Bhutan and China: Clues to crisis from 1979

By Saeed Naqvi

Thumbing through old files in the context of the India-China standoff on Doklan, a headline caught my eye: “Need for talks with China: Bhutan King”. The dateline is September 11, 1979. The King who made that bold assertion was Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the present King’s father, who now lives in thoughtful retirement.

The King had, in fact, made that statement in a rare interview to this reporter. It was historic because never in history had the King spoken to the media.

Why did the King make this departure from tradition? The need for Bhutan to talk with China was possibly the most controversial suggestion His Majesty could have made. Article 2 of the secret 1949 Treaty between Bhutan and India clearly states that, in the conduct of foreign affairs, Bhutan would be guided by India’s advice. This restrictive clause never erupted in contention, such was the delicacy with which relations with Bhutan were conducted.

Even though geography dictated Bhutan’s need to have some minimal contact with China, Article 2 of the treaty caused hesitations. During Morarji Desai’s term as Prime Minister from 1977-79, Bhutan was allowed to upgrade its mission in New Delhi to a full-fledged embassy. Since the ambassador was also accredited to Bangladesh, over a period of time Dhaka too was allowed to open an embassy in Thimphu. This was considerable journey from 1971 when Bhutan opened its mission at the UN in 1971. And yet, the P-5 were discouraged from having missions in Thimphu because the Chinese would have to be a part of that concert.

What caused the King to go public on sensitive bilateral issues was a particularly unhappy turn after Morarji Desai gave way to Charan Singh’s prime ministership, which lasted five months. Charan Singh asked his newly-appointed external affairs minister, Shyam Nandan Mishra, to represent him at the Havana Nonaligned summit where Moscow and Washington (along with new friend China) were settling their Cold War scores over Indo-China. Washington and China goaded their NAM proxies to vote for Pol Pot to be seated at the summit. Since Vietnam had militarily forced Pol Pot out of Phnom Penh, replacing him with Heng Samrin, Moscow’s proxies, Vietnam included, were manoeuvring in his favour.

Mr Mishra, sunk in the deepest layers of thought, emerged with a non-stand: he was not for Pol Pot but, well, not for Samrin either — a Prince Hamlet in Havana.

An exasperated King voted for Pol Pot. That this outcome was in sync with what the Chinese were lobbying for, the subsequent friction between the delegations caused an angry King to go public.

Let me reproduce passages from the interview: embedded in these passages are seeds of tension that were corrected by an amended treaty in 2007. But some of which resonate in the background even in the current tensions at Doklam.

Be mindful of the chronology; the king is speaking in September 1979.

“Recent intrusions by Tibetan graziers deep into Bhutanese territory have underlined the need for direct talks between Thimphu and Beijing with the explicit purpose of demarcating and delineating the boundary between the two countries.”

He said he learnt from Indian officials in Havana that some armed Chinese were also seen alongwith the graziers. But he would be able to confirm this fact only after making inquiries in Thimphu. He spoke on a range of issues ranging from Tibetans in Bhutan “forming a state within a state”, to the need for revising the treaty of 1949 which has so far guided Indo-Bhutanese relations.

He dismissed as “utter nonsense” suggestions that Bhutan was aspiring to have close relations with China at the expense of its traditional ties with India. He reiterated Bhutan’s stand that it would have no trade or diplomatic relations directly with Beijing. This policy pursued by the Bhutanese over the years had recently been ratified by the National Assembly of that country, he said.

While emphasising that a demarcated, internationally recognised border between Bhutan and China was an imperative, the king added that no definite decision on holding talks had yet been taken either by him or by the National Assembly. “Moreover, our survey department is still in its infancy and we are in the process of building it up.” However, New Delhi had agreed to make available such documents as might be useful in presenting Bhutan’s case.

“Once we feel that we have enough documents to make a satisfactory presentation, we shall conduct talks — but only with the close understanding of the Government of India.”

The King was careful in his choice of words. He thought a “close understanding” preferable to “close consultations” — consultations somehow implied that “we are seeking India’s permission, which is not the case”.

What then was the relevance of the treaty of friendship between India and Bhutan signed in 1949? More specifically, Article 2 of the treaty, which states Bhutan shall seek Indian advice in the conduct of its foreign affairs.

He said much had happened since 1949. “If you want my candid reply and not a diplomatic one — the treaty can certainly be brought up to date.” Thimphu does not consider India’s advice in the conduct of Bhutan’s foreign affairs as binding on the kingdom.

The two countries have not had serious difficulties or differences in the interpretation of Article 2. “But why should we retain a treaty which can lend itself to loose interpretations.”

He said the basic understanding would be that Bhutan shall do nothing that would harm India’s vital interests.

Giving details of recent intrusions by Tibetan graziers into Bhutan, he said this sort of activity was seasonal in north-west Bhutan. “Even this year, let me emphasise, there was no crisis situation.” But the graziers had penetrated deeper this year “for reasons which are truly difficult to analyse”. He confirmed that “we have protested to the Chinese and have not yet received an answer.”

“This is the legacy of having a traditional undemarcated border”, he said.

The Government of Bhutan’s view is that “to leave the border undemarcated would be to the disadvantage of Bhutan in the long run.”

The issue of 4,000-odd Tibetans in Bhutan was fraught with grave danger, he said. “A situation has arisen whereby the Tibetans have carved a state within a state, taking their instructions from Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s headquarters”.

Since 1964, the Tibetans had been offered Bhutanese citizenship so they could be moved from the separate settlements and integrated with the Bhutanese people. But on one pretext or the other, they had resisted assimilation. “And now we have proof they are paying taxes to Dharamsala and their representatives are attending their own assembly in that retreat”. The situation is implicated because neither is India willing to accept them nor were they willing to adopt Bhutanese citizenship.

He said it was wrong to say that Bhutan had taken a position at Havana on the question of Kampuchean representation at variance with India. If Bhutan had not asked for Pol Pot’s representatives to be seated at Havana, it would have been tantamount to endorsing Vietnamese armed intervention in Kampuchea. “India took no position at all: Can you blame us if we took one and can our stand be described as being in opposition to India’s?”

He said that the Nonaligned Movement was in real danger of splitting into two camps — moderates (“Bhutan considers itself a moderate state”) and radicals, led by Cuba. He said there was little doubt that Cuba was attempting to tilt the movement towards the Soviet bloc. He was asked that if Bhutan was not bound by India’s advice in foreign affairs and was a sovereign, independent nation, what inhibited it from having normal diplomatic relations with China? He said the Communist ideology practised in Beijing was incompatible with Buddhism.

Source: Asian Age

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