An Opening To Lasting Peace? What Khaplang’s Death Means For Nagaland

  • Shangwang Shanyung Khaplang’s death could now make it easier for New Delhi to reach out to his successor, Khonga Konyak. The Modi government should move fast, because each day lost by New Delhi, is a day gained by Beijing. 
  • Jaideep MazumdarTuesday, June 13, 2017 10:42 am IST
    Shangwang Shanyung Khaplang (Twitter.com/@ranjibkumarsarm)
    Shangwang Shanyung Khaplang (Twitter.com/@ranjibkumarsarm)

    The passing away of Shangwang Shanyung Khaplang, who headed his own faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), presents not only an opportunity, but also a grave challenge for India.

    Khaplang’s nationality, he was a Myanmarese, prevented New Delhi from holding direct talks with him and treating him at par with his arch rivals - Isak Chisi Swu and Thuiganleng Muivah, who headed the other faction of the NSCN.

    Khaplang’s death could now make it easier for New Delhi to reach out to his successor Khonga Konyak and Niki Sumi, the military chief of the NSCN (Khaplang) who is said to be the one actually calling the shots in the outfit.

    But there is some concern as well. Intelligence reports state that sections of the Chinese establishment that backs Paresh Barua, the elusive chief of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) (ULFA-I), want him to head the United Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (UNFWSA) that Khaplang had formed.

    Apart from Khaplang’s own outfit (the NSCN-K), the ULFA-I, the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), theNational Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction) (NDFB-S) and CorCom (an umbrella group of seven Manipur proscribed terrorist outfits) are constituents of the UNFWSA that Khaplang formed in mid-2015.

    Khaplang’s Role and History

    Khaplang was a father figure to all the members to these terror groups and offered safe sanctuary to them in the jungles of his native Sagaing region of northwestern Myanmar (see this map) where the writ of the Myanmarese army never ran. Born in 1940 in Waktham village in Kachin state (under Myanmar’s Sagaing division which borders both India and China), Khaplang belonged to the Hemi tribe which inhabited large parts of Kachin state. Kachin, a remote and heavily forested part of Myanmar (then Burma) opened to the world with the construction of the Stilwell Road (also called the Ledo Road) connecting Assam to Kunming in China during World War II.

    This opening up to the world also triggered many ethnic movements among the people of Myanmar’s backward northern provinces. Naga nationalism — a movement for a separate nation for the Nagas staying in India and Myanmar — had already taken hold and in 1945, the Naga National Council (NNC), the precursor to the NSCN, was born. The concept of Nagalim comprising the present-day state of Nagaland, the Naga-inhabited areas of the neighbouring states of Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and the Naga areas of Myanmar (see map) was gaining ground and in 1964, Khaplang formed the Naga Defence Force which he merged with the Eastern Naga Revolutionary Council the next year.

    Khaplang came into prominence then by extending valuable help to NNC cadres and leaders to pass through Myanmar on their way to China to receive arms training. He got close to Thuingaleng Muivah, the then general secretary of the NNC, who he helped during his journeys to and from China. The Shillong Accord of 1975 that brought an end to Naga insurgency created a severe rift within the NNC with Muivah and Isak Chisi Swu criticising the accord for being a sell-out. Khapland joined the anti-Accord group and, along with Swu and Muivah, formed the NSCN.

    Khaplang’s importance lay in the fact that being a native of Myanmar and the undisputed leader of the Myanmarese Nagas, he had vast tracts of remote, forested areas in that country under his control. And those areas provided the perfect sanctuary for the Naga rebels. China also found it useful to impart arms training to the Naga rebels within Myanmar rather than its own territory. But Khaplang was also acutely aware of the fact that he was a Myanmarese national and many of the Naga tribes in India did not consider him to be a Naga. And, thus, he was deeply suspicious of the Indian Naga leaders like Swu and Muivah who, Khaplang thought, would cut a peace deal with New Delhi and leave him in the lurch.

    NSCN Split And Thereafter

    In early-1988, Khaplang started believing rumours that Muivah ad Swu were negotiating a secret peace deal with then Nagaland Chief Minister Hokishe Sema. Incensed with having been left out as he had always suspected he would be, Khaplang sanctioned an attack on NSCN cadres loyal to Swu and Muivah in April that year. The NSCN rebels were lodged in camps in Myanmarese territory under the control of Khaplang. Nearly 200 NSCN rebels were reportedly killed in the massacre and Muivah himself narrowly escaped the carnage.

    The NSCN thus split with Isak becoming the chairman and Muivah the general secretary to their faction (called the NSCN-IM) while Khaplang headed his own faction (NSCN-K) as its chairman. Swu and Muivah, denied sanctuary in Myanmar, were forced to shift their base to Thailand. While the NSCN-IM became the dominant faction of the terror group, the NSCN-K also remained potent and controlled some districts like Mon, Tuensang and Kiphire districts of Nagaland bordering Myanmar (see map), Tirap and Changlang of Arunachal Pradesh, and parts of Chandel district of Manipur, besides his native Sagaing division of Myanmar.

    While the NSCN (IM) entered into a ceasefire with the Government of India in July 1997 (and has been in talks with New Delhi ever since), Khaplang entered into a ceasefire in 1998 (it was formalised only in 2001. New Delhi also started talks simultaneously with NSCN(K) representatives. But while the talks with the NSCN(IM) progressed, nothing much was achieved in the talks with the Khaplang group since New Delhi rejected Khaplang’s demand for holding talks directly with him in his turf in Kachin. New Delhi also said it could not hold peace talks formally with a foreign national and insisted that only those leaders of the NSCN(K) who were Indians would be able to sign an eventual peace accord.

    These, and some other factors, led to Khaplang abrogating the ceasefire in 2015 and the formation of the ULFWSA. Khaplang followed up the abrogation with a deadly attack on an Indian army convoy at Chandel in Manipur on June 4, 2015, that cost the lives of more than 20 Indian Army soldiers. This attack led to a surgical strike by army commandos inside Myanmar within a week that resulted in the killing of 38 Naga terrorists belonging to the NSCN(K). But the NSCN(K) has been keeping up its attacks on Indian security forces in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, often in concert with the other terror outfits of the region. The latest ‘action’ between the security forces and the NSCN(K) was the ambush on an Indian army team in Mon district on June 7 in which an army Major lost his life.

    Khaplang As ‘Godfather’

    Even before the split in the NSCN, Khaplang had been taking advantage of his geographical position to offer safe havens to many terror groups of Northeast India. The jungles of Sagaing are close to the border with India and apart from providing safe shelter to the cadres of the various terror groups, they were also perfect for imparting training in arms and guerilla warfare. And the area is also close to China, which has always been more than eager to help the terror groups with arms and training.

    Khaplang, of course, did not offer safe haven to the cadres of other terror groups like the ULFA(I), the KLO, the NDFB (S) and the CorCom out of any altruism; his reasons were quite mercenary-like. Khaplang had been charging a lot of money for providing his territory in Myanmar to the terror groups. He was also the conduit for Chinese arms that were being supplied to the groups. All this brought him huge financial gains, with which he not only bought arms and the loyalty of the local people, but also to get his immediate family and close relatives settled comfortably in a western country. Khaplang is also reported to built a modest business empire in a Southeast Asian country.

    Paresh Barua

    The hardline chief of the ULFA(I), who has been sheltered by the Chinese in Riulli town in that country’s Yunnan province, has emerged as a strong claimant for the post of Chairman of the ULFWSA after Khaplang’s death. China is keen to install Barua as the ULFWSA chief since that would provide Beijing a strong lever to control the most potent terror groups of Northeast India like the NSCN(K), the ULFA(I), the seven outfits that make the CorCom and the NDFB(S).

    China is keen to control the NSCN(K) which, after Khalpang’s death, is well inclined to smoke the peace pipe with New Delhi. With the talks between the Government of India and the NSCN(IM) nearing fruition, China is worried that if the NSCN(K) also starts talking to New Delhi, peace will dawn on a restive part of India. With Barua as head of the ULFWSA, Beijing calculates it could control the NSCN(K) and keep it away from re-entering into a ceasefire and starting peace talks with the Government of India.

    China is also keen on strengthening the KLO (which is fighting for a Kamtapur state comprising North Bengal and adjoining parts of Assam) and using it to create trouble in the strategic and vulnerable chicken's neck corridor or Siliguri corridor (in the northern part of West Bengal) that connects Northeast India with the rest of the country. The Siliguri corridor has many strategic assets like army and Indian Air Force bases and any trouble in this region caused by the KLO would be beneficial to China. China would gain a valuable strategic leverage over India in that case. Beijing is thus keen on having its own man, Paresh Barua, as head to ULFWSA to thus gain greater control over the KLO.

    China is keen on Barua attending Khaplang’s funeral at Taga in Sagaing division and Chinese operatives are said to be working on this. Barua’s presence at Taga would ensure that the post-funeral meetings of the ULFWSA leadership would play out as per the script dictated by Beijing.

    The challenge for New Delhi now is to bring the NSCN(K) to the talks table and slowly weaken the ULFWSA. With a weak ULFWSA, the ULFA(I) and the NDFB(S) will also decline in strength and clout. The KLO can also be easily tackled if the ULFWSA grows weak. As for the CorCom, the slew of development and peace initiatives unleashed by the new BJP-led coalition government in Manipur is bound to weaken militancy in the state and draw the terror groups slowly to peace talks. For all this to happen, it is imperative to keep Paresh Barua from becoming the chairman of the ULFWSA.

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