it is at the border points in the North (China). Currently, Nepal represents a typical case of the classical saying, “When two elephants fight (or make love!), it is the grass that suffers.”

In the deep jungle of corruption, anti-corruption becomes a double-edged sword. One edge can be used to protect or defend the government while the other edge can be used to tame or discipline the irritating opposition members. We have one week of time – till the PM returns from his official trip to Italy - left to see which edge of the sword will be used in the name and game of fighting corruption?

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