March 30, 2001


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Major General Ashok K Mehta (Retd)

The Bhutanese dilemma

In a country that never hits the headlines, two strategic issues are currently dominating the news in Bhutan. Both are problems dealing with refugees and both have their origins in 1990.

The first relates to 90,000 Bhutanese who became refugees in Nepal after changes in Bhutan's nationality laws. The second concerns nearly 2000 Assamese (ULFA and Bodos) armed rebels who have taken sanctuary in the eastern jungles of Bhutan and regard themselves as guests in the country.

A breakthrough was made at least late last year, between Nepal and Bhutan in their tenth round of negotiations on the question of verification and repatriation of refugees, who are mostly ethnic Nepali-Hindus who farmed in the southern plains of Bhutan. Joint verification teams visited refugee camps in Nepal last week in order to determine their nationality status and ultimate return to their homeland, Bhutan.

It has been suggested that international organizations like UNHCR be included in the verification process as it will ensure a fair and honourable resettlement of refugees. But there are bound to be social and psychological problems over reintegration.

It is the forced asylum secured by armed insurgent groups from neighbouring Assam and their evacuation that is proving intractable. The most violent attacks against Bhutanese nationals were staged last December when rebels killed 13 and wounded 16 of them on the border between Bhutan and Assam.

These unprovoked attacks on innocent Bhutanese have left the country in shock and trauma. The hard core ULFA and Bodo militants are known to be operating from their safe havens in Bhutan against the people of Assam and the security forces there.

For the last four years, Bhutan's parliament has been debating security problems posed by the rebels. It considers these threats the most serious the country has ever faced. Parliament and the people have left it to their king, Jigmey Wangchuck, to deal with the Assamese rebels. The king has held wide-ranging consultations within the country as well as with India on ways of meeting the challenge.

The Bhutanese Army Chief, Gen Lam Dorji, has said that the Royal Bhutan Army, RBA which has 20 battalions, has to be prepared for military action and the consequences arising from it. The RBA is trained and equipped by the Indian Army. They will require reorientation training to combat the rebel menace.

The king is also preparing the people of Bhutan for the aftermath of any future military confrontation with the insurgent groups holed up in their jungle camps in the far east of the country. Allowing armed rebels to operate against India (Assam) from Bhutanese soil constitutes an unfriendly act and goes against the letter and spirit of the 1949 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries.

Bhutan is running out of options for persuading the armed militants to relocate their camps outside Bhutan. A four-point action plan of
1. Negotiated withdrawal
2.Ceasing supplies to their camps
3.Punishing those assisting rebels with their supplies and
4. Military action has exhausted the non military options. Bhutan is still hopeful of a peaceful resolution of the problem. But this is wishful thinking.

The military option, since it has been considerably delayed, is fraught with risks. The RBA, even after counterinsurgency training and a modernization package, will be unable to cope with the threat and challenge posed in stirring up a hornets nest. If and when it decides to go in against rebel camps, joint operations will be more cost effective in containing the fallout of military action.

The Indian Army has contingency plans for flushing out the rebels, both single-handedly and in cooperation with RBA. In fact, the right time to go in after the rebels was the summer of 1997.

Unlike in other counterinsurgency situations, the layout of ULFA and Bodo camps inside Bhutan is fairly well known and documented. There are at least 7 to 10 large and an equal number of smaller camps about 30 to 40 km inside the border, stretching northwards, up to 200 km. These camps are protected by the traditional layers of security cordons including 'lookouts' and 'trip wires'. Senior commanders are billeted in special camps. The army is known to have video films and photographs of some of these camps. These are elaborately laid out with training facilities and families and children also live in some of these camps.

The best case scenario of military action envisages that while a bulk of the rebels will manage to escape, their bases and camps will be destroyed. Some arms and explosives will be recovered. The operation will have set the military cat among the rebel pigeons. With their sanctuaries disrupted, ULFA and Bodo cadres will be on the run. It is possible that they could relocate in central and west Bhutan and take reprisals against Thimpu, Paro and other bigger towns in Bhutan. The induction of Indian troops inside Bhutan would become a political talking point and, no doubt, be diplomatically flagged by China with whom Bhutan is engaged in sensitive border talks.

What the king fears most is that Bhutan, the last Shangri-la in the world, may become a hotbed of insurgency, given the potential for dissident Bhutanese and Nepalese factions ganging up with Assamese rebels. There are underground elements inside and outside Bhutan demanding the replacement of monarchy with democracy. The events in Sikkim and Nepal, where a five-year old Maoist insurgency has paralysed the country are writings on the wall the king cannot ignore.

The royal dilemma is compounded by the fact that Bhutan's lifeline passes through Assam and can be blocked any time by the rebels. The monarch also knows his statistics: Assam's 25 million population against his own 600,000.

Despite the limitations on the Indian Army's counterinsurgency operations in Assam due to armed camps in Bhutan, India is not pushing Bhutan into independent or joint military action. It appears at least for now, that the present stalemate of no action is preferred by Bhutan than a long drawn out counterinsurgency campaign inside the country. But whenever the military operation is launched it will be successful only if both Bhutan and India can achieve military surprise.

Bhutan is the only country in the world that measures its well-being not just by the index of GNP but also through the more spiritual concept of GNH -- Gross National Happiness. Letting sleeping dogs lie favours the latter.

What the Bhutanese king fears most is that his country may become a hotbed of insurgency, given the potential for dissident Bhutanese and Nepalese factions ganging up with Assamese rebels.

General Ashok K Mehta

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