The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Bhutan Insurgencies As refugees depart for U.S., camps in Nepal foster nascent resistance

Don Duncan, GlobalPost

Bhutanese refugee camp in Nepal.
THIMPHU, Bhutan — The impressive necklace of cliff-perched fortresses that dot this Himalayan nation's mountainous perimeter are a testimony to Bhutan's long-standing effort to keep out foreigners.

In the 1980s, however, the tiny Buddhist nation of just 600,000 sandwiched between the People's Republic of China and India found itself with what it considered to be a foreigner problem.

Bhutan's minority population of ethnic Nepalese had mushroomed to represent one-third of the population, causing then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck to start a "one nation, one people" policy to deport and strip many of their Bhutanese citizenship. The campaign ended with the expulsion of about 105,000 Nepalese through beatings, torture and murder committed by the Royal Bhutan Army that lasted until the early 1990s, human rights groups and deportees say.

"We left because we were scared that they would imprison us, that they would beat us, that I would be raped," said Matimya Moktan, 41, who arrived in Nepal in 1991 and now lives in a small mud stick hut with her three children and husband in one of seven refugee camps in eastern Nepal.

Locked in political limbo, these camps have become breeding grounds for a fledgling militancy that seeks to overthrow Bhutan's monarchy just two years after the king abdicated in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who heads a constitutional monarchy that permitted the nation's first democratic elections last year. "We are preparing a protracted people's war," said Comrade Umesh, a 27-year-old leader of the Communist Party of Bhutan, one of a handful of Maoist militant groups that have developed in the camps. The groups now have little more than handmade explosives, pistols and ragged Communist literature with which to wage their insurgency but Indian intelligence sources say they may soon acquire much more capacity through recent alliances with two Indian separatist groups: the National Democratic Front of Bodoland and the United Liberation Front of Assam operating in the restive Indian states of Sikkim and Assam located between Nepal and Bhutan.

"Through these alliances, the Bhutanese refugee militants can learn how to make more powerful bombs, acquire superior weaponry and fight more effectively," said the Indian intelligence source.

So far, the insurgency has been limited to occasional bombings that have damaged bridges, fuel depots and electrical transformers in southern Bhutan and the capital of Thimphu. To date, there have been no deaths and just one injury, a woman who suffered a minor shrapnel wound, according to Bhutan's national newspaper, Kunesel.

Bill Frelick, refugee policy director for Human Rights Watch, says the insurgents, who are believed to number between 600 and 1,000, are still too weak to launch an effective revolution. But other analysts say the alliance with militant Indians, the continuing relocation of refugees and recruiting forays into Bhutan are worrisome signs.

In 2006, the United States and a handful of other Western countries offered to resettle more than 70,000 Nepalese refugees. About 7,000 have already left the camps and the rest will be gone within four years, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Frelick said the insurgents could take advantage of the resettlement program by using future remittances to buy weapons and exercising more and more radical influence rendering camps devoid of more restrained voices. "You could end up with all the more moderate people leaving the camps," he said.

For the moment, the militants regularly cross into Bhutan through thick jungles that straddle the porous border to lecture and train ethnic Nepalese residents who remain in Bhutan, refugees say.

"If all we had to show were our weapons, we wouldn't get very far," said Umesh. "So we teach our ideology and train cadres in making explosives and in guerrilla fighting. We are laying the groundwork in Bhutan both ideologically and militarily."

While the government hopes the nation's fledgling democracy will keep the estimated 100,000 ethnic Nepalese in Bhutan from insurrection, the rebels predict their ranks will increase, citing a lack of state services, special travel permits required to leave the south and a ban on Nepalese from becoming citizens. Perhaps with that in mind, the government plans to reopen 15 schools and build more health centers in Nepalese areas by the end of the year.

"The best way a country like Bhutan can defend itself and prevent security problems has to be through the people," said Prime Minister Jigme Thinley. "By the end of five years, there will be absolute parity in terms of the provision of services and infrastructure. This is how we can prevent conditions for discontent and disaffection from growing in our country."

Research assistance provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute in New York.

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