Guest Column

NSCN-K Leadership Change Could Signal ‘New Opportunities’ for Peace

By Bidhayak Das 23 August 2018

The recent changes in the leadership of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) caught many by surprise, sending the news media, especially in India, into overdrive in speculating the possible reasons behind this rather unprecedented development. But beyond all this hullaballoo, the developments gave peacemakers in Nagaland reason to do some serious brain racking and possibly see them as “yet another opportunity” to involve the outfit in peace talks with India.

Taking the lead is the Naga Mothers Association (NMA), a leading civil society group that has been at the forefront of playing peacemaker (and peacebuilder) since the ceasefire process started between the government of India and the NSCN-Isak Muivah (NSCN-IM) in 1997. The organization is already planning to make fresh appeals to the NSCN-K to consider becoming a part of the peace initiative. During the past several years, members of the NMA have traveled to the NSCN-K headquarters in Taga in the Sagaing Region of Myanmar, crossing treacherous terrain on bikes and boats, negotiating the rough waters of the Chindwin River.

The last meeting was held in January this year when NMA adviser Rosemary Dzuvichu and NMA president Abeiu Meru traveled the same route to meet former NSCN-K chairperson Konyak and top “army leaders” of the outfit.

“We shall reach out again and why not, we must keep engaging, opined Dzuvichu during an online conversation with this writer. The NMA adviser has been part of the many courageous voyages along with other Naga mothers to meet the NSCN-K. According to her, “the new young NSCN-K leadership is educated and well aware of the dynamics of peace and global politics” and that certainly is something to look forward to.

Yung Aung, the deputy minister of the NSCN-K defense department, replaced retired Lt-Gen Khango Konyak as interim chairperson, in a decision taken by the administrative wing of the outfit following a three-day meeting from Aug. 15-17. Yung Aung, 45, is the nephew of the founding chairperson of the outfit – SS Khaplang – and is a Hemi Naga from Myanmar. He is said to be well educated, having graduated from Manipur University in Imphal, and also an ardent sportsman and expert of martial arts. Besides, he is said to be well conversant in the geopolitics of the region.

But for the Naga mothers, this is another “opportunity knocking at the door,” to get the NSCN-K onboard the current peace process with the Indian government, although they are  “aware that the process is not going to be any easier than what has been the case in all their previous attempts.” One of the reasons for this surely is the stand taken by the Indian government identifying the outfit as a “terrorist” group following an attack by the latter in August 2015 on an Indian army convoy in the Chandel district of Manipur that left 14 Indian soldiers dead. New Delhi imposed a ban on the outfit following a decision taken on Nov. 6, 2015.

Barely four months before it launched the surprise offensive on the Indian army convoy the NSCN-K abrogated a bilateral truce signed with India in 2001 and has since been involved in offensives against Indian security forces.

Presently the Indian government is in a peace process with seven Naga groups led by the NSCN-IM. Peace negotiations have had their share of ups and downs, with more than 80 rounds of talks (since July 25, 1997) paving the way for a “framework agreement” that was signed in August 2015. Besides the NSCN-IM the six other groups that are part of the peace dialogue have come under the banner of the Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs).

According to Dzuvichu, “Sustainable peace efforts must be made to create a congenial atmosphere for a peace dialogue,” and “the ball is the Indian government’s court.” She certainly appears confident that the NSCN-K will be ready to rethink its position, even when it comes to being a part of the peace process in Myanmar. The NSCN-K has so far remained outside the Panglong peace process and has not signed the National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).

The NMA leader said they are “deeply concerned about Nagas living across the borders,” and she hoped that the Myanmar government would pay more attention to development and facilities in the Naga areas comprising Lahe, Nanyun and Lay Shi in Sagaing Region.

She dismissed reports of a “coup” by Burmese Nagas against the former chairperson who is an Indian origin Naga as merely speculative. “Wherever we are, we are one as Naga. These borders and boundaries were never part of our ancestral history and can never be,” she asserted and said that terms like “Burmese Nagas” and “Indian Nagas” are being used to create divisions.  “It is an Indian media construct, and it is a misunderstanding of the Naga people,” she added.

The change of guard in the NSCN-K is certainly not something routine and what perhaps assumes great significance are the developments that preceded it. The recent aggression by the Burmese military, which saw the outfit losing an outpost in Lahe Township, is a case in point.

The push made by the military deep into the NSCN-K territory is an indication that things have changed insofar as the Burmese policy on the Naga outfit is concerned. Throughout the military history of Myanmar and also through the escalation and de-escalation of conflicts between the military and ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, there have been no real attacks on the Naga groups. The areas dominated by Nagas such as Nanyun and Lahe in the Sagaing Region bordering Manipur and the Nagaland States of India have been left virtually untouched by the Burmese military.

Therefore, in all likelihood, the recent aggression that has been described “as only a threat now,” by a senior military official, could develop into more serious assaults. All of this would certainly affect how Myanmar sees its developing relationship with India and the opportunities.

Sources in the Indian establishment in New Delhi said that at “a very high level” there are definitive meetings being held to ensure that the outfit is made to relent to pressure to become a full participant in the peace process on either side of the border. New Delhi and Naypyitaw are mounting pressure on the outfit to come forward for talks.

The author is a former senior journalist who has worked for national and international news media in India and elsewhere. Currently, he is a contributing editor for The Irrawaddy.