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Record Numbers of Nepalese Apply to Gurkha Brigade as Rules, Political Situation Change


A record number of young Nepalese men are applying to join the British army's Brigade of Gurkhas. With political uncertainty continuing to undermine Nepal's economy, a job with the Gurkhas is one of the best employment prospects in the country, even though the soldiers could be sent to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. Liam Cochrane reports from Pokhara, in central Nepal.

This year, more than 17,000 young men lined up outside recruiting offices around Nepal, all hoping to enlist in the British army's Brigade of Gurkhas.

But only 230, or one in 75 of the applicants, will be make it into the British Army this year, with a further 64 recommended to the Singapore Police.

The British army has been recruiting Gurkha soldiers for almost two centuries, and 3,500 Gurkhas are currently deployed around the world, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

After a long battle for equal rights, Nepalese Gurkhas now enjoy the same pensions and salaries as native British soldiers, with a starting wage of 12,500 pounds, onsidered a small fortune in this, one of the world's poorest nations.

Like many of his countrymen, Asip Limbu was attracted by the prestige and the money.

"British Army is very famous in the world and we can get a lot of money after joining there," he said.

The Gurkhas are famously tough soldiers, and the selection process is also tough. Along with tests in English, mathematics and general fitness, recruits must complete a five-kilometer run up a steep hill carrying a 25-kilogram basket of sand.

Major Toby Jackman is the commanding officer at the British camp in the town of Pokhara, and his main job is to recruit Gurkha soldiers. He says that while a growing population and better army advertising partly explain the increasing number of applicants, the situation within Nepal is also causing many to seek jobs abroad.

"Things have changed here in Nepal, sadly the country has gone through a period of conflict, there has been a movement of population into the more urban areas, and there is perhaps a higher tendency than was in the past for some of the young people of Nepal to look abroad for work," he said.

A set of British army guidelines introduced earlier this year has opened the door for Gurkhas to move into new areas of the military once they have served five years, potentially leading to new career paths for the recruits of today. Previously, opportunities for Nepalese Gurkhas were limited.

In another change, the introduction of equal opportunity guidelines means female Gurkhas will be recruited starting in 2009.

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