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Bhutan Bodo & Ulfa Conflict
Government to make last attempt at peaceful negotiations July 2003
July 2003: Government to make last attempt at peaceful negotiations

The new government of Bhutan, represented by the council of 10 elected cabinet ministers, will make a last attempt to persuade the top ULFA leaders to come for talks and to close down the main camp which serves as their central headquarter in Bhutan. If this round of negotiations is not successful, Bhutan will resort to military action to make the militants leave the kingdom.

Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho: one more round

This resolution of the National Assembly emerged from behind the closed doors of the Assembly hall on July 14 after four days of exhaustive debate that concluded in the first closed door session of the Assembly held during the reign of His Majesty the King.

His Majesty the King intervened several times to share his views and to advise the members as they examined in depth a wide range of nuances and implications of the problem. The somber debate was seen as a last opportunity for the Assembly to clarify, understand, and prepare for the full impact of the last option left to the kingdom if the peaceful attempt by the government did not work.


The home minister, Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho, informed the Assembly that the government had held four rounds of talks with the ULFA leaders including one with the chairman, Arabinda Rajkhowa. During the 3rd round, in June 2001, the two sides had signed the agreed minutes which stipulated that the ULFA must remove four of their nine camps within December, 2001, and reduce their cadres in the remaining five camps.

The ULFA had closed down the four camps by December 31, 2001, and the Bhutanese military had burnt down the vacated camps. However, today, the ULFA had eight camps in Bhutan with an estimated 1,560 militants in the kingdom.

The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) had eight camps with about 740 militants. The government had held two rounds of meetings in October, 2000, and May 2001, the second round being with its president, D R Nabla. The NDFB leaders had not given any commitment that their militants would leave Bhutanese territory and had refused to come for talks in the last two years.

The Kamtapuri Liberation Organisation (KLO), from the state of West Bengal, had three camps in Bhutan. The KLO is believed to have about 430 militants inside Bhutan. The ministry of home affairs had sent two letters, in June and September, 2002, to the KLO leaders asking them to close down their camps and also inviting a delegation led by the KLO chairman and commander-in-chief, Tushar Das, to come to Bhutan to discuss a peaceful solution to the problem.

On March 25, 2003, a four-member delegation led by the Zhung Kalyon, Dasho Rinzin Gyeltshen, held talks with mid level KLO leaders. The government reiterated its serious concerns over the illegal presence of KLO militant camps in Bhutan, the urgent need for a peaceful solution to the problem, and the importance of the KLO chairman coming to Thimphu for talks at the earliest, before the present session of the National Assembly. They did not respond.

"The militants have shown a total disregard for the continuous initiatives and efforts on the part of the Bhutanese government to find a peaceful solution to the problem," said the home minister. "They neither respect nor fear the government and the Royal Bhutan Army. They believe that, since no action has been taken against them so far, none will be taken by the royal government of Bhutan in the future."

The dratshang will continue to perform kurims

The home minister reminded the Assembly that the three militant outfits shared the same separatist objectives that could never be fulfilled. "Therefore, it can only be concluded that the ULFA, NDFB and KLO militants intend to stay on Bhutanese territory for a long period of time." The home minister said that the government was mandated by the Assembly to hold one last round of talks with the ULFA leaders but expressed his doubts that the leaders would come for the talks. Even if they did come, it would be unlikely that they would close down their headquarter, leaving only the last option, which was military action.

Military action, said the home minister, would bring unimaginable suffering to the people. "In December, 2000, with no provocation, 15 innocent Bhutanese people were gunned down and 19 injured in Bhutanese buses on the Assam highway," he said. "That will be nothing compared with what might happen if we start military operation against the militants. There will be loss of property, schools and hospitals will be closed down, economic development will be impeded, and more than 66,464 people will be directly affected in 304 villages in 10 dzongkhags."

Lyonpo Thinley Gyamtsho informed the Assembly that the government had taken steps to strengthen the security forces of Bhutan. Under the spiritual leadership of His Holiness the Je Khenpo, the clergy was performing kurims for the well being of the nation and people. The people across the country had been briefed in public meetings, service facilities and installations were protected, a number of actions had been taken after three rounds of security coordination meetings in Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar and Gedu, the council of ministers had approved a contingency budget up to Nu 2,000 million, two refugee camps and 12 transit camps were being prepared, 150 risoops had been appointed

Military action

During the discussions, a number of chimis proposed immediate military action. The people of Shaba, Wangchang and Doteng geogs and the business community of Paro pointed out that, over the past few years, peaceful negotiations had failed. They said that planned development should be suspended and the budget diverted for security costs. The Punakha chimi said that the best solution was peaceful negotiations but the chances of a peaceful solution looked increasingly doubtful. The Haa and Chukha chimis said that the council of ministers should hold talks with the militants as soon as possible.

Peaceful negotiations

A large number of Assembly members proposed that the government, which had been greatly strengthened to deal with the problem, should be allowed one more attempt at peaceful negotiations as decided by the Assembly last year. The Chukha dzongda said that, as proposed by the home minister the government should be given one more chance for dialogue with the militants to make them leave peacefully before resorting to military action.

Talks with India

A number of Assembly members said that, more than the militants, the government should try to work out a solution together with the government of India because the militants were Indian citizens and the source of the problem was basically in India.

The Bumthang chimi said that the government must discuss ways to stop the militants from entering the country across the international border, now and in the future. The Punakha chimi said it was important that the government should discuss the problem with the Indian government because the militants were Indian nationals and all their supplies came from India.

The Samdrup Jongkhar Dzongda: people have been punished

The Samdrup Jongkhar Dzongda: people have been punished for selling rations to the militants
The BCCI chimi said that it was important to talk to the Indian government on how to get the militants out of the country and then to prevent them from re-entering Bhutan. He added that it was important to discuss the aftermath of a war because the militants were from Assam and Bengal. The chimi added that the militants were also based in Myanmar and Bangladesh so it was important to look at the problem in the overall perspective.

The Thimphu chimi said that, before resorting to armed conflict, Bhutan and India should sign a binding agreement on the conditions of an armed conflict to protect innocent people. The council of ministers must negotiate an acceptable agreement that would ensure the protection of Bhutanese vehicles and people travelling through Assam and West Bengal.

The royal advisory councillor from Zhemgang said that the 2,730 militants living in the 19 camps in the jungles of Bhutan would require a large quantity of food. It was important to find out where and how their rations were being brought to their camps. Bhutan shared a long international boundary with India and there were Indian security personnel patrolling all along the border. "How come the Bhutanese travellers are being harassed at the border while the militants are able to move in and out ?" he asked. "Therefore, it is more important to talk with the Indian government than the militants."

The Samdrup Jongkhar dzongda informed the Assembly that Indian newspapers based in Delhi, Kolkata, and Guwahati were reporting that the Indian soldiers were ready to enter Bhutan to drive out the militants. This misinformation might have been given by officials of Assam and West Bengal, thereby creating a problem that should be solved as soon as possible.

The health and education minister, Lyonpo Sangay Ngedup, said it was important to carefully weigh the implications of an armed conflict. Even the most powerful countries with the best military equipment faced many problems and difficulties during a war. But it was necessary that every Bhutanese citizen was ready to sacrifice his life to protect the security of the nation. The minister said that he was ready to exchange the ministerial scarf for a soldier's uniform if the command came from the Golden Throne. "It is time to prove our dedication and patriotism for our beloved country," he said.

His Majesty's security

Many chimis pleaded with His Majesty the King not to travel to areas where the security risks were high.

The Dagana chimi said the Assembly should resolve that His Majesty the King should not be exposed to risks by visiting the security affected areas. It was the role of the council of ministers and senior military officers to represent His Majesty in the troubled areas. ". The King himself had warned the people of the serious consequences of military action. While it would not be a problem for the security troops to evict the militants, there were far more implications to the national economy and the safety of the people.

His Majesty

On the issue raised by the Samdrup Jongkhar dzongda, His Majesty the King said that the members of the National Assembly must understand clearly the implications of the reports in newspapers in India about the Indian army entering Bhutan to fight the militants.

Bhutan and India enjoyed very close relations at every level, between the governments, armies, and the people. "The government of India is fully aware that the National Assembly has been holding discussions every year on removing the militants from our country," His Majesty said. His Majesty the King said that it was very important for the Assembly members, especially the cabinet ministers and royal advisory councillors, to understand India's concerns over the militant issue. The ULFA wanted Assam, the largest north-eastern state with a population of 25 million, to be independent from India. The NDFB, a Bodo tribal group, also want an independent Bodoland. The KLO, which has emerged recently, was a tribal group spread across West Bengal, which also wants an independent state.

His Majesty said that these people were not refugees. They were trained and armed militants who had established camps, training centres, and arms depots in Bhutan. They had adequate funds. Although they had not killed or robbed Bhutanese people, they committed atrocities across the border in India and escaped into Bhutan when pursued by Indian security forces.

So far India had respected the international border because of the very close and friendly relations between the two countries. His Majesty himself enjoyed very good relations with the prime minister, the ministers, and senior army officers. Although Indian soldiers might have unknowingly crossed the border in hot pursuit, they had always respected the border between India and Bhutan.

His Majesty said that it was important for the Assembly members to understand, not only Bhutan's own security problems but the threat that the militants posed to the security of India from the government of India's perspective. His Majesty said that, during the remaining months of the year, it was the last opportunity to persuade the ULFA to remove its main camp that was used as its headquarter. If the ULFA leaders agree to remove their central headquarter it will then lead to the closing of their other camps. But if the talks failed the members of the Assembly must understand the consequences very clearly. A military clash would mean a clash with all three militant groups. Besides many other problems the civil servants, business people, and public who had to constantly travel through Assam and West Bengal would face great security risks.

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