The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North

The Sorry Saga of Bhutan's North
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Monday, December 31, 2012

Why Bhutan Hates India? Thimphu leans towards China

map from CIA World Factbook (since June 24, 2010) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The reclusive Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan stuck between China and Bharat is paying the price of being too close to Delhi. Bhutanese militants are now fighting a war of independence. This war for liberationis often labeled as terror or blamed on ULFA or Bodo militants. For the last few years it has been feeling the heat of a bloody insurgency for independence.

Bhutanese freedom fighters are cooperating with other militant outfits active in the North-Eastern region of Bhutan, especially the ULFA and the Bodo militants are carrying their hit-and-run attacks on Indian security forces from the Bhutanese jungles. This is being used as an excuse by Bharat to invade and take over Bhutan like Delhi took over Sikkim.

Watching these events, and to save itself, and recognizing the rise of China, Bhutan is moving towards a more centrist and perhaps a more pro-China policy.

English: Prime Minister Thinley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

China has been keen at developing direct relations with Bhutan.

“It became evident from the very first that China was more interested in developing direct relations with Bhutan than resolving border issues,”… “During the second round (of talks over border issues) in 1985, China talked of expanding contact, saying it has diplomatic relations with all SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) states, but not with Bhutan.” Chinese policy paper entitled, “Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants,” published in Journal of Bhutan Studies in 2004.

Anti-Indianism in Bhutan is either not written about prodigiously, or not written about at all. Anti-Indianism in Bhutan is dealt with very severely. Usually, those who want to demand sovereignty for Bhutan are labeled “Chinese agents” or simply associated with Assamese or other terrorists.

Vishal Arora is a New Delhi-based journalist. He researches and writes on politics, culture, religion, foreign affairs and human rights, primarily but not exclusively in South and Southeast Asia. His articles have appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, USA Today, World Politics Review, Foreign Policy in Focus, the Religion News Service, and many other outlets. He can be contacted and some of his articles can be read here. Follow him on Twitter: vishalarora_in

Vishal Arora and Vijay Simha have written a prodigious article about Bhutan’s new focus towards China. The title of the effulgent article is “Bhutan switches focus to China.”

Vishal Arora and Vijay Simha say that “For the first time in the history, Bhutan is asserting its right to have formal ties with China, its northern neighbor and India’s arch-rival. New Delhi might need to amend its policy on the tiny nation of about 700,000 people…

At the monthly “Meet the Press” conference in Thimphu, Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley called China “a reality,” when asked if he met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at a UN conference in Brazil in June. “It is best that we do not ignore, but accept, the reality,” said Thinley, who is likely to win a second term in the 2013 general election.”

This rare interview between the Home Minister of Bhutan gives us some insight on what is going on between Bhutan and Delhi. The Home Minister of Bhutan met ULFA commander-in-chief Paresh Barua. However the violence has not ended.

“NENA: The Government of India, for long, have been requesting the Bhutanese authority to allow New Delhi to launch an operation in the Bhutanese territory to flush out the militants. Why is the Bhutan Government not agreeing to this proposal?

Dago Tshering: As I have already told you we are not in favour of using force untill it becomes inevitable. Moreover, it is the Indian Government which will be in trouble if such a step is taken. Then it will be easy for the international community to term India’s effort as big-brotherly attitude. It wiil also be easy for them to say that as Bhutan is a small country, it has no other options but to surrender before the Indian wishes.Let me once again reiterate that Bhutan is committed to not allowing its soil to be used by anti-Indian forces. We will do everything possible to keep our promise.

NENA: What role can the North-Eastern region play in strengthening the bond of friendship?

Dago Tshering: The North-East region will have to play the most important role. The region is our gateway to India. Our prosperity is interlinked. Bhutan cannot prosper without the North-Eastern region and vice versa.For example, we have now put stress on exploiting our hydro power potential. Our hydro power potential is such that even after fulfilling our need, we can supply power to the region and beyond doubt that will immensely help the region which is looking for speedy economic development.

But all this can be achieved if there is peace in the region. We hope that very soon peace will prevail in the North-East region and we will be able to prosper together”.

English: King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan. Probably a studio image. Français : Le roi Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck du Bhutan. Probablement une photo prise en Studio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bhutan government folks are terrified of Delhi. They are scared to admit that they want friendly relations with Beijing and have to explain their actions to Delhi.
Aurora et al say “After the Rio+20 conference, Thinley denied Beijing’s claim that he had expressed his willingness to establish diplomatic relations with China.
The statement by Thinley’s office, which claimed he and Wen had only discussed bilateral issues and multilateral cooperation, was seen as meant to pacify New Delhi, which is believed to have tremendous influence over Bhutan’s foreign and defense policy and has been its largest trade and development partner for decades.
Barely five months later, Thimphu appears less apologetic and more assertive. At last week’s press conference, Thinley acknowledged having “a very special relationship with India,” but went on to affirm that “it does not mean that we make enemies of all others.”

Despite the terrorizing clamp down on Bhutanese leaders, Bhutanese leaders have been been meeting and building a relationship with China.

Rajeev Verma writing for Northeast Strategic group says:

“It is a tale of two contrasting neighbors for India. Nepal and Bhutan have been as similar and yet as dissimilar as chalk and cheese. The China factor has further muddied the waters when it comes to the Nepal- Bhutan-India triangle — or shall we say a rectangular triangle? This poses a stiff challenge for the Indian diplomacy.” South Asia’s Rectangular Triangle – Nepal, Bhutan and India.

Arora says that “Reports about Thinley’s first-ever meeting with his Chinese counterpart in Rio raised concerns in India thanks to the race for dominance between New Delhi and Beijing in South Asia and beyond, and China’s “string of pearls’ strategy to encircle India in the maritime domain.”

King’s Birthday, Bhutan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Beijing wants diplomatic relations with Bhutan and wants access to a disputed patch of land bordering India in northwest Bhutan.

English: View of Clock Tower Square, Thimphu, Bhutan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The paper (Chinese policy paper entitled, “Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants,” published in Journal of Bhutan Studies in 2004) also noted how China meant to target India. During an 11th round of Sino-Indian talks held in Beijing in 1996, “China proposed to exchange 495 square kilometers area with an area of 269 square kilometers in the north-west Bhutan,” which “would seriously undermine India’s security by shifting the Bhutan-China border to the south.” Chinese policy paper entitled, “Security of Bhutan: Walking Between the Giants,” published in Journal of Bhutan Studies in 2004.

However, Thinley is more concerned about Bhutan’s interests. He told reporters last week that analysts in India had little awareness about the vulnerability of a tiny nation. Thimphu apparently fears both neighbors, as evident in the emphasis it lays on preserving the visible aspects of the nation’s culture.

Streetlife in Thimphu, Bhutan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the 1970s, Bhutan’s fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck famously said the nation did not have “economic power or military muscle,” but its “unique culture” can “strengthen Bhutan’s sovereignty.”
Bhutan seeks to mark, and protect, its territory through its cultural distinctiveness. To look different from India and China, it adopted a mandatory Driglam Namzha, the official behavior and dress code, which requires citizens to wear the national dress – the gho for men and kira for women – in public places. Art and architecture are also required to conform to the country’s traditions.
“I think it’s time we have our own foreign policy experts,” Thinley told journalists.

National Library of Bhutan, Thimphu. Main buiding in a snowfall. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
India, which inherited the suzerainty over Bhutan after the independence in 1947, has enjoyed almost exclusive influence on that nation.
Bhutan, which struggles to sustain itself financially due to its difficult terrain, got weary of over-dependence on New Delhi after its western neighbor, Sikkim, was “absorbed” by India through a referendum in 1975.
A 1949 treaty required Thimphu to be guided by the advice of New Delhi in regard to its external relations; the clause was removed in a 2007 treaty – only on paper. But now, Thimphu seems to think the time has come to actually pursue a foreign policy independent of India.

English: Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu, Bhutan. It is a Buddhist monastery and seat of the Druk Desi, the head of Bhutan’s civil government. Français : Le monastère fortifié de Tashichho Dzong, à Thimphu, au Bhoutan. Le Tashichho Dzong est le siège du Druk Desi, chef du gouvernement civil du Bhoutan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bhutan is aggressively seeking a role in international relations apparently to assert its sovereignty in all matters. Thimphu made an unsuccessful bid for a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council last month.
It managed to get 20 votes in the 193-member General Assembly. Thinley said during the press conference that Bhutan’s participation in the UNSC election was in itself an achievement.
In July 2011, Thimphu was able to get the UN General Assembly unanimously adopt a resolution placing “happiness” on the global agenda and empowering Bhutan to convene a high-level meeting on happiness as part of the 66th session of the Assembly in New York. This perhaps further reassured Bhutan that it deserves to be independent of foreign influence.

Rajeev Sharma writing for ”South Asia’s Rectangular Triangle – Nepal, Bhutan and India.”

“On February 8, 2007, the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty was substantially revised and Article 2 in the 1949 treaty, which the Bhutanese were uncomfortable with, was amended. The Article 2 of the 1949 treaty read as “The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.” In the revised treaty this now reads as, “In keeping with the abiding ties of close friendship and cooperation between Bhutan and India, the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan and the Government of the Republic of India shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests. Neither government shall allow the use of its territory for activities harmful to the national security and interest of the other.” The revised treaty also strengthens Bhutan’s status as a sovereign nation and includes in it the preamble “Reaffirming their respect for each other’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity”, an element that was absent in the earlier version. The updated India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty lays the foundation for their future development in the 21st century and provides, among other things, for perpetual peace and friendship, free trade and commerce, and equal justice to each other’s citizens.”

Nationale Biblotheek in Thimphu, Bhutan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The actions of the Bhutan government displays the fact that Bhutan has recognized that its survival lies in deep connections with Beijing to keep Delhi’s paws away from Thimpu.

Aurora et al says “In August, about two months after Thinley’s meeting with Jiabao, India’s concerns didn’t deter Thimphu from hosting China’s Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, who made another public pitch for establishing diplomatic relations with Bhutan in a speech in Thimphu ( “About six weeks ago Premier Wen Jiabao and Prime Minister Jigme Thinley met for a historic, first-time meeting between the two countries at the head of government level in Rio de Janeiro on the sidelines of the Rio+20 summit. The two leaders reached new and important common understanding on the development of China-Bhutan relations,” Ying reiterated. But Thimphu did not issue a public statement on Ying’s visit.”

English: Tango Monastery near Thimphu, Bhutan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
These goings on have not gone unnoticed in Bharat. We quote Aurora et al again “New Delhi is expected to react. India’s ambassador to Bhutan, Pavan K Varma, resigned in late October .
Varma, who enjoyed good relations with the government of Bhutan as well as its people, had sought extension as an envoy in Bhutan, but New Delhi refused to oblige apparently for his failure to foresee and preempt the growing proximity between Thimphu and Beijing.”

Aurora et al say “According to media reports, India’s incumbent ambassador to Syria, VP Haran, is expected to replace Varma in Bhutan. Haran was deputy chief of the Indian mission in Nepal during the crucial last days of King Gyanendra in that country in the early 2000s. And India is believed to have practiced carrot and stick diplomacy in Nepal.

English: Office of the Dzongkha Development Commission in Kawangjangtsa, Thimphu Bhutan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the coming months and years, both Bhutan and India will need to take important decisions about the future. The status quo will simply not work anymore.

Aurora et al has some good advice for Bhutan, China and India.

“Bhutan, which is seeking to lead the world in environment conservation, could perhaps look at how resource and strategic interests-hungry China deals with other nations in Asia, such as Burma and Sri Lanka. And India should re-evaluate its nature of diplomacy in nations like Nepal, where New Delhi is increasingly losing influence despite alleged interference in that nation’s domestic affairs.”

In our analysis — the cat is out of the bag. Bhutan the young virgin village girl –after being taken advantage of for half century, is not so naive anymore. She will not allow to be raped anymore and will use whatever means at its disposal to stay away from the big bad wolf in the neighborhood. Bharat has been trying to keep up a battle between Nepal and Bhutan. With the Maoists taking control of Nepal, the relations with Bhutan will improve. An Nepali-Bhutanese axis allied with the ULFA and the Bodos would be deadly for Bhrat. Bhutanese relations with China are inevitable and the strength of that relationship will be leveraged by Bhutan to become more independent. Delhi can hardly control its own Northeast–let alone all of Bhutan. Even the Maldives has given it a black-eye recently. It would be wise for Delhi to back off, before all of Bhutan erupts. If Bhutan erupts, Delhi will lose all of Assam and the 7 sisters (if it hasn’t done that already!)

Archery competition in Bhutan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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