He lived in a house made of thatch and bamboo at Taga, the headquarters of NSCN(K) in Myanmar, a few kilometres away from the Indian boundary. But sitting there, earplugs stuck to both his ears, Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang – better known as SS Khaplang – controlled a huge world if not an underworld. He was the boss, not just of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) faction named after him, but also of the United National Liberation Front of Western South-East Asia (UNLFW), floated in April 2015 which has under its umbrella six more rebel outfits from the Northeastern region including the Paresh Barua faction of ULFA.
On Friday, as he breathed his last at the NSCN(K) headquarters at Taga, yet another top leader of the Naga movement has bid adieu. It was less than a year ago – June 28, 2016 to be exact — that Issak Chisi Swu, Chairman of the NSCN(IM) faction had passed away.
Youngest of as many as ten siblings, he was born in April 1940 in Waktham village just east of Pangsau Pass – one through passes the famous 1763-km Stilwell Road that runs from Ledo in Assam to Kunming in China. Khaplang used to claim he first attended an Assamese medium school in Margherita (Assam) before joining the Baptist Mission School in Myitkina, Kachin state in 1959 to shift to another missionary school in Kalemyo in 1962 to finally drop out. (Khaplang had three sons and a daughter, all settled in different places far away from rebellion.)
Belonging to the Hemi or Heimi Naga tribe of Myanmar, Khaplang as a child had seen the Second World War standing amid it, which probably inspired him to float the Naga Defence Force (NDF) in 1964, and then to become first vice-chairman and then chairman of Eastern Naga Revolutionary Council (ENRC) that he and a few others formed in 1965. Khaplang’s NDF and subsequently ENRC, which used to provide safe passage to Phizo’s NNC men to China for training and weapons, however soon merged with Phizo’s Naga National Council (NNC), where he soon rose to become its vice-chairman in 1974.
It was during that time that he had become close to Thuingaleng Muivah – an MA in Political Science from Gauhati University whom Phizo had handpicked to be general secretary of the NNC in 1964 – a combination which, along with Issak Chisi Swu revolted against the NNC for signing the Shillong Accord of November 1975 by calling it a sell-out, to form the NSCN. So strong did the NSCN soon become that by 1985 it not only began running a parallel government in Nagaland, but also extended considerable influence to adjoining districts of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. And with arms flowing in to the region that helped several other rebel groups thrive, the Indian Army often referred to it as “mother of all insurgencies” in the Northeast.
But his friendship with Muivah did not last long, and Khaplang in April 1988 announced formation of NSCN(K) after making an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Muivah. By 1989 his faction drove all the Indian Nagas out of Myanmar, following which the NSCN(IM) shifted base to Thailand. That also started distancing Indian Nagas from the Nagas belonging to Myanmar, but with the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), Kamatapur Liberation Organisation (KLO), National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB Songbijit faction), Kangleipak Communist Party (KCP) and Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup (KYKL) – the last two of Manipur – also getting space to set up their hideouts alongside the NSCN(K) headquarters, Khaplang’s influence had only risen by leaps and bounds over the years. And, as intelligence reports say, Khaplang and Paresh Barua together ran the biggest arms bazaar in South-east Asia.
Being chairman of the NSCN(K), Khaplang was also President of the Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim – a name that also applies to a similar “government” headed by Swu and Muivah of the NSCN(IM). And, as the South Asia Terrorism Portal had once put it, “for generation of finance, the group reportedly indulges in kidnapping, extortion and other terrorist activities.” The NSCN(K) accounted for 62 civilian and 26 security forces’ fatalities during the period 1992 to 2000, and lost 245 of its men during the same period.
It was on July 31, 1997 that the government of India signed a ‘ceasefire’ agreement with the NSCN(IM), promising not to attack them and started peace talks. The NSCN(K) followed suit with a ceasefire pact on April 27, 2001, and since then both groups kept extending the truce every year. But, while New Delhi held over 80 rounds of talks with the NSCN(IM) till March 2015, Khaplang was not invited even once in the 14 years since he had signed the ceasefire. For New Delhi, the reason was simple – while Swu and Muivah had returned to India under Indian passports, Khaplang was a Myanmarese national. And to confirm this, Khaplang on April 9, 2012 had already signed a ceasefire with the Thein Sein-led Myanmarese government.
In April 2015, Khaplang, tired of waiting for New Delhi’s invite, announced abrogation of the 14-year old ceasefire. By then however, his NSCN faction had already suffered at least two major splits, first in November 2007 when Azheto Chopey formed the NSCN(U), and then two senior leaders Khole Konyak and Kitovi Zhimoni forming NSCN(KK).
Khaplang’s abrogation of the ceasefire in April had also seen as many as 10 attacks on Indian security forces by the NSCN(K) and its allies – in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh – killing at least 40 security personnel so far, the latest being on June 6 in which a Major of the Indian Army had lost his life.