An excerpt from Thomas Bell’s fascinating Kathmandu

An excerpt from Thomas Bell’s fascinating Kathmandu

It’s obvious that Kathmandu is a nest of spies. The South Koreans and the Japanese are there to watch the North Koreans… The North Korean embassy is so poor it has to run a restaurant (called Pyongyang) to finance itself. The NID (Nepal intelligence wing) trails Pyongyang’s manager as he travels halfway across town, to save few rupees on the price of melons and mangos in the bazaars south of New Road. The North Koreans also make money by selling Viagra, which they apparently produce themselves. According to Nepali assessments, it works…

The Chinese are there to watch the Tibetan refugees. They are said to run extensive networks under the cover of volunteer teachers and language institutes, NGOs, restaurants, and small businesses; and they place agents among the refugees themselves before they escape across the mountains. A neighbourhood like Boudha, where the refugees gather, is jumping with informants and watchers.

The Indian intelligence agency RAW operates a station of scores of officers, because the Pakistani ISI uses Nepal to infiltrate counterfeit currency into India. Explosives have been found in Kathmandu in houses linked to Pakistani diplomats, and when an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu was hijacked in 1999 Pakistani diplomats were implicated. But mostly the RAW works on infiltrating and manipulating Nepali political parties, and many other institutions. ‘RAW’s not like a normal intelligence agency,’ a Western intelligence officer said. ‘It doesn’t do intelligence, it does political interventions.’

Restaurants and coffee shops where diplomats do their business are kept under domestic surveillance, but this is mostly to see which Nepalis are talking to whom. Nepalis don’t seem to spy on foreign governments very seriously, but they spy on each other with vigour…

About half of the NID is apparently still dedicated to spying on the government of the day’s political opponents, which must create a bewildering maze of personal calculation, because the organization is stuffed with political appointees, and the government changes so often. I arranged to meet an NID man at an Italian restaurant in Thamel, the tourist district… The intelligence man was fat, with short bulging fingers bound in gold rings; the rings bulging with coloured stones. He’d brought an underling along. We ate nothing, but quickly went through several gins and tonic while the underling clutched a bottle of beer. When I made a joke, that the guys playing carom outside a certain politician’s house were probably his colleagues, the NID man seemed to think I was being serious, and turned to his underling to ask if it was so. Then he offered me a story, about a man on surveillance duty who was getting his shoes cleaned while he loitered outside the Teaching Hospital. The target moved, and he had to take to his motorcycle with one shoe missing. ‘The shoe shine guy was probably a spy too,’ I said. ‘Yeah, a static post for the Indians! It’s like that now, so many people watching the same target, and when he’s gone to bed they’re always the last ones around: our guy, the Nepal Police, the APF, the army, RAW…’


There is no question that the British knew how the army treated prisoners. The British ambassador protested strongly to the Chief of Army Staff around the beginning of 2002, after a man who was collecting his father’s Gurkha welfare pension was arrested from a British Gurkha Welfare Centre, taken to an army camp, and summarily shot. The Doramba killings were raised at a meeting between the king and the British foreign secretary in London in August 2003. In December of that year, Amnesty International circulated a list… of nine people who had ‘disappeared’ in Kathmandu in the previous three months. A few days later the National Human Rights Commission published a list of hundreds of ‘disappeared’ people in the newspapers… The UN’s report on torture and disappearance at the Bhairabnath Battalion in late 2003 came out in May 2006, five months before Operation Mustang was closed down.

British public statements, and private discussions with the Nepali authorities… emphasized the need to protect human rights. Funding was provided to human rights NGOs… The Red Cross registered 1,122 detainees in the Kathmandu Valley between 2001 and 2006, but less than a third of their visits were to military establishments, to which they were rarely granted access. According to the Red Cross, 1,401 people were still missing from all parts of Nepal in 2012… There are eighty missing people in the Kathmandu Valley whose fate is unknown and a further seventeen for whom there is information that they are dead but whose remains have not been found…


By late 2004 it seemed that King Gyanendra was planning a coup to seize power outright. MI6 had strong indications of this from sources inside the palace and army… Through their senior contacts the British spies tried to pass their advice to the king, that a coup would be a bad move for the monarchy. An extra layer of cover was added to Operation Mustang when the High Altitude Research Centre was formally registered as an NGO on November 11. Around December that year the British and American ambassadors both sought assurances — and received them from the king personally — that no coup would take place… the final timing of the coup, on February 1, 2005, seems to have been a surprise to the British…

…the timing of the coup played havoc with all kinds of shipments. There were tons of military hardware waiting to be delivered, but the king forfeited it to the suspension of military supplies that Nepal’s vexed allies now imposed. Within months the army was running low on ammunition. ‘If he’d waited a few weeks the trucks would have been in Nepal,’ a general lamented. ‘But it was an auspicious day, an auspicious time, given by the astrologers.’

The same general said, ‘The king must be wise enough to understand. He must have a good ear for listening, but he lacked that…’

‘Unfortunately King Gyanendra couldn’t manage the political strings,’ said a top policeman…

Another general put it simply: ‘The Maoists had a better agenda’.

The war was a political issue, and in the end India managed the political strings…

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