With the Indian army’s ongoing operations against NDFB(S) the RBA is intensively patrolling the Bhutan-Assam border to prevent entry of militants
Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, in an interview with The Bhutanese, said that the main reason for putting on hold the 68.3 km Nanglam-Dewathang highway and cancelling the 98 km Lhamoizingkha-Sarpang highway in the South was to ensure that Bodo militants do not get to enter Bhutan or set up camps.
Lyonchhen revealed that earlier this year the Royal Bhutan Army had an exchange of fire with some Bodo militants trying to enter into Bhutan. With this development the government took the decision to cancel one project and put another on hold.
The Indian army had launched massive operations against the National Democratic Front for Bodoland of I.K Songbijit faction, NDFB (S) militants in late December 2014. The operations was launched after NDFB(S) militants on 23rd December 2014 engaged in attacks in Assam that lead to the death of 81 people most of whom were tribals or Adivasis.
In addition to the existing Indian armed forces in Assam the Indian Army Chief on the orders of the Indian government deployed addition 66 army columns along with another additional 2,000 SSB for counter-insurgency operations in the Bodo regions bordering Bhutan.
The PM said that it was such similar operations by the Indian army with Operation Bajrang in 1990 and Operation Rhino in 1991 in Assam that led to militants like ULFA and NDFB coming into the forests of Bhutan and establishing camps here.
Addressing those criticizing the move the PM said, “Some people seem to have a short memory of what happened back then in 2003 when it was only due to the brilliance and sacrifice of His Majesty the Fourth King that the militant camps and militants were removed.”
The PM said that under the command of His Majesty the King the Royal Bhutan Army is engaged in intense patrolling along the Bhutan-Assam border, and additional troops and even special commandoes have been deployed to safeguard Bhutan’s borders and security.
“The whole crux of the matter is that our armed forces are required to patrol the border but how will they be able to distinguish between militants and non-national road workers right at the international border. They have to be allowed to do a good job as the cover of large numbers of non-national road workers at the border can be misused by militants,” said the PM.
The PM said that the Indian operations have not yet ended as there is no deadline and with strong military pressure in India the militants may try and enter Bhutan.
“Our armed forces are doing a good job and we cannot risk their lives,” said the PM.
Highlighting the logistical and security challenge of the two roads he said both have to be built close to the international border through thick and isolated forests. The roads would also be bordering these Bodo regions.
Lyonchhen also made it clear that the decision on the road projects had not been made under advice or pressure from any foreign country. He said it was purely a domestic decision of the government to address Bhutan’s owns security.
The PM pointed out that the Bhutan-Assam border region had also suffered from 13 kidnappings in recent years with the three victims yet to be released. He said that was due to people coming into Bhutan and kidnapping Bhutanese citizens. He also pointed out that when recently a gang of eight had been apprehended by the Indian police on the Alipurduar highway they had confessed to 15 instances of robbing Bhutanese passengers.
The PM said that the despite this and other security concerns the government was going ahead with the projects but the latest development of NDFB (S) militants trying to enter Bhutan early this year was the final straw.
“While building the highways can get the government good political mileage, the security of the country comes first,” said the PM.
He clarified that money and securing of funds was not the issue at all as the Asian Development Bank was providing grant and soft loans for the project.
In light of the decision on the highways there has been much speculation in the social media. Reacting to this the PM said, “I am quite shocked at the conclusions the people jump to or the conspiracy theories they come up with. One plus one is two and not eleven. They should get their facts right.”
A popular theory put forward has been that the building of highways in the area would ensure that Bhutanese travelers can use the safer highway within Bhutan and would not have to travel through Indian roads.
The PM clarified that given the current security situation at the border the government is concerned whether it would be able to provide security to Bhutanese vehicles using the planned highways. He elaborated that the Bhutanese highways would be passing through thick forests and long isolated stretches close to the open and porus International border where no other cars would be there for long stretches.
“When Bhutanese passengers are subjected to daylight robbery on the busy NH-31 highway in India one can imagine the more vulnerable situation in the case of these two highways close to the porus border,” said the PM.
He also asked if Bhutan’s security forces then should guard the border or provide security escorts to such vehicles.
The PM said that until the militancy issue is not resolved in Assam, Bhutan cannot become complacent as there is a risk of militants trying to enter Bhutan to establish camps.
The PM said that roads are important and the government is trying to connect all parts of the country. He said that the two road projects can be considered in the future once the security situation improves.
The sensitive security situation and militancy in Assam’s Bodo areas is a concern for Bhutan as the four districts that make up the semi-autonomous Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts (BTAD) effectively border Dagana, Sarpang, Zhemgang and Samdrup Jongkhar Dzongkhags.
Kokrajhar district borders (Lhamoizingkha) Dagana and Sarpang, Chirang district borders Sarpang, Baksa district borders Zhemgang and Nanglam and Udalguri district borders Samdrup Jongkhar Dzongkhag.
NDFB(S) is also suspected to be behind attacks on Bhutanese security forces and police patrolling along the border in the previous years.
What also further complicates matters is that militant groups like NDFB(S) have close ties to other militant groups like ULFA, KLO and even Naga militant groups further east. There has been evidence in the past of these groups having links with Maoist extremists in Nepal or extremist groups targeting Bhutan. Besides India the NDFB and ULFA also maintains a presence in countries like Bangladesh and Myanmar. In-fact the NDFB(S) leaders are based in Myanmar which itself has its own share of militant groups fighting the Myanmar government.
The Indo-Bhutan border is around 700 km long of which the Bhutan-Assam border is around 267 km and Bhutan West Bengal border is 183 km both consisting of large starches of thick and continuous forests.
Under the leadership of His Majesty the Fourth King the Royal Bhutan Army in 2003 launched Operation All Clear clearing out all 30 NDFB, ULFA and KLO camps containing around 3,000 militants.
It is understood that the 2003 operations dealt a major blow to the NDFB forcing many to surrender while the NDFB itself opted for talks and a ceasefire with the Indian government in 2005.
However, the anti talks faction of NDFB who insists on forming a separate country of Bodoland split away from the main NDFB and formed the NDFB (S). It is this hardline and violent faction that caused the 23rd December 2014 violence leading to the death of 81 people in Assam’s Bodo regions causing much outrage in India.
Bodos who number around 3 mn form a distinct ethnic group account for around ten percent of Assam’s 31 million strong population.
Most Bodos are encompassed in the BTAD region but they are also present in other districts like Sonitpur and others in Assam where they necessarily don’t form the majority.
The Bodo problem essentially started in the 1960’s in Assam when the Bodos as a group felt economically and politically marginalized in the face of increasing legal and illegal migration into what they historically regarded as their areas in the Brahmaputra valley. The majority of Bodos wanted to establish a separate state under the Indian Union but a few who wanted a separate country formed the violent NDFB.
The NDFB started attacking the Adivasis who were earlier brought to Assam by the British to work in Tea plantations and also Muslims who migrated to the area. The aim is to clear the areas of these people through violent means so that the Bodo people can achieve a local majority and thus demand that such areas be incorporated under Bodoland.
Before the recent attack on Adivasis on 23rd December the NDFB(S) was accused of killing 32 Bengali speaking Muslims in May 2014. The NDFB(S) denied responsibility for the May attack but the finger of blame still lies on them.
The semi-autonomous BTAD with increased economic and political powers was given as a compromise formula to the Bodos by the Indian government. It is ruled by the Bodoland Territorial Council (BTC) that is an elected body which officially does not subscribe to the NDFB.
The immediate reason for the Decemebr 23rd 2014 killings of 81 people seems to be in response to 2014 operations launched by the Indian security forces in BTAD that killed around 40 NDFB (S) militants with another 175 of them being arrested. Besides the historical animosity the NDFB (S) accused the adivasis of cooperating with the security forces.