Nepal looks to con­nect with neigh­bours

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page -

TWICE a year, a nor­mally de­serted bor­der check­point high on the Ti­betan plateau throngs with ac­tiv­ity as traders from Nepal flock to do busi­ness with their gi­ant north­ern neigh­bour China. A bian­nual trade fair in Ti­bet of­fers a rare op­por­tu­nity for those liv­ing in the re­mote for­mer Bud­dhist king­dom of Up­per Mus­tang in Nepal to cross the usu­ally closed bor­der into China, which is cul­ti­vat­ing closer ties with the Hi­malayan na­tion.

“This trade is very im­por­tant for us be­cause we live in such an iso­lated area,” said trucker Pasang Gu­rung, who was driv­ing to China for the fair.

“Ac­cess to Chi­nese cus­tomers and prod­ucts makes our lives much eas­ier ... I wish the bor­der were open all the time.”

The bor­der is usu­ally closed for security rea­sons as Up­per Mus­tang has his­tory as a base for the Ti­betan re­sis­tance.

But au­thor­i­ties in Nepal are in­creas­ingly look­ing to strengthen eco­nomic ties with China and re­duce its de­pen­dence on its other gi­ant neigh­bour In­dia.

It will have a long way to go in or­der to ac­com­plish that. Bi­lat­eral trade with In­dia be­tween July 2014 and June 2015 amounted to nearly US$4.5 bil­lion, dwarf­ing China’s $882 mil­lion.

An en­ergy agree­ment be­tween Kathmandu and Bei­jing in March ended In­dia’s mo­nop­oly over fuel sup­plies to Nepal, although it re­mains the big­gest sup­plier by far.

That deal was prompted by a months-long block­ade at the bor­der with In­dia to protest the terms of a new na­tional con­sti­tu­tion that led New Delhi to halt sup­plies, lead­ing to crip­pling short­ages.

Kathmandu ac­cused New Delhi of im­pos­ing an “un­of­fi­cial block­ade” in sup­port of the pro­test­ers, an eth­nic com­mu­nity that shares close fam­ily links with In­di­ans across the bor­der – a claim In­dia de­nied.

Su­jeev Shakya, chair of the Nepal Eco­nomic Fo­rum think tank, says that even be­fore the block­ade In­dia had a rep­u­ta­tion in Nepal for be­ing slow to de­liver.

A num­ber of In­dian hy­dropower projects have stalled due to dis­agree­ments over the terms of the deal, while China has pressed ahead.

One 60-megawatt power plant is un­der con­struc­tion and a 750-megawatt joint ven­ture worth $1.6 bil­lion is due for com­ple­tion by De­cem­ber 2019.

“The per­cep­tion here is that the Chi­nese tend to de­liver while In­dia keeps talk­ing,” Shakya told AFP.

“Over the years, China has gained more cred­i­bil­ity in Nepal be­cause of the pace at which they have put up in­fra­struc­ture projects.”

In Up­per Mus­tang’s me­dieval walled cap­i­tal of Lo Man­thang, con­struc­tion of a Chi­nese-funded 70-kilo­watt so­lar power sta­tion last year has al­lowed res­i­dents to ac­cess elec­tric­ity even dur­ing the months-long dry sea­son, when hy­dropower sup­plies fall short.

Lo­cals have wel­comed the in­vest­ment and are clam­our­ing for deeper eco­nomic ties.

“If the bor­der opens up, Lo Man­thang can be a cen­tre for trade, re­li­gious ac­tiv­i­ties, tourism,” said shop­keeper Kunga Dorje Gu­rung.

Around 1000 vis­i­tors a day use the Ko­rala check­point dur­ing the fair, trad­ing in ev­ery­thing from car­pets and cloth­ing to tea and bis­cuits.

The jour­ney has been made eas­ier by a new road to the bor­der that opened this year, which lo­cals hope will pres­sure Bei­jing to open the check­point more of­ten.

“The road has made trans­porta­tion of goods much eas­ier,” said Nepali busi­ness­man Tsh­er­ing Phuntsok Gu­rung, trav­el­ling to the bor­der with friends.

“Ear­lier, ev­ery­thing had to be car­ried on horses and the costs in­volved in hir­ing and feed­ing an­i­mals meant that the prices of the goods would also go up.”

The thriv­ing cross-bor­der trade in Up­per Mus­tang is par­tic­u­larly re­mark­able be­cause the re­gion was once the base for a CIA-funded guer­rilla cam­paign to oust Chi­nese forces from Ti­bet after a failed up­ris­ing in 1959.

Thutop Dad­hul, a Ti­betan refugee, was just 17 when he and his fam­ily of no­madic herders fled Chi­nese troops and crossed over into Up­per Mus­tang.

He threw him­self into the Ti­betan re­sis­tance move­ment, mak­ing dar­ing trips across the bor­der to gather in­tel­li­gence.

“We had to win back Ti­bet ... I am proud of the fact that I tried to do some­thing for my coun­try,” the 75-year-old told AFP in the re­sort town of Pokhara, where tourist shopfronts dis­play signs in Man­darin.

Out­gunned on every front, the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies con­tin­ued their fight even after the US gov­ern­ment with­drew sup­port in 1968 and only sur­ren­dered when the Dalai Lama asked them to lay down arms.

“I know the Chi­nese are be­ing very gen­er­ous to Nepal now, but that will change,” he said.

“Even­tu­ally they will seek more con­trol ... and things will get worse for refugees like us.” –

Pho­tos: AFP

The road to Lo Man­thang winds through Up­per Mus­tang.

Nepalese trader Tsh­er­ing Phuntsok Gu­rung sits in front of a shop.

In­side a shop in Lo Man­thang in Up­per Mus­tang, most of the goods for sale come from In­dia – not China. A truck drives along a dirt road in Ko­rala, on the Nepal-China bor­der in Up­per Mus­tang.

A Bud­dhist monk walks past chil­dren in Ghemi Village in Up­per Mus­tang, north­west of Kathmandu.

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