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The BBC's Sue Lloyd Roberts in Nepal
"The Gurkha regiment is one of the most decorated in the British army"
 real 28k

Thursday, 27 January, 2000, 18:46 GMT
Recruiting for the Gurkha regiment

Gurkha soldiers Hundreds of men apply to join the British army


By Sue Lloyd Roberts in Pokhara

Outside a recruiting centre in Pokhara, central Nepal, hundreds of young men file in for the final selection process for entry into the British army.



I've wanted to join since I was little...because it is very difficult to find a job in Nepal
Mani Gurung
It takes months - from basic literacy tests to the ability to race up a mountain with 35kg of rocks strapped on their backs.

It was over a 180 years ago that the British army decided it couldn't defeat these men in battle and so started to recruit them instead.

The Gurkha Regiment is one of the most decorated in the British army and one of its most valuable assets.


Not everyone makes the cut
But the unquestioning loyalty and devotion of the British Gurkha can no longer be taken for granted.

As so often in relations between wealthier countries and the developing world, even here there have been allegations of exploitation.

Protest

Demonstrations by angry Gurkha veterans have become commonplace in the Nepali capital Kathmandu.


Demonstrations in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu
The Gurkhas argue that they have sacrificed their lives for long enough but they do not get the same benefits as other British soldiers.

The British say these are trouble makers, encouraged by the local communist party.

With the cost of living an estimated 170 a year in Nepal, they argue, these men are amply rewarded.

At the lowest level, pensions have recently been doubled to 750 a year.

But, encouraged by the way British tabloid newspapers have taken up their cause, the Gurkha veterans' organisation want more.

Free education and guaranteed jobs for their children, right of abode in the UK and pensions equal to a British soldier.

Pension dispute

Such a pension would make a Gurkha veteran a hundred times wealthier than a retired soldier in Britain.

"That's not the point," says Lieutenant Yam Bahadur Gurung.

"The British owe a debt to the Gurkhas - an immense debt which cannot be valued in pounds, let's put it like that," he says.

But the British army is sensitive to charges of exploitation.


Asanta Rai lost her husband in Kosovo
Asanta Rai, the widow of the Gurkha sergeant killed recently in Kosovo, has received a 54,000 death in service payment, equal to a British widow.

It makes her, in local terms, a millionairess.

But, she explains, being a Gurkha in Nepal carries certain obligations.

"It's true that a British Gurkha in Nepal earns a lot of money but then he is expected to support his own family and the extended family besides," she says.

Pressure

Which accounts for the pressure on young men to join.


Not many jobs in rural Nepal
"I've wanted to join since I was little, mainly for financial reasons because it is very difficult to find a job in Nepal," says 18-year-old Mani Gurung.

"That's why I want to be a British Gurkha."

There are no jobs in rural Nepal and the only alternative for a young man here is subsistence farming.

It is noticeable that the houses belonging to Gurkha veterans in rural Nepal are richer than their neighbours.

Eight young men applied from Mani's village and I asked his mother how important is was that her son got in.

"I will be devastated if he is not chosen," said Ril Suba Gurung.

"We are counting on him. I am just waiting for the news," she said.

And the news came the next day. Mani has got in and is on his way to the UK.

"Now it's your turn," his mother says, to the next oldest brother.

Whatever the rows going on in Kathmandu, up in the hills it is still every boy's dream to join the British army.

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See also:
27 Oct 99 |  Europe
Benefit boost for Gurkha widows
25 Jun 99 |  South Asia
Gurkhas fight for equal benefits
24 Jun 99 |  UK
Gurkha death sparks criticism
23 Jun 99 |  UK
Gurkha family 'shattered'
22 Jun 99 |  UK
Nato bomb caused Gurkha deaths
13 Jun 99 |  UK
Gurkhas: A force to be reckoned with

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