Captain Lachiman Gurung, a Gurkha who received the Victoria Cross, the British army’s highest honour, marks Veterans Day in London. Photo: AFP
Tim I Gurung
Tim I Gurung

Hongkongers should learn from how Britain treated the Gurkhas

  • Britain’s sudden interest in Hongkongers’ welfare is not about democracy or rights, but about securing a post-Brexit workforce and destabilising China
  • If the British can treat the Gurkhas – their loyal fighting friends of over 200 years – with cruelty and apathy, how do you think they will treat Hongkongers?
Britain’s recently adopted policy to grant Hongkongers with British National (Overseas) passports a pathway to citizenship in the UK seems to be a pretty generous offer. Indeed, many Hongkongers have already taken advantage of it.

But there’s also something puzzling about this policy: it is the most interest the British have shown in Hong Kong’s internal affairs since they handed the city back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

One wonders, why the sudden change of heart? After all, the British ruled Hong Kong for more than 150 years before the handover.

The explanation given by the British government for the BN(O) scheme was familiar. Under Chinese rule – so the British claimed – democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and press freedom had all eroded drastically, creating an unsafe environment for Hongkongers.

This “explanation” mystified me. What part of Hong Kong were they talking about, I wondered.

I have been living in Hong Kong since 1980 yet, despite not coming from mainstream society, I have never felt my freedom or rights were ever in danger.

And as for democracy, Hong Kong has never been one, even under the British. You cannot take away things that do not exist.

In fact, rather than answer anything, the British “explanation” raises two serious questions.

The first concerns why the British did not seriously try to introduce any democratic policies in Hong Kong during their long period of rule (barring the mischievous last-minute endeavour by the last British governor Chris Patten; whether this was aimed at making or breaking Hong Kong is another story).


20 years, 20 people: former Gurkha sergeant Tim I. Gurung

20 years, 20 people: former Gurkha sergeant Tim I. Gurung

Secondly, why have the British started caring so much about Hongkongers now, almost a quarter of a century after leaving? Why the sudden generosity after remaining so quiet and indifferent for such a long time? Why now? Isn’t it strange?

The answer is twofold: Brexit and China.

Brexit cost the British access to the European Union’s market and its vast pool of workers. Britain hopes to fill that void with young Hongkongers with their business know-how, skill and expertise. It also hopes rich Hongkongers can stimulate the stalling British property sector to give a much-needed boost to its Covid-ravaged economy.

Then there is China. With the country overtaking the developed world in various sectors the West has got scared and is trying to whack the new kid on the block by any means possible. The Five Eyes spying alliance, of the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, felt it could not just sit there and watch its power seep away. Instead it saw Hong Kong – the only place within Chinese jurisdiction where its agents can move around and work freely – as an easy target. Its spies provoked the Hong Kong protests and as a result the city faced unprecedented turmoil and chaos. The rest is history.

Take China out of the equation, and I can assure you that nobody would be talking about Hong Kong right now.

A crumbling Hindu temple part of Gurkha heritage in Hong Kong’s Fanling

You would have to be naive to think that the British genuinely care about Hongkongers. Britain’s offer is all about national interest. Hongkongers are a helpful tool used to achieve its goal, which is to irritate and destabilise China.

Perhaps, Hongkongers can learn a thing or two from the British-Gurkha relationship.

Men from the hillsides of Nepal began joining the British Army in 1815, right after the end of the first phase of the Anglo-Gurkha War of 1814-16. They have been serving the British Crown ever since.

The Gurkhas played an essential role in establishing the British Raj in India and fought for the British in Afghanistan, what was then Burma, Tibet and in countless other conflicts.

In the first world war alone, tiny Nepal, with a population of around five million, sent over 200,000 Gurkhas to fight for the British. One in 10 never returned. In the second world war over 250,000 Gurkhas fought alongside the British and more than 33,000 never returned.


Gurkhas who served Hong Kong only have flimsy foam plinth to commemorate ancestors

Gurkhas who served Hong Kong only have flimsy foam plinth to commemorate ancestors

After India’s independence in 1947, the Gurkhas were split between the Indian and the British armies, and the British garrison moved to what was then Malaya and Singapore.

The Gurkhas fought two bloody wars in Southeast Asia, surviving the Malay Emergency and the Borneo Confrontation before moving in 1971 to Hong Kong where they helped contain the illegal immigrant crisis of the early 1980s.

After 1997, the Gurkhas moved to the UK and continued to take part in operational duties around the world.

Indeed, in the past 200 years there has not been a single war fought by the British in which Gurkhas did not fight alongside them to prove their loyalty.

And yet, the British have taken the Gurkhas for granted and mistreated them disgracefully.

Between the second world war and 1994, Gurkhas were paid 10 times less than their British counterparts. Meanwhile, those severely injured in either of the world wars were sent home without severance pay or pensions.

Gurkhas fought for Britain. Now, with hunger strike, they are fighting for dignity

When the British left Hong Kong two-thirds of the remaining Gurkhas were sent packing, many of them forced to die in poverty back in the villages of Nepal.

To fight against the discrimination, inequality, and disparity they faced in the British Army, the Gurkhas have been campaigning for justice since the early 1990s.

They have won some rights along the way, including in 2009 the right of abode in the UK for both Gurkhas and their families.

Still, some grievances remain and need to be resolved. The Gurkhas have drawn up a list of 13 issues, mostly relating to pensions, welfare and legal issues facing Gurkha children coming to the UK. They have appealed to the British government and took to the streets of London in protest on June 15 and July 1, 2021.

Should the British government continue to ignore them, three Gurkha veterans will start a hunger strike at Downing Street on July 21 and starve themselves to death.


Generations apart: Hong Kong Gurkhas and their offspring

Generations apart: Hong Kong Gurkhas and their offspring

Nepal, as a sovereign country, has never been a British colony. And yet, Nepal has for the past 206 years let the British go there and select its best youths to join its army and risk their lives in its battles.

Nepal has always treated Britain as its best friend, yet in return the British have exploited and abandoned the Gurkhas, so much so that they haven’t even updated the 1947 treaty signed between Britain, Nepal and India surrounding their use.

Meanwhile, due to a lack of vaccines and proper medical facilities, Nepal has been overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic and is struggling to save its people from the deadly virus.

Despite repeated requests by the government and other organisations, the British have failed to provide a single vaccine dose for Nepal. Consequently, many people have died, including Gurkha veterans.

If the British can treat the Gurkhas, their loyal friends of over 200 years, with such cruelty and apathy, how do you think they will treat Hongkongers?

Tim I Gurung is a novelist, an ex-Gurkha, author of an acclaimed Gurkha book and lives in Hong Kong