The rebels on the border

Observations on Bhutan

Earlier this month, the 19-year-old prince of the small kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas left fellow freshers at Oxford University to return home, called back to fight with the militia he had secretly trained with before leaving for Europe. Now, to the surprise of his father, who didn't even know his son had volunteered, he risks being killed in increasingly violent border scuffles as Bhutan's forces attempt to push Indian separatist rebels back into India.

The rebels have been using the dense jungles of southern Bhutan as a safe haven from which to make terrorist forays into neighbouring India for roughly 12 years now. The United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), whose sole aim is to win independence from India, first set up camps in Bhutan after being driven across the border and into the foothills in a major Indian military offensive between 1990 and 1991. Subsequently, the area became refuge to a third group, the Kamatapur Libera- tion Organisation (KLO). Together, the three organisations have undertaken a series of violent attacks on civilians and security forces in Assam and West Bengal, where the groups seek to establish two sovereign homelands.

The Indian government has good reason to want to put an end to the cross-border raids, which have become increasingly bloody over the years. At the end of last year, 22 people were killed and several severely injured when NDFB terrorists raided a village in the Kokrajhar district of Assam. But for the Bhutanese, the separatists represent little immediate danger. According to Michael Hutt, reader in Nepali and Himalayan studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the opposite is true: "When I spoke to the Bhutanese people who had contact with the rebels, I got the impression they were happy for the camps to exist. Apparently, the separatists paid good prices for chickens."

Neighbouring India, however, is determined that Bhutan should control the border area better, or allow Indian troops to do it.

Bhutan is adamant that it will not allow the Indian army unrestricted access to its territory and has thus been attempting to deal with the terrorist problem itself. Earlier this year, hundreds of young men and women completed a two-month militia training programme, Prince Jigyel Wangchuck among them. The poorly trained, ragtag militia now have the job of trying to clear the rebel camps, risking not only their own lives but endanger- ing those of the 66,000 villagers spread throughout the ten districts where the camps are situated.

Nir Ghadajree, a West Bengali who used to live in the camps, fears the kind of slaughter that awaits the young militia if they go in. Now living in Calcutta, he claims that despite allegations by the Indian government that the separatists do not tolerate desertion, he is living proof that this is not the case. "They let me go home; the fighters were never cruel to the locals and did not harass them without provocation. But they will defend their camps in Bhutan aggressively, and will fight to their deaths rather than surrender the land they occupy. Even if this was not the case, they could never retreat back to India; they know that all that awaits them at the border is the Indian paramilitary and certain death."

The Royal Bhutan Army, of which the militia is now a part, has set up 20 army camps along the Assam-Bhutan border. Local villagers have been prohibited from selling any goods to the rebels and Bhutanese nationals found assisting them are punished under new security legislation.

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has always preached the importance of a peaceful solution to the problem. He has met the groups' leaders over the past few months in an attempt to reach a compromise. The breakdown of the talks makes conflict inevitable. It may be some time before Prince Jigyel returns to Oxford.