Guest Column

India-Myanmar Military Ties Pay Dividends as Naga Rebels Return to Mainstream

By Jayanta Kalita 7 January 2021

In what may be seen as Myanmar’s New Year gift to India, more than 50 militants of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang faction), including its top leader Niki Sumi, were forced to abandon their base in the Southeast Asian nation.

The development comes barely two months after Indian Army chief General M.M. Naravane and Foreign Secretary H.V. Shringla paid a visit to Myanmar for a series of bilateral meetings. Credible action against Northeast India’s militants hiding in Myanmar was believed to have figured prominently in the talks.

Sumi, the president of a breakaway faction of the NSCN (K), has returned to Nagaland and reportedly shown his willingness to join the ongoing Naga peace process with India’s federal government.

New Delhi has long sought Naypyitaw’s cooperation in flushing out the rebel outfits waging war against India from its soil. And the latest crackdown on the NSCN (K) by the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar military) appears to be a positive outcome of India’s relentless diplomatic effort.

Needless to say, Myanmar bordering India’s Northeast is key to the Narendra Modi government’s Act East policy, aimed at strengthening New Delhi’s ties with Southeast Asia and the greater Asia-Pacific region.

The latest episode also highlights a significant transition in India’s diplomacy—from a pure diplomat-driven approach to one involving envoys and the top military brass. This transformation has been evident since the appointment of current Chief of Army Gen. Naravane a year ago.

In the past three months, the general has undertaken five foreign tours—to Myanmar, Nepal, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and South Korea—to boost India’s defense cooperation with friendly countries, a move to counter China’s aggressive posture in Asia. It is pertinent to mention here that the two nuclear-armed neighbors are currently locked in a border standoff in the Himalayas.

Return of the rebels

In 1988, the NSCN, an outfit fighting for the cause of a sovereign Nagaland with the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas, was split into two distinct groups—the one led by SS Khaplang, and the other headed by Isak Chishi Swu and Thuingaleng Muivah. Almost a decade later, NSCN (I-M) signed a ceasefire agreement with the government of India and subsequently joined the peace process. However, the Khaplang faction continued to operate from its base in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region.

However, things started to go south after the death of the rebel patriarch, Khaplang, a Naga from the Myanmarese side, in 2017. The fact that the Nagas are not a homogenous entity and leaders from the various Naga tribes wanted to assert their claim to the top position led to an internal power struggle.

Veteran rebel Khango Konyak, an Indian Naga, took over as chairman of the outfit in 2017 after the death of Khaplang. A year later, he was impeached and Yung Aung, Khaplang’s nephew, became the “acting chairman”. Reports suggest Aung, who belongs to the Pangmei Naga, studied in India’s Manipur, and was described by the organization as a “young and dynamic leader” who has served the Naga cause “with dedication and commitment”.

The appointment of 46-year-old Aung reportedly did not go down well with veterans like Niki Sumi, the then military adviser to NSCN (K). For them, Aung lacked the necessary qualities and skills to occupy the position once held by Khaplang, who had a “godfather-like” status among the militant groups of the Northeast.

It was Khaplang who allowed the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) and the now-defunct National Democratic Front of Boroland, both of Assam, as well as Manipuri rebels, to set up camps and train their cadres in Myanmar’s Sagaing Region.

Nonetheless, Sumi was expelled from the Myanmar camp of the NSCN (K) in June last year, an episode which made him and his associates vulnerable, and he came on the radar of Indian agencies.

Hunt for Sumi

Indian security agencies had been on a hunt for Sumi ever since the June 4, 2015 deadly ambush on an Indian Army convoy. Days after the Indian government revoked a ceasefire agreement with the NSCN (K), the rebel group carried out an attack on a road-opening party of the 6 Dogra Regiment of the Indian Army in Manipur’s Chandel district, killing 18 soldiers.

While Sumi was believed to have planned the ambush, the United National Liberation Front of Western South East Asia (UNLFW) claimed responsibility for the attack. Floated in April 2015, the UNLFW is conglomerate of the Paresh Baruah-led faction of the ULFA, NSCN (K) and a few other NE militant groups. Its aim was to launch a unified campaign of independence for the Northeast and the contiguous Naga inhabited region in Myanmar.

India’s National Investigation Agency filed a case against Sumi in connection with the Chandel attack and announced a reward of 1 million rupees (US$13,674 or nearly 18 million kyats) for information leading to his arrest.

Meanwhile, reports suggest the Indian government is likely to accept Sumi’s proposal to restore the ceasefire agreement and the cases against him may be dropped as well.

“The Centre will take a measured view but this is not the first time that cases will be dropped against a wanted person who has agreed for a peaceful solution,” The Hindu reported, quoting a senior government official.

(Jayanta Kalita is the Editor of The EurAsian Times. He writes on issues relating to India’s northeast and the rest of South Asia. The views expressed are his own.)

You may also like these stories:

Myanmar Views New Chinese Border Wall With Growing Unease

Thailand Can’t Afford to Leave Myanmar Migrants Behind in COVID-19 Fight

Myanmar Workers in Thailand Need Better Welfare Protection

Loading