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.
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management