The tortuous road to Naga peace

Published : 19 June 2015, 04:44 AM
Updated : 19 June 2015, 04:44 AM

The publicity that surrounds the success of India's 'cross-border' strike against rebels in Myanmar cannot hide the fact that the real failure of Indian intelligence was not in predicting the possible spot of the ambush but in anticipating the emergence of a rebel coalition in the jungles of Myanmar.

After the June 4 ambush in Manipur that left at least 20 soldiers of the Indian Army's 6 Dogra Regiment dead when suspected militants ambushed their convoy in Chandel district bordering Myanmar in Manipur, and the retaliatory transborder raid into Myanmar by Indian para-commandos (21 Para-Regiment — Special Forces), on June 9, the attention is back on the long, tortuous and uncertain Naga peace process.

Since the leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) (NSCN), Thuingaleng Muivah and Issac Chisi Swu, signed the ceasefire with the H.D. Deve Gowda government in 1997 and started negotiations, the peace talks have gone on and on, with round after round of inconclusive negotiations. There were suggestions recently that a final solution might be in sight and that may have provoked those left out of the process into striking back. But the secrecy shrouding the Naga peace process only complicates it further and makes it difficult to speculate on when there will be an end to India's longest running ethnic insurrection.

Dialogue and division

The sheer duration of these negotiations does point to the complexities involved in trying to settle the Naga insurgency, but many critics of the Indian decision-making process have also suggested that New Delhi is trying to wear down the rebel leaders in a battle of attrition since the limited tactical advantages of keeping the Naga rebels off the battlefield have been achieved by the ceasefire. Some have also said that the ceasefire and the political dialogue have helped India further divide the Naga rebels, pointing to the talks with the Muivah faction and the refusal to talk with the Khaplang faction despite a ceasefire with his group. That, many would say, is what finally provoked Khaplang, a warlord, to renege on the ceasefire and form the rebel coalition, the United National Liberation Front of West South East Asia (UNLFWSEA), with motley rebel factions like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) (Independent), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) (Songjibit) and the KLA (Jibon).

Like Khaplang's faction, these other groups are splinters of the original movements. Their factional rivals are already talking to India and New Delhi treats them as principals. These rebel chieftains who are holed up in the remote jungles of Myanmar's Sagaing division are treated as marginals. Khaplang was under pressure for the last few years from New Delhi for providing shelter to these other Northeast Indian rebel groups. Home Ministry mandarins insist that this was a breach of trust on the part of Khaplang. But in the 1990s, former Home Minister L.K. Advani had clearly said that Khaplang is a Myanmarese national and that India cannot negotiate with him. While that is a valid position if one were to go by legalese, how can one expect Khaplang to just maintain a ceasefire when he knows that New Delhi will never call him for talks, let alone treat him as an equal to Muivah and Issac? On the other hand, the Myanmarese Naga rebel leader has seen his Indian Naga comrades break away to form splinter groups with whom India has promptly signed or negotiated a ceasefire. First it was Khole Konyak and Khitovi Zhimomi; now it is Wangting and Thikhak. The first faction calls itself NSCN (K-K), while the second calls itself NSCN (Reformation). These factions may now be offered to accept a deal India may have finalised with the Muivah-Issac group in an attempt to make it look like a settlement with all NSCN factions who represent "Indian Nagas".

Sending out a message

Khaplang on the warpath again is partly dictated by his urge to end his isolation in the jungles of Myanmar, if only to remind New Delhi that he cannot be ignored — a point he seeks to make by getting together all those in the Northeast who still intend to fight India. His one-time comrades, Wangting and Thikhak, blame Paresh Barua, an activist with ULFA, for "manipulating" Khaplang into reneging on the ceasefire. Barua has steadfastly remained on a separatist course even after the ULFA was decimated in Bangladesh after a crackdown by the Sheikh Hasina government and by periodic desertions.

So, though the ULFA of today is not much of a fighting force, its leader emerges as the glue for a rebel coalition in Myanmar's jungles because of his track record of leading an armed struggle through unending adversity. The other factions which have joined up with Khaplang in UNLFWSEA are also motley groups capable of occasional hits here and there. But it is the "working relations" of UNLFWSEA with the powerful Meitei rebel groups like the United National Liberation Front (UNLF) and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) (who have not joined Khaplang's coalition) that makes the anti-India platform in Myanmar's jungles such a worrying proposition for New Delhi. Khaplang's faction admitted in the post-June 4 ambush press release that the other two Meitei groups, KYKL and KCP, had joined his fighters to pull off the ambush in Chandel.

Missing the big picture

So, the real failure of Indian intelligence was not in predicting the possible spot of the ambush but in anticipating the emergence of a rebel coalition in the jungles of Myanmar. The first step in that direction was taken by Khaplang when he signed a truce with Myanmar's Thein Sein government, one of the 14 rebel groups in Myanmar to strike a ceasefire deal with it. Having secured that ceasefire, Khaplang has ensured that his bases in Sagaing will be protected from the occasional raids by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army). Even after the attacks on Indian forces by Khaplang's fighters in the last two months, the Myanmar government has not broken off the truce with his faction. For the Myanmarese Army which has to battle half-a-dozen powerful home-grown insurgencies at any given point of time, tackling the Kachin or the Kokang guerrillas is a bigger priority, not Khaplang. After the June 9 raid by India, Paresh Barua reiterated that his rebel coalition had "not faced any problems in Myanmar so far".

The second phase of forming that coalition was in extensive negotiations between the constituents. Now, reports about these negotiations have been trickling out of Myanmar off and on. They have been reported in the Northeast Indian media but not picked by the big media guns in faraway Delhi. This is what Indian intelligence seems to have largely missed out. The way the fighters of Khaplang slowly trickled out of their Indian camps in the rundown to the breakdown of the ceasefire was completely missed, despite alerts sounded to Indian intelligence by factional rivals. Then came the actual breakdown of the ceasefire but New Delhi was not concerned because it felt the Myanmarese Naga rebel leader had been isolated and confined to his lair in the jungles of Myanmar. They underestimated his strike power on Indian soil.

The Indian response

The Indian reply after the rebel violence has also been hasty and ill-conceived. The Indian Army was under pressure from top decision makers to hit back immediately, to make a political point of a "strong India which will not tolerate terrorism". The Indian Army chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag, was keen on striking back, but after careful planning. Under pressure, all that he could do was to plan two hits on rebel bases on the border or slightly inside it. These locations were chosen not because they had a lot of rebel fighters but because these were rebel bases and could be hit with smaller forces to make a political point that India will go after its enemies. The raids have made much less of an actual impact than was initially suggested by an gung-ho media, joined by a battery of retired soldiers and security officials baying for rebel blood.

The Nagaland Chief Minister, T.R. Zeliang, made a telling point in a recent interview when he said that the Centre has never kept his government in the picture over the breakdown of the ceasefire with Khaplang. Mr. Zeliang said it was possible to have reasoned with Khaplang through Naga civil society against breaking off the ceasefire. After 60 years of brutal conflict, the Nagas have got used to the peace dividend since 1997. Naga civil society groups, which have grown in stature, have ensured that the rebels do not go back to the jungles even if they were upset with the long, unending negotiations with India. Mr. Zeliang thus made a telling point — using the doves of peace to fight the dogs of war. But involving the States in the complex peace negotiations like those with the Naga rebel factions is yet to become a feature of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "cooperative federalism". He is yet to get over the hush-hush hangover of his Congress predecessors when it comes to peacemaking with underground rebel groups. As the leaks after the transborder raids into Myanmar seem to indicate, the government is keen on greater secrecy in peacemaking than in war-making.

(Subir Bhaumik, a former BBC Correspondent, is the author of the books on the Northeast, Insurgent Crossfire and Troubled Periphery.)

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher