China-India border tensions drive fear into Bhutanese town

Global Times
Li Jiayao
An Indian soldier stationed in Haa district reads from a notebook. Photo: Cui Meng/GT

At dusk on an August night, the temperature in the Haa Valley in western Bhutan dropped to as low as 10 C, but none of the visitors at the Risum Resort seemed to notice as they enjoyed local beer and traditional cheese peppers.

Belying the calm in the valley, some 30 kilometers west of the resort, a standoff between China and India has been dragging on for two months after Indian troops trespassed into Chinese territory "on Bhutan's behalf."

India's military presence has been lurking in Bhutan's westernmost town of Haa for over half a century. The current Doklam tensions have started to affect local people's lives as worries spread.

The Haa Valley is roughly divided into two areas, the upstream Haa township and the military zone in the downstream.

A local villager told the Global Times that it would take two days to walk to China's Tibet Autonomous Region from the Haa Valley but as tensions grow, the Bhutanese military began to barricade the road.

The villager said he had witnessed Indian military trucks sending troops westward.

India's military presence in Haa, which constitutes of an Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT) and the Wangchuk Lo Dzong Military School, is difficult to ignore.

Chablop PaSsu, a Bhutanese scholar, wrote in a 2014 blog post that "It was during the time of Prime Minister Jigme Palden Dorji that the dzong was provided for temporary occupancy to the IMTRAT as an interim measure to answer accommodation problem in Haa."

A dzong is a fortress-like building common in Bhutan, and the one in Haa was given to the IMTRAT in 1962, according to the Indian Army's website.

At the gate of the Wangchuk Lo Dzong Military School, a worn metal plate reads that the military school is to strengthen the friendship of two great countries.

At 7 am, six fully armed Bhutanese pupils walked into the school from the nearby camp, followed by an Indian officer wearing an instructors uniform. Soon, shouts of slogans started to come out of the school.

A teenage student told the Global Times that there are about 500 Indian soldiers and service people in Haa. When asked about his impression of them, he said he's worried.

"I can't imagine what it would be like if a war really starts," he said.

Cut-off commerce

Compared with the military zone, the township of Haa is much smaller. The town has only four roads about 500 meters long, with a population of just several thousands, according to locals.

Apart from growing crops, a lot of locals are engaged in business activities. Before 1957, Haa Dzongkhag used to be a trade hub between Bhutan and Tibet. But now, that road of commerce has largely been cut off.

A local shop owner called Namgyal told the Global Times that many of his products, which bear Chinese logos, arrived via Nepal. He said three years ago, he used to smuggle Bhutanese fungus to China by mules.

"I usually traveled at night to sneak cross the border," said Namgyal.

But this year, due to the standoff between China and India, the road to Tibet has been blocked, and so is one of Namgyal's sources of income. "So far, my life hasn't been severely affected, but I'm worried about the possibility of war. We're a small country, and a war would ruin everything I have."

Many Bhutanese shared Namgyal's feeling. They showed reluctance to answer questions or take sides when asked about the standoff.

A tourist guide said half drunkenly that his government does not want people to talk about this subject.

One Bhutanese man who used to study in China was an exception. He said his visit to many Chinese cities has led him to believe that New Delhi is no rival of Beijing.

"India is lying about 'protecting Bhutan' … If a war breaks out, China will win," he said.


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