S.S. Khaplang’s death reopens Naga Pandemonium Box
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The death last week of S.S. Khaplang, who headed the second largest faction of Naga rebels, has opened what I like to call the Naga Pandemonium Box, by another notch.
Khaplang, chairman of a Myanmar-based faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland, or NSCN (K) died on 9 June. The faction is also influential in northern and eastern Nagaland, and several Naga-majority districts of Arunachal Pradesh. Beside sparking speculation about his successors, Khaplang’s death has thrown open speculation of the faction’s active patronage of numerous rebel groups operating in Northeast India, especially Manipur and parts of Assam; and the possibility of the faction returning to ceasefire with the government of India nearly two-and-a-half years after Khaplang spectacularly, violently jettisoned a ceasefire in place since 2001.
As far as a successor goes, from what I have been able to gather, one likelihood will be to elevate a Naga of the Konyak tribe to a ceremonial elder statesman position of chairman—to balance the large number of Konyak Nagas who form part of the faction’s estimated 1,000-plus band—and retain a Hemi Naga, Khaplang’s people and hosts to the faction’s headquarters in Taga, as chief operating officer, as it were. Leading the run for chairman appears to be Khango Konyak, who was elevated to vice-chairman by Khaplang. But he could be undercut by other Konyak colleagues trusted with the rebel army’s supervisory functions.
Focus will also remain on Niki Sumi, formally a military advisor of the faction, and Khaplang’s trusted arm for carrying out operations. Sumi, of the Sumi, or Sema tribe of Nagaland, was present during Khaplang’s funeral rites on 12 June, saluting his former boss. The flamboyant Sumi was dressed in trademark beret; a thick gold chain around his neck flashed as he saluted, the top buttons of the shirt of his combat fatigues undone. It isn’t clear with whom Sumi will throw in his lot, which power centre he will gauge as his greatest insurance.
All this will become clearer over the next several weeks, including a possibility the faction might implode into one or more breakaways. There is a school of thought that suggests this will not happen: as the relatively small numerical strength of such splintered groups and internecine skirmishing would be counter-productive to ceasefire in Myanmar the Khaplang faction has enjoyed since 2012, including autonomy to administer its territory.
Certainly this last option would benefit the several rebel groups of Manipuri, Assamese and Bodo provenance Khaplang provided refuge and patronage to, and banded them together with his faction to form the grandly titled United National Liberation Front of West East South Asia, in April 2015. Much like Sumi, they will be gauging post-Khaplang winds.
Unity wouldn’t, however, please the government of India, which benefits directly from the breakup of the alliance, as it would force the belligerent conglomerate to relative insecurity. (Though conversely, India also benefits somewhat from the post-Khaplang faction staying together as it could then reach the new leadership for ceasefire, reverting to the 2001 status quo; all the while working, as now, to detach other Northeast Indian rebel groups from the coat-tails of the post-Khaplang faction!)
About the only group that is likely to be entirely upset with the post-Khaplang faction’s unity are their arch-enemies, the largest Naga rebel group, NSCN (I-M). Isak Chishi Swu, the I in I-M, died in June 2016. The aged Thuingaleng Muivah—the M of the team and currently general secretary—leads the group that entered ceasefire with India in 1997, and in August 2015 signed a one-on-one “framework agreement” with the government, basically excluding all other factions and the entire Naga society.
I-M has since played hardball to ensure they remain the voice for a post-conflict Naga future, an increasingly contentious position.
Much is being made of Muivah’s condolence message for Khaplang. “Based on the declaration made by our former chairman late Isak Chishi Swu on forgiveness and reconciliation, we have forgiven S.S. Khaplang of all the political mistakes and crimes he had committed, however grave they might be, in the precious name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
If this churlish message is forgiveness, it’s an entirely new definition. While Swu was relatively softer on Khaplang and reportedly—repeatedly—encouraged reconciliation, Muivah and his colleagues have not forgiven Khaplang for bloodily breaking away from the undivided NSCN in 1988.
Muivah’s message seems more like payback to the one Khaplang delivered after Swu’s death last year. Khaplang said Swu was a “true Shepherd amid the wolves, a Gospel among the revolutionaries and a revolutionary among the Gospels” and “the only ray of hope” among “the contemporary Naga world torn with deception, suspicion and disunity.”
This backs growing acceptance in Nagaland that the decade-long effort of the Forum for Naga Reconciliation and other church-backed and community groups to bring together Naga rebel factions as a first step to permanent peace has gone nowhere, not so much on account of Khaplang, but also on account of hardliners in I-M.
Indeed, as I explained last week, conventional wisdom now ironically pegs I-M as the weak link in the process of power-play to peace.
Insiders also point to I-M for several years stockpiling weapons and ammunition in the Somra tract in north-western Sagaing Division of Myanmar, directly across from Ukhrul district of Manipur, both homes to the Tangkhul tribe. Should hostilities resume with India, it would form a refuge for the mostly Tangkhul senior leadership of I-M and loyal cadres. It would throw all equations comprising the government of two countries, four Indian states, and at least a dozen rebel groups, into greater flux.
Pandemonium Box? You bet.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.
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