Drug movements in South and East Asia
It is a sad truism that wherever money is made quickly and in a disorganised way by a class of society that suddenly identifies themselves as elite, the flow of illicit recreational narcotics soon follows. That is because, irrespective of the legal regimen theoretically in force to proscribe illegal narcotics, quickly wealthy people will suddenly create a demand for narcotics; and their poorer neighbours will react by generating a supply.
Nowhere is this more true than in a country such as Nepal, in which rule of law has broken down so entirely and absolutely every governmental and non-governmental function is for sale. Nepal suffers from diabolical corruption, and virtually all Nepalese people will admit as much. This no doubt is why the international community is reluctant to contribute to the country in more substantial terms with development assistance; and hence why the country suffers from such fragile institutional quality and abysmal physical infrastructure, including broken and potholed roads; periodic electricity blackouts, even in the capital Kathmandu; dangerous airlines, prone to crashes by reason of poor maintenance records; dirty tap water, by reason of the prevalence of the microbial infection giardiasis; and a variety of other horrors.
The people of Nepal, by reason of the country's low income status and its chronic corruption, cannot themselves afford to consume drugs; although in the tourist district of Thamel, in central Kathmandu, marijuana is routinely proffered to foreign visitors. However the country is a regional hub for the transit of narcotics, by reason of its lax border controls, institutional corruption and low rule of law. Moreover its remote location, as a land-locked state surrounded by India and China, with road arteries to its neighbours barely policed either at the frontiers or within and between major population centres, lends itself to the transit of illicit narcotics. Checks at Nepal's two international airports are cursory; those at her land borders with China and India, virtually non-existent.
China and India are two substantial emerging markets, with consequent emerging middle and upper classes. Those emerging wealthy classes wish to consume narcotics, a trend found virtually everywhere in the world emergent upon sudden increases in wealth. Nepal, a relatively backward developing country that has not benefited from the institutional and infrastructure enhancements that have swept across the rest of the South Asian subcontinent over the last twenty years, has regrettably emerged as an epicentre for the transit of illicit narcotics and other contraband.
Nepalese society, awash with corruption amidst every political class, in which rule of law is seldom more than nugatory, has acquiesced in these insidious developments. Indeed the development of the drugs trade has exacerbated the problems of corruption and institutional underdevelopment in Nepal. The law enforcement authorities, never entirely known for their probity, have become ever further undermined by this torrent of drug money out of which they expect the customary skim. Curiously luxuriant nightclubs have emerged across the country, notwithstanding Nepal's devastatingly poor infrastructure, lack of reliable electricity and appalling roads, and these nightclubs are populated with the customary members of the international drugs fraternity. In these institutions one will find people with tattoos from their faces and necks down through their bodies, indicating membership of various drugs cartels; and one will find the other international hangers-on associated with the cross-border trades in narcotics and other forms of vice.
All of this takes place without either the Police or the local people batting an eye-lid, because they are over-awed by the abundance of money that this type of illicit trade generates and from which they themselves generate a revenue in various types of commission. Moreover this sort of corrupt degradation of society infiltrates every pore of the culture, legal system and politics of Nepal. Suddenly awash with dirty money from the drugs trade, no form of honesty or integrity in Nepalese society is sacrosanct anymore. Every transaction becomes about theft or dishonest behaviour. If the drug dealers can make illegitimate money easily, then why should the rest of us not do so as well, so the Nepalese thinking goes, whether it be in the context of domestic politics, international borrowing and investment, extracting money from foreign tourists, or just general dishonesty in terms of Nepali people doing business with one-another.
China and India have new and affluent middle and upper classes, and as with all such emergent classes within a society a proportion of such people want access to drugs. Nepal, the beggarly neighbour of these two emerging superpowers, has become the conduit through which drugs to these new economies flows, and this is hindering Nepal's government and economic functions at a time when it is critical for the country to develop in a positive direction and emerge from its past as an underdeveloped, remote South Asian landlocked nation. The cyclical descent into institutional criminality that has accompanied the curse of Nepal becoming a drug transit point for two increasingly wealthy economic superpowers, with permeable land borders and abysmally low standards of rule of law, must surely deter both the international development institutions and other foreign investors.
This is Nepal's tragedy. This country, of fundamentally decent, friendly and tolerant people, is having the integrity of her institutional structures corroded by illegitimate money associated with international criminal behaviour. Although it has been accumulating over some years, Nepal has been gradually degraded as a state governed by rule of law by reason of the financial proceeds of crime and all the corruption both in state institutions and within the mentality of private individuals that this engenders.
It is a terribly sad site to behold. The question is what to do about it. Without doubt Nepal needs some more dramatic forms of international intervention, if she is to drag herself out of the current mire. Regrettably Nepal seems of little interest to anyone in the contemporary era, be it her historical European benefactor (the United Kingdom), or her now powerful neighbours India and China. The country is just being left to rot, the arbitrary fancy of a few privileged international tourists with sufficient resources to travel to the country and to engage in the international tourism industry in Nepal: itself profoundly corrupt and involving a bewildering array of kickbacks and illicit payments to public and private authorities alike.
Yet we achieve nothing if we leave Nepal to her fate as a small underdeveloped nation forgotten about by the internationally influential powers in the region. The consequence of such a short-sighted policy will surely be that Nepal descends ever further into a black hole of despair, with rule of law and democratic standards ever more neglected and the country's pitiful infrastructure remaining degraded. This benefits nobody. In particular, it harms Nepal's powerful neighbours, India and China, by reason of opening the floodgates of drug trafficking into their territories by reason of Nepal's porous borders with Bengal and Sikkim in India and Tibet in China. The onus must be upon India and China to invest in Nepal and to pull the country out of impoverishment, to avert the drugs and crime plague that rests upon their doorsteps. Those of us in the West with an interest in the history and culture of Nepal should work with the Indians and Chinese gently to nudge those countries in the right direction.
It is an imperative that contemporary Nepal be a modern, functioning state that does not tolerate organised crime, drug trafficking or other serious international crime. India and China have the principal interests in achieving this goal; but we all have a moral responsibility in the same direction.