By Nijeesh N.*
Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang widely known as S.S. Khaplang, the ‘chairman’ of the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) died in the evening of June 9, 2017, after a prolonged illness in a hospital at Taga in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar. Confirming his death, Indian intelligence sources disclosed that Khaplang, who belonged to the Hemi Naga tribe, had lately moved to Taga, the NSCN-K’s headquarters, from his native village Waktham, east of the Pangsau Pass on the Arunachal Pradesh-Myanmar border. According to reports, Khaplang is likely to be buried near the ‘NSCN-K Council Headquarters’ in Taga in Myanmar on June 12, 2017. Athong Makury from the ‘Council of Naga Affairs (CNA), the apex body of Naga people in Myanmar, announced on June 11 that the funeral would take place in the presence of “revolutionary parties of WESEA Region and civil representatives from all the Naga inhabited areas.”
Media reports citing ‘sources within’ NSCN-K meanwhile stated that the ‘vice-chairman’ of the outfit, Khango Konyak, would replace Khaplang as the new ‘chairman’. Khango Konyak was elected as ‘vice-chairman’ of the outfit on May 20, 2011 and Khaplang had earlier issued a statement declaring, “Konyak stood steadfast for the rights of the Naga people through thick and thin.” Nevertheless, a power struggle remains a possibility, with reports also indicating that ‘brigadier’ Peyong Konyak, and senior leader Akhio Konyak were also contenders for the next NSCN-K ‘chairman’.
Unlike Khaplang who was a Hemi Naga from Myanmar, Khango Konyak is a Konyak Naga from the Mon District of Nagaland. As one of the senior cadres in the outfit, Khango Konyak was known as Khaplang’s ‘most trusted man’. Khaplang, who has not been keeping well for some time had entrusted all administration and public affairs of the outfit to Khango Konyak. Most visiting delegations to NSCNK’s base camp at Taga had been meeting with Khango Konyak. Though the Indian nationality of Khango Konyak is an advantage for New Delhi to reach out to him in order to get NSCN-K back into ceasefire mode, his defiant stand in the past will be a major hurdle, as he has expressed reservations on the ceasefire process with India.
Khaplang’s death will certainly hamper the ‘peace talks’ between the Government and NSCN-K, which began recently. Nagaland Chief Minister Shurhozelie Liezietsu disclosed, in his condolence message, that the State Government had recently sent delegations to meet the NSCN-K leadership in Myanmar to convince the group to re-enter into the peace process with the Government of India to find an early solution to the Naga political problem: “And it was encouraging to learn that Mr Khaplang had, a few months back, conveyed his willingness to have dialogue with the Government provided ‘issues of substance’ were discussed.”
Khaplang is believed to have exercised huge influence over the Myanmarese authorities. On April 9, 2012, NSCN-K signed a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar Government, as a result of which NSCN-K members were given freedom to move ‘unarmed’ across the country. Khaplang exercised near untrammelled authority over vast ungoverned spaces along the Indo-Myanmar border, and a tacit agreement that preserved this influence had been in place with Myanmar’s military junta at least since 2001. Not only had Khaplang established long-standing military bases in the Sagaing region, he was able to provide safe haven and camps to a number of other militant formations operating in India’s Northeast. On January 10, 2017, Additional Director-General of Police (ADGP), Assam, L.R. Bishnoi observed, “Taking into account at least ten North-eastern rebel groups having their bases and hideouts in Myanmar, there should be close to 2,500 militants from the region in that country. Of them NSCN-K alone has a little over 1,000 men, followed by around 260 of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), 230 of the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and a little over 200 of the Independent faction of United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA-I).” Significantly, on July 16, 2016, during the first India-Myanmar Joint Consultative Commission (JCC) Meeting held in New Delhi, India reportedly asked Myanmar to hand over four top NSCN-K leaders, including S.S. Khaplang, ‘military commander’, ‘military advisor’ Niki Sumi, ‘brigadier’ Kurichu Pochury, and ‘kilonser’ Y. Asang.
The top leadership of the NSCN-K remains inside Myanmar. It is to be seen what impact Khaplang’s death will have on their relationship with the Myanmar Government. NSCN-K’s operational capabilities in India’s Northeast depend heavily on their presence and safe havens in Myanmar.
NSCN-K, along with the Isak-Muivah faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-IM), was formed on April 30, 1988, when the principal split within the parent National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) took place. Clannish divisions among the Nagas (Konyak and Tangkhul) were the primary reason for the fracture. The Konyak and Pangmei (Naga tribes largely found in Myanmar) dominated NSCN-K under the leadership of Khole Konyak and ‘Chairman’ S.S. Khaplang. NSCN-IM constituted the mainly Tangkhul faction, and was led by ‘president’ Isak Chisi Swu and T. Muivah. Other prominent leaders of the undivided NSCN-K were ‘general secretary’ N. Kitovi Zhimomi and ‘publicity secretary’ Akaho Asumi. On November 23, 2007, several NSCN-IM cadres led by its one-time ‘home minister’ Azheto Chopey broke away from the group and formed a new outfit called the NSCN – Unification (NSCN-U) also known as Neokpao–Khitovi faction of NSCN (NSCN-NK). The NSCN-K split further in 2011 when two senior founding leaders of the outfit N. Kitovi Zhimoni, the Ato Kilonser (Prime Minister) and Khole Konyak, broke away to form a new group called Khole-Kitovi faction of NSCN (NSCN-KK).
On April 28, 2001, NSCN-K signed a ceasefire agreement with the Government of India (GoI). The splinter NSCN-KK signed a ceasefire agreement with GoI on April 27, 2012, and these were extended annually. Meanwhile, NSCN-IM signed a ceasefire agreement for an indefinite period as well as an historic “framework agreement” with GoI on August 3, 2015.
Crucially, however, on March 27, 2015, NSCN-K unilaterally exited the ceasefire, declaring that “any ‘meaningful peace and political interaction’ between the two entities (NSCN-K and GoI) should be premised on the concept that Nagas were sovereign people”. Soon after, the Reformation faction of NSCN (NSCN-R) was formed on April 6, 2015, by two senior ‘kilonsers’ (ministers), Wangtin Konyak, also known as Y. Wangtin Naga, and T. Tikhak. The duo had attended the ceasefire supervisory board (CFSB) meeting at Chumukedima (Dimapur) on March 27, 2015, defying S.S. Khaplang’s diktat and were consequently ‘expelled’. A ceasefire agreement with NSCN-R was signed on April 27, 2015. The GoI recently renewed the ceasefire agreement with NSCN-R and NSCN-U, for a further period of one year with effect from April 28, 2017.
After the unilateral withdrawal from ceasefire agreement and a series of attacks on Security Forces (SFs), including the killing of 18 Army persons at Chandel in Manipur on June 4, 2015, by NSCN-K, GoI banned NSCN-K for five years, on September 16, 2015, under the Unlawful Activities [Prevention] Act (UAPA), 1967. Subsequently, on November 16, 2015, the Central Government declared NSCN-K a terrorist organization.
The ceasefire with NSCN-K, which was only enforceable within Nagaland, had hardly been peaceful. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the outfit was involved in at least 282 fatalities (25 civilian, eight SF personnel and 249 militants) between April 28, 2001, (the date of signing of the ceasefire agreement) and March 27, 2015, (the date of abrogation of the ceasefire) in Nagaland, Assam, Manipur, and Arunachal Pradesh. The large number of militant fatalities are at least partially an index of the turf wars between extremist formations, particularly including various factions of NSCN. After the abrogation of the ceasefire, NSCN-K has been found involved in several militant attacks in three Northeastern States – Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland. According to partial data compiled by SATP, NSCN-K was linked to a total of 79 fatalities (seven civilians and 32 SFs personnel, and 40 NSCN-K militants) in the three States since March 27, 2015 (all data till June 10, 2017). During the same period, these three States had recorded a total of 208 fatalities (53 civilians and 56 SF personnel and 99 militants). NSCN-K was linked to 37.98 per cent of fatalities (12.5 per cent of civilian fatalities, 57 per cent of the SF fatalities and 40.4 per cent of the militant fatalities) among the at least 19 currently active groups in these three States.
Unsurprisingly, SFs had intensified their offensive against NSCN-K soon after the June 4, 2015, Chandel attack. At least 40 NSCN-K militants have since been killed. Among those neutralized were ‘captain’ Wangchuk and ‘2nd lieutenant’ Tokihe Yepthomi. SFs also arrested 128 NSCN-K militants, including ‘health minister-cum-political advisor’ Ngamsinlung Panmei and ‘captain’ Atoka aka Kughahoto Sema.
SFs have, indeed, succeeded in minimizing the immediate threat originating from NSCN-K. Khaplang’s death is likely to provide them further relief, at least till the leadership issue is clearly settled. Khaplang’s death will also open up leadership issues in the United National Liberation Front of West East South Asia (UNLFWESA) . Significantly, after suffering losses at the hands of the SFs in the region, various northeast militants groups, including ULFA-I, the IK Songbijit faction of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB-IKS); and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), had joined hands to work under the banner of the umbrella UNLFWESA, which was formed on April 17, 2015, in Myanmar, and mostly concentrated its increasing terror activities in the Indo-Myanmar border Districts. The Front, headed by S.S. Khaplang, was formed with the aim to set up a ‘northeast government-in-exile’, reportedly to be based in Myanmar.
Despite speculative assessments of a diminution of capabilities – even if transient – the NSCN-K capacities and threat remain formidable. Since the organisation’s principal infrastructure and cadre base lies in safe havens in Myanmar and is under no urgent threat – notwithstanding the showcasing of the June 9, 2015, operation ‘inside Myanmar’, a few kilometers beyond a notional border – the incentive to intensify the spiral of violence certainly remains.
Indeed, in the Northeast Security Review meeting, chaired by Union Home Minister (UHM) Rajnath Singh, held at New Delhi on May 16, 2017 it was emphasized that five contiguous Districts of Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland along the Indo-Myanmar border (Tirap, Changlang and Longding Districts of Arunachal; and Mon and Tuensang Districts of Nagaland) had emerged as the hub of the ‘last remaining militants’ in the Northeast. Significantly, on June 6, 2017, Major David Manlun of the Army’s 1st Naga Regiment, who was on deputation to the 164th Territorial Army, a civilian and three militants were killed during an encounter in an area between Lapa Lempong and Oting villages near the Tizit Subdivision of Mon District in Nagaland, along the India-Myanmar border. Three troopers were also critically injured in the encounter. Following information about the presence of militants belonging to the ULFA-I and NSCN-K in the area, SFs launched an operation, during which they were targeted. Army sources disclosed that the militants had sneaked in from Myanmar into Mon District to carry out attacks against Army personnel. Two AK-56 rifles, an AK-47 rifle, nine magazines, 277 rounds of ammunition, two hand grenades, four mobile handsets, medicines, blankets, sharp weapons and other warlike stores were recovered from the encounter site.
More worryingly, activities like extortion and illegal ‘tax collection’, which provide the oxygen for the survival for these militant formations remain widespread. On April 26, 2017, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested three senior officials of the Nagaland Government for their alleged role in large-scale extortion and illegal ‘tax collection’ on behalf of the NSCN-K from various Government Departments. On August 1, 2016, NIA registered a case following the arrest of an NSCN-K militant, S. Khetoshe Sumi, from Dimapur on July 31, 2016. The subsequent probe revealed that at least 12 Government departments in the State regularly paid huge amounts of money to members of NSCN-K and other militant organizations, including NSCN-IM, NSCN-R, Naga National Council (NNC), among others. Subsequently, on May 4, 2017, in a statement issued to the media, NSCN-K declared that it would not tolerate any departmental authorities collaborating with NIA and threatened ‘punitive actions’ against those ‘conniving’ with the agency. NSCN-K also asserted that it would continue to levy ‘reasonable and affordable taxes’ on the people for the sustenance of their ‘national struggle’.
There can be no ambiguity in the Government’s strategy to deal with NSCN-K. Any attempt to enter into formal talks with the outfit must be preceded by an unequivocal assurance from the group that it will not engage in armed violence, and any agreement to this effect would need to be implemented in toto on the ground.
* Nijeesh N.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management