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Bhutan army sees action at last
By Arun Bhattacharjee

JALPAIGURI, on the India-Bhutan border - The small Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, no more than a dot on the world map, has suddenly been dragged out of its peaceful hibernation by two unrelated events: its fight with insurgents along its border with India, and the publication of the largest book ever written on the country (it weighs 60 kilograms and costs US$10,000) by Michael Hawley, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher.

Over the past century Bhutan has not fought any war, and its army has remained little more than the royal bodyguard to Oxford-educated and Scot-style-kilt-wearing King Dorje Synghe Wangchuk. Although the Royal Bhutan Army was trained by India under a treaty signed in 1948 that permits India to help the country in the areas of foreign policy and defense, it has never been baptized in the blood of war. There has never been any need for a joint defense operation by Bhutan and its giant patron, and little need for India's assistance in foreign affairs, barring help for the tiny kingdom to join the United Nations. Bhutan maintained strict neutrality during the India-China War of 1962 and, to the annoyance of many in India, disarmed fleeing Indian army personnel who entered its territory.

But last weekend the long period of peace enjoyed by the Royal Bhutan Army came to an end, as 16 of its personnel sustained mild to critical injuries, against six Indian insurgents killed, while flushing them out of the dense forests astride the arterial road connecting the kingdom with India. The insurgents, under pressure from Indian security forces determined to free the sensitive northeastern part of the country from a growing rebellion that prevents development and affects trade and commerce in the tea-producing areas of Assam state, had made Bhutan their base of operations.

The king informed Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the impending operation on the night before it started and sought logistical support from India's Kolkata-based Eastern Command in the form of night-vision equipment, automatic weapons, mortars and grenades besides bulletproof jackets and jungle-warfare equipment. About 3,000 well-equipped insurgents were hiding in the Dooars foothills of Bhutan with their families, and on the first day the clean-up operation on Sunday, an estimated 50 people, including six mid-level rebel leaders, were seriously injured or believed killed.

As the Indian army sealed the border and the Royal Bhutan Army continued its pressure, however, it appeared that India was far from a solution to the insurgency in the northeast, as some of the senior leaders are believed by intelligence sources to have slipped into Bangladesh or Nepal. Bhutanese sources at the border discount the possibility of the insurgents moving to the high mountains of northern Bhutan on the grounds that it would be difficult for people used to living in the plains of Assam to live in a high-altitude environment. They would also face a food shortage in the sparsely populated northern region.

Three insurgent groups, all from Assam state, are believed to be holed up in Bhutan, where they have been extracting money from the truckers and the small business groups trading on the main road leading to the capital, Thimpu. The largest group belongs to the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA); next comes the National Democratic Front of Bodoland, mostly Bodo tribals; and the Kamtapur Liberation Organization.

Indian intelligence sources assert that Paresh Barua, the ideological head of ULFA, took shelter in Bangladesh and was guiding the movement from there, although Bangladesh continued to deny the existence of Indian insurgents operating from there. India traced telephone calls made by Barua to Assamese newspapers from Bangladesh claiming that the operation was being conducted inside Bhutan by Indian soldiers dressed in Royal Bhutan Army uniforms. Both India and Bhutan denied this and called it a totally Bhutanese operation, with India sealing the border with Bhutan to stop them from slipping out. A senior officer of the Eastern Command overseeing the operation explained that the Bhutanese operation was totally different from the joint operation conducted more than a decade ago by the armies of India and Myanmar against insurgents in both countries.

While the operation by Bhutan against insurgents troubling India can be regarded as the first such move by any among the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, Bhutan considers the clean-up operation vital to its security, as it can't afford a link-up between the northeastern insurgents with the Maoists of Nepal through the northwestern "chicken neck" corridor of West Bengal bordering Nepal, hardly 100 kilometers from its border.

Bhutan has a major stake in removing the insurgents from its soil, as King Jigme Singye Wangchuk is determined to prevent any Nepal-type insurgency in Bhutan. Educated in the best institutes in England and the United States, the king and his family are highly respected by the peaceful Bhutanese, and the only incident that could be regarded as the result of a palace intrigue was the murder of the present king's maternal uncle, Gygme Dorje, in the early 1960s. A year ago, the king declared Bhutan a democracy with himself as its head and ordered a general election.

The people of Bhutan, known as Bhotiyas, are mostly of Tibetan origin - tall, fair and strongly built with high cheekbones. Bhutanese are not particularly favorable to people of Nepalese origin and the government repatriated a large number of Nepalese illegally working in Bhutan, which strained its relations with the neighboring Himalayan kingdom. It has maintained a cool and reserved relationship with China, and refrained for a long time from sending an ambassador to Beijing in spite of being its southern neighbor on the ground that, being a small country, it could hardly afford to have diplomatic relations with a large number of countries. It also remained isolated for a long time from outside influence until it decided recently to promote tourism and permitted scientists to explore its unique flora.

A landlocked country with China on its north, Nepal on the west and India on the south and east, Bhutan depends on India for its supplies via the Indo-Bhutan Road passing through deep forests and tea gardens, which the insurgents tried to control. Bhutan receives the highest bilateral annual aid from India as well as aid from some Western and Nordic countries. It has a population of about 2 million.

Controlled tourism is being developed by the state-owned tourist agency to boost the economy and earn foreign exchange against payment in either United States dollars or pound sterling. The tourists are mostly flown from the airport at Bagdogra in West Bengal 100km from the famous hill resort of Darjeeling by small Dornier aircraft operated by Druk Air.

Bhutan's principal exports are tea, processed fruits and orchids. It is known to have nearly 1,500 varieties of orchids, which make it a principal research base for scientists and floriculturists.

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Dec 19, 2003


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