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Thimpu, Bhutan — “From a party point of view,” said Jigme Yoezer Thinley, smiling in his spacious wooden floored and paneled office in Thimpu, “I am unhappy about media, its wrong reporting and even non-reporting – but as a person committed to democracy … we have to accept this from an entity which is trying to establish its independence.”
The Bhutanese Prime Minister, clad in the traditional colourful robes of office and smart embroidered leather boots, was reflecting on the challenges before a new democracy that had, just two years ago, embraced a two-party system after nearly a century of a powerful and much admired monarchy.
Decades of monarchy under the Wanghchuk dynasty gave way to first a National Assembly and Council of Ministers where the premiership was a rotating process to an democratically elected and open system. The only newspaper, the stately government-owned and run Kuensel, has become a daily broadsheet and is competing with five other newspapers, most of which are not doing that well; the government monopoly of radio stations is challenged by six new private stations including two music channels.
However, the Bhutan Broadcasting Service remains the only television channel but its reporting is spunkier, interviews more interesting and issues discussed more challenging than in the past.
The came the elections of 2008 and the two parties contested fiercely but Thinley’s Bhutan Peace and Prosperity Party or Druk Phuensum Tshogpa crushed its opponents, winning 45 of 47 seats to the National Assembly or Parliament. The leader of the Opposition, Tsering Topben, is an enthusiastic blogger and discusses politics with his supporters and opponents on his webspace.
Bhutan is perhaps one of the few countries in the world where an all-powerful and admired ruler has handed over power at his initiative and peacefully in the face of much popular concern about the little Himalayan kingdom’s future (it has a population of 700,000),.
But at the back of the minds of its new leaders are concerns about their nation’s vulnerability, “the threats we are exposed to in the larger region and of which we are reminded every day,” said the Prime Minister, who is 58.
What is often unspoken is the 2003 crisis that Bhutan was plunged into when the government, led by the previous King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, faced with the persistent presence of three major North-eastern insurgent groups who refused to listen to requests to leave its south and growing Indian Government demands for strong action, decided to throw them out. It was a painful decision for a Buddhist nation that prided itself on peaceful coexistence and tolerance and hardly had an army worth the name — largely ceremonial in nature– and certainly not one that had seen any action.
During my visit, the leaders I spoke with, including the former foreign minister, talk of those dark days with sadness. “Looking at it more objectively, the truth is that it was necessary,” said the prime minister, reflectively. He had summoned the leaders of the United Liberation Front of Asom, including their ideologue, Bhimkanta Buragohain, and “Foreign Secretary’ Sasha Chowdhury (both are now in prison in Assam along with most of the ULFA top rung) and the Bodos (National Democratic Front of Bodoland) and told them, one last time: “Unless you leave, this is the last time we will meet .. You cannot hope to win because we will be fighting for our country, what will your cadres be fighting against? A country that was host to them?” Their response was “very arrogant”, he remembered. “’The Indian army cannot dislodge us, what can you do?’” they said.
Ulfa, as one captured leader was to tell a Bhutanese officer, grossly underestimated the depth and capacity of the Bhutanese army. The casualties on the insurgent side were heavy; Gen NC Vij, then Indian army chief, said that not less than 1,000 cadres had been “neutralized” or either killed or incapacitated. The Bhutan Royal Army lost 11 and the Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmi Wangchuk, reflecting on this in her ‘Portrait of Bhutan’ has written that the “war” came to “an incredible swift and conclusive end .. in one and a half days, between 15 and 16 December, the thirty camps established by the militants over fourteen years were destroyed by our army; many of their leaders were captured, and others fled to India.”
And more significantly she writes that “there was no crowing over victory … that is not our way. We mourned the eleven Bhutanese soldiers who died, and we lit lamps and offered prayers too for the militants who were killed, that their souls may find peace.”
Apart from Ulfa and the NDFB, which had located their tactical and political headquarters in Samdrup Dzongka district bordering Assam, members of the Kamatapur Liberation Organization were also based there; some 3,000 persons, including women cadres as well as family members had lived there until the Bhutanese drove them out in that swift surgical thrust.
Officials say that there are no credible reports any longer of any individuals or groups slipping in and out of the country; vigilant village guards keep watch on the border along with the police and army.
That painful episode was like a baptism of fire for Bhutan: “their continued presence would have undermined our relations with India but also was threatening our very survival as a nation,” said Home Minister Minjur Dorji. Another leader remarked that if Operation All Clear had not happened, “we would not have been stable enough to have a functioning democracy.”