Last round of talks with Indian militants before we strike: Bhutan

Having held four rounds of talks with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) leaders, including its self-styled commander in chief, Paresh Baruah, and chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa in Thimphu, the Bhutanese Government “will consider the fifth as the last and final before moving in its army”, should the negotiations fail, Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Yoezer Thinley has said. The fifth round of talks are to be held “soon” in an undisclosed destination in Bhutan. Three rounds of talks had also been held with the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), represented by its negotiator DR Nabla, beginning 2001, Thinley said, adding that the NDFB, had remained non-committal about leaving Bhutanese territory, and that it had refused to come for talks in the past two years. Bhutan’s ministry of home affairs had also sent two letters to the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) of West Bengal, asking it to close down their camps in Bhutan, and had invited its self-styled commander-in-chief Tushar Das to come for talks to resolve the matter peacefully. While a four-member team of the home ministry had met the KLO leaders in June this year, the outfit had shown “complete disregard” towards the Bhutanese initiative, the prime minister said.

In an exclusive interview at the Taschho Dzong (fortress) in Thimphu, Thinley, however, ruled out any joint operation with the Indian army against the militants. ”The Bhutanese government has earmarked a contingency fund of Rs 200 crore for possible military strikes against the ULFA, NDFB and the KLO militants lodged in the jungles of southern Bhutan,” he said. Apart from the regular Bhutanese army, 2,000 “militiamen” would undertake the operations against the Indian insurgents.

The developments in Bhutan have come at a time when the ULFA, which had recently issued a quit notice to the “Hindi speaking” population of the state, has been held responsible for the continuing attacks on the Bihari population leaving scores of the community dead in Assam. Barua has, however, denied any involvement in the present violence.

According to Thinley, the ULFA had eight camps in Bhutan with an estimated 2,650 militants. Four of the camps were, however, closed down in the early part of this year following the signing of an agreement with the Bhutanese government, he said. The NDFB, meanwhile has eight camps with about 840 cadres. The KLO, for its part, has three camps with about 430 militants inside Bhutan, the prime minister said.

“WAR PREPARATIONS” ON: The Bhutanese government has worked out a three-pronged strategy to deal with the North-east militants operating from its soil. This includes talks, cutting off insurgents supply lines, and a final, frontal attack against the insurgents. Preparations for a conflict are also on in full swing. “All basic and emergency requirements, such as the construction of at least four refugees camps for people from militant-inhabited areas to be shifted to are ready,” Thinley said. “All military equipment, ammunition, supply lines and 12 army transit camps are also in place.”

Most ULFA and other Indian insurgents from the Norh-east have set up their camps in the three districts of Samdrup Jhonkar, Gelephu and Gedu in Bhutan, bordering India. “We have been tolerant towards the militants as we are a Buddhist kingdom,” he said, “but in times of emergencies and national crises we must have both the will and capacity to protect the wellbeing of our country."

Apart from a last round of negotiations that need to be held with the ULFA before taking a final decision on a military strike, Thinley, who also holds the home portfolio, said there were other, internal activities to be handled before the government could launches its armed operations. This included the annual school exams in all the 20 districts of the country, he said.

WANGCHUK “TAKES CHARGE” AFTER INDIA VISIT: The Bhutanese king, Jigme Singye Wanghuk, has ordered the suspension of all planned developmental activity following his return from the Indian capital recently, Thinley said. The ministry has been expanded to ten and extra portfolios created, while the King himself, as chief of the armed forces of the Royal Bhutan Government, is taking up the issue as its top priority, he said. “We are waiting for a peaceful solution but if that does not happen, we will have to resort to our last option. The people of Assam have to understand our action,” said the prime minister. The country had strengthened its security forces under the spiritual leadership of His Holiness the Je Khenpo (the head of religion), while the clergy has been performing kurims (prayers) for the well being of the nation and its people, he said. "People across the country have been briefed in public meetings; service facilities and installations are being protected and several security coordination meetings have been held in Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar and Gedu,” he said.

In the six years since the first entry of North-eastern militants into Bhutan, the Bhutanese government had established 20 army camps along the Assam-Bhutan border and posted 5,000 trained troops along with around 20,000 “militia volunteers” in the area, Thinley said. He blamed the presence of Indian militants for ruining the economic climate of the region where they have set up their camps. “The sale of all goods to the militants has been banned and Bhutanese people aiding militants are being punished and imprisoned under the country’s National Security Act,” Thinley said. At present, the militants were sustaining themselves on rations being procured from border markets in West Bengal and Assam.

BLAME IT ON THE GREENS: The Bhutanese government was not initially aware of the entry of militants from India’s North-east, Thinley said. “In 13 years, the forest cover in our country had extended by up to 72 per cent and this attracted the militants from the neighbouring areas in India.” The militants, said Thinley, managed to enter the areas because they were at that stage not being patrolled adequately. It is widely believed that groups such as the ULFA had, at least in the initial period received state patronage in Bhutan, on the assurance that they would assist the government in ousting Nepali dissidents inimical to Thimphu. The militant groups are, however, believed to have later reneged on their commitment.

By Bijoy Shankar Handique (