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A Long Goodbye to the Gurkhas as an Imperial Tradition Fades

November 22, 1996

HONG KONG (AP) _ When Khem Bahadur Gurung was 16 and growing up in the Himalayan foothills, joining the British army was a family thing _ the honorable way for a young Nepalese to escape the poverty of village life.

Now 40, his wiry body still muscular from years of service, the former warrant officer has gone from guarding the empire to signing visitors in and out of the office block where he is a security guard.

``My father was in the army, and our grandfathers, they joined the British Army in India,″ he explains.

The Gurkhas, who have assumed legendary stature during their 180 years of service under the Union Jack, are winding down worldwide as the British Army downsizes.

Nowhere is the retreat more palpable than in Hong Kong, which says farewell to Her Majesty’s troops on July 1 when China regains sovereignty over the colony.

It is proving a long goodbye, as unit after unit disbands in simple, moving ceremonies across the tiny, crowded territory.

There’s a hint of hard feelings too, over the meager pensions the Gurkhas are receiving, compared with their British comrades-in-arms _ not that they complain outright to the media. Loyalty is ingrained in these mild-mannered men.

In 1992, 7,500 Gurkhas served in the British army, down from 250,000 in World War II. By next year, just 2,500 will be left.

``There is still a place in the British Army for them,″ says Army spokeswoman Ruth Vernon.

But not in Hong Kong, where the British Army will be replaced by Chinese troops. Gurkhas who choose not to return to Nepal must find civilian jobs and, like other ethnic minorities, face an uncertain future under Chinese rule.

Gurung says he doesn’t know whether he can stay on.

Although he has lived here for 15 years, army rules prevented him from applying for permanent residency. And since the post-handover residency laws have not yet been written, he can’t be sure he can stay and work in Hong Kong.

``I’m unlucky, I wasn’t born here. Will I have a job after 1997? I don’t know,″ he said.

Gurung says he didn’t mean to end up as an office guard. He returned to Nepal when he quit the army five years ago, went into business, but failed and came back to Hong Kong. His wife stayed in Nepal with their 17-year-old daughter, who was born in Hong Kong.

``The Gurkhas have had to take their slice of pain,″ says Maj. Stuart Thornborough, a British officer assigned to resettling retired Gurkhas.

At its height, the Gurkha battalion in Hong Kong numbered 4,800. According to British army figures, 650 ex-servicemen have stayed on, most of them guarding hotels, offices and the homes of the rich and powerful.

``The future of our country is not so bright,″ says Gurung, standing with the perfect posture learned from years of military training.

``So mostly we prefer to join the army. Even with a degree or diploma we don’t get very much money in Nepal.″

Some Nepalese villages depend entirely on the money sent home by their sons, who earn $1,750 a month in pay and benefits. It takes them less than a week to earn what the average Nepalese makes in a year.

But pensions are far smaller. Under a deal struck in 1947 based on Indian Army pay, a retired Gurkha soldier gets $36 to $127 a month, about 8 percent of a British soldier’s pension.

Cpl. Priti Narayan Rai, 29, is one of the lucky ones who are being transferred to Britain and remaining in uniform.

Rai, whose grandfather served in the army, is glad he still has his job, but says the experience is painful nonetheless.

Pointing to a copse of tall trees which he helped plant in his camp long ago, Rai said: ``I feel very sad. But it’s going to be cut, and nobody can stop it.″

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