By Rupak Bhattacharjee*
The death of National Socialist Council of Nagalim (K) Chairman Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang has added a new twist to the protracted Naga problem. Khaplang was one of the strongest insurgent leaders in India’s North East and Upper Myanmar region. He established his own territory in Saigaing division of Myanmar fighting against Myanmarese and Indian armed forces. The elusive Naga leader died on June 9, 2017 at Taga in Myanmar, the GHQ of NSCN (K), after a prolonged illness.
Unlike other Naga leaders, Khaplang was a Hemi Naga from Myanmar. The 77 year-old leader had a strong influence in Myanmar’s Saigaing division, where several North Eastern militant groups, including United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) or ULFA (I), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbojit) or NDFB (S) and Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO) took shelter under his patronage.
A number of Meitei militant outfits of Manipur maintained their bases in the region under Khaplang’s supervision. Security analysts said NSCN (K) supremo’s death would seriously affect all these militant groups operating from Myanmar. Khaplang’s death will also have adverse impact on the source of the outfit’s funding. Reports say Khaplang used to run a flourishing arms racket and other illicit businesses.
In an effort to resolve the Naga problem, an agreement was signed between Naga National Council (NNC) and the union government in 1975, referred to as the Shillong Accord. But Khaplang, along with Thuingaleng Muivah and Issak Chisi Swu vehemently opposed the pact and decided to continue the armed struggle to achieve sovereignty for the Nagas. The trio formed NSCN on January 31, 1980. However, Khaplang split and launched his own group NSCN (K) in May 1988 following serious political differences with Muivah and Swu.
Like the Issak-Muivah faction (IM), the NSCN (K) ran almost a parallel government in Nagaland and parts of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh for several decades. Both factions of NSCN emerged as the most organised and armed insurgent groups threatening the North East’s peace, stability, security and territorial integrity. The NSCN (K) entered a ceasefire agreement with the Centre in 2001, but unilaterally abrogated it on March 28, 2015, citing the issue of sovereignty. Following this, the Centre banned the NSCN (K) in 2016 by a special notification.
Khaplang was a hardliner opposing peace talks with New Delhi. So his death is an irreparable loss for the anti-Indian groups based in Myanmar. Reports say Vice-chairman Khango Konyak, who belongs to Nagaland’s Mon district bordering Myanmar, was made the interim head of the outfit immediately after Khaplang’s death. It remains to be seen whether Khaplang’s successor Konyak is more aggressive than him. The future of insurgency in North East will depend on the ability of the outfit’s new leadership to cope with the challenges thrown by Khaplang’s death and the nature of relationship between the Naga rebel group and the other ethnic militant outfits operating from Myanmar.
Intelligence agencies maintain that Khaplang’s death will erode the base of the North-Eastern militants in Myanmar as he had close links with the local administration and population especially Nagas. After the eviction of the anti-Indian insurgent groups from Bhutan and Bangladesh, Myanmar became their key base under the patronage of Khaplang.
His death is also likely to give some respite to the security forces engaged in counter-insurgency operations in North East for the time being.
Khaplang played an instrumental role in bringing four militant groups, ULFA (I), NDFB (S), KLO and his own NSCN (K) under a common platform called United Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (ULFWSEA), which stepped up attacks on security personnel in Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Now the major challenge before Khaplang’s successor Konyak will be to maintain unity of the ULFWSEA.
Khaplang was the undisputed leader of the Nagas of Myanmar and regarded as a father figure by the North Eastern rebel groups sheltered in his territory. Reports suggest that these groups want a Naga to lead the ULFWSEA. Though Konyak has taken charge of NSCN (K) after Khaplang, his ability to lead the umbrella organisation consisting of diverse ethnic groups is questionable. The leadership issue will take some time to settle.
The death of an influential Naga rebel leader like Khaplang has the potential to change North-East’s insurgency scenario. It has created a fresh opportunity for the Centre and the Nagaland government to reach out to the new leadership of NSCN (K) to resume peace talks. A day after Khaplang’s death, Minister of State for Home Affairs Khiren Rijiju said all NSCN (K) cadres, who are Indian citizens, would be rehabilitated if they abjure violence and respect the country’s Constitution.
He said the rebels should take advantage of the Centre’s rehabilitation package and return to the mainstream. He further said that without the leadership of Khaplang, who was “heart and soul” of the NSCN (K), the outfit will be in “disarray”. The Centre’s initiative assumes significance as the Indian security forces have been facing lot of difficulties in Nagaland, east of Arunachal, hill districts of Manipur and Upper Assam due the presence of heavily armed cadres of NSCN (K). The outfit’s cadre strength is reported to be nearly 500. Many have been engaged in extortion and other subversive activities in these areas.
The Nagaland government has taken a number of steps to resolve the Naga crisis. On June 14, the ruling Naga People’s Front (NPF), an alliance partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), appealed NSCN (K) leaders to re-engage in a peace dialogue with the Centre.
The hardline Naga militant group’s possibility of joining the peace process will largely depend on the assessment of ground realities by its leaders from Myanmar. Reports indicate that the NSCN (K) controls at least four townships in Upper Myanmar, also called Eastern Nagaland. In 2012, the outfit signed a ceasefire agreement with the regional administration of Myanmar. Since then, there has not been any armed clash between the two sides.
The Indian government is closely monitoring developments related to Khaplang’s succession. The government could take concrete steps to bring peace in Nagaland and adjoining Naga-inhabited areas of North-East if the rebel outfit is headed by an Indian Naga instead of one from Myanmar. The government would like to see an Indian Naga taking charge of the NSCN (K) since it “can only talk to Indian citizen and about only Indian territory”. Such initiative may materialise as majority of NSCN (K) cadres are Indian Nagas.
In a significant development on June 20, the NSCN (K) elected Konyak as its chairman. Konyak, who had undergone arms training in China in 1977, became vice-chairman of the outfit in 2011. The government is currently focusing on Khaplang’s successor Konyak to make the Naga peace process more meaningful even though he pledged to carry forward his predecessor’s “unfulfilled task”.
It will be interesting to watch how New Delhi deals with the North-East’s insurgency and the Myanmar-based militant outfits’ efforts to realign themselves in the coming months.
*The author is an independent analyst on India’s Northeast and Southeast Asia. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]