End of separatist ceasefire vexes India’s Myanmar ties

By Dr. Sudha Ramachandran

India’s plans for overland trade with ASEAN countries have been thrown into some uncertainty with its ceasefire agreement with the Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K) coming to an end. Among the major militant groups in the Northeastern Indian state of Nagaland, the NSCN-K announced abrogation of the 14-year-long ceasefire on March 28. A month later, the government while renewing the truce with the NSCN-K’s main rivals, the NSCN-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) and the NSCN-Khole-Kitovi (NSCN-KK), did not extend the agreement with the Khaplang faction.

The NSCN-K is expected to escalate violence in the coming months as it trains its guns on the Indian security forces and its rivals. In a sign of things to come, it killed eight soldiers in an ambush last week, its second major attack in a month. India’s overland trade plans with Southeast Asia especially that via the Nagaland stretch of the Indo-Myanmar border could be hit if Nagaland, which has been relatively quiet since the late 1990s, returns to violence.

The Naga struggle for an independent Nagalim (Greater Nagaland) consisting of Naga-inhabited areas in India as well as Myanmar goes back to the mid-1940s. For at least three decades thereafter the movement was led by the Naga Nationalist Council (NNC). When the NNC entered into an accord with the Indian government in 1975, younger rebels like Thuingaleng Muivah, Isak Chishi Swu and S S Khaplang left it to form the NSCN in 1980.  Eight years later the NSCN split into the Isak-Muivah faction and the Khaplang faction.

The government entered into truce agreements with the NSCN-IM in 1997 and the NSCN-K in 2001. While it has been engaging in talks with the NSCN-IM, the NSCN-K was excluded. The government’s selective approach to negotiations is widely believed to be behind the NSCN-K’s frustration-fueled belligerence.

A Hemi Naga from Myanmar’s Sagaing division, Khaplang is based in Myanmar. Since he has been “holed up” in Myanmar for years he is “out of touch with the situation in Nagaland” and the “public mood in favor of peace and reconciliation,” an NSCN-K fighter-turned-social activist says. This has been a long-running cause of tension within the NSCN-K between the Myanmar-headquartered leadership and the India-based commanders and cadres.

In March, the NSCN-K split vertically – the second major one since the 2001 ceasefire – on the question of continuing the ceasefire. Its India-based leaders Wangtin Naga and P Tikhak, who were in favor of continuing the ceasefire, were expelled. The two have since gone on to form a new group, the NSCN-Reformation and have signed a truce agreement with the government.

Over the years, Khaplang has provided sanctuary, training and other support to several anti-India militant groups, including the United Liberation Front of Assam (Independence) (ULFA-I) and the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (Songbijit faction). Four years ago, the NSCN-K brought together several of these anti-India groups to form a joint front, the United National Liberation Front of West South East Asia (UNLFW), which Khaplang heads. According to reports, it plans to announce a government-in-exile later this year.

The Indian security forces cannot weaken the NSCN-K without the support of Myanmar’s military. The two sides have co-operated in the past in counter-insurgency operations. Joint operations were carried out, which saw Myanmar’s military shut down camps run by anti-India militants on its soil. But will it do so now?

In 2012, the NSCN-K signed a truce agreement with the Tatmadaw to become the only Naga group with ceasefire agreements with two governments. Will the Myanmar military want to jeopardize its ceasefire with the NSCN-K by raiding its camps?

After all, much is at stake for the Myanmar military. There has been no fighting between its forces and the NSCN-K since the truce was reached. Besides, Khaplang runs several lucrative businesses from his territory in Myanmar. Gold mining, for instance, takes place near his headquarters, a business in which the Tatmadaw too have stakes.

Will the Tatmadaw sacrifice these benefits to help India weaken Khaplang?

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be reached at sudha.ramachandran@live.in

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