The Bhutan government's military offensive to flush out Indian separatist militants from its territory is shrouded in secrecy and raises more questions than it answers. The first is: why now, 12 years after the militants set up camps inside Bhutani territory? What impact will this have on cross-border extremism elsewhere in South Asia? How will this unprecedented military action impact on Bhutan's own internal politics?
After counter-insurgency operations by the Indian military, the militants fled across the border to Bhutan. There were 3,000 guerrillas and their families in 30 camps inside Bhutan of which 13 belonged to the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and five to the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB). Both want independence from India and set up a nation called Kamatipur encompassing eastern Assam and northern West Bengal.
Was Bhutan trying to send a diplomatic signal to India not to interfere in the case of Nepali Bhutanis living in camps in Nepal for a similar period of time? We must remember that the separatist militants arrived in Bhutan at a time of maximum security alert in southern Bhutan because this was the period during which the Nepali-speaking Lhotsampas were being driven out. It could be that the rulers in Thimpu at the time had their hands full and didn't want to rake up another front.
But things had got progressively worse. The militants carried out attacks on Indian territory and retreated to their camps in Bhutan. The Assamese and West Bengal state governments were at their wits' end, and finally New Delhi started turning the screws on Thimpu. The Indian prime minister is said to have told King Jigme Singye Wangchuk during a visit to Delhi earlier this year that he better start driving out the militants, or else the Indian Army would do it for him.
Thimpu was in a bind. On the one hand, the militants were becoming a threat to Bhutan's internal security, and on the other, the Indians were itching to come into Bhutan to destroy the camps-a move that would seriously undermine Bhutan's sovereign status. After weighing the pros and cons, the Bhutani government appears to have decided with India to launch a limited intervention.
India, of course, offered all the necessary logistical and other help for the operation. And it was all done hush-hush, no one really knew what was happening-not even the chief ministers of Assam and West Bengal. The only news the outside world had were reports that the Bhutani king and crown prince were leading the charge, and that Indian troops were monitoring the situation at the border. Even the Bhutan experts are quiet.
Bhutan had to do this sooner or later. The trans-boundary element in a region known for extremist activity was not tolerable, and what if the refugees in camps in Nepal joined the militancy? What if Nepali Maoists influence also threatened the Bhutani monarchy?
Having razed the camps and chased the militants out, Thimpu will now have to keep them out. There is already considerable Indian military presence in Bhutan under the 1948 IMTRAT bilateral treaty, which is mainly designed to counter outside interference in Bhutan. But can Bhutan accept Indian presence directed at countering crossborder militancy?
If Thimpu had taken action 12 years ago, it wouldn't have had to carry out this military operation today. There may be a lesson there on the Nepali refugee crisis: if it delays a resolution there may be a much higher price to pay. In this age of globalisation, open borders and international media access, how long can Bhutan pretend that it is snug and warm inside its own woolen cocoon?
India must be grateful for what the Bhutanis have done to chase out its militants, but it must also seek a viable solution to its own separatist extremist problem. There must be a reason why there are ULFAs in Assam. In which neighbouring countries and for how long can India contemplate hot pursuit of its own militants? Delhi has to formulate a policy about frontiers. Borders are not just lines on the map for deployment of security forces. Trade happens through borders, so does smuggling, migration and the exchange of culture and history. Does India have a policy on this? 'Limited intervention' may not be enough in future.
Mahendra P Lama is professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This article is translated from his column in Himal Khabarpatrika. firstname.lastname@example.org