Bhutan's resolve

Print edition : January 19, 2002

India and Bhutan begin coordinated operations to flush out insurgents from northeastern India holed up in the kingdom.

THE six-month deadline given to the members of the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) to leave Bhutan expired on December 31. But militants of these two underground organisations have shown no intention of respecting Bhutan's instruction to move their bases out of the country.

ULFA and Bodo extremists have reportedly dismantled some of their camps along Bhutan's border with Assam but are said to have pitched them elsewhere in Bhutanese territory. Intelligence sources say that ULFA and the NDFB simply shifted their camps on the eve of the deadline to interior and inaccessible areas in Nepali-dominated south Bhutan. ULFA has 11 camps and the NDFB three in Bhutan. Recently, some underground Naga militants belonging to the Isaac-Muivah group of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) also moved to Bhutan and set up training camps. The Khaplang faction of the NSCN is also reported to have hide-outs along the Indo-Bhutan border.

Bhutan's Home Minister Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho told Frontline in early December that after a few rounds of discussions with the Bhutan government, the ULFA leadership had agreed to close the camps by December 31. But since it has not kept the pledge, Bhutan is firm on taking military action against them, said Gyamtsho. Bhutan could have used force in July last year after the National Assembly endorsed the deployment of the Army for the purpose. But the moderate members had voiced concern about such a move, arguing that it would provoke attacks on Bhutanese citizens. Fourteen Bhutanese were killed by ULFA in December 2000 in Assam in what was perceived as a retaliation for the interception of a consignment destined for ULFA.

That ULFA does not have any intention to wind up its camps and leave Bhutanese territory is indicated by an article by ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa published in a recent issue of the ULFA mouthpiece Freedom. Rajkhowa wrote: "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."

When in December 2000 the Bhutan government initiated talks with ULFA leaders on the issue of their bases on Bhutanese territory, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi had offered "safe passage" to the militants to visit their kin in Assam. Gogoi insisted that it was a "goodwill gesture for the New Year", but the offer was apparently made to prepare the ground for talks with the Centre, which a section of the ULFA leadership is said to be keen on. The State Congress(I) government is expected to facilitate an encounter-free entry into Assam for ULFA cadres purportedly quitting Bhutan, to visit their relatives without carrying arms.

The safe passage idea was floated by Assam Governor S.K. Sinha in 1999 after he called on the parents of the hardliner and self-styled ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Barua at their native village in Dibrugarh. The Governor had offered a week-long window of opportunity for safe passage to Barua and Rajkhowa, who favour talks. This inspired former Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta to announce a 10-day safe passage for ULFA militants from December 21, 1999. The ULFA leaders scoffed at the offer, but theMahanta government claimed that the New Year gesture received a positive response from over 250 ULFA and NDFB militants and extended the offer until January 17, 2000.

Gogoi's offer to ULFA has come at an opportune time, considering that Rajkhowa had issued a statement on November 27, 2001 from his hideout in Bhutan, saying that "ULFA is willing to sit down for talks, provided the Indian government is ready to accept our preconditions." Gogoi immediately welcomed Rajkhowa's offer, but the Centre reacted with caution. Knowing that ULFA is under tremendous pressure from the Indian security forces and the Royal Bhutan government, the Centre is reported to have decided not to go out of its way to accept immediately any offer for talks. Moreover, the Indian government is not yet sure whether Rajkhowa's offer had the approval of ULFA hardliners such as Paresh Barua.

There are already reports of ULFA's "military wing" under Paresh Barua surreptitiously trying to smuggle in weapons from South-East Asian countries and making fresh recruitments. Indian intelligence agency sources said that a large consignment of small arms meant for the northeastern insurgent groups was recently seized off the Myanmarese coast by the armed forces of Myanmar. The ship carrying the arms was headed for Cox's Bazaar in Chittagong district of Bangladesh, where the consignment was to have been off-loaded for passage to northeastern India. The medium-size ship was reportedly apprehended off the coast between Sandoway port in Rakhine province of Myanmar and the Cheduba Island. It was flying the Vietnamese flag, but registered in Cambodia. Indian intelligence agencies had been briefed by Myanmarese authorities about this seizure.

The Bhutan government has received specific reports that ULFA is relocating its camps to more inaccessible and densely forested areas around Bumthang, Mongar and Lhuntsi. The militants have also moved towards the Jigme Dorji Wildlife Sanctuary bordering China, evidently to escape from the Royal Bhutanese Army and special teams of the Royal Body Guards. With Bhutan getting a feel of the threat of terrorism, it has, after holding off for so long, given positive signals to the Government of India regarding joint action to flush out insurgent groups from India's northeastern States which have entrenched themselves in the Himalayan kingdom. India has been urging a joint operation, but Bhutan had so far resisted it, wary of letting India conduct military operations in its territory.

With ULFA and the NDFB ignoring the December 31 deadline, the Royal Bhutanese Army and the Royal Body Guards are preparing to crack down on the camps in south Bhutan. The operations are being coordinated with the Indian Army. The issue figured in the meeting between Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan during the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Kathmandu.

Bhutan is likely to take the opportunity to crack down also on Nepalese immigrants who have been creating trouble for the monarchy in south Bhutan. Thimphu wants to push them back into Nepal as they have been extending support to ULFA and the NDFB. Bhutanese officials said that the kingdom is likely to promulgate its own National Security Act to crush the trouble-makers in the south.

"We are in constant touch with our counterparts in Bhutan," said an Indian Army officer based at a corps headquarters in Assam. "We have committed all help that is required to flush the militants out of that country," he added.

The Indian Army has launched coordinated operations within Indian territory to nab militants trying to sneak out of Bhutan. An Army officer said: "We have intensified patrolling along the border by deploying 10 battalions of the Border Security Force (BSF) and have stepped up intelligence gathering. Vigil along the Siliguri corridor has been intensified so that militants cannot cross over to Bangladesh and Nepal. The unified command in Assam is also alert to any diversionary tactics that may be employed by ULFA and the NDFB."

By the Army's estimates, there are about 4,000 ULFA and about 1,000 NDFB militants holed up in Bhutan. The rest of the ULFA cadres - another thousand or so - are spread over Bangladesh and Assam. According to military intelligence, the ULFA leadership is desperately trying to solicit help from the NSCN(I-M) and the All Tripura Tiger Force (ATTF) based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in order to secure safe havens for its cadres who are now on the run.

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