At first glance, the imposing gateway appears to be the entrance to a frontier Buddhist monastery tucked away in the unending roll of Bhutan’s mountains. No sooner did our vehicle stop barely 100 metres short of the gateway, adorned with king-size portraits of Bhutan’s reigning monarch, that a battle fatigue-clad soldier emerged from a warren of army outposts, signaling us to not take photographs.
This is the Bhutanese army’s Damthang post, the last before the remaining 1 km of winding road beyond the gateway disappears into the mountainous wilderness. Beyond lies imposing mountain peaks and beyond which is China’s Tibet. The two soldiers who manned the post spoke a smattering of Hindi. They agreed that Indian and Bhutanese soldiers jointly patrol the Himalayan heights, though “not in this sector”.Damthang is southwest of Haa, where the Indian army operates a large training facility which also doubles up as a base that is in direct contact with offensive strike force stationed on the Indian side of the border in Sikkim.
Down below the post, on plain land, lie rows of army barracks and even a school. “I teach all subjects at the school,” crooned Pema Thinleey (name changed), a 25-year-old tourist guide. With earphone plugged into his ears, Pema said “outsiders, particularly tourists, are not allowed beyond the gateway”. Like the soldiers, he too did not appear to have much clue about the imposing mountainous terrain that lie beyond the Damthang post. “China,” is all Pema was prepared to say, indicating how little the Bhutanese who live on the periphery of the tiny Himalayan country know or care about the giant that encircles them in the west and the north.
But others in Damthang are not so ignorant. Gado (45), whose teeth are stained red by the incessant chewing of betel leaves, is a small-time trader who is familiar with Doklam and the stand-off that occurred on the strategically important yak-grazing plateau land that has been a festering wound between China and Bhutan as part of its larger border dispute. Gado’s business takes him to Phari, a China-Bhutan border trading outpost. But during his frequent forays to Phari, Gado picked up the contours of the stories surrounding the Doklam face-off between the Indian army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) last year.Gado didn’t require the assistance of Google Maps to tell us which direction Doklam lay. He waved his left hand behind his back to indicate it was north-west of Damthang.
Since last year’s face-off between the Indian and Chinese armies, Bhutan’s political landscape has remained very quiet: none of the political parties in the country’s electoral fray has even raised the issue during campaigning, either in the primary round or in the final round—a contest between the DrukPhuensumTshogpa (DPT) and the DrukNyamrupTshogpa (DNT)—which will kick off this morning. The few times that the two finalists sought to raise the issue, the Election Commission of Bhutan (ECB) was quick to take action and forbid them from raking up India-Bhutan-China relations. Pecuniary fines were imposed on errant candidates.
Last year when the stand-off had the Indian army and the PLA on the edge, Bhutan maintained a stoic, even studied, silence over Doklam. “The silence spoke only to those who understood it,” says a Western nationaldeeply familiar with Bhutanese statecraft, relations with the country’s neighbours and politics. “Bhutan’s silence was a friendly gesture,” the influential Westerner added, even though there are political analysts in Thimphu who interpret their country’s quietude as a signal to their southern neighbour to allow the nation a degree of “assertiveness”.
The Westerner, however, admitted that Bhutan’s silence over Doklam and some of the small steps that it has taken to engage with China are the country’s ways to “acknowledge that it has two neighbours”, neither of whom can be ignored. He admitted that the Bhutanese establishment’s decision to welcome Chinese deputy foreign minister Kong Xuanyou was a step in that direction. Speaking to the South Asian Monitor on Wednesday evening, the Westerner, a long-time resident of Thimphu said that if the DPT, which is seen as a pro-China party, “comes to power, it would be extra careful” not to raise India’s hackles.
“The DPT is neither too active nor too extreme” on its proposed relations with India, and the party prefers “much more of a status quo”, the Westerner said, adding, however, that “I would acknowledge that Bhutan has a come a long way and that it would want to go its way”. Speaking in parables, the Westerner said that while “Indian diplomacy, of late, has been a wee bit clumsy”, it must behave just as “an understanding father must realise that it is time to let go off his child’s hands. India will then be a good paternal diplomat” in the years to come.