Guest Column

Peace in Nagaland: Myanmar and India Both Have a Role to Play

By Bidhayak Das 16 August 2017

There is much talk and speculation about a new solution to ongoing peace negotiations between the Indian government and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland—Isak Muivah faction (NSCN-IM). There is also an emerging belief among many Naga that a solution to the decades-old conflict may be just around the corner—sentiments held by Naga residents on both the Indian and the Myanmar sides of the border.

This expression of hope—as auspicious at it may seem—coincides with some recent significant developments in the history of the Naga struggle for repossession of its homeland.

The Naga—under the aegis of the Government of the Peoples’ Republic of Naglan (Nagalim) (GPRN)—celebrated their independence day on August 14 at Hebron near Dimapur in Nagaland, a day ahead of India’s own national Independence Day. Monday also marked a year since the joint announcement made by NSCN-IM general secretary Thuingaleng Muivah and the government of India interlocutor R.N. Ravi that both sides were getting closer to a “final settlement.”

The joint statement issued on August 13 last year said: “We assure the people that the talks have been progressing in the right direction with determination. We are closer than ever before to the final settlement and hope to conclude it sooner rather than later.” A ceasefire agreement was signed between the NSCN-IM and the government of India in 1997 and since then there have been more than 80 rounds of talks paving the way for a “framework agreement,” that was signed in August last year.

Very recently, V.S. Atem—member of the collective leadership of NSCN-IM—is said to have told a visiting Naga delegation from Myanmar that a “solution will arrive soon.”

Meanwhile in Myanmar, the National Socialist Council of Nagland-Khaplang (NSCN-K) has, for the first time, made its position clear on the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) that frames the Myanmar peace process. Leaders of the NSCN-K told the Myanmar government the group is willing to sign the NCA if it covers all Naga including those living across the international boundary with India. The NSCN-K has, in fact, proposed a tripartite dialogue, involving India, Myanmar and the Naga, to find a solution for peace.

Recently, the NSCN-IM General Secretary Muivah also reiterated the call for the “integration of all Naga territories.” He was quoted in a report in Indian news site FIRSTPOST as saying: “The historic ‘Framework of Agreement’ recognizes the unique history, the identity, the sovereignty, the territories of the Naga. It also recognizes the legitimate right of the Naga to the integration of all Naga territories.”

The backdrop of all this—and what perhaps assumes great significance—is the call for a tripartite dialogue involving the government of India, Myanmar and the various Naga groups on both sides of the geographical divide. Most Naga in Myanmar feel this is the best way forward as they don’t believe the country’s NCA addresses their needs. They desire an alternative platform that addresses the key issue of Naga Homeland, according to Muivah.

Similar views were expressed by Athong Makury, the president of the Council of Naga Affairs, in a recent interview. According to Makury: “Tripartite dialogue is a must in order to solve this conflict. We are also observing the situation on both sides. There are many capable people who can lead this. Also, India as a big nation with a long history of democracy should take initiative on this. It is an opportunity for India.”

Young leaders like Makury certainly see merit in a joint dialogue involving all the different stakeholders, as they feel that a peace process only involving the Government of India and the NSCN-IM is not sufficient. Though he is confident that “uncle” Muivah will not give up on the sovereignty issue, he is also wary of the lack of transparency of the agreement. He sees no logic in a Naga solution if it’s one-sided—meaning without taking into account the larger aspirations of all Naga. “If they are going to solve the conflict in accordance with imaginary boundary lines, it will be a fatal blunder,” Makury cautioned.

Displays of optimism among Naga residents on both sides of the border are rarely felt, perhaps because most Naga view the peace process with much skepticism and the content of the framework agreement between New Delhi and NSCN-IM is still unknown. Even if the framework agreement is made known, will it answer questions regarding the integration of Naga-inhabited areas in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur in India and some areas of Myanmar—areas considered to be the rightful homeland of the Naga? Local ethnic groups of states bordering Nagaland in India have vehemently opposed the idea of a Greater Nagaland by incorporating the Naga-inhabited areas of those states.

The pre-conditions put forth by NSCN-K to sign the NCA certainly give the Naga homeland issue a new dimension. The NSCN-K has been fighting with the Indian government but it has rarely come to blows with the Myanmar Army. A bilateral agreement between Myanmar’s government and the NSCN-K signed in 2012 allows the outfit to keep arms and to freely move unarmed personnel within Myanmar. The organization was allowed designated military camps in the Naga Self-Administered Zone, which includes Lahe, Leshi, and Namyun townships in Sagaing Division.

Even though the chance of a conflict with the Myanmar military is remote, the issue of territorial integrity for the Naga is supremely important, and declared widely on social media. The eastern Naga hold on to their history and text “rejecting the division of the Naga homelands” in the Anglo-Burmese Yandabo Treaty of 1826, and later in 1953 under the India-Myanmar demarcation of Naga territory by prime ministers Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and U Nu.

Like most ethnic armed organizations in Myanmar, the Naga opposed the country’s military-drafted 2008 Constitution, which they claimed “badly damaged and sliced” Naga territories into pieces. A Facebook post by the Naga in Myanmar (Eastern Naga) states: “The hill townships, Lahe, Leshi, and Namyun, were given as a Naga Self-Administered Region but not Hkamti, Homalin and Tamu townships, which now fall under Sagaing Division. This was done by the junta without the consent of the Naga public. The military knew it belonged to the Naga but intentionally annexed major parts of the Naga territory into their fold. It is a deliberate human rights violation [against] the Naga!”

The issue of integration of Naga-inhabited areas has proven to be extremely sensitive on the Indian side of the border and could throw up similar challenges on the Myanmar side. It is hard to forget the June 2001 violence in Manipur’s Imphal Valley, in which protests and riots broke out over an extension to a ceasefire between the government and Naga forces.

It remains to be seen how the concept of “shared sovereignty” plays out in reality. On August 14, 2015, speaking at Hebron, Muivah claimed that it was “clearly stated in the agreement that both sides respect the people’s wishes for sharing sovereignty,” adding that, “We have to work out to what extent to share our rights to sovereignty.”

On the Myanmar side of the Naga story, the big question is whether the same concept of a shared sovereignty applies to the tripartite dialogue—if and when it happens.

It may be too early to comment, but recent developments in the Indian government’s framework agreement—which is expected to provide a possible solution—and the call for a tripartite dialogue by the NSCN-K certainly are certainly positive steps going forward.

Bidhayak Das is a veteran journalist who has also spent more than a decade working on promoting democracy in Myanmar. He is currently working as an independent consultant on elections, media and communications.