The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Combatting ‘Terrorism’ In Bhutan : T. P. Mishra

Bhutan is no stranger to armed struggles carried out by different underground outfits. Although not much predicted earlier, these days, Bhutan is experiencing a series of bomb explosions mostly in the southern parts, the region where majority of Nepali-speaking people used to dwell.

The bomb explosions in Sarpang district on December 30 last year that claimed the lives of four forest guards is the latest instance that confirms an armed struggle is already underway inside this peaceful Himalayan kingdom. Here arises a question of how prepared Bhutan is in combating the armed launch supposedly floated with political motives.

Armed launch

The December 30 incident is not the first of its kind. Birat-led Communist Party of Bhutan (CPB-MLM), one of the underground armed revolutionary outfits, planted a series of bombs on the night of February 3 last year in Samtse district which damaged the materials brought by the Druk government for the National Assembly election. To read a sentence from Birat’s press statement, it says, "This is the initiation of an ‘Armed Rural Class Struggle’ in Bhutan."

Bhutan Tigers Force (BTF), United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan (URFB) and Communist Party of Bhutan (CPB-MLM) often own up responsibilities of such explosions. The URFB, which owned up responsibility to the recent bomb attack in Sarpang district, has also warned the recent settlers occupying the lands of those Nepalis evicted in the early 1990s, to vacate the occupied plots of lands immediately.

As to whether there is any connection among these armed outfits is hard to predict, but their common minimal programme seems to launch an armed struggle against the absolute regime.

Besides, possible links between the militant organisations behind the frequent bomb blasts in Bhutan and the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) among other Indian underground outfits cannot be ruled out. A news story written by Tara Limbu of Bhutan Times entitled ‘Sarpang and Guwahati blasts linked?’ makes this clear. Therefore, India, too, will be greatly affected if the armed struggle in Bhutan continues.

On March 17, 2008, the URFB took responsibility for the bomb explosion in Pasakha which injured one Indian national. The frequent claims by these outfits that their genuine demand is to see political change in Bhutan calls on the part of the Druk government to address it.

The BTF among others is often seen actively involved in raising awareness about the armed struggle through pamphlets and posturing inside the country. The frequent hoisting of the communist flag in the southern districts is time and again publicised by the Druk media houses. These are proof that the armed struggle in Bhutan will continue unless an amicable solution is not found at the earliest possible.

The Bhutanese authority, however, alleges that all these armed groups operate from the refugee camps in Nepal. Bhutan has to understand that refugee camps in Nepal are monitored by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. Many a time Bhutanese officials have put the ‘terrorist’ tag on refugees languishing in Nepal, which is a fabricated and illogical assumption. The fact that a number of refugee youths have connections with these armed groups cannot be denied. However, it would be naïve to assume that these armed groups are solely based in the UNHCR-managed refugee camps in Nepal.

More than 60 people from the country’s southern region were apprehended by the Druk police authority last year for their alleged involvement in Maoists activities. The whereabouts of those arrested that even include some school-going children has not been made public. Here the main concern is that minors should not be punished severely. A free and fair investigation into such cases would definitely reflect Bhutan’s respect for human rights though this has never been practised inside this tiny kingdom.

Despite showing interest and flexibility towards resolving the ongoing political turmoil in the country, the Druk regime is mulling over expanding its military force. Media houses inside the country have quoted Police chief Col. Kipchu Namgyal as saying that a security squad would be formed under the ‘Special Reserve Police Force’ mentioned in the Police Bill to counter the armed attacks.

To note, volunteer groups have been formed to patrol at night. A person from each household has to send a volunteer to patrol every night. They check on schools, hospitals and other public places. This is not a fair and reliable initiation of the government to counter armed attacks.

Innocent civilians should not be used as shield in the name of fighting armed rebellion outfits claiming to fight the government. This sort of initiation will only encourage the armed groups towards continuing with the violent activities. Besides, it will bring a sense of enmity between the public and the armed groups, and finally ignorant civilians will fall victims.


What is the solution then? Well, the Bhutanese government should not escape from furnishing a peaceful solution through dialogue, and this is the right time. Bhutan must see what is happening in neighbouring countries - the ongoing violence in Sri Lanka, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The decade-long Maoist insurgency in Nepal could be a lesson for Bhutan should it try to solve its political problem too late.

To conclude, the armed outfits should also understand that their objective would never be met until they wash their hands off the violent activities. An armed struggle will neither benefit the Druk government nor promote the objective of the armed groups. If the rebels against the Druk regime are truly dedicated to the establishment of people’s democracy in their country then they must opt for peaceful measures.

(The author is editor of Bhutan News Service and head of the Bhutan Chapter of Bangladesh-based Third World Media Network.)

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