During the demarcation of the India-Burma (now Myanmar) border in Nagaland in the 1970s, nine wives of the Longwa village angh (king) woke up one morning to find themselves in Burma. The angh had 20 wives, and only 11 of them were left living in India. While the Longwa village may be an extreme case, the tale is a good reminder that the Naga areas of Myanmar and India, just as within India across Manipur and Nagaland, are contiguous and inhabited by the same people. A solution to the Naga problem thus needs a coordinated effort from both India and Myanmar.
The Nagaland insurgency goes back to 1956, when Angami Zapu Phizo of Naga National Council (NNC) rebelled for an independent Naga state. New Delhi took the 1975 Shillong Accord, signed between the representatives of the NNC-Federal Government and the Government of India, as the final political settlement of the Naga problem. But elements within the NNC were divided over the Shillong Agreement and its acceptance of the Indian constitution. This resulted in the formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), with Isak Swu as the chairman, Khaplang as the vice-chairman, and Muivah as the general secretary.
In early 1988, New Delhi offered to hold talks with Muivah within the framework of the Indian Constitution. Although Muivah rejected the offer, rumours gained ground that Swu and Muivah had sold out — they were planning to oust Khaplang and surrender in India. Amidst the controversy, Khaplang’s cadres and Burmese troops attacked Muivah’s group, killing 140 of them. This resulted in a vertical split of NSCN into the Isak-Muivah (NSCN-IM) and Khaplang (NSCN-K) factions of the NSCN.
The NSCN-IM, which entered into a ceasefire with New Delhi in August 1997 and has been in talks since, is headquartered at Niuland in Dimapur district of Nagaland, while NSCN-K is headquartered in Myanmar (called Eastern Nagaland by the rebels). NSCN-K signed a separate ceasefire agreement with New Delhi in 2003 but has not held a dialogue with the Indian government. In India,the Naga rebels are present in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, where the NSCN-IM faction is more powerful, while in northern Myanmar, the groups loyal to NSCN-K dominate an area estimated to be four times the Nagaland state.
On April 9, NSCN-K leader Wangtin Naga signed a five-point ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government at Khamti in Sagaing province. NSCN-K has managed to extract some concessions by getting a ceasefire office at Khamti in northwest Myanmar and promises for developing roads, bridges and schools in the districts under self-administration. Incidentally, Wangtin became the first Indian rebel leader to sign an official peace deal with another country.
The Khamti truce was discussed during Indian home secretary’s visit to Myanmar in February this year. By signing the deal, NSCN-K has recognised the Myanmar government and this strengthens Delhi’s case of finding a solution to the Naga problem within the Indian constitution. As per Sudeep Chakravarti, there is a unwritten corollary deal in Khamti pact, by which NSCN-K will cease to offer support and sanctuary in Myanmar to two key Manipuri rebel groups, the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the People’s Liberation Army(PLA). Meanwhile, New Delhi also delayed its extension of ceasefire with NSCN-K by a week to May 3 till the group agreed to withdraw his support to Assam and Manipur-based insurgent groups in Myanmar.
If implemented, this will have a huge impact on the internal security environment not only in the Northeast but across India. While ULFA, PLA and UNLF and others have utilised NSCN-K’s camps in Myanmar, PLA is known to route arms either from China or from SE Asia through the Myanmar border for various rebel outfits. PLA had also signed a joint declaration with the Maoists in 2008, and had dealt with slain Maoist leader Kishenji to provide arms, ammunition and training to Maoists cadre in central India.
Most Indians tend to underestimate the strategic importance of India’s Northeastern region, which shares a 4,500 km-long international border with China, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Lasting peace in the region will have immense security benefits across India. More importantly, it will transform the Northeast from a barrier to a bridge, a shift that will impact the geo-economics and geopolitics of India, China and Southeast Asia.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review