Eurasia Review: Bhutan: Oasis Of Peace – Analysis

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By Giriraj Bhattacharjee*

In the entire South Asian
region, Bhutan is the only country which has remained free of even a
single terrorism-related fatality, or for that matter, incident, for
over a decade. Specifically, on December 30, 2008, four Bhutanese
foresters were killed and another two injured after their tractor was
blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED) planted on the road
about four kilometres west of Singay village in the Sarpang District.

Between, September 5, 2004, and
December 30, 2008, Bhutan recorded a total of 13 fatalities, including
eight civilians and five militants. The first incident involving a
fatality took place on September 5, 2004, when two persons were killed
and 27 sustained injuries in a bomb explosion at the Sunday market
shopping area of Gelephu town.

Between September 5, 2004 and the present (data till April 21, 2019), according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal
(SATP), South Asia (including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal,
Pakistan and Sri Lanka) as a region recorded 126,755
terrorism/insurgency linked fatalities (including 44,482 civilians,
15,614 Security Forces, SF, personnel and 66,659 militants). Of these,
Bhutan accounted for a mere 0.01 per cent (the data does not include
fatalities in Afghanistan and the Maldives). 

Unsurprisingly, according to the Global Terrorism Index 2018, Bhutan is ranked at 135 among 163 countries in the list, towards the bottom, among the most peaceful countries. In the 2015 index Bhutan was placed at the 107th position (out of 162 countries). In the very first index
published in 2012, which mapped and ranked countries based on the
terror incidents that were reported from 2002 to 2011, Bhutan was ranked
72 out of 158 countries.

The prevailing peace has helped Bhutan’s overall development. According to a 2018 United Nations document,
Bhutan’s GDP has more than tripled in the last 10 years (2008-18)
alone, and per capita income has increased to USD 2,719. Poverty in
Bhutan more than halved between 2007-2012, and reduced even further
thereafter. According to the Asian Development Bank, the population
living below the national poverty line in Bhutan fell to 8.2 percent in
2017 as against 12 percent in 2012.

Nevertheless, a few lingering
issues remain unresolved and remind the people of Bhutan of a relatively
turbulent, albeit brief, phase in the past. Among these is the issue of
repatriation.

According to reports, around 6,500 Lhotshampa (Bhutanese of Nepalese decent) refugees were
still living in two camps in the Jhapa District of Nepal. 
Approximately 105,000 Lhotshampa were expelled in the 1990s due to
implementation of the Citizenship Act of 1985 and the subsequent
nation-wide Census of 1988. Notably, the Lhotshampas refugees in Nepal
had helped the Bhutan Communist Party – Marxist-Leninist-Maoist
(BCP-MLM) grow and foment trouble in
Himalayan Kingdom. The BCP-MLM has been dormant since 2010 when it,
along with other ‘political parties in exile’, formed an umbrella group
and vowed to pursue a unified democratic movement led by Rongthong
Kunley Dorji. Dorji died on October 19, 2011, and was replaced by Kesang
Lhendup as the new President of the Druk National Congress on December
18, 2011. In a 2012 interview, Lhendup, when asked about the future
plans, stated that the organization would “continue to take forward the
unfinished works of our late President for the establishment of
inclusive democracy in Bhutan…”

In February 2019, after more than a decade, Nepal has decided to hold the 16th round of ministerial-level talks with Bhutan to repatriate the remaining 6,500 Lhotshampa. The 15th
round, held on December 22, 2003, had failed. After the breakdown of
talks in 2003, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees helped
resettle over 112,800 Bhutanese refugees of Nepali origin, then staying
in Nepal, in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Denmark,
Norway, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

Another issue of concern was
the existence of camps of Indian Insurgent Groups (IIGs) operating in
the northeast in Bhutan or along the Indo-Bhutan border. Though the
presence of camps of IIGs in Bhutan is no longer reported, violent Bodo
militants do use the Indo-Bhutan border to carry out insurgent
activities. Consequently, India’s Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA)
has approved the laser-based aerial mapping of the Indo-Bhutan border
along Assam. Reports suggest that the difficult terrain along the border
has become a significant hideout for insurgents, especially members of
the banned Saoraigwra faction of the National Democratic Front of
Bodoland (NDFB–S).
Intelligence agencies believe top leaders of the group are hiding
somewhere along the Indo-Bhutan border. It is useful to recall here,
that Bhutan had carried out operation all clear in 2003, expelling a number of Indian insurgent formations then operating from its soil.

Meanwhile, Bhutan held its
third National Assembly Elections on October 18, 2018. The Druk Nyamrup
Tshogpa (DNT) party won the elections, securing 30 of the total of 47
seats. Lotay Tshering, the President of DNT, became the new Prime
Minister of Bhutan. The Druk Phuensum Tshogpa (DPT), which bagged 17
seats [and that had won the maiden elections in 2008] assumed the role
of the main opposition party for the second consecutive term. The
People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which also contested the elections,
failed to qualify for the second round of elections and consequently to
win any seat. PDP garnered 27.2 per cent of votes in the first round,
while DNT and DPT registered 32 per cent and 31 per cent votes,
respectively, entering the second round of polls. According to Bhutan’s
Constitution, only two political parties can take part in the final
round of General Elections. In 2013, PDP, had won 32 seats and emerged
victorious, while DPT, with 15 seats, had assumed the role of the
opposition.

Bhutan has largely been an exception in an otherwise violence-riven South Asian region. Constant vigil and cooperation in the security sphere with neighbours will be necessary to ensure that this remains the case.

*Giriraj Bhattacharjee
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

Eurasia Review


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