Bhutan Assessment 2008
The peaceful Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan was rocked by a series of explosions between 11.10am and 2.10pm at four different locations, all in the South Western region of the country, including one in the capital Thimpu, on January 20, 2008. While no loss of life was reported, a woman sustained splinter injuries.
While the low-intensity explosions constitute no significant threat to the country’s security, they are disturbing, particularly in the context of a country that is currently making its transition from monarchy to parliamentary democracy – the first general elections, to choose 47 candidates for Bhutan’s National Assembly, the lower House of Parliament, will be held on March 24, 2008. Two parties — the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT, Bhutan Harmony Party) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — will contest the elections that will formally end absolute monarchy in the country.
The first blast occurred at 11:10am near the vegetable market in Samste. The second blast took place at 11:45am in Thimpu town. At 1:20pm, a third blast occurred near the gate of the Tala Guest House at Gedu in the Chukha District. At 2:10pm the fourth blast occurred at Dagapela in the Dagana District, where a second device, which failed to explode, was found in the same area. While there was no injury to any person or damage to property in the blasts in Samtse and Dagapela, one woman suffered splinter injuries in the blast at Gedu. The explosion in the Thimpu town shattered the window panes of buildings. In an e-mail declaration, the newly formed United Revolutionary Front of Bhutan (URFB) claimed responsibility for these blasts. The declaration, credited to URFB’s ‘commander-in-chief’ Karma, stated that the group was formed on April 12, 2007.
Meanwhile, the Royal Bhutanese Police (RBP) claimed that any one of the three Nepal-based organizations could have been responsible for the attacks: the Bhutan Tiger Force, the Bhutan Maoist Party and the Communist Party of Bhutan. Open source information, however, indicates that all these groups are, in fact, a single organisation – the Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) [BCP (MLM)] of which Bhutan Tiger Force (BTF) is the armed wing.
These explosions have occurred after more than a year since the last blasts in the country. On December 2, 2006, four persons, including three Indian nationals, were injured in a bomb blast in Phuntsholing town. No one claimed responsibility for the attack. Although the disruptive forces failed to carry out any violent action in 2007, there were a few attempts which were successfully foiled by the security forces:
August 10: RBP personnel prevented a blast by detecting an explosive device in a five-storey building opposite Kuenga Hotel in Phuntsholing.
May 28: An improvised explosive device was discovered below a culvert about four kilometres from Phuntsholing on the Phuntsholing-Thimpu highway.
April 23: A bomb, believed to have been planted by anti-monarchy rebels, was recovered and subsequently defused near a bridge in Phuntsholing, approximately 180 kilometres south of the capital Thimpu, and close to the Indian border. The BTF and the hitherto unknown Bhutan Revolutionary Youth claimed responsibility for planting the device. The RBP, however, blamed the BTF for planting the explosive device.
The BCP (MLM) was reportedly formed in the United Nations Refugee Camps in eastern Nepal and is largely comprised of Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin. The BCP (MLM) brought out its first Press Release, signed by ‘Vikalpa’ as ‘general secretary’ through the Website of the Communist Party of Nepal- Maoist (CPN-Maoist) on April 22, 2003. After its formation in Nepal, the group has reportedly strengthened bases inside Bhutan. The group has youth, peasant and student wings that have begun distributing pamphlets and posters even in urban centres like Thimpu, Paro and Haa.
Banned by the Bhutanese Government, the BCP (MLM) has close ties with the CPN-Maoist. The major demands of the BCP (MLM) include the early repatriation of the refugees to Bhutan and the declaration of Bhutan as a ‘sovereign democracy’. The URFB has a similar set of demands.
On May 25, 2007, RBP personnel arrested 30 people, including three students, who had joined the BCP (MLM), in Samtse District. During the Court proceedings in the cases registered against these persons, it was observed that the accused had been in touch with cadres of the CPN-Maoist. The Police stated that the accused were engaged in seditious meetings, held in Katarey and Ugyentse, to recruit more people and collect donations to finance subversive activities. Their plans were to create awareness of the communist ideology and provide training in arms and explosives to start an armed rebellion against the Government, to disrupt the peace and stability and the democratisation process taking place in the country. The accused were also allegedly providing support to the Ngolops (Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin residing in Nepal) in their seditious activities against the State.
The unresolved issue of Ngolops remains a critical problem for Bhutan. Over 105,000 Bhutanese refugees reside in seven camps in the eastern Districts of Nepal since the ethnic exodus that followed the implementation of Bhutan’s Citizenship Act of 1985 and the subsequent nation-wide Census of 1988. The Bhutan Government has tended to resist all repatriation because most of the refugees are of Nepali origin, and this is seen as creating a 'demographic imbalance' in some areas of the thinly-populated country, as well as a threat to the Monarchy. While growing international pressure has forced Bhutan to accept the idea of repatriation of some refugees, non-Bhutanese and Bhutanese with criminal and subversive records will certainly be excluded, accounting for a sizeable and potentially volatile chunk of the refugee population. Bhutan also fears that the repatriated groups may be 'infected' by the Nepalese Maoists. The Bhutanese Home Secretary, Dasho Penden Wangchuk, stated on September 23, 2006, that the growing nexus between people in the camps in eastern Nepal, the Maoists and Indian Left Wing Extremists would have far-reaching impact on the region’s security. Wangchuk noted: "It is a confirmed fact that there is today a growing nexus between Maoists and the people in the camps in eastern Nepal … We also have information confirming radical elements from the camps in Nepal having received armed training from the Maoists."
Meanwhile, there are reports that almost half of the Bhutanese refugees living in Nepal have opted for a new life in the United States (US) and have applied for resettlement in the US, after the US Government’s decision to offer a new home and life to the refugees who were evicted from Bhutan because of their Nepali origin. The first batch of refugees was scheduled to arrive in the US in January 2008. Other countries like Canada, Australia and Denmark have also offered resettlement in their respective countries. 'It is our hope that in 2008 more than 13,000 refugees will be resettled from Nepal,' said the American Ambassador to Nepal, Nancy J. Powell, in a statement issued by the US Embassy in Kathmandu on January 16, 2008.
However, the BTF has opposed this ‘third country settlement’. On December 13, 2007, the BTF shot at and injured a refugee, identified as Subba, at Beldangi I camp near Sangam Chowk in Damak, Nepal. Two others, C. L. Thapa and D. B. Moktan, who were with Subba escaped the shooting. Later, claiming responsibility for the attack, the BCP (MLM) ‘chairman’ Surya declared: "The resettlement in America was a plan to obstruct the repatriation of the Bhutanese to their homeland and this action (shooting) was carried to foil the resettlement." He also warned that "Anyone supporting and advocating for the third country resettlement would face similar consequence (sic)." Earlier, on June 7, 2007, the BTF warned the refugees not to support third country settlement. The group reportedly pasted pamphlets and posters in the Jhapa and Morang camps in Nepal, which declared that resettling refugees in third countries was against the refugee's movement of respectful return to their country and was meant to ‘brush aside’ the existence of refugees. These acts seeking to disrupt third country settlement and whipping up sentiments underlines the BCP-MLM’s devisive agenda and their principal worry about the prospective loss of their cadres – since Ngolops provide the recruiting base for the radical group.
Amidst all this, Bhutan remains en route to democracy. Elections to the 47-member National Assembly (Lower House of Parliament), to effect the transition to parliamentary democracy from the existing monarchy, are scheduled to be held on March 24, 2008. Earlier, on December 31, 2007, the country voted for 15 of the 20-member Nation Council (Upper House of Parliament). Two new political parties formed in 2007 are in the fray. The DPT is believed to be the frontrunner but expects a strong challenge from the PDP. Both the parties draw their leaders from the bureaucracy and other professional groups. The country's first elected Prime Minister is expected to assume office a day after the elections, Chief Election Commissioner Kunzang Wangdi disclosed. Under a Draft Constitution, the King will remain as head of State after the vote. However, the Parliament will have the power to impeach the 27-year-old monarch, Jigme Keshar Namgyal Wangchuck, by a two-thirds vote.
Bhutan has largely persisted as the only fortunate exception in an otherwise violence-torn South Asia. It remains to be seen whether the ‘land of the thunder dragon’ will continue to abide in peace after the transition to democracy and the incursions of the incipient Maoist movement into this ‘last Shangrila’.