The Naga rebels in Myanmar have been in a state of flux since the death of leader Khaplang, in red tie, in June 2017. Photo: Rajeev Bhattacharyya

The Myanmar Army has taken control of the headquarters of the ethnic Naga rebels in the country’s northwest – without either side firing a shot. 

 The rebels, formally known as the National Socialist Council of Nagaland – Khaplang (NSCN-K), are located in Taga, a small village west of the Chindwin River within the Naga Self-Administered Zone in Sagaing Region. 

The Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, had accused the NSCN-K of violating a ceasefire deal by harboring Indian insurgents within its territory. But the group denied the charges. The rebels said they expect the army to withdraw its troops peacefully to maintain the ceasefire.

The NSCN-K is an ethnic armed group made up of mainly Burmese Nagas. It has sought to carve out an independent homeland known as ‘Nagalim’ on areas in western Myanmar and northeast India inhabited by Naga people. The group is currently in a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw by virtue of a regional-level bilateral agreement signed in April 2012. But it is also officially at war with the Indian government following the abrogation of its ceasefire deal with New Delhi in 2015.

A file pic of Naga insurgents in northwest Myanmar in October 2018.

The NSCN-K was formed in 1988 after one of its founder-leaders, Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, fell out with his fellow Indian Naga rebel leaders, Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah, and violently broke away from the principal outfit, NSCN. Swu and Muivah continued to run their own faction in India, the NSCN (I-M), while Khaplang crossed over to Myanmar and formed his own group.

The NSCN-K today controls an autonomous political unit in northern Sagaing Region, known as the Government of People’s Republic of Nagaland.

The recent Tatmadaw occupation of the NSCN-K headquarters is not an entirely unforeseen development. It comes during a period of flux within the outfit that began with the death of Khaplang in June 2017 and the tremors that followed in its wake.

Following the veteran leader’s demise, the outfit appointed Khango Konyak – an Indian Naga and old-time aide of Khaplang – as its chairman. Meanwhile, the longstanding status quo between the NSCN-K and the Tatmadaw had begun to show signs of breakdown.

Reports in the Indian media early last year indicated the Myanmar government and Tatmadaw were pressuring the outfit to sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and choking its cross-border supply routes. Sustained diplomatic pressure from New Delhi was believed to be behind these unprecedented moves. Previously the Tatmadaw had not bothered the Burmese Nagas.

In July 2018, a minor ‘altercation’ between the NSCN-K and the Tatmadaw was reported. It came just a few days after the group attended, as observers, the Myanmar government’s third peace forum, the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

After the conference, Myanmar government spokesperson Zaw Htay told the media the NSCN-K would not be allowed to sign the NCA since they are firm on their demand for an independent Naga homeland, a stance the group openly asserted three months later.

But in August 2018 the outfit was hit by another abrupt leadership change, as the People’s Council impeached new chairman Konyak for allegedly showing authoritarian impulses. He was replaced by Khaplang’s Burmese nephew Yung Aung.

Indian Nagas leave

Following this, Konyak, plus former NSCN-K commander Isak Sumi and other junior Indian Naga leaders from the outfit, crossed to India and formally joined the peace process with New Delhi on 29 January 2019. This, in many ways, marks the final break between the Burmese and Indian Naga rebels within NSCN-K, a convenient arrangement for both the Indian and Myanmar governments.

A map showing where northeast India meets Myanmar. Image: Facebook

For New Delhi, the separation of the Indian Naga rebel leaders from the NSCN-K and their integration into the formal peace process in India means that it does not have to directly deal with NSCN-K anymore. And the voluntary entry of Konyak and Sumi – two militant leaders India had been pursuing for a long time – into negotiations bolsters the government’s credibility before it goes to an election in a few months.

For the Myanmar government, the departure of the Indian Nagas could ease the process of drawing the NSCN-K into the Nationwide  Ceasefire Agreement. A more homogenous Burmese Naga outfit is more likely to drop the demand for a transborder sovereign Naga homeland and ultimately join the civilian government-led peace process in return for greater autonomy. The presence of Indian Nagas, who were insistent on independence – was believed to be a roadblock in this regard.

Thus, the timing of the recent takeover of its camps is not surprising. With Konyak gone and formally integrated into the Indian peace process, this is a strategically opportune moment for the Myanmar government to flex its muscles before a weaker NSCN-K.

Much will depend on how the new younger chief, Yung Aung, sees the situation and builds consensus within the outfit. Unlike the veteran Khaplang, who came from the original Naga nationalist hearth, Aung might be more willing to make concessions with the Myanmar government to ensure lasting peace and stability.

What is clear is that the outfit, with all its firepower and leverage, is not seeking a full-blown war with the much more powerful and battle-hardened Tatmadaw.

ULFA camps also seized

India, however, still has to deal with the Indian insurgents that are based in NSCN-K territory under the banner of the supra-group, the United National Liberation Front of Western Southeast Asia (UNLFW). This includes the Paresh Baruah faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), a banned separatist militant group from Assam that is now attempting to ratchet up recruitment in light of fresh ethno-political unrest in Northeast India.

Notably, the Myanmar army also seized camps belonging to the ULFA and other Indian insurgent groups during its operations in Sagaing earlier this month. However, Baruah remains at large, as do other senior leaders of his faction. But, with the takeover of NSCN-K camps, the smaller Indian groups are bound to retreat, scale down their strategic presence, or even flee Sagaing.

Despite the peaceful nature of the recent takeover by the Tatmadaw, there is cause for concern. Some fear the move could mark the start of a protracted escalation that could potentially destabilize not just Naga regions in northwestern Myanmar, but also the sensitive India-Myanmar border that runs close to the occupied camps.

For the Myanmar government, which is already dealing with insurgencies in neighboring Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, this is an avoidable prospect. Thus, dialogue and reconciliation must prevail over reckless military action and unnecessary belligerence.

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