S S Khaplang (L) addressing a joint rally of different separatist outfits at a camp in Myanmar's Sagaing Division
It may sound strange but the Indian government has had a ceasefire agreement with Myanmarese Naga rebel leader S S Khaplang since 2001. Reason: he heads a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland or NSCN(K) which is active in at least three states in Northeast India. After years of stalemate, both sides thought it prudent to suspend operations and explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement. But even after 14 years, there was precious little that was achieved through talks except the annual ritual of the ceasefire extension.
On 27 March 2015, two senior representatives of NSCN(K) -- Wangtin Naga and P Tikhak --emerged from a meeting near Dimapur in Nagaland with a sense of unease. Their conversation with government officials was serious and it focused on the renewal of the ceasefire between the two sides. The duo were told in no uncertain terms about New Delhi's unhappiness over the conduct of their chief who had not only firmed up an alliance with separatist insurgent outfits from Assam and Manipur but also allowed them to set up camps and training facilities in the Naga-inhabited areas in Myanmar's Sagaing Division.
The delegates were trying to find a middle ground and they reiterated their commitment to peace and negotiated settlement. But Khaplang would not budge an inch and he responded with a statement reiterating his resolve to fight for the independence of India's Northeast and the Naga-inhabited areas in Myanmar. The ceasefire was called off and the two representatives who apparently enjoyed a close rapport with the chief were soon expelled from the organisation. This was the third instance when senior leaders based in Nagaland have parted ways from the chief following differences. Earlier, general secretary N Kitovi Zhimomi and commander-in-chief Khole Konyak were expelled on the grounds of "anti-party activities."
"So is it finally the end of the road for Khaplang and the Indian government? Will this incident engender another round of bloody clashes in Nagaland as has happened whenever outfits have split earlier? "
So is it finally the end of the road for Khaplang and the Indian government? Will this incident engender another round of bloody clashes in Nagaland as has happened whenever outfits have split earlier? There were massacres in the aftermath of the Shillong Accord in 1975 and when the NSCN was divided in 1988. More recently, the split between Khaplang and Kitovi had also fuelled gun battles four years ago.
For the uninitiated, insurgency in Nagaland began in 1947 when the Naga National Council (NNC) raised the banner of revolt and demanded independence. NNC was sidelined after the formation of the NSCN in 1980 which was also brought a section of Myanmarese Nagas headed by Khaplang into the organisation. But NSCN was divided eight years later into the Khaplang and Isak-Muivah factions. In 1997, ceasefire was declared between the government and the Isak-Muivah group and dialogue initiated for a negotiated settlement. Five years later, Khaplang followed suit by declaring cessation of hostilities with the government which led to an agreement. But unlike NSCN(IM), New Delhi has not engaged Khaplang in a dialogue since he is based in Myanmar.
At the heart of the recent episode is perhaps the difficult task of hammering out a common minimum programme for the Nagas in Myanmar and India. Social, economic and political conditions are vastly different in the two regions as are the respective governments' approaches to resolving the issues and demands raised by the insurgent groups. Efforts at combining the agendas of groups on both sides of the border had failed earlier and it was bound to fail again. Khaplang has come to an understanding with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar's armed forces), even securing permission to host his allies from the Northeast. He enjoys freedom and autonomy to run his own government. But such a scenario is difficult to imagine in India's Northeast.
"Khaplang has come to an understanding with the Tatmadaw (Myanmar's armed forces), even securing permission to host his allies from the Northeast. He enjoys freedom and autonomy to run his own government. But such a scenario is difficult to imagine in India's Northeast."
If a senior NSCN(K) functionary is to be believed, Khaplang's decision to withdraw from the ceasefire seems to have been well planned. He saw greater benefits in snapping ties with the Indian government and getting closer to the Myanmarese army and the separatist outfits from India's Northeast that have camps in that region. NSCN(K) is part of the United Front of nine outfits that was formed four years ago with the goal of securing independence of the Northeast and Naga region in Myanmar. Efforts are also on to form a government-in-exile with a moving capital.
Naypyidaw (the capital of Myanmar) is aware of these developments but prefers to turn a blind eye because it feels that befriending the Nagas would be more profitable. A ceasefire agreement was concluded with NSCN(K) in April 2012 and this happens to be one of the very few written accords with insurgent groups by the army. Not only have hostilities come to an end but the Nagas have refused to be drawn into any alliance of insurgent groups in Myanmar against the army (the Kachin Independence Army had approached the NSCN-K several times for a coalition). The Nagas have also accepted some demands of the army like allowing Naga children to be taught Myanmarese in some villages. In addition, the generals are conscious of the rich mineral deposits in the Naga region -- these can only be exploited in an ambience of peace and understanding with the NSCN(K). Gold mining takes place quite close to Khaplang's headquarters in Taga where the rebels and the army have stakes.
"China's interest in this region cannot be ignored. Its involvement with these insurgent outfits is covert but much deeper than New Delhi would imagine."
This apart, China's interest in this region cannot be ignored. Its involvement with these insurgent outfits is covert but much deeper than New Delhi would imagine. Top functionaries of some of these groups have been given asylum in China. When I visited these camps more than three years ago, I was further convinced about the big neighbour's intention to convert this zone into its sphere of influence. Recent developments in Myanmar have greatly disturbed Beijing, especially Naypyidaw's move to draw closer to the US and India. No wonder, the Chinese armed forces has actively started assisting the United Wa State Army in the hills of Shan state with sophisticated weaponry that include armoured personnel vehicles. It is a message to Naypyidaw that it would be willing to go to any extent to retain its hold over the country for strategic and commercial interests.
New Delhi, of course, will have to continue with its policy of engaging Myanmar irrespective of Naypyidaw's policy towards the rebels. The neighbouring country is central to the Look East Policy and its huge reserves of gas and oil would be crucial for India's increasing energy needs. Naypyidaw knows this very well and it seems to be in a win-win situation.