Joining forces

Published : Apr 25, 2003 00:00 IST

Separatist militants who surrendered at the Rangiya Army camp, some 50 km west of Guwahati, on January 24. Sixteen ULFA and 11 NDFB activists turned in their guns at the camp, complaining of misery in their hideouts in southern Bhutan. - AFP

Separatist militants who surrendered at the Rangiya Army camp, some 50 km west of Guwahati, on January 24. Sixteen ULFA and 11 NDFB activists turned in their guns at the camp, complaining of misery in their hideouts in southern Bhutan. - AFP

Bhutan agrees to a joint military offensive with India against insurgents operating from its soil, after extracting a promise from India regarding the safety of Bhutanese citizens.

UNDER mounting pressure, Bhutan is reported to have finally agreed to joint Army action against Indian insurgents operating from its territory. On March 27, National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra "secretly" visited Bhutan and met King Jigme Singye Wangchuk to express India's concern over the continued presence of Indian militants in the forests in south Bhutan bordering north Bengal and Assam. The Indian government has specific information that extremist outfits from the northeastern States of India are running training camps in the forests. Most of the camps are run by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), but over the past few years camps have been set up also by groups such as the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) and the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO). Most of the camps are based in Sangdrup, Jongkhar, Sarpang, Samtse, Tsirang and Zhemgeng districts of southern and eastern Bhutan.

Confirming the meeting between the King and the Indian emissary at an undisclosed location in Paro in west Bhutan, intelligence sources said that Bhutan had agreed to serve an ultimatum to the three insurgent groups to clear out. "Though the Bhutan government is averse to any armed operation to flush out foreign extremists, it has set a deadline of June 30 for Indian insurgents to shut down their main command camp in Sangdrup-Khonkar district in south Bhutan," an informed source said.

During his meeting with the King, Brajesh Mishra pointed out that despite repeated requests made by the Indian government, the Royal Bhutanese government had failed to take firm action against the insurgents. He told King Wangchuk that India had no intention of forcibly sending its security forces into Bhutan. But, he said, Bhutan should not allow Indian militants to enter its territory after an armed operation against them in India or run training camps there. Either Bhutan should act on its own against the militants or it should agree to the Government of India's proposal for joint action, Brajesh Mishra is understood told the King.

Bhutan, according to informed sources, has sought a "written guarantee" from India that it would protect the Bhutanese people from any rebel backlash if India wants the kingdom to be a party to military action. King Wangchuk told Brajesh Mishra that he would not jeopardise the safety of his subjects by using force to evict the rebels.

In mid-2001, over 20 Bhutanese travelling through Assam were killed by suspected NDFB extremists following Thimphu's warning to the militants that they should leave the kingdom on their own or face military action. The rebels also attacked a Royal Bhutan Army convoy along the India-Bhutan border, injuring a senior officer, Brigadier Potto Tsering. Following this, Bhutan has balked at any actual action. Although Bhutan set December 31, 2001 as the deadline for the rebels to leave, it took no action against them when they defied the order.

The militants dismantled some of their camps along the border but relocated them deeper in the jungles. The command camps in the Daifam area in the Kalikhola region of the Fifshu forests were moved eastwards to Piping-Tintala in the Sangdrup-Jhonkar region of south Bhutan.

Bhutan's Home Minister Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho is on record as saying that after a few rounds of discussion with the Bhutan government, the ULFA leadership had agreed to close down its camps by December 31, 2001. But it did not keep its word. That the ULFA has no intention to dismantle its camps is indicated by the organisation's chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa's recent statement, which was published in some Guwahati-based newspapers. "The ULFA has not occupied Bhutan but has taken shelter there from Indian occupation forces. We will move out of Bhutan as soon as swadhin (sovereign) Asom is achieved," he stated.

When the Bhutan government had initiated talks with ULFA leaders in December 2001, Assam's Congress(I) Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi offered "safe passage" to members of the outlawed group to visit their kin in Assam. Gogoi insisted that it was a "goodwill gesture", but the offer had been made to prepare the ground for talks with the Centre, which a section of the ULFA leadership is said to be keen on.

DURING his meeting with Brajesh Mishra, King Wangchuk pointed out that an Army offensive against the extremists could "result in heavy casualties of innocent Bhutanese" who use Assam and north Bengal as transit routes. Fearing reprisals in the event of any "Bhutan government-sanctioned operation against the ULFA, the NDFB, and the KLO", the King asked for a "tripartite deal" between the governments of India, Assam and Bhutan to "guarantee security cover" to Bhutanese in transit through India.

Before taking a decision on military action, senior Bhutan government functionaries will meet the insurgents in the next few weeks in a last-ditch effort to convince them to leave. If the negotiations fail, Thimphu will consider the use of force against them to be inevitable. Indications are that Thimphu will try to complete negotiations with the insurgents by June, when the Bhutanese National Assembly is scheduled to meet. This will help the authorities to place the latest report before the Assembly. The future course of action will be first presented to the Assembly for approval.

For the past three years, the Government of India has been requesting Thimphu to take part in joint counter-insurgency operations. Fearing a worsening of its relations with India, Bhutan took several "peaceful" steps, including the initiation of negotiations with militant groups, to make them leave. Although its efforts yielded no result, it was hesitant to launch an India-Bhutan Army offensive. Bhutanese representatives at the recent high-level talks with India in Thimphu made this clear.

"Although the Bhutanese authorities have expressed concern over the continued presence of militants on their soil, they are averse to any military operation within Bhutanese territory," said a senior Jalpaiguri district official who participated in the talks. "The Bhutan government wants to send the militants out in a peaceful and bloodless manner. It fears that any military operation by the Indian armed forces would result in Bhutanese civilian casualties," he added. The West Bengal Police and the paramilitary forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations in north Bengal are hamstrung as they cannot pursue the militants back to their dens.

India has been generally cautious with regard to the sensitivities of the Bhutanese government and people. It has, in the past, made the ruling Bhutanese elite look towards India more freely and frequently for support. Diplomatic ties between the governments of Bhutan and India are governed by the Indo-Bhutan Treaty of Friendship (1949). The Treaty says: "The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part, the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations."

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment