PM leaves for Bhutan, aims at strengthening relationship

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{image-pm mamnokjh2222_16052008.jpg}New Delhi, May 16: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh left here this morning on a two-day visit to Bhutan, hoping to shape a bilateral relationship based on the solid foundations of the past and building on each other's national interests in the 21st century. The Prime Minister expressed confidence that the visit would reinforce this unique relationship and that both countries would continue to work together for the economic benefit and prosperity of the two peoples.

''The visit will give me an opportunity to convey to their Majesties and the Prime Minister of Bhutan our desire to shape a relationship that builds upon the solid foundations of the past and responds to each other's national interests and aspirations in the 21st century,'' Dr Singh said in his departure statement on the eve of his visit.

The Prime Minister will dedicate the 1020 MW Tala hydro-electric project, built with Indian assistance, to the people of the Himalayan Kingdom and lay the foundation stone of the 1095 MW Punatsangchhu hydel station.

Dr Singh will hold talks later today with King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and his father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who had abdicated in favour of his son some time ago.

He will also have discussions with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigme Y Thinley on various issues of mutual interest, including India's development cooperation with Bhutan.

The Prime Minister will also address a joint session of the newly-constituted Bhutanese Parliament. The kingdom was catapulted into the group of democratic nations after the historic elections in March and the constitution of Parliament.

The Prime Minister will be the first foreign dignitary to address the first ever Parliament of Bhutan.

Describing the relationship with Bhutan as ''unique'' and ''a model of inter-state relations,'' the Prime Minister said it is a partnership rooted in close historical and cultural linkages between two ''friendly sovereign neighbours.'' ''Our relations are based on deep mutual trust and confidence.'' He said the visit takes place in a year that holds special significance for Bhutan, and for relations between the two countries.

The year 2008 marks the centenary of the Wangchuck dynasty, the coronation of Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and the installation of the first ever democratically elected government in Bhutan.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru's historic visit to Bhutan in 1958 and the first anniversary of the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty.

''The India-Bhutan relationship is a model of inter-State relations. We enjoy open borders and free trade between our two countries. There is vast goodwill for each other at all levels. From modest beginnings of our assistance to Bhutan's first Five Year Plan in 1961, we have established a comprehensive framework of mutually beneficial cooperation in all fields. The hydro-power sector has emerged as an area of win-win cooperation for both countries,'' the Prime Minister said.

The visit is taking place just weeks after the people of Bhutan made a historic transition to democracy by voting for the first time in March this year. Dr Singh will address a joint session of the country's new Parliament.

''India and Bhutan share uniquely warm and cordial relations characterised by close consultations, maturity, complete trust and mutual understanding,'' a spokesman for the Ministry of External Affairs said ahead of the visit.

Dr Singh will use the opportunity to reaffirm to the Bhutanese leaders India's commitment to carry forward this close relationship and enhance economic cooperation. Bhutan is currently finalising its 10th Five Year Plan (FYP), to which India is expected to make a contribution of around Rs 4500 crore.

Since 1961, Bhutan has completed eight FYPs, two of which were totally financed by India. A revised package of Rs 2610.14 crore was approved last year as India's share of the 9th FYP.

Among other things, the two sides will also discuss ways of improving connectivity between the two countries and upgrading border infrastructure. India shares a 700-km open border with Bhutan and the two countries are working together to keep the area safe and secure.

The Royal Bhutan Army had undertaken successful operations in December, 2003 and January, 2004 to evict Indian insurgent groups that had set up camps on the Bhutanese side.

Since then, the two countries have been cooperating on security and border management through regular meetings, coordinated patrolling and exchange of information.

The relations between the two countries are governed by the India-Bhutan Friendship Treaty, which was signed in 1949 and updated in February last year.

It provides for, among other things, perpetual peace and friendship, free trade and commerce and equal justice to each other's citizens.

The two countries signed an agreement in 2002 as a result of which India is committed to importing 5,000 MW of power by 2020.

Last year, India imported five billion units of power from Bhutan at a cost of Rs 975 crore.

The two sides will also discuss the future of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), in which they and six other countries of the region are members.

Dr Singh is scheduled to return home tomorrow evening.


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