The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Friday, December 15, 2006

Bhutan on the way of Srilanka

Bhutan's inheritance of loss

By Indian Express
Friday December 15, 03:59 AM
Bhutan has perhaps been the only South Asian country to be untouched by terrorism. Till the recent bomb blast in Phuntsholing. No known militant group so far has directly waged a campaign against the Himalayan kingdom. However, a host of Indian insurgent groups (IIGs) have been indignant ever since the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) flushed out in 2003 some 3,000 insurgents belonging to three different groups - ULFA, the National Democratic Front of Boroland and the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation - that were operating from bases in southern Bhutan.
India, in fact, believes ULFA is at least back in the kingdom, which Bhutanese agencies deny. But it does seem the needle of suspicion this time is point at groups other than the ULFA, particularly on the displaced Bhutanese of Nepali origin who were evicted by Bhutan in early 1990s. The Bhutanese refugee crisis has taken many twists and turns. Several measures like the Citizenship Acts (1977) & (1985), Marriage Act (1980), and promulgation of Driglam Nam Za (code of social etiquette, 1989) were aimed at downsizing the ethnic Nepali influence.

There are around 106,000 refugees living in seven UNHCR camps in eastern Nepal. Protracted negotiations between Bhutan and Nepal for almost one and a half decades have so far failed to resolve the crisis. Intense political pressure and lobbying for the cause of refugees by Indian civil society and political circles have made the issue murkier. It is quite clear that the success of the Maoist armed struggle and retreat of King Gyanendra in Nepal have provided a fresh impetus to Bhutan's Nepalese to carry out a similar armed insurgency not only against Bhutan, but also against India.

Resentment is also growing against India for its indifferent attitude towards the problem. At a recent gathering, refugee solidarity groups gave a veiled warning, "The time bomb is ticking in the refugee camps and India will repent for its apathy towards the Bhutanese refugees should the youths in the camps decide to collude with the regional outfits, for example, ULFA, NFDB or KLO, in addition to Nepali Maoists." They have indicated that these desperate groups now have easy access to resources which were not available to them earlier. The recent bomb blast in Phuentsholing twin town is significant in this regard.

The US is the largest donor of UNHCR's humanitarian assistance to Bhutanese refugees. In an unprecedented development, the US in October announced it would take 60,000 refugees, giving the 16-year-old crisis a completely new dimension. The US offer comes as a major relief for Bhutan. But American calculations may be greater than simply resolving a minor refugee crisis. The US is expected to get a major footing in this strategically located patch between India and China.

The new development comes against the backdrop King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's reformist act that he would step down from power in favour of holding national elections and turning Bhutan into a parliamentary democracy by 2008. A Draft Constitution was circulated in March 2005 that would be put to a referendum. It reaffirms the 1985 citizenship laws that make it difficult for refugees, particularly those married to foreigners, to regain full citizenship rights.

Bhutanese citizenship law, especially the number and the criteria for repatriation, could snowball into a major ethnic conflict and could very well parallel the Sri Lanka conflict. However, at the moment, options for the refugees are limited. Should they miss the US offer for resettlement, as one of the factions says, "they are doomed to become identity-less manual workers, hawkers or rickshaw-pullers pushing their progenies to a never-ending cycle of poverty". At the same time, relief for the Bhutanese government could also prove temporary. Remember it's been overseas Tamils who have largely sustained the ethnic movement, providing succour to the LTTE.

A new conglomerate of separatists groups and the possible nexus between Maoists and the Bhutanese refugees and their collusion with the IIGs seems to be taking serious shape.

The writer is a fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies, University of Jammu

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