Making A Difference

Going For The Kill

So will they go to Myanmar now? Bangladesh and Nepal seem more likely. The precise direction of the future might be uncertain, but Bhutan's determined action against Indian insurgents on its soil will surely be a turning point in the history of sever

Going For The Kill

At the crack of dawn, December 15, 2003, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck unleashed his smallmilitary machine, comprising the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) and the Royal Bhutan Guards (RBG), to expel an excessof 3,000 heavily armed Indian separatist rebels belonging to three different groups - the United LiberationFront of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) and the Kamatapur LiberationOrganization (KLO). These rebels had made the Himalayan kingdom their home for the past 12 years, and fromhere they launched murderous hit-and-run strikes on security forces, other symbols of Governmental authority,as well as civilians, on Indian soil, in an armed campaign to secure their demands for independent homelands.

Buddhist Bhutan had last gone to war against any foreign force 138 years ago, when they fought the British.That was the Anglo-Bhutanese war of 1865 in which the Crown's Army defeated Bhutan's then Deb Raja or temporalhead, Sonam Lhendup, and came to exercise much influence on Bhutan's affairs. That victory also gave theBritish unhindered trans-Himalayan access for trade with Tibet. The Royal Government's latest decision to goto 'war' by using its military, comprising a strike force of just about 6,000 men, came after six years offailed talks with the ULFA, NDFB and the KLO in a bid to persuade them to peacefully pull their armed cadresout from the Himalayan kingdom.

This was a difficult decision, indeed, for King Wangchuck. Firstly because, the battle capabilities of the RBAand the RBG (the RBG is a force actually meant exclusively for protection of the royal family) were entirelyuntested, and could reasonably be expected to be rather rusty, since these forces had no occasion to fire asingle shot, except during training sessions by the Indian Army that runs a military training centre insideBhutan. Secondly, it has long been feared that a military crackdown could turn the rebels against theBhutanese state machinery or its citizens. This, in turn, would make access into the landlocked kingdomdifficult as most of the roads into southern Bhutan, the rebels' stronghold, passes through Indian territory,via the northeastern State of Assam and the eastern State of West Bengal. But, King Wangchuck could wait nomore.

"The military crackdown was our ultimate option. The last round of talks were held in October-November,2003, where the KLO went unrepresented as it did not respond to our invitation. Middle-level ULFA and NDFBleaders who came for the meetings said they were unable to leave the kingdom immediately," Aum NetenZangmo, Bhutan's Foreign Secretary, told this writer from Thimphu, the nation's capital.

On the rebels' response during the last round of talks, a Bhutanese Foreign Ministrystatement faxed to this writer stated: "…The ULFA said that it would be suicidal for their cause ofindependence of Assam to leave Bhutan while the NDFB said that even if they left their present camps, theywould have to come back and establish camps in other parts of Bhutan..." The Foreign Secretary said evenduring most of the earlier 'exit talks' (talks to persuade the rebels to withdraw from the Kingdom), the rebelgroups were represented by middle-level leaders, while the Royal Government was represented at the highestlevel, including that of the Prime Minister and the Home Minister.

On December 13, 48 hours before the military offensive began, Thimphu gave a notice to ULFA, NDFB and KLO,through an item in Kuensel, the country's national newspaper, that it was left with no option other thanentrusting the RBA "with the sacred duty of removing the militants" from the country in accordancewith the mandate of the 81st session of the Bhutan National Assembly or Parliament (held between June andAugust, 2003). The National Assembly had asked the Royal Government to try and convince the rebels 'one lasttime' to withdraw in a peaceful manner or expel them by using military force.

"The mandate of the National Assembly was weighing heavily on us. Besides, the rebels'continued presence was turning out to be a direct threat to Bhutan's security and sovereignty," YasheyDorji, Director in the Bhutanese Foreign Ministry, currently based in the southern Bhutan combat zone ofSamdrup Jhongkar, bordering western Assam, told this writer. He said schools had to be closed down, trade andbusiness were hit and the country's social life was getting 'corrupted' by the militants' presence in thekingdom.

Ultimatum given, and a strategy put in place in full consultation with Indian Prime Minister Atal BehariVajpayee and the Indian Army, the Bhutanese troops advanced into the dense sub-tropical jungles of southernBhutan, bordering the Indian States of Assam, West Bengal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The RBA troopersbroke the early morning stillness on December 15 by raining 81mm mortars on the heavily mined andwell-fortified ULFA, NDFB and KLO camps while the rebels retaliated with 51mm mortars and grenades, as thechief of the Indian Army's Kolkata-based Eastern Command Lt. Gen. J.S. Verma disclosed later.

Bhutan said that on Day 1 of the offensive itself, the RBA captured ULFA's 'CentralHeadquarters' (CHQ) at Phukaptong in Samdrup Jongkhar district. By December 16, Bhutanese authorities saidULFA's 'General Headquarters' (GHQ) at Merengphu in Samdrup Jongkhar district, the main NDFB camp in Tikri,also in Samdrup Jongkhar, the NDFB camp in Nganglam sub-district and the KLO camps in Samtse district wereoverrun. On December 18, all that the tight-lipped Bhutanese officials at Thimphu, southern Bhutan and NewDelhi would say is that the rebels have been 'dislodged' from all their 30 rebels camps inside the kingdom (aBhutanese Foreign Ministry statement said ULFA had 13 camps, NDFB 12 and the KLO 5) and that the RBA troopswere pursuing them in the dense jungles to flush them out.

Where were the rebels expected to go, as the Indian Army stands as a virtual wall all along the 380-kilometreIndo-Bhutan border, remains an unanswered question, or at least a question not adequately answered by eitherthe Indian or the Bhutanese authorities.

While the Bhutanese maintained a stony silence on operational details and fatalities, Indian Army generalsgave out some limited information: On December 18, the Eastern Command's Lt. Gen. Verma disclosed that between90 and 120 rebels were killed, seven RBA soldiers had lost their lives, and that the Indian Army was onlyproviding 'logistic support', including making available ammunition and medical supplies and services, as wellas airlifting RBA casualties. Several RBA soldiers are being treated at Indian military base hospitals,including the one near Guwahati in Assam.

A day later, on December 19, India's Chief of Army Staff, General N.C. Vij said that Bhutanhas handed over the first batch of seven captured Indian militants and that more were expected soon. Therewere also some Indian intelligence reports of several top rebel leaders, including ULFA 'publicity chief'Mithinga Daimary, NDFB publicity head B. Erakdao, and two crack ULFA 'commanders', Bening Rabha and Robin Neog,having fallen into the RBA net. Mithinga Daimary was among the first batch of seven rebels handed over byBhutan to the Indian Army who, in turn, handed them over to the Assam Police on December 20.

Besides that, ULFA's octogenarian political adviser and ideologue, Bhimkanta Burhagohain,has also died. He is said to have succumbed to his injuries sustained on Day 1 of the offensive, although arebel statement on December 19 said he was killed in custody after being captured while he was leading a groupof women, children and injured rebels, holding a white flag. It is clear, however, that the rebels have reallybeen pushed to the wall and have lost most of their key commanders and military planners.

It is interesting to look at the timing of the Bhutanese assault. After years of vacillation, why did Thimphudecide to act now? The ULFA has been operating in Bhutan ever since the Indian Army launched Operation Bajrangin November 1990. Operation Bajrang was the first-ever military operation against the rebels in Assam, and itforced them to look for shelter outside the country. The NDFB joined the ULFA later. The Bhutanese are nowciting the mandate of the 81st session of the National Assembly to free the kingdom of the presence of foreignmilitants. But that has been the National Assembly's directive for several years now.

It is, in fact, the relatively smaller and rag-tag group, the KLO, and its affiliations and linkages, morethan the ULFA or the NDFB, that provide the key to the question as to why Thimphu chose to act now.

Security circles in both India and Bhutan had been rattled by news of the launching of the Bhutan CommunistParty (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) on April 22, 2003, the 133rd birth anniversary of Lenin. Pamphlets widelycirculated by this new group in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal and in areas inside Bhutan itselfrevealed that the new party's objective was to "smash the monarchy" and establish a "true andnew democracy" in Bhutan. That was enough for the Indian and Bhutanese security establishment to put theULFA, NDFB and the KLO under intensive surveillance and scrutiny.

It didn't take long for New Delhi and Thimphu to identify the KLO as the group with a fargreater nuisance value than perhaps the ULFA or the NDFB. The KLO is active and has pockets of influence inthe strategic North Bengal areas of West Bengal and could act as a bridge between the Maoist guerrillas inNepal (the Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist, or CPN-M) and the newly emerging Maoist force in Bhutan. Indianintelligence agencies were also aware of the fact that the KLO had provided sanctuary to fleeing Maoist rebelsfrom Nepal, that the outfit has acted as a link between the Nepalese Maoists and radical left-wing activistsin the Indian State of Bihar, and that it had received help from the Maoists in setting up a number ofexplosives manufacturing units in North Bengal. It was these deepening linkages that forced both New Delhi andThimphu to agree that it was time to launch a direct assault on the rebels in Bhutan before the situation wentout of hand.

Cornered in the very first days of the current operation, the three rebel groups responded by calling a48-hour general strike in Assam and parts of West Bengal from the morning of December 20. In an unprecedenteddisplay of the public's lack of enthusiasm, the strike evoked a very partial response. The rebels were alsoquick to put out appeals to King Wangchuck to bring the operations to a halt in view of the 'traditional bond'between the people of Bhutan and Assam.


Trying to be diplomatic and perhaps to still keep lines of communication open, the rebelswere initially not very critical of Bhutan, except in lamenting the launching of the crackdown without a'clear ultimatum,' and harping on the fact that 'it is an Indian Army ploy' to throttle the rebels' movementfor their right of 'self-determination'. By Day six of the offensive, however, the ULFA's stand had hardened,with the group's chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa stating to the media that his group would, from that point on,regard "our enemy's friend as our enemy."

A war of words alone, however, cannot keep the ULFA or other rebel groups going in the present situation. Asfar as the rebels are concerned, they need alternative bases as soon as possible, to cool their heels and plantheir next course of action. The jungles of Myanmar, across Arunachal Pradesh, are one favoured destination.Indications of this came on December 20 when the Indian Army ambushed and killed three rebels, two belongingto the ULFA and one from the little-known Arunachal Dragon Force (ADF), near Namsai in Arunachal Pradesh,bordering the eastern Assam district of Tinsukia. The chief of the ADF, Chownomee Namchumoo was captured alongwith AK-47 rifles, pistols, grenades and a large amount of explosives and cash. An Army spokesman told thiswriter that these rebels were on their way to a hideout in Myanmar. According to Khagen Sarma, Assam PoliceInspector General (Special Branch), there are an estimated 400 ULFA rebels in a number of camps insideMyanmar.

However, if the 1995 joint operations by the Indian and Myanmarese Armies, codenamed 'Operation Golden Bird,'are any indication, Myanmar may not be a safe resting place, and still less a secure staging area, for theIndian insurgents. Dozens of ULFA and other Northeast Indian rebels were either killed or captured by troopsof the two nations in a pincer attack during Operation Golden Bird along the Mizoram border.


That leaves two main options for the rebels to look for as an alternative destination:Bangladesh or Nepal. Neither, however, is going to be as easy as it had been in Bhutan. For one, the rebelswill not be able to operate such extensive and well-fortified bases in Bangladesh for lack of sufficientjungle-covered terrain. Contacts in Bangladesh will certainly be able to provide the rebels some moresafe-houses (top ULFA leaders have been operating from safe houses in Bangladesh for years now), but that willnot be enough to maintain a strike force of several hundred, or even several thousand, people. Secondly, thedistance factor and the terrain will act as impediments to operations.


Unlike the Assam-Bhutan border, the Assam-Bangladesh border is not heavily wooded, exceptin the Meghalaya sector, making incursions visible and thereby detection and response by the Indian securityforces relatively easy. Areas within Nepal that are currently dominated by the Maoists, and where theGovernment's presence is weak, may provide a temporary safe haven. However, considering Kathmandu's friendlyties with New Delhi, this could at best serve as a transit base for the Northeast Indian rebels, and theywould eventually be targeted by Nepal's security forces. As in Bhutan, New Delhi exercises significantinfluence over Kathmandu.

Until the ULFA and the other rebels manage to regroup, a task that is not going to be easy after the reversesthey have suffered in Bhutan, the region can expect to witness sporadic raids by these insurgents to drivehome the message that they were not yet an altogether spent force. The cat-and-mouse game is certainly notover, but it is clear from statements made by the seven ULFA rebels who surrendered to the Assam Police in thenorthern district of Darrang on December 20 after escaping from their Bhutan camp on Day 1 of the offensive,that deep fissures have appeared within the rebel group. "Our leaders had not given us any indication ofan impending Bhutanese Army attack. We somehow fled and arrived in Assam after four days' of trekking insideBhutan. Many more of our comrades are ready to surrender," Domeswar Rabha, an ULFA 'lieutenant' whosurrendered was quoted as saying to the Darrang Superintendent of Police, Ejaz Hazarika.