A series of four bomb blasts rocked the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan over the weekend, wounding one person and damaging shops and businesses. One blast was in the Bhutanese capital, Thimphu; the others targeted shops and markets in the remote districts of Samste, Chukha and Dagana. The explosions come as the once rigidly closed monarchy is preparing its first national elections on March 24. Bhutan’s authorities say they suspect one of three militant organizations based in refugee camps in nearby Nepal—the Bhutan Tiger Force, the Bhutan Maoists Party, and the Communist Party of Bhutan.
Bhutan witnessed a pro-democracy movement in the 1990s, with Nepali-speaking residents in the country’s southern areas rising in rebellion against the monarchy. The ensuing crackdown forced Nepali-speakers to flee to Nepal. The two governments have met at least 16 times to try to resolve the issue, to no avail. (AFP, Jan. 21) Some 100,000 refugees remain in Nepal, facing harsh conditions. But many are resisting offers of resettlement in third countries such as the US, saying this would narrow their chances of security guarantees for a return to Bhutan. (BBC, Jan. 22)
International media have lauded Bhutan’s former ruler, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who voluntarily abdicated after 34 years as absolute monarch to usher in an era of multiparty democracy. The refugee crisis has been overshadowed by the democratization process, as well as Bhutan’s role as a “buffer state” between China and India. (Bhutan briefly made headlines two years ago when the army moved against separatists from the northeastern Indian states of Assam and West Bengal who had been using the country’s territory as a staging ground.) But the bomb attacks have refocused local concern on the Nepali problem.
A team of Indian parliamentarians on the way to visit the refugee camps in eastern Nepal was barred from entering Bhutan by border security on Jan. 19. The team, led by Debrata Biswas of India’s Forward Bloc Party, was en route to Nepal’s Jhapa district where the joint Indo-Bhutan Solidarity team was scheduled to address a gathering at Beldangi and hold talks with refugee leaders.
“Bhutan cannot be called a democratic nation even after the March 24, 2008 elections unless it allows Bhutanese refugees to participate in the elections. We will pressure the Indian government…to resolve the refugee situation without the intervention of countries like the US,” Biswas said. (Asia Times, Jan. 23)
See our last post on Nepal.