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NEPALESE MILITARY TRADITION IS IN RETREAT

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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 Hong Kong, 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.

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 and went into business but failed and came back to Hong Kong.

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

"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.