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Bhutan: Red Army in the Dragon Kingdom

Posted by Indian Vanguard on September 1, 2007

Participants in the CCOMPOSA political association of South Asian Maoists, the Communist Party of Bhutan (MLM) have openly declared the imminent launch of insurgency with the immediate goal of abolishing the monarchy and the establishment of a republic. I am not familiar with the author of this article, nor much beyond superficialities regarding life in Bhutan. This article is posted because it is so far unique, and that it appears to confirm the prognosis that South Asia is indeed becoming a storm center of world revolution. [Kantipur is not a Maoist publication. All links are provided for informational purposes. ]

Bhutan_2 By Deepak Adhikari
Kantipur Online

Another Maoist insurgency is going to rock yet another country in South Asia, if the statements made by the leaders of the Communist Party of Bhutan Marxist-Leninist-Maoist (CPM MLM) are anything to go by.

“Preliminary preparations for an insurgency are over. We are going to launch it soon,” says Vikalpa, nom-de-plume of CPB MLM General Secretary.
Bhutan is holding its parliamentary elections in March and April 2007. But, prior to the election date, CPB MLM plans to launch its ‘People’s War’ in the Himalayan kingdom.

The goal: Abolition of monarchy and establishment of a republic.

Following the footsteps of Nepali Maoists who had submitted a 40-point demand to the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba before launching a ‘People’s War’, CPB MLM faxed a 13-point demand to the Royal Government of Bhutan on March 22, 2007.

The letter stressed the need to “introduce people’s democracy in the place of absolute monarchy.” The party has asked for multi-party democracy, repatriation of the refugees to their original homes with honor and dignity, release of all political prisoners and to introduce the land reform act etc.

Vikalpa (literally, alternative) says that fulfillment of the demands would have paved the way for a peaceful resolution. “But, the government, rather than taking it seriously, has unleashed terror by arresting commoners, and this has prompted us to wage an armed struggle,” says CPB supremo Vikalpa. .

The Druk regime is yet to respond to these demands.
The unfolding events suggest that South Asia’s only active monarchy that is ruling the so-called ‘Last Shangri-La’ is likely to take the country into Maoist violence. The eruption of militancy in northeastern South Asia will not only push Bhutan into turmoil but the two biggest Asian power i.e. India and China will have to deal with yet another insurgency in their backyards.

Expanding Network
At a time when Nepal was mired in the Maoist conflict, CPB MLM was announced on April 22, 2003. Pamphlets were widely distributed and posters were pasted in and around the seven refugee camps of Jhapa and Morang districts of Nepal. On the same day, sixteen out of a total twenty districts in Bhutan saw similar activities. That was the occasion of Lenin Day and the official announcement of the first communist party in Bhutan formed two years back.

Following its formal announcement, Bhutanese Maoist leaders zeroed in on two areas: expanding the organizational network and intensifying political and military training. The Maoist cadres overwhelmingly participated in the ‘long march’ along the Mechi Bridge on the border between Nepal and India last May. The forceful attempt made by the refugees to return to their home country did not succeed. It ended with clashes between refugees and Indian security forces.

The unrest triggered by the Maoists in Beldangi camp of Jhapa on 27 and 28 May led to the death of Narapati Dhungel and Purna Bahadur Tamang. The CPB MLM organized a condolence meet for the ‘martyrs’ in Beldangi and Sanischare camps on June 10. Student leaders Toya Khatiwada, Pasang Rai, Mesh Pathak, Champa Singh Rai delivered speeches during the programme.

An emergency meeting of CPB MLM Central Committee held in the first week of June, following the Beldangi and Mechi Bridge incidents, concluded that the grounds for an armed struggle were ripening. The meeting also decided to launch a ‘People’s War’ at the earliest. Following this, CPB has intensified its activities in all the seven refugee camps. The party has been organizing cultural programmes and closed-door meetings to indoctrinate more refugees for the upcoming ‘People’s War.’

Some of the Bhutanese leaders have gone to Western countries like USA, UK, Germany, while others stay in their cozy apartments in Kathmandu, leaving their countrymen in the cramped refugee camps.

In this backdrop, the Maoists have maintained a low profile while expanding the party network on a war footing. They have succeeded in drawing huge numbers of disgruntled refugees to their block. These new breed of leaders, unlike hitherto known leaders, are little known but they are spirited youths mostly from a teaching background. While the number of full time party members is still a matter of conjecture, what is obvious is that the party leadership has been rapidly expanding its network.

Since the party is underground, most of its activities are undertaken through its sister organizations. All Bhutan Revolutionary Student Association, its student wing, was formed shortly after the announcement of CPB MLM. Similarly, All Bhutan Women Association was announced just two weeks after the formation of its student wing. All Bhutan Republic Youth Association, all Bhutan Teachers’ Association, All Bhutan Peasants’ Association, All Bhutan People’s Cultural Forum are other sister organizations of the party.
CPB has also adopted the strategy to form independent or literary groups to spread its ideology. The now defunct Communist Study Center led by a refugee from Goldhap camp (who was adept at oratory skills) active in 2003 was one such group.

CPB MLM has also been involved in collecting funds. News sources say, the party has collected donations from Bhutanese teachers working in private schools and plus-two colleges in Kathmandu. Similarly, the party has urged Bhutanese working in INGOs and donor agencies to contribute 5 per cent of their salary. Sources claim the party has been able to collect approximately 14 lakh rupees, some of which was spent on purchasing arms.

Organizing cultural programmes is another way to collect money for the party. All Bhutan People’s Cultural Forum organized a cultural programme and a drama titled ‘Paristhiti Le Janmaeko Lakshya’ (Goal Created by Circumstances) at the Nepal Academy in Kathmandu on May 10, 2007. More than thirty thousand rupees was collected from the tickets of the show and from the sales of the album ‘Bidroha Ka Jhilkaharu’ (Sparks of Rebellion).

Preparing for ‘People’s War’
The first national conference of CPB MLM (from January 31 to February 3, 2006) devised an ideological and technical outline for a ‘People’s War.’ According to a party press release, the conference approved the manifesto and the programme and policies of the party. The conference, according to the release, “broke all the large and bulky party committees into a sophisticated one to make a unified force.”

The conference also elected Vikalpa General Secretary until the second national conference. “The most important decision was to make party military oriented and military party oriented,” argues Vikalpa.

Bhutanese Maoists have followed the strategies adopted by Nepali Maoists. The protracted People’s War is divided into three strategic phases: defense, balance and counter attack. Defense is again divided into three sub-phases: preparation, commencement and continuation. Among these, the party is still in its first phase. The preparation phase is again divided into four phases: ideological, organizational, technical and related to struggle. Among these, they have started the propaganda machine through cultural programmes, production of people oriented musical albums and pamphlets and posters. Party mouthpieces such as Vidhyarthi Pratirodh and Naulo Awaj also serve their purpose.

CPB MLM has also applied Chinese leader Mao’s doctrine: ‘encircling city from village.’ It has stressed the formation of an armed force to implement the doctrine. Vikram, one of CPB leaders, says they plan to create a guerilla force that will be technically able to carry out defensive attacks, which, in his words, “will crush the enemy’s forces while defending our forces.”

What is the military strength? Vikalpa says, “We have a few old and homemade guns. However, our fighters are not trained for hi-tech war. We believe in getting trained in the course of war.” He adds, “There cannot be a better training field than the working area.”

Made in Bhutan
CPB MLM’s working area is none other than Bhutanese soil. Apart from refugee camps, Bhutanese leaders are active in Damak and Birtamode of Jhapa and Siliguri (West Bengal), Sikkim, Darjeeling and Assam in India. They also frequent Kathmandu in order to propagate and collect funds. But they are trying to focus their activities mainly inside Bhutan. CPB leaders claim that theirs is the only party established inside Bhutan. The Central Committee of CPB MLM has five commands (four commands operate in Bhutan and one in the refugee camp). More than one lakh refugees are languishing in the camps while one lakh and eighty thousand Lhotsampas (Nepali speaking Southern Bhutanese) are in Bhutan.

Penetration by its cadres inside Bhutan and their mobilization has been a top Maoist priority. The result: three districts namely Tashigang, Samdrup Jonkhar and Samchi are now Maoist hotbeds. Bhutan’s geographical situation (65 percent forest and 80 percent mountainous and hill region), says CPB, is suitable for guerrilla warfare.

Sources say, the party plans to stat a ‘People’s War’ from the northern districts of Yangtse, Tashigang and Mongar where the state has a minimum presence. These districts share a porous border with Arunachal state of India, which China claims as its own. The Sarchops (ethnic Bhutanese of the East) are the majority in that region. Sarchops account for 33 percent of the total population and they are coming under the influence of CPB MLM. Sarchop Mukti Morcha, a sister organization of CPB was formed a few months ago. Another organization called Gorkha Rastriya Mukti Morcha led by Amar Chhetri (which demands six southern districts be declared Gorkha Pradesh) has close ties with the Maoists.

However, an analyst warns that the idea to launch the war from the southern stronghold of Lhotsamaps might be counterproductive. The Druk regime has been terrorizing south Bhutan for years. As a result, that part has become an epicentre of rebellion since the early 90s when one lakh Nepali speaking Bhutanse were forced to leave their homeland.

Bhutan State Congress (est. 1952), led by DB Gurung, pioneered the rebellion in 1954 from Sarbhang district of South Bhutan. Interestingly, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala had also taken part in the democratic movement in Bhutan in the early 1950s. He disclosed the fact in his memoir published in Nepal Weekly Magazine (Aug 20-26, 2007). CPB MLM invokes Mahashur Chhetri, killed in 1954 uprising, as an inspiration for their cause.

Nepal Connection
As mentioned above, Bhutanese Maoists have largely drawn the strategy and tactics from Nepali Maoists. Bhutanese comrades have maintained a rapport with the Nepali Maoists since its inception. Nepali Maoists, sources say, provided ideological and material assistance to them. Senior leaders of CPN M imparted training on firearms and ideological and cultural issues. With both parties being members of the Coordination Committee of Maoist Parties and Organizations of South Asia (CCOMPASA), it’s easier for them to cooperate, sources privy to the Maoists say. CPB MLM actively participated in an international seminar organized by CPB M between December 26 and 30, 2006. CP Gajurel ‘Gaurav’, In-charge of the International Bureau, CPN M, says, “We are very close, for we follow the same ideology in the first place and they are also people of Nepali origin in the second.”

He disclosed that most of the CPB MLM leaders were trained and inspired by Nepal’s ‘People’s War.’ He adds, “We are helping them in guerrilla warfare strategy and working policy.”

If CPN Maoist enters mainstream politics shunning violence, they might only share ideological grounds. Nevertheless, if the Constituent Assembly polls did not take place and they adopted a policy of rebellion, relations between these parties might extend to the level of material cooperation. CPB also maintains close ties with the Communist Party of India Maoist.

Violence out of Compulsion?
The Bhutanese refugee stalemate is the main base where CPB aims to launch a ‘People’s War.’ Scholars had predicted that if the refugee impasse remained for a long time, the youths would be drawn to violence. Aruni John, a Sri Lankan scholar, in her research published by Colombo-based think-tank Regional Centre for Strategic Studies as early as August 2000 wrote, “It is likely that the unemployed Bhutanese refugee youths in Nepal will shortly become potential recruits for militant forces that currently destabilized northeast India, southern Bhutan and eastern Nepal.”

She concluded, “Frustration with a legal process between the governments of Bhutan and Nepal that appears to be going nowhere, a splintered refugee leadership, a seemingly uncompromising Bhutanese monarchy, and the lack of future options may push these refugee youth to turn to militancy.” Many Bhutanese leaders opine that the Bhutan government should take the responsibility for the plight of the refugees. Teknath Rizal, Chairman of Bhutanese Movement Steering Committee, says, “Every person has a limit of tolerance. If that limit is crossed, one is compelled to resort to arms.”

The main reasons behind the formation of CPB are the frustration and anger due to the protracted refugee crisis. But will politics of violence be successful? A Bhutanese human rights leader has a few caveats. He says it is problematic for an underground party to wage a war in Bhutan due to the small size and the sparse population of the country. He recollects the arrest of 39 Bhutanese following a cultural programme4 organized by Maoists in May.

Bhutan with a population of seven lakh and fifty thousand has nearly 22 thousand security forces including the Royal Bhutan Army, Royal Bodyguard and Royal Bhutan Police. Approximately 20 thousand Indian Army personnel are currently stationed in Bhutan. The soldiers are said to be kept in Bhutan for military training, road construction and other development works. This heavy military presence makes it difficult for CPB MLM to launch a ‘People’s War.’ Probably taking its cue from this scenario, CPB has asked other political parties to launch a joint struggle against monarchy. A recent press release undersigned by Vikalpa reads, “We request all the political parties to form a unified front to fight against Bhutan’s monarchy, the common enemy of all democratic forces.”

Thinley Penjor, chairman of Druk National Congress (DNC), while admitting that the DNC and CPB cadres in Bhutan are working jointly at local levels, hinted at the possibility of unity at the central level. Nepali Maoist leaders had advised Bhutanese Maoists to work with other stakeholders. Ram Karki, chief of Bhutan desk in the International Bureau of CPN M, says, “The Bhutanese movement will succeed only if it joins hands with DNC and BPP (Bhutan People’s Party).”

India’s Role
Maoist leader Gaurav says, “It’s easy to start an armed struggle in Bhutan because the government is very weak. But, it may have to face the military strength of India.” Bhutan, surrounded by Indian states fighting an insurgency for decades, is a strategically important region. “That’s why,” he says, “India will try to prevent a ‘People’s War.'” Like Nepal, it is sandwiched between China and India. CPB has a nexus with ULFA and Bodo, separatist outfits operating in northeast India.

When Nepal’s Maoist conflict reached its apogee, India termed it a common security threat for both countries. If such a Maoist conflict spawns in Bhutan, it will definitely be a trilateral (Bhutan, Nepal and India) issue. “Bhutanese Maoists have to directly confront Indian security forces,” says Ram Karki, central member of CPN M.

Indian interest in Bhutan is manifold. However, bilateral treaties bind Bhutan with its southern neighbour. According to the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty of 1949, India has the prerogative over the issues of foreign affairs and security of Bhutan. The treaty was amended in February this year. Firstly, Article 2 has been rephrased and the term ‘guided by the advice by GOI’ has been replaced by ‘friendly cooperation’ in the context of Bhutan’s foreign relations. Secondly, Article 6 has been revised to the extent that Bhutan can act independently in importing non-lethal equipment, but will still have to go by India’s assistance and approval for import of arms, ammunition, machines and warlike materials and stores for Bhutan’s welfare and protection. Though, there seems to be some changes in theory, India still plays in practice a significant role in the security and foreign relations of the Druk regime.

India’s special relation with Bhutan has irked Bhutanese refugee leaders. Bhutanese leader Teknath Rizal says, “Aren’t the issues raised in Terai and ours the same? Why does India keep mum over our issue?” India’s diplomatic reticence is obvious given its involvement in hydropower projects and military training in Bhutan. India has established a Military Training Team (IMTRAT) in Ha district of Bhutan. The Indian army is also active in Bhutan under the name of the General Road Task Force.

In early 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army with assistance from the Indian army flushed out the insurgents operating in northeastern India from their base in southern Bhutan. The separatist outfits, United Liberation Front of Assam, National Democratic Front of Bodoland and Kamatapur Liberation Organization, once welcomed by the royal government, were later perceived as threats to the state. But three years after getting rid of the Indian insurgents, the government is likely to confront homegrown militants.

This confrontation can largely be traced to the refugee problem created by Bhutan itself almost two decades ago. In this scenario enters the United States with a proposal to resettle sixty thousand refugees. This proposal, sources say, surfaced after the US detected growing extremism in the refugee camps. Australia and Canada have also shown willingness to take in a few thousand refugees.

But, the advocates of third country settlement have been targeted by the Maoists. Two camp secretaries of Beldangi camp, Hari Adhikari Bangaley and Manorath Khanal, have been frequently assaulted over the last three months. Sources say Maoist cadres were involved in the incidents. The CPB MLM took part in the ‘Long March’ movement to return home in May this year. A press release of the party dated June 7, 2007 reads, “The organizations privy to our party had to lead the movement in Mechi Bridge due to the failure of the National Front for Democracy.”

In the same release, the party has vowed to start an armed struggle. It remains to be seen whether CPB MLM will be confined to mere press releases or carry out yet another ‘People’s War’ in the subcontinent.

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