On 7 February this year, Bhutan’s new king, Oxford-educated Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, began a six-day visit to India, marking his debut on the world stage two months after his earlier-than-expected ascension to the country’s throne. The following day, the 27-year-old king signed a revised bilateral treaty with India that gave Bhutan significantly greater freedoms in pursuing its foreign and defence policies, areas tightly controlled by New Delhi for nearly six decades in accordance with the 1949 India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty. Not only has the signing signalled the arrival of Bhutan’s upcoming democracy, with the stage now set for a realignment of relations with its ‘closest friend’, India; it has also opened possibilities of significant, if not drastic, changes in Thimphu’s multilateral diplomacy in the neighbourhood.
Tentative redefining of the bilateral relationship began almost immediately. Following the signing of the new treaty with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, King Namgyel Wangchuck stated: “From a guiding role upon Bhutan’s first step to modernisation, we now stand as close friends and equal partners in the global arena.” From such a sentiment, it seems clear that Thimphu is hoping now to deal with India on a level footing, rather than to continue to look up to it as a ‘guide’. But even as the two countries talk about a further consolidation of their friendship, given Thimphu’s newfound autonomy in foreign policy and military purchases, observers will have to wait to see the full impact of the agreement.
The India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty was signed in Darjeeling on 8 August 1949. One of its most central tenants, Article 2, defined the following circuitous relationship: “The Government of India undertakes to exercise no interference in the internal administration of Bhutan. On its part the Government of Bhutan agrees to be guided by the advice of the Government of India in regard to its external relations.” While over the decades the hold of this clause was progressively weakened as Bhutan stepped up its international diplomacy, it has nevertheless been a canker and a source of discomfort for Thimphu’s nationalists.
This year’s revised agreement has already come into force, with New Delhi and Thimphu exchanging the treaty’s so-called Instruments of Ratification in the Bhutani capital on 3 March. Apart from the change in its relationship with India, the new treaty will also mean significantly different – and potentially, more vibrant – relationships between Bhutan and its other neighbours, particularly China, Bangladesh and Nepal. All of these will also have a natural bearing on India’s security and diplomacy concerns – which is all the more reason why New Delhi will no longer be able to take its small northern neighbour for granted.
India’s hesitant loosening
All of this is taking place against Bhutan’s transformation from a monarchy to a parliamentary democracy – the country’s first national elections, for instance, are slated for 2008. The impact of the combined dynamic of these fast-paced changes – on both the foreign-policy and electoral fronts – will be widespread, for both Bhutan and India. When Bhutan finally becomes a parliamentary democracy, the country is bound to witness a power play, in which even external forces could try to influence political parties or electoral behaviour. Furthermore, when Thimphu eventually attempts to pursue its own fully autonomous foreign policy, its actions could quickly raise challenges for New Delhi. In agreeing on the transformation of their relationship, New Delhi clearly seems confident that its geostrategic interests will not be tampered with by Bhutani authorities, including those of a democratic dispensation.
After the new treaty was signed, an Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman said that it removed provisions that had become “obsolete”. “The treaty commits both countries to cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests, and not allow the use of territories for activities harmful to the national-security interest of the other,” he said. New Delhi clearly hopes that Thimphu would not ignore any future foray by Indian militants into Bhutan. Separatist groups from the Indian Northeast had operated from well-entrenched bases in southern Bhutan for more than 12 years before they were expelled in December 2003 by Thimphu’s military, with active support from Indian forces across the border.
Irrespective of the changes taking place – or perhaps because of them – Indian aid to Bhutan appears set to continue as before. On 29 March this year, New Delhi announced assistance to Bhutan worth INR 26.1 billion. An official statement following the cabinet’s passage of the aid made clear the quid-pro-quo India expected from the deal in letting Bhutan off earlier restrictions:
This decision will result in continued strengthening of India-Bhutan relations based on our strategic and economic interests in an area of high geo-political sensitivity. We will support the new King of Bhutan, and Bhutan’s transition to a constitutional democracy. It will also generate the opportunities of Indian companies to participate in major projects, and strengthen goodwill for India in Bhutan by fulfilling our existing commitments.
With New Delhi having agreed to help Bhutan hold its upcoming elections, there has been a formal tie-up between the Indian Election Commission and the nascent Election Commission of Bhutan. An estimated 400,000 electors are to choose their representatives from 47 parliamentary constituencies, which have been defined after the recent completion of a delimitation process. While India is in the process of exporting its ideology – that of democracy – to Bhutan, it remains to be seen whether the darker add-ons to electoral politics, such as money and muscle power, also take hold in Druk Yul. With Bhutan’s first two (marginally) private newspapers having come up following the July 2006 passage of the Information, Communications and Media Act, a heady cocktail of media, politics and governance seems to be in the offing in heretofore-staid Thimphu.
Some sections in Bhutan seem wary of the perils of the country’s fast-paced transition. An editorial in the government-run Kuensel recently noted:
It would be unrealistic to believe that we will maintain a harmony of views throughout the process [of democratisation] and avoid conflict. We already know that there will be differences in political views among the potential leadership and among voters. The challenge is to accept those differences as a necessary and useful element of democracy … We understand today that democracy is not just elections but an entire system of values that places the responsibility of governance on the people. Our goal is not to introduce the structure of democracy but to establish a democratic government that will function well. Introducing democracy is the first step. The real goal is to make it work.
If democracy fails to ‘work’ in Bhutan, the greatest ramification would of course be for Bhutan’s expectant citizenry, long deprived of any say in their governance. At the same time, India would have to confront an unpredictable democracy, whereas earlier it only had to talk to the king.
As the 2008 elections in Bhutan draw near, the most important thing to watch from New Delhi’s point of view will be the political forces that come into play. For obvious reasons, New Delhi policymakers would like a politically stable Bhutan. The Indian and Bhutani security establishments were stung when they learned about the launch of the Bhutan Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist-Maoist) (BCP) in April 2003. At that time, the BCP circulated pamphlets in Bhutan as well as in the Lhotshampa refugee camps in southeast Nepal that spelled out the new party’s objective as hoping to “smash the [Bhutani] monarchy” and establish a “true and new democracy” in the country.
The creation of the BCP also brought focused interest from both New Delhi and Thimphu onto the Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), one of three Indian militant outfits that were said to be operating from within Bhutan for a while. Formed in December 1995 by some radical members of the Koch-Rajbongshi tribe (from which is derived the name for Cooch-Behar District), the KLO has been fighting to carve out a separate Kamatapur state from parts of Assam and West Bengal. Authorities quickly concluded that the pro-Maoist KLO was active and had pockets of influence in the strategic northern part of West Bengal; they also worried that the KLO could eventually act as a bridge between Maoist guerrillas in Nepal and the newly emerging Maoist force in Bhutan.
The emerging militant threat to Bhutan may ultimately have been the key factor that drove then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck into action during the winter of 2003, to engage in the coordinated military mission with India. Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to watch whether a Maoist-backed or Maoist-linked political party emerges in Bhutan, and whether any such group eventually takes part in the country’s 2008 electoral exercise. As such, observers have again started placing particular focus on the Bhutan Communist Party. Whether the BCP has any level of actual strength is not known; Bhutani authorities, however, have stated that the party has formed an armed wing, called the Bhutan Tiger Force. This outfit has been accused of planting a bomb near the Bhutani trade hub of Phuentsholing this past March. As of now, it is unlikely that the BCP will contest in the 2008 elections, but it could back a new, yet-to-emerge force. If former king Jigme had been worried about the extended influence of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) on Bhutani affairs, he might be sleeping a little easier now that the Nepali rebels are well on their way to becoming part of the ‘establishment’ in Kathmandu and are seemingly quite ‘sensitive’ to New Delhi’s views on geopolitical matters.
Given Bhutan’s ostensible new foreign-policy freedom, it will be particularly interesting to watch the course of Sino-Bhutani relations in the days to come. Though the two countries share a 470 km border, Thimphu currently does not have diplomatic ties with Beijing. Although Bhutan never had a policy of ‘equi-closeness’ or ‘equi-distance’ vis-à-vis China, in recent years there have been high-level visits in both directions. This is due largely to direct border talks, which from 1984 onwards tried to resolve various boundary disputes. It was in 1954, after the communist revolution and subsequent integration of Tibet, that China first laid claim over Bhutan. Four years later, Chinese troops moved to occupy about 300 square miles of Bhutani territory in the country’s north and northeast. In 1960, Chinese claims on Bhutan resurfaced after Beijing openly declared that, “Bhutanese, Sikkimese and Ladakhis form a united family in Tibet. They have always been subject to Tibet and to the great motherland of China. They must once again be united and taught the communist doctrine.”
Until the 1970s, Bhutan’s border issues with China were incorporated under the rubric of the Sino-Indian border dialogue. With the coming of the Janata Party government in New Delhi in 1977, relations between India and China showed some signs of improvement. In 1981, a process was started to initiate direct dialogue with China, and the Boundary Commission of Bhutan was established. Preliminary border talks began in 1981, facilitated by the United Nations and Indian diplomats. It was not until 1984, however, that the first formal meeting between Chinese and Bhutani officials took place.
Signs of Thimphu and Beijing embarking on a road to friendship started appearing in 1990. In addition to Bhutani delegations traveling to various international events in China, since 1995 Bhutan has also shown a degree of international support for China. For instance, Thimphu representatives have helped to defeat various drafts perceived to be anti-China sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR); they also voted against the draft for Taiwan’s participation at the UN, and rejected Taiwan’s bid to host the 2002 Asian Games. Since 1994, the Chinese ambassador in India has regularly visited Bhutan, while Bhutan’s ambassador to India visited Beijing in 2000. Both China and Bhutan have now been talking of a territory exchange for some time, and the chances of this happening have risen significantly with the signing of the new Indo-Bhutani treaty.
In December 1998, the so-called Agreement on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in Bhutan-China Border Areas was signed – the first ever inter-governmental agreement between the two countries. In it, Beijing reaffirmed that it “completely respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bhutan”. That undoubtedly offered some solace to Bhutan; the situation for New Delhi, however, is less rosy. With China’s ongoing bid to establish handholds throughout Southasia, Indian policymakers will surely keep a close watch on Beijing-Thimphu relations in the days ahead.
Just as interesting will be the evolving relationship between Bhutan and Nepal, particularly because bilateral relations between the two neighbours, whom many consider ‘natural allies’, have been affected by the issue of the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa refugees, who have been living in UNHCR-aided camps in southeastern Nepal for the past 16 years. The Lhotshampa departure began in the late 1980s as a result of the Thimphu government’s attempt to impose Drukpa culture onto all the country’s ethnic groups.
By mid-1990, Lhotshampa in exile had formed the Bhutan People’s Party (BPP), which demanded civil rights and drastic changes to the political system. Thimphu dubbed the Lhotshampa as ‘anti-nationals’ and cracked down harshly, subsequently setting off a mass exodus from Bhutan into Nepal. Today, there are roughly 106,000 Bhutani refugees living in seven camps in Nepal’s Jhapa and Morang districts. Ironically, the democratic transition demanded by the Lhotshampa activists is in the process of being put in place in their absence.
Although the refugee issue has shown possibility of resolution recently – with the Kathmandu government for the first time allowing for the possibility of third-country resettlement in response to the United States’ offer to ‘take in’ 60,000 refugees – Kathmandu-Thimphu relations remain extremely chilly. Last December, bilateral discussions between the two capitals on the refugee issue – in their 16th round – again broke down. Whether Nepal-based Lhotshampa political forces with linkages into Bhutan can become a factor in the country’s elections next year remains to be seen. It will be important to watch, however, how Thimphu proceeds in dealing with the problem with its newfound foreign-policy freedom.
While India-Bhutan relations remain firm for the time being, they will no longer have the concrete assuredness on which Indian diplomats and policymakers have for so long been able to count. New Delhi will now need to keep in view external factors and influences that could strain future ties. India’s security concerns aside, however, on paper Bhutan has now been cut loose from India’s influence if not munificence – largesse that always came with strings attached. How both sides react to the new situation in the coming years will go far in defining a whole new dynamic in this land-locked corner of Southasia.
~ Wasbir Hussain is director of the Centre for Development and Peace Studies in Guwahati, and a political commentator