Bhutan's resolve

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

Indian Army soldiers during an operation against militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland close to the India-Bhutan border in Assam, on June 23. - SHIB SHANKAR CHATTERJEE/AP

Indian Army soldiers during an operation against militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland close to the India-Bhutan border in Assam, on June 23. - SHIB SHANKAR CHATTERJEE/AP

Pressured by India, Bhutan decides to take military action against Indian militants operating from its soil, a step the country has been trying to avert so far.

WITH insurgent groups of the northeastern States ignoring the deadline Bhutan had set for them to wind up their camps on its territory before June 31, the Bhutan government is now left with no other option but to launch a military operation to evict the rebels. After several rounds of talks with the insurgent groups, Bhutan has concluded that they are not sincere in their promise to leave Bhutan.

In the vast forest region along the India-Bhutan border, there are about 50 training camps run by the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) and the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) or NSCN(I-M).

Intelligence reports say that these banned outfits have set up an "umbrella organisation" to consolidate their position and to strengthen themselves against attacks from Bhutanese and Indian security forces. They have already started procuring arms and ammunition from Bangladesh and Myanmar. Bangladesh-based fundamentalist elements are reportedly trying to push in consignments of arms meant for these militant outfits.

The Royal Bhutan government has been under pressure for some time from India to drive out the insurgents who had taken shelter in Bhutan's forests. The militants were earlier operating from Bangladesh. The self-styled commander-in-chief of ULFA, Paresh Barua, was himself stationed in Bhutan for a while before he moved over to Bangladesh recently. Bhutan's Home Minister Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho said that the ULFA leadership had agreed to close the camps after a few rounds of discussions with the Bhutan government. It was on March 27 that National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra secretly visited Bhutan and met King Jigme Singye Wangchuk at an undisclosed location in Paro in west Bhutan to express India's concern over the continued presence of Indian militants in the forests of south Bhutan, bordering north Bengal and Assam. The insurgent forces employed a guerilla-style warfare, whereby they would launch surprise attacks on India and rush back to the forests.

At the meeting with the King, Brajesh Mishra reportedly pointed out that despite repeated requests by the Government of India the Royal Bhutanese government had not taken firm action against the insurgents. He told King Wangchuk that India had no intention of forcibly sending its security forces inside Bhutan to flush out the extremists. But, he said, Bhutan should not allow Indian militants to enter Bhutanese territory after armed operations against India, or run training camps there. "Either Bhutan should act on its own against the Indian militants or it should agree to the Government of India's proposal for joint action plan to flush out the insurgent groups from the northeastern States of India who have entrenched themselves in the jungles of the Himalayan kingdom," Brajesh Mishra told the King.

The Bhutanese National Assembly, which had its session in early July, reviewed the government stand on the Indian insurgents. "We wanted a peaceful resolution of this problem. And with this in mind, we had held several rounds of talks with the insurgents," a spokesman of the Bhutanese government said. He admitted that the negotiations had not yielded the desired results as the rebels kept shifting camps. "They have closed down some camps, to relocate them in other places. Bhutan has exhausted almost all options and the only recourse left now is to flush out the Indian rebels on its land," he said.

The rebel presence has been the one sore point in an otherwise "excellent" relationship between India and Bhutan. India considers Bhutan to be one of its closest allies and the security of the two countries are interlinked and interdependent. The insurgent camps came to Bhutan's notice in 1996. Since its Army was hardly equipped to force the rebels out, Thimphu tried to persuade them to leave without bloodshed. But many in India saw this as an attempt by Bhutan to drag its feet over the sensitive issue. It has often been asked why Thimphu cannot deal more firmly with the insurgents.

Bhutan contests this view. It lists a number of measures that it has taken in the recent past to resolve the problem peacefully. The rebel camps are situated in southern Bhutan, which borders West Bengal and Assam, from where most of its essential supplies come. Thimphu is worried that any drastic step against the rebels could affect the supply line.

Bhutan has just set up a new 10-member Council of Ministers, and portfolios will be allotted soon. Once a new Home Minister is appointed, one last round of negotiations is likely to be held with the rebels. "This will be the last time that we shall try to convince them to leave the country peacefully. If it fails, we shall have no other option but to use force to drive them out," the Bhutan government spokesman said.

WHILE Bhutan prepares to mount a military crackdown on ULFA, the NDFB and the KLO, the Border Security Force (BSF) has taken measures to seal all escape routes to Bangladesh that the rebels may make use of. Sources in the Home and External Affairs Ministries said that military operations to flush out Indian insurgents from the Himalayan kingdom is only a matter of time now. After a prolonged impasse over the formation of a joint command for counter-insurgency operations, the seven northeastern States are taking a fresh look at the proposal in view of the coordinated offensive by some militant outfits of Assam, Manipur and Tripura. An informed source in the Assam Home Department said that security agencies in all these States barring Mizoram had stressed the need to set up a joint command.

The joint offensive of the militants, codenamed "Operation Freedom", was launched in June by the Manipur People's Liberation Front (MPLF), ULFA and the Tripura People's Democratic Front (TPDF), which is the political wing of the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF). The MPLF is an association of three banned organisations active in Manipur - the People's Revolutionary Party of Kangleipak, the Revolutionary People's Front, and the United National Liberation Front.

Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and his Meghalaya counterpart D.D. Lapang are especially keen on a joint command because it will enable forces deployed in the northeastern States to launch concerted operations against the militant outfits. The Assam government has envisioned a counter-insurgency structure on the lines of the unified command in Assam, comprising the Army, the police and the paramilitary forces. The feasibility of the proposal to set up a joint command for all the militancy-affected States of the region has long been debated.

Most militant outfits that are active in the region maintain ties with one another. Security forces find it difficult to keep track of these outfits primarily because their bases are spread across two or more States. Meghalaya has borne the brunt of such collaborations, with both the NDFB and ULFA setting up base in the Garo Hills and stockpiling arms and ammunition there. Meghalaya's Garo Hills district provides an ideal passage to Bangladesh. The local Garo militant group, Achik National Volunteers Council, which claims to fight for a greater Garoland, has of late forged a link with ULFA and the Bodo militants. Assam's unified command's strategy group met in Guwahati on June 24 to discuss recent attacks by the ULFA on security forces and vital installations.

Meanwhile, the ceasefire in Nagaland, which was to expire on July 31, has been extended by a year following the latest round of negotiations between the Centre's interlocutor K. Padmanabhaiah and Isaac Chisi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, the chairman and the general secretary respectively of the NSCN(I-M), in Bangkok on July 16.

The latest round of Naga peace talks has yielded no tangible result as the two Naga leaders, living in exile, have stuck to their stand that the agenda for all future negotiations with the Centre must include the unification of all Naga-inhabited territories beyond the present State of Nagaland. The NSCN(I-M) is understood to have told the Indian negotiator that if there were problems in demarcating Naga-inhabited areas in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh on a map, that could be left for a later date. But it was important that India recognise as legitimate the desire of Nagas to live under one roof, they said. Unless some modalities were found for making such a commitment, they told Padmanabhaiah, further talks would be of no use.

However, New Delhi seems reluctant to make a commitment on the issue. There were serious problems associated with the integration of Naga-inhabited areas beyond Nagaland in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. None of these three States would accept the NSCN(I-M)'s demand for the unification of Naga-inhabited areas that fall within their territories. The area that the Naga leaders are claiming for `greater Nagaland' is eight times the total area of present-day Nagaland.

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