A former Maoist child soldier who has long been campaigning for justice for thousands of minor guerilla fighters during the decade-long insurgency was stopped from travelling to Thailand on Friday, the latest example of the length the K.P. Oli administration will go to tighten its grip on individual freedom.
Lenin Bista, 27, was already issued a boarding pass and had cleared immigration at the Tribhuvan International Airport when he was asked stopped by immigration officials from proceeding to the gate. Officials told Bista, who was on the 9:50 a.m. Nepal Airlines flight to Bangkok, that he couldn’t travel abroad because he was ‘partially blacklisted’ on Friday morning itself.
The ban on Bista is the second incident in two months where government officials have stopped someone at the immigration from leaving the country. On July 8, Nepal Sanskrit University Vice-chancellor Kul Prasad Koirala was barred from flying to Canada, saying he was travelling without prior permission from the prime minister who happens to be the chancellor of the varsity.
After he was denied travel, Bista demanded that immigration officials provide in written the reasons behind the restrictions. Bista was then handed a letter with just a single line that said: “He [Bista] had not received permission or recommendation from the concerned authority to participate in the programme.” There are no legal provisions that require a Nepali citizen to ask for permission before travel abroad.
Immigration officials at the Tribhuvan International Airport told the Post they were asked to stop Bista from traveling because the organisation that had invited him wasn’t listed with Nepal government. When asked if there were any legal grounds or precedent for such requirement, one official said he wasn’t aware of any.
“I don’t have much idea on the issue as I am new here,” said Laxman Thapa, the acting chief at the airport immigration. We worked as per the direction from higher authority.”
In an interview with the Post, Bista said he was stopped because the government feared he would raise the issue of child combatants in the international forum, and accused senior officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is led by Maoist leader Ram Bahadur Thapa, of trying to silence him. “Surya Subedi, who is an advisor to the home minister, asked me to show him my presentation that I was planning to give at the workshop,” Bista said. “He then threatened to stop me at the immigration—and, he succeeded in doing so.”
Subedi responded to Bista’s accusation, calling them rubbish. In a phone interview with the Post, he said he had no idea Bista was travelling to Thailand. Subedi, who is a former central working committee member of the CPN (Maoist Centre), has been mired in controversy in the past. Last month, he was blamed of forcibly taking a doctor from the National Trauma Center and detaining him at the home ministry because the doctor had refused to prepare a medical report for former Maoist combatants according to government’s instructions.
Bista was traveling for a five-day workshop on “Youth in Conflict Areas: Healing and Peace-building through Social Engagement” organised by Asian Resource Good Governance, scheduled to kickoff on Saturday. “This is absolutely ridiculous. The government has violated my right to travel freely,” Bista told the Post.
Bista joined the Maoists as a fighter in 2002 when he was hardly 11 years old. He was underground for around four years before the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) agreed to give up arms after signing the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006. Bista was then living in the Maoist cantonments, along with thousands of other soldiers, waiting for integration into the Nepal Army. However, during the verification process by the United Nations Mission in Nepal that ended in December 2007, officials concluded that 2,972 Maoist guerillas, including Bista, were child soldiers and therefore were rejected from the integration process.
Since then, Bista has been leading the Discharged People’s Liberation Army Struggle Committee, demanding that the use of child combatants be treated as a war crime. The committee has held a number of protests to demand employment opportunities for former child combatants.
Bista has lodged a complaint at National Human Rights Commission, saying the government has violated his fundamental right to move freely and also has demanded assurances for his safety. “We will investigate into the case and take necessary actions,” Commission’s spokesperson Mohna Ansari told the Post. “My personal reading is that the incident is yet another instance to hint the government is gradually taking an authoritarian path.”
Bista said he will also take the issue to the Supreme Court on Sunday.
This story has been updated.