The well-planned and deadly June 4 attack on an Indian army convoy by the militants of the newly set up United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) masterminded by SS Khaplang was not mitigated by the June 9 controversial cross-border attack by the Indian army on the Myanmar-based militants. India’s current strategy of attempting a solution of the long-lasting Naga insurgency by talking to only one of the stakeholders, (National Socialist Council of Nagaland NSCN-IM) led by Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah and ignoring the NSCN-K led by SS Khaplang, who has long been part of the Naga movement along with NSCN-IM may be considered exclusionary and self-serving.
The undivided NSCN, led by the ‘triadic’ leadership of SS (Shangwang Shangyung) Khaplang, Isak Chisu Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah was set up on January 31 1980 to fight uncompromisingly for “securing the independence of the contiguous Naga-inhabited regions of India and Myanmar.” The Indian and Myanmar Naga territories were thus brought under a single leadership for the first time.
The eponymous Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland (GPRN) along with an armed wing were also to be set up. However, in 1988, when Muivah unilaterally raised the issue of talks with India without informing Khaplang or other important Naga groups, the Khaplang group rebelled and was forced to set up the rival NSCN-K to continue the uncompromising fight for independence and sovereignty.
In 1997, Isak and Muivah (NSCN-IM) opted for ceasefire and negotiations with India within the four corners of the Indian Constitution. Though the Naga movement was indivisible between India and Myanmar with the Nagas of both countries facing similar problems in contiguous areas, Khaplang was sought to be excluded from the negotiations under pressure from the NSCN-IM on the argument was that Isak and Muivah were Indian Nagas while Khaplang was a Myanmar national. The argument defied the fact that Naga social and political life in India and Myanmar cut across international boundaries and that the leadership too was for all practical purposes transnational. This “divide and rule” approach was useful for the Indian authorities since they could avoid discussion of the tougher issue of sovereignty that Khaplang held primary.
On March 27 2015, Khaplang scrapped the tactical ceasefire agreement that he had earlier had with India and resumed violent actions in India’s northeast. He also brought into existence the new political instrument of struggle, the UNLFWSEA, whose militants carried out the devastating June 4 attack on the Indian army convoy in the Chandel district of Manipur. The attack constituted a powerful demonstration of the ability of Khaplang to upset the secret negotiations between India and the NSCN-IM for the resolution of the festering Naga insurgency.
The social and political background of SS Khaplang was brought out by Bertil Lintner in his “Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’ s Most volatile Frontier,” 2012. This is carried forward by Rajeev Bhattacharyya in his “Rendezvous with Rebels, 2014,” a book which calls for separate treatment. The life and work of Khaplang in India and Myanmar and his complicated relationship of cooperation and conflict with his comrades Isak Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah are indeed the stuff of a fascinating drama.
Khaplang was born in 1940 and was baptised in 1955. He went to the Baptist school in Myitkyina in Myanmar. He is said to have spent his early life in Margherita in Assam. No political movement could emerge among Myanmar Nagas till the mid-1960s, given low literacy and absence of a common religion such as Christianity.
Inspired by Kachin rebels, Khaplang and a few other Nagas set up the Naga Defence Force (NDF) in 1964. In 1968, he became leader of the Eastern Naga Revolutionary Council (ENRC). He was then 28 and was reasonably educated. The Naga National Council (NNC) mission to China in the late 1960s led to closer relationship between Khaplang and the Naga leadership from the Indian side of the Myanmar border.
In 1972, ENRC became the Eastern Naga National Council (ENNC) emphasising a new partnership between Indian and Myanmar Nagas. After the Shillong peace accord of 1975, the Indian Naga militants who opposed it, led by Swu and Muivah, were being hunted by the Indian security forces. They needed the support and sanctuary provided by the Khaplang and the Myanmar Nagas who fully cooperated in the setting up of sanctuaries. After a fierce struggle supported by Khaplang, Swu and Muivah established their presence in the then “Burmese” Naga Hills. Khaplang became the vice chairman of the NSCN when it was set up in 1980.
The “Burmese” Naga Hills, a wild and untamed area, came to be called “Eastern Nagaland.” In 1988, Khaplang broke with Swu and Muivah because of ideological differences and the brutality NSCN practised against the less advanced Eastern Nagas. He attacked NSCN headquarters fiercely. Swu and Muivah fled to Manipur and then with the help of leading Assamese rebel group ULFA, settled down in Margherita in Assam till they could return to Nagaland. The old base area across the border from Nagaland remained with Khaplang. In 1991, Khaplang, ever an Indo-Myanmar rebel set up the Indo-Burmese Revolutionary Front (IBRF) indicating his commitment to both India and Myanmar. Indian intelligence agents met NSCN-IM leaders in 1996. A move for a political settlement of the Naga conflict began in 1997 with ceasefire and secret talks in several international venues, which continued for several years culminating in the looming possibility of a final settlement in 2015. Khaplang was isolated but has stuck to his position of no compromise on the issue of sovereignty for the Naga people.
On April 17 2015, SS Khaplang, affectionately called “Baba,” remarkably young at 75 and active in India and Myanmar, set up United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFWSEA) consisting of the region’s multiple rebel groups in the Sagaing Division of Myanmar with a view to waging a united struggle for the liberation of indigenous tribal lands and groups. The Indian intelligence agencies not only failed to anticipate June 4 militant attack on the army convoy in Manipur but also failed to assess the capacity of Khaplang to upset the apple cart of negotiations between India and the NSCN-IM.
The emergence of the new political formation under the wings of Khaplang is likely to cost the government of India heavily. Poor statesmanship in dealing with the Naga insurgency, involving India and Myanmar, stands sharply exposed. The attempt to fracture the NSCN (K) and to weaken its ability to stand up to divisive tactics has proved inadequate. Three splinter groups have emerged: NSCN-K (Unification); (NSCN-Kholey-Khitovi); and NSCN (Reformation) set up by the recently expelled NSCN-K activist and former negotiator with the government Myanmar Wangtin Naga and his colleague P. Thikhak. Khaplang may be a Myanmar national but he has a mixed Indo-Myanmar Naga identity, which it is fool hardy to ignore. He has emerged today not just as the leader of the Indian and Myanmar Nagas but also as the leader and champion of a broader coalition of regional militant forces, which are uniting to fight for independence from India.
Khaplang has concluded a mutually convenient ceasefire with the government of Myanmar, which has accepted his autonomy and authority as the undisputed head of the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagaland (GPRN) in the Sagaing area. NSCN (K) is among the many militant groups who have entered into peace deals with the government of Myanmar ahead of the forthcoming elections in that country described by Bertil Lintner as the ‘cockpit of anarchy’. Khaplang is unlikely to be disturbed by Myanmar in order to please India.
Kadayam Subramanian was Director General of Police in India’s Northeast. He is a writer and scholar and was Director of the Research and Policy Division of the Government of India’s ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi)