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Wednesday, December 17, 1997 Published at 17:56 GMT



Despatches

Bhutan celebrates its sense of nationhood

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan celebrates its national day this week with a series of parades in front of the country's absolute monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. But in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, there have been demonstrations in which protestors have called on the Bhutanese authorities to release a number of political prisoners. Bhutan is one of the most insular countries in the world, and is the only country in South Asia not to have an elected government. As Alastair Lawson reports, the stability of the kingdom is under threat from various quarters.

In the last 40 years both of Bhutan's neighbours - Tibet and Sikkim - have been swallowed up by India and China.

The kingdom itself has remained independent, but recently it has been less secure.

The human rights group Amnesty International claims dozens of people have been arrested in Bhutan and says some of them were tortured.

Wednesday's demonstration in Kathmandu was held to demand the release of a pro-democracy leader, Rongtthong Kuenley Dorji, who has been held in jail in Delhi pending attempts by Bhutan to extradite him.

In addition to the pro-democracy campaign, Bhutan is also under pressure from its neighbours in South Asia to sort out the plight of around 140,000 refugees who fled the country and are now in camps in eastern Nepal.

The refugees - who are mostly of Nepalese origin - say they are Bhutanese and should have the right to reside in their home country.

The last and perhaps most serious threat to stability in Bhutan is posed by separatist rebels in north-eastern India.

The United Liberation Front of Assam and the Bodo Security Force have set up secret bases in southern Bhutan from which to fight their insurgency.

This has worried the Bhutanese authorities who fear their activities may provoke Indian military retaliation.






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