CRACKDOWN IN BHUTAN

Print edition : January 16, 2004

After years of dithering despite pressure from India, the Bhutan government finally realises the threat posed to it by three Indian insurgent groups that had entrenched themselves in the forests of the kingdom's border and takes military action against them.

in Guwahati

BIJU BORO/AFP

Bhutanese soldiers at the border in the Bhutanese district of Sandrup Jongkhar on December 17.

THERE is little doubt about the outcome of the military operations launched by the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) on the morning of December 15 to clear the kingdom of three closely allied separatist militant groups from Assam and north Bengal whose fight is against India but who had entrenched themselves in well-established camps in Bhutan for over a decade and had clearly overstayed their welcome.

Within days of the launching of the military operations, Bhutan was claiming that all the 30 camps of the organisations - the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), with 13, 12 and five camps respectively - had been "smashed". The estimated 3,000 or so inmates of the camps, some of them non-combatants, were on the run. Those who chose to fight were either killed or captured or were forced to flee, dispersing themselves into the difficult terrain of east and southern Bhutan, very broadly the theatre of operations.

The process is still on. There is, however, little doubt that sooner than later, this phase too will come to an end. Despite the claims to the contrary by ULFA leaders, its chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and commander-in-chief Paresh Barua, who are not in Bhutan but who regularly telephone correspondents over their satellite telephones, send e-mail to newspapers or give detailed interviews to Assam-based websites, the organisation and its allies have suffered a setback. The kind of infrastructure that the outfits had built in southern and eastern Bhutan in over a decade of open and semi-clandestine work cannot be revived immediately.

According to the Bhutan government, the military operations are an all-Bhutan affair, with King Jigme Singye Wangchuk himself leading his troops from the front. The Indian armed forces, massively present and actively engaged in anti-terrorist operations in the region, were providing only logistical support - "sealing the international border" (whatever that term means, for the India-Bhutan border in the Assam sector alone runs to over 260 km), ferrying the injured to hospitals in India, capturing those militants who tried to break into Indian territory and killing those who offered fight.

These claims have not carried much conviction on the Indian side of the border. ULFA leaders maintain that the Indian armed forces are actively taking part in the fighting on the ground. There has been at least one newspaper report of the arrival of a coffin wrapped in the Indian tricolour at 11 Garhwal helipad at Darranga, on the Indian side of the border south of Samdrup Jongkhar, one of the districts where the dismantled camps were situated.

Barring the handing over to the Indian Army authorities of 37 women and 27 children, many of the former themselves militants, and of some leading captured militants like Bhimkanta Buragohain, one of the founder leaders of ULFA, whose formal surrender to the Indian Army in Tezpur with a call to his comrades to follow suit was widely broadcast on December 26, there has been no official statement from Bhutan on the progress of the operation, the number of militants captured or killed and the material captured. The Director of Bhutan's Foreign Affairs Ministry, accessible always on the telephone, has been speaking only in the most general terms, reiterating the points made in the official statement explaining why Bhutan was forced to act finally.

With such total news blackout successfully enforced by the Bhutan authorities, there have been only guesstimates, attributed mostly to unnamed sources, of casualties on either side, and of persons captured. These too, like all such guesstimates, vary wildly. But all reports agree that over 100 militants have been killed and over 500 have surrendered or have been captured. Even allowing for a margin of 10 per cent error and augmenting by 10 per cent the guesstimates of the numbers of those killed, or captured and those who surrendered, a large number of the generally cited camps' population of about 3,000 or so militants still remain unaccounted for.

This virtual blackout of all news from inside Bhutan has led to wild speculations and propagation of urban legends. It has also given a free run of the media to the leaders of the separatist organisations who are more than forthcoming with their version of what is happening, with website interviews and e-mail and personal calls over satellite telephone to select reporters. The strange case of Buragohain, affectionately called Mama, provides an instructive example of the shaping and growth of such urban legends, of myth and fantasy, deliberately constructed or merely wishful, overshadowing and taking precedence over dull but inescapable facts.

Two days after the operation was launched, there were reports citing unnamed Bhutan Army authorities and apparently confirmed by an Indian Army officer that Buragohain had died of wounds sustained on the first day of the operations. Following this report, there was much indignation in the State, cutting across all other divides, as much over the killing of an elderly leader as over the failure of the authorities to hand over the `body' to the next of kin. The issue dominated the news for nearly a week until it finally turned out that he was not dead but had surrendered.

This was at a time when the authorities were not saying a word (and are even now not saying much) about the operations, leading to complaints from the media about the `lack of transparency' on the part of the Bhutan authorities. Of course, the media here as elsewhere have never been exactly modest about their role in the larger affairs of the state, including the conduct of war. The United States understands such delusions about occupying the moral high ground and also knows only too well how to stoke and feed this vainglory - which explains the unique phenomenon of the `embedded reporters' accompanying the invading troops in Iraq, and using them to sell the U.S. version of the events to the rest of the world. Bhutan, being a poor country, simply did not have the wherewithal or the sophistication for such public relations exercises.

So, it was again another free run for ULFA leaders who provided inputs that were promptly incorporated into media reports for nearly a week: that Buragohain was shot and killed (or more gruesomely, hacked to death) while he was leading a group of women and children holding aloft a white flag with a view to negotiating a surrender; that the RBA had `violated the norms of Geneva Convention by killing a prisoner of war'. All this appeared in an online interview given by the ULFA chairman to an Assam-based website. According to Paresh Barua, the death of Buragohain would be a perennial source of inspiration to ULFA's cadre to continue the fight. Several newspapers carried editorial comments condemning the killing of an elderly man. Poets produced adulatory and mourning poems.

Much anger and revulsion was expressed over the delay in the return of the body, again leading to speculation that the body had been so badly mutilated that the authorities did not want to risk more anger by returning it. These factors certainly contributed to the substantial success of the 48-hour Assam and north Bengal bandh beginning at 5 a.m. on December 20, called by ULFA, the NDFB and the KLO. One of the central demands behind the bandh call was the return of the bodies. While the bandh call evoked a poor response in the six districts of north Bengal which, along with Goalpara district in Assam, constitute the putative Kamatapur, the bandh was observed in Nagaland and Manipur, though the separatist organisations in these States have not been directly affected by the crackdown in Bhutan.

At the level of `civil society', over a dozen organisations, not all of them fronts of ULFA, issued statements condemning what they saw as lack of respect for the dead. Amnesty International (which consistently refused to recognise the South African leader Nelson Mandela as a "prisoner of conscience") and the International Committee of the Red Cross wanted to get involved. The Guwahati High Court admitted a petition filed by the Manav Adhikar Sangram Samiti (MASS) and directed the Army to hand over the body of Buragohain "if it is in its custody" to the civil authorities. The issue also figured in the Assam Assembly where the government pleaded total ignorance.

In due course, a New Delhi-based television channel, in tune with the frenetic culture of instantaneous news dissemination whose only purpose is to score a point over rivals no less frenzied, took the process to its logical conclusion by reporting that Buragohain's body had been taken to his village near Doomdooma, about 600 km from the scene of conflict and cremated in the presence of a large number of grieving followers.

As always, reality outdid the wildest imagination of fiction. One recalled with pleasure the sardonic farce of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, even as one reflected on the foolishness of trying to paint the lily.

It is true that indignation generated throughout the State and indeed in the region about the incorrectly presumed callousness of the authorities has left a lot of red faces around. Nevertheless, the blunders will be covered up and are being covered up; punches are being pulled or converted into feints. What is more relevant is that ULFA, which had more or less disappeared from the front pages of newspapers, is back with a bang, even if for the present as an organisation whose rank and file are demoralised and are on the run.

One of the first things that this correspondent noticed on returning to Guwahati about two years ago after an eight-year absence was that news about ULFA, which mostly meant news about the killing of "unidentified suspected ULFA militants" by the security forces, for the most part comprised bare reproduction of handouts issued by the Army's public relations officer. This was in sharp contrast to the detailed coverage of such encounters, first-hand accounts from the spot and reactions from the members of the family of the slain militants, which was the norm a decade ago (Frontline, October 25, 2002).

The fact that ULFA is now making big news does not mean that the organisation's separatist ideology will once again take centre stage in the ideological discourse in the State. However, there is and there continues to be significant support to the call for an end to the crackdown in Bhutan and, by implication, an easing up if not an end to the anti-insurgency operations in the State as well. "A political solution to insurgency" is what everyone wants.

In a statement issued on December 22, 33 leading citizens of the State, led by former Chief Minister Saratchandra Sinha, appealed to the Royal Bhutan government to announce a ceasefire in "the war unleashed by it and the Indian Army on non-combatants, including women and children". Clearly, the signatories, all persons highly distinguished in their fields, do not believe that the Indian armed forces are not taking part in the operations; and most certainly believe that women and children have been targeted.

Such views can hardly be seen as indicators of ULFA returning to the centre stage, which it once occupied in Assam. In fact, a disclaimer that the signatories do not support ULFA's separatist ideology precedes every such statement. Nevertheless, such perceptions also underline a mindset, unique to middle classes aspiring to be ruling classes everywhere, which, while not supporting ULFA's separatist ideology or other varieties of extremist violence, recognises only too well that militancy has now become a necessary condition for its own prosperity and well-being.

At the India-Bhutan border on December 24, ULFA cadre and their family members handed over to the Indian authorities by Bhutan.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

An imagined self-introspection, rather in the manner of an honest caricature of the reality, would read the situation thus: The imagined person could be anyone, by some stretch of the contrived imagination, perhaps even this writer.

We would never want our children to take to the path of militancy and indeed have taken care to send them outside the State and, where we can afford, outside the country, to grow up uncontaminated by such ideas as Swadhin Asom, get a proper education and make a good life, comfortable and prosperous. But do we want ULFA to give up its struggle to attain Swadhin Asom? No. For it is only by continuing to fight for this unattainable demand, staying for years away from their homes in inhospitable foreign terrains, that we, well-entrenched in our comfortable niches, can be sure of the uninterrupted and increasingly larger and larger benefices from the more powerful and resourceful ruling classes in New Delhi. For evidence of the prosperity and well being, even if of a kind, that two decades of your militancy has brought us, simply look around.

IT is difficult to question the legitimacy of Bhutan's military action from the point of view of the country's government. For over 10 years, the separatist militant groups from Assam (and later, from north Bengal) had virtually "invited themselves" into the kingdom, established several bases, including what the militants themselves rather grandiloquently described as their `General Headquarters' and `Command Headquarters', all well supplied and very well armed, from where they ran their operations against their `enemy', meaning India.

However, even without Bhutan's compulsions to be sensitive and responsive to Indian concerns in this regard, what perhaps outraged the authorities in Bhutan as it appears from the Bhutan Foreign Ministry statement, was the brazen assumption of the separatist leaders that their organisations were there as a matter of right. In fact, ULFA vice-chairman Pradeep Gogoi, currently lodged in the Guwahati jail and freely speaking to the media on occasions when he is brought to the court in connection with the cases against him, said that Bhutan had "betrayed" ULFA.

The sentiments expressed in the statement issued by the Bhutan Foreign Ministry to explain the launching of the military operations are unexceptionable, except for a tiny bit of reservation. Even allowing for the tough terrain, it is difficult to believe that the militants had "clandestinely" entered Bhutan "about 12 years ago" and established the 30 camps without the knowledge of the authorities. On the contrary, it is a well-known secret that ULFA went to the kingdom with the full knowledge and, perhaps, tacit concurrence of the authorities who, at that point, found a use for the presence of these foreign militants in that area affected by an entirely internal and indigenous turbulence long before the militants from Assam began to set up camps there.

In the early 1990s, about the time when, following Operation Bajrang and Operation Rhino in Assam, ULFA decided to set up camps in Bhutan, nearly 100,000 Bhutanese citizens of Nepali origin in southern Bhutan, a wild belt of territory covering seven districts, fled (or were forced to flee) to Nepal in the course of a few months. For over a decade now, they have been living in camps set up in Morang and Jhapa, two districts in eastern Nepal.

ULFA leader Bhimkanta Buragohain, captured by the Royal Bhutan Army, being produced before the media by Lt. Gen. Mohinder Singh in Tezpur on December 26.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

The arrival of the militants from Assam and the construction of the camps and their infrastructure injected a lot of money into an area that even by the standards of Bhutan is economically underdeveloped. The economy certainly benefited though, from the very beginning, there were also tensions, exacerbated by the fact that the Lhotshampa (Bhutanese of Nepali origin) had their own problems with the other more dominant Drukpa, broadly comprising two other major national groups, the Ngalong in the west and the Sharchop in the east.

The origins of these tensions go back further, to the 1980 Marriage Act, the 1985 Citizenship Act and other pieces of legislation, which the southern Bhutanese felt are discriminated in matters relating to marriage, citizenship and language and, rather more visibly, dress. These resulted in the emergence of a militant tendency among the Lhotshampa themselves. At that point ULFA and its allies were seen as a possible buffer, a device to keep this internal and until then mostly indigenous turbulence under control. In short, a decade ago, it was seen as a serviceable ally of the kingdom.

As nothing is static in the correlation of forces in human societies, this equation too has changed over the years. "Of particular concern," the Bhutan Foreign Ministry statement of December 15 said, "are the misrepresentations surrounding their [militant's] presence... " It is noteworthy that the statement carefully refrains from elaborating on what these "misrepresentations" are.

Further, elements described by the Bhutan government as "Nepali terrorist movements", but which probably represented one or another faction of the then fractured communist movement in Nepal, began to seek sanctuaries and support among the southern Bhutanese who, because of their Nepali ethnic origin, had for decades faced oppression and denial from the more dominant indigenous Drukpas, were responsive.

The transformation of the once weak and fractured communist movement in Nepal to the feared Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) also had its impact on the southern Bhutanese, drawing to its ranks the disaffected youth. This radicalisation of the southern Bhutanese has led, inevitably as it were, to the formation of a more formal political structure - the Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist). It was founded on April 22, 2003, the birth anniversary of Lenin, at Siliguri, according to one account, or according to another "somewhere in the Chhattisgarh-Orissa-Jharkhand special area in India". Another birth on the same day in 1969, another false flag operation, perhaps, for the agenda of recolonisation is more vibrantly at work now than it was then. Official Bhutan anyway sees the BCP(MLM) as a totally "Made in Nepal" product.

The statement announcing the birth of BCP(MLM) and the 10-point demands announced on May 1, along with the slogans adopted, may not immediately pose a threat to the monarchy in Bhutan. But they do hold a portent. One of the most interesting points made in the statement announcing the birth of the BCP(MLM) relates to its reading of Bhutan's population mix, every section of which is oppressed by the feudal monarchy. According to the statement, those oppressed include "even the Sharchops, who are next to Nepali origin Bhutanese... " In other words, this remarkable formulation takes it for granted that the demographic pattern has already changed and the "Nepali origin" population constitute the largest single group. The prospect of `Sikkimisation' is an ever-present nightmare in the imagination of the Drukpas.

The establishment of such a `Marxist-Leninist-Maoist' party, one of whose fundamental premises is that the Drukpas are already a minority in Bhutan, whose first slogan is "Down with monarchy", and given ULFA's well-known claims of commitment to "scientific socialism", the organisation, once seen as a serviceable tool, had become a threat to the kingdom in the dramatically changed ground situation. The crackdown was also perhaps influenced by pressure from India. But more immediate and local factors, relevant to the internal situation in Bhutan, appear to have been the deciding factor.

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