At the crack of dawn, December 15, 2003, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck unleashed his small
military machine, comprising the Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) and the Royal Bhutan Guards (RBG), to expel an excess
of 3,000 heavily armed Indian separatist rebels belonging to three different groups - the United Liberation
Front of Asom (ULFA), the National Democratic Front of Boroland (NDFB) and the Kamatapur Liberation
Organization (KLO). These rebels had made the Himalayan kingdom their home for the past 12 years, and from
here 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 temporal head, Sonam Lhendup, and came to exercise much influence on Bhutan's affairs. That victory also gave the British unhindered trans-Himalayan access for trade with Tibet. The Royal Government's latest decision to go to 'war' by using its military, comprising a strike force of just about 6,000 men, came after six years of failed talks with the ULFA, NDFB and the KLO in a bid to persuade them to peacefully pull their armed cadres out from the Himalayan kingdom.
This was a difficult decision, indeed, for King Wangchuck. Firstly because, the battle capabilities of the RBA and the RBG (the RBG is a force actually meant exclusively for protection of the royal family) were entirely untested, and could reasonably be expected to be rather rusty, since these forces had no occasion to fire a single shot, except during training sessions by the Indian Army that runs a military training centre inside Bhutan. Secondly, it has long been feared that a military crackdown could turn the rebels against the Bhutanese state machinery or its citizens. This, in turn, would make access into the landlocked kingdom difficult 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 no more.
"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 NDFB leaders who came for the meetings said they were unable to leave the kingdom immediately," Aum Neten Zangmo, 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 Ministry
statement faxed to this writer stated: "…The ULFA said that it would be suicidal for their cause of
independence of Assam to leave Bhutan while the NDFB said that even if they left their present camps, they
would have to come back and establish camps in other parts of Bhutan..." The Foreign Secretary said even
during most of the earlier 'exit talks' (talks to persuade the rebels to withdraw from the Kingdom), the rebel
groups were represented by middle-level leaders, while the Royal Government was represented at the highest
level, 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 than entrusting the RBA "with the sacred duty of removing the militants" from the country in accordance with the mandate of the 81st session of the Bhutan National Assembly or Parliament (held between June and August, 2003). The National Assembly had asked the Royal Government to try and convince the rebels 'one last time' 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," Yashey
Dorji, Director in the Bhutanese Foreign Ministry, currently based in the southern Bhutan combat zone of
Samdrup Jhongkar, bordering western Assam, told this writer. He said schools had to be closed down, trade and
business were hit and the country's social life was getting 'corrupted' by the militants' presence in the
Ultimatum given, and a strategy put in place in full consultation with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and the Indian Army, the Bhutanese troops advanced into the dense sub-tropical jungles of southern Bhutan, bordering the Indian States of Assam, West Bengal, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. The RBA troopers broke the early morning stillness on December 15 by raining 81mm mortars on the heavily mined and well-fortified ULFA, NDFB and KLO camps while the rebels retaliated with 51mm mortars and grenades, as the chief 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 'Central
Headquarters' (CHQ) at Phukaptong in Samdrup Jongkhar district. By December 16, Bhutanese authorities said
ULFA'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 were
overrun. On December 18, all that the tight-lipped Bhutanese officials at Thimphu, southern Bhutan and New
Delhi would say is that the rebels have been 'dislodged' from all their 30 rebels camps inside the kingdom (a
Bhutanese Foreign Ministry statement said ULFA had 13 camps, NDFB 12 and the KLO 5) and that the RBA troops
were 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-kilometre Indo-Bhutan border, remains an unanswered question, or at least a question not adequately answered by either the Indian or the Bhutanese authorities.
While the Bhutanese maintained a stony silence on operational details and fatalities, Indian Army generals gave out some limited information: On December 18, the Eastern Command's Lt. Gen. Verma disclosed that between 90 and 120 rebels were killed, seven RBA soldiers had lost their lives, and that the Indian Army was only providing 'logistic support', including making available ammunition and medical supplies and services, as well as 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 Bhutan has handed over the first batch of seven captured Indian militants and that more were expected soon. There were 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 by Bhutan 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 a
rebel statement on December 19 said he was killed in custody after being captured while he was leading a group
of women, children and injured rebels, holding a white flag. It is clear, however, that the rebels have really
been 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 Thimphu decide to act now? The ULFA has been operating in Bhutan ever since the Indian Army launched Operation Bajrang in November 1990. Operation Bajrang was the first-ever military operation against the rebels in Assam, and it forced them to look for shelter outside the country. The NDFB joined the ULFA later. The Bhutanese are now citing the mandate of the 81st session of the National Assembly to free the kingdom of the presence of foreign militants. 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, more than 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 Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) on April 22, 2003, the 133rd birth anniversary of Lenin. Pamphlets widely circulated by this new group in the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal and in areas inside Bhutan itself revealed that the new party's objective was to "smash the monarchy" and establish a "true and new democracy" in Bhutan. That was enough for the Indian and Bhutanese security establishment to put the ULFA, 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 far
greater nuisance value than perhaps the ULFA or the NDFB. The KLO is active and has pockets of influence in
the strategic North Bengal areas of West Bengal and could act as a bridge between the Maoist guerrillas in
Nepal (the Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist, or CPN-M) and the newly emerging Maoist force in Bhutan. Indian
intelligence agencies were also aware of the fact that the KLO had provided sanctuary to fleeing Maoist rebels
from Nepal, that the outfit has acted as a link between the Nepalese Maoists and radical left-wing activists
in the Indian State of Bihar, and that it had received help from the Maoists in setting up a number of
explosives manufacturing units in North Bengal. It was these deepening linkages that forced both New Delhi and
Thimphu to agree that it was time to launch a direct assault on the rebels in Bhutan before the situation went
out of hand.
Cornered in the very first days of the current operation, the three rebel groups responded by calling a 48-hour general strike in Assam and parts of West Bengal from the morning of December 20. In an unprecedented display of the public's lack of enthusiasm, the strike evoked a very partial response. The rebels were also quick 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 rebels
were 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' movement
for 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. As far as the rebels are concerned, they need alternative bases as soon as possible, to cool their heels and plan their 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 belonging to 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 along with AK-47 rifles, pistols, grenades and a large amount of explosives and cash. An Army spokesman told this writer that these rebels were on their way to a hideout in Myanmar. According to Khagen Sarma, Assam Police Inspector General (Special Branch), there are an estimated 400 ULFA rebels in a number of camps inside Myanmar.
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 the Indian insurgents. Dozens of ULFA and other Northeast Indian rebels were either killed or captured by troops of 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 rebels will not be able to operate such extensive and well-fortified bases in Bangladesh for lack of sufficient jungle-covered terrain. Contacts in Bangladesh will certainly be able to provide the rebels some more safe-houses (top ULFA leaders have been operating from safe houses in Bangladesh for years now), but that will not be enough to maintain a strike force of several hundred, or even several thousand, people. Secondly, the distance factor and the terrain will act as impediments to operations.
Unlike the Assam-Bhutan border, the Assam-Bangladesh border is not heavily wooded, except
in the Meghalaya sector, making incursions visible and thereby detection and response by the Indian security
forces relatively easy. Areas within Nepal that are currently dominated by the Maoists, and where the
Government's presence is weak, may provide a temporary safe haven. However, considering Kathmandu's friendly
ties with New Delhi, this could at best serve as a transit base for the Northeast Indian rebels, and they
would eventually be targeted by Nepal's security forces. As in Bhutan, New Delhi exercises significant
influence over Kathmandu.
Until the ULFA and the other rebels manage to regroup, a task that is not going to be easy after the reverses they have suffered in Bhutan, the region can expect to witness sporadic raids by these insurgents to drive home the message that they were not yet an altogether spent force. The cat-and-mouse game is certainly not over, but it is clear from statements made by the seven ULFA rebels who surrendered to the Assam Police in the northern 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 of an impending Bhutanese Army attack. We somehow fled and arrived in Assam after four days' of trekking inside Bhutan. Many more of our comrades are ready to surrender," Domeswar Rabha, an ULFA 'lieutenant' who surrendered was quoted as saying to the Darrang Superintendent of Police, Ejaz Hazarika.