Looking East

Myanmar in New Delhi's Naga Riddle

06 Oct, 2015    ·   4920

Wasbir Hussain looks at why there can be no piecemeal solution to as tricky a problem as insurgency in a region that has porous international borders

Wasbir Hussain
Wasbir Hussain
Visiting Fellow

By abrogating a 14-year-long ceasefire and turning its guns once again on the Indian security forces, the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) has robbed New Delhi of its happiness over the signing of an otherwise vague ‘framework agreement’ with the rival Isak-Muivah-led NSCN group (NSCN-IM). Not only has the NSCN-K emerged as a spoke in the Naga peace process, it is also threatening to sour India-Myanmar relations, pulled back on track by New Delhi with much difficulty in the past few years.

Currently, Myanmar is actively engaged in peace talks with the NSCN-K whose cadres straddle the densely wooded international border at a time when New Delhi has clamped a ban on the rebel group. Naypyidaw’s decision to hold talks with the NSCN-K - the last round held as recently as 16 September - is part of President Thein Sein government’s bid to clinch a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) with more than 15 ethnic rebel armies ahead of the 8 November national elections in Myanmar. The NSCN-K already has a bilateral understanding amounting to a truce with the quasi-military government, reached in April 2012, but if the outfit now comes to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement, along with other ethnic rebel groups in Myanmar, it would lead to a tricky situation for India.

It is now clear the Government of India is not keen to include the NSCN-K in the overall Naga peace process that got a boost when, on 3 August, New Delhi’s interlocutor RN Ravi signed a ‘framework agreement’ with the NSCN-IM in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Coming after a dialogue process that began 18 years ago, the ‘framework agreement’ led to some euphoria in government circles, and was seen as the beginning of a new era in the Naga areas in the Northeast. The Naga civil society, as well as others, immediately realised that there was a need to reserve the euphoria because the NSCN-K, a key Naga insurgent group, and perhaps the most heavily armed at the moment, was already out of the peace process, having abrogated the rather long truce with New Delhi in March.

What cannot be missed is the fact that New Delhi made no effort whatsoever to prevent the NSCN-K from calling off the truce or to address the issues that led the outfit to take such a decision. This is rather surprising because everyone knows there cannot be permanent peace in the Naga areas unless the major Naga insurgent factions are part of the peace process or the eventual peace deal. According to one school of thought, the Centre wanted to sideline the NSCN-K at the behest of the NSCN-IM which argued that it would not be prudent for New Delhi to involve a group headed by a Burmese Naga in any formal peace agreement at any point in time. SS Khaplang, the chairman of the NSCN-K, is a Myanmar national, and so are hundreds of other cadres of the outfit. One would be surprised if this were to be the reason because the truce with the NSCN-K survived 14 long years and Khaplang’s nationality was known to all.

When voices from among the Nagas started getting shriller, with arguments in favour of fresh efforts to get the NSCN-K back on ceasefire mode, New Delhi gave the impression that it had no problem. So, in end-August, a four-member delegation of the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), a frontline Naga women’s group, walked across to Myanmar from Pangsha, in Nagaland’s Tuensang district, and held talks with the NSCN-K leaders. NMA Adviser Rosemary Dzuvichu said after the meeting that the NSCN-K was not averse to reconsidering its decision. But, the turn of events preceding the NMA delegation’s Myanmar visit and after their return clearly indicated that an influential section within the Government of India wanted to pursue a zero-tolerance policy towards the NSCN-K. This naturally gives rise to the question, is New Delhi talking in more than one voice on the Naga peace issue?

Forty-eight hours before the NMA team was to cross over for the talks, Assam Rifles personnel opened fire on a group of civilians and ‘unarmed NSCN-K cadres’ at Pangsha, killing 9 people. The NMA provided details of the incident during a meeting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh. The shootout on the eve of the NMA team’s peace mission did vitiate the atmosphere. But, soon after the NMA team returned, the Union Home Ministry sprung another surprise. The National Investigation Agency (NIA), which reports to the MHA, announced a reward of INR 7 lakh on the head of the 75-year-old NSCN-K chief Khaplang, and another INR 10 lakh on the head of Niki Sumi, another top leader of the outfit. The NIA declared Khaplang and Sumi ‘wanted terrorists’ for killing soldiers in Kohima and later in Manipur’s Chandel district on 4 June where 18 troopers were shot dead.

New Delhi, as per the NIA notice, wanted “reliable information from people about the whereabouts of these hardcore terrorists.” This is funny to say the least because Khaplang is based in Myanmar and his representatives are talking to the Myanmar government on the issue of signing a broad ceasefire agreement with Naypyidaw. Recently, there was a photograph of Khaplang undergoing treatment at a Yangon hospital with a few of his aides attending to him. On 16 September, the Union Peace-making Working Committee (UPWC), a body set up by the Myanmar government to  pursue peace with the country’s ethnic insurgents, met with the NSCN-K at the Myanmar Peace Centre in Yangon. The NSCN-K had earlier attended ceasefire meetings in Myanmar five times as an observer.

So far, the NSCN-K has only had a bilateral understanding with the Myanmar government. Now, if the group comes to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement, it would enter a stronger bond with Naypyidaw. In such an event, the Myanmar government too would be required to stick to the ceasefire ground rules and not indulge in military action against the NSCN-K. In this backdrop, can the Indian Army make forays into Myanmar as it did a few times recently to neutralise the NSCN-K bases inside that country? Can India hope to receive Myanmar’s support in dealing with these rebels in the coming days? Myanmar will be bound after the truce with the ethnic insurgents to prevent any military action in areas dominated by these ethnicities. Certainly, in this scenario, Myanmar will find it difficult to let Indian troops cross over in the days ahead in hot pursuit. This is a new front that New Delhi will have to deal with, a front that will see a tussle between the Indian military and the diplomatic corps. As for the Naga women leaders from the NMA, they are bent on crossing over to Myanmar again, this time to speak to Khaplang himself. “We have informed Home Minister Rajnath Singh. He asked us to go ahead,” an NMA leader said. Well, a bounty, a ban, and then, a go ahead for talks! The turn of events clearly suggests that New Delhi’s peace policy in the Northeast, if there is any, is flawed, to say the least. The moral of the story, simply speaking, is that there can be no piecemeal solution to as tricky a problem as insurgency in a region that has porous international borders.