He lives in a house of bamboo and straw in the jungles of Myanmar where, it is said, he sits with earplugs stuck to both ears as he controls a huge underground network.
Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, 75, after whom NSCN-K is named, heads not only that faction but also the newly floated United National Liberation Front of Western South-East Asia that includes five more rebel outfits from the northeastern region. It is his NSCN-K that was involved on the ambush on an Army unit in Manipur last week.
The youngest of 10 siblings, he was born in April 1940 in Waktham village just east of Myanmar’s Pangsau Pass, through which passes the 1,763-km Stilwell Road from Ledo in Assam to Kunming in China. Khaplang claims he first attended a school in Margherita (Assam) before joining the Baptist Mission School in Myitkina, Kachin, in 1959 and going to another missionary school in Kalemyo in 1962 before he eventually dropped out.
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Khaplang has three sons and a daughter, all settled far from the rebellion. Khaplang has been a rebel leader for half a century.
Hailing from the Hemi Naga tribe of Myanmar, Khaplang as a child had seen events of World War II around him, which possibly influenced him to float Naga Defence Force in 1964. He went on to become the vice-chairman and then the chairman of Eastern Naga Revolutionary Council, which he and some others formed in 1965. Khaplang’s NDF and subsequently ENRC, which would help members of Angami Zapu Phizo’s Naga National Council to travel to China for training and weapons, later merged with Phizo’s NNC, where he soon rose to become vice-chairman in 1974.
It was during that time that he had become close to Thuingaleng Muivah, an MA from Gauhati University whom Phizo had handpicked as general secretary of NNC in 1964. They forged a partnership which, along with Isak Chishi Swu, revolted against NNC for signing the Shillong Accord of November 1975, under which NNC accepted the supremacy of the Indian Constitution. Calling it a sellout, Isak, Muivah (I-M) and Khaplang (K) broke away to form NSCN. So strong did undivided NSCN become that by 1985, it was not only running a parallel government in Nagaland but also extending its influence to adjoining districts of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. With arms flowing into the region, which helped several other rebel groups thrive, the Indian Army often referred to it as “mother of all insurgencies” in the Northeast.
But Khaplang’s friendship with Muivah did not last. In April 1988, Khaplang announced the formation of NSCN-K after making an unsuccessful attempt on Muivah’s life. By 1989, his faction had driven all Indian Nagas out of Myanmar, following which NSCN-IM shifted base to Thailand. That distanced Indian Nagas from those of Myanmar.
However, Khaplang’s influence spread as he gave space to Assam’s ULFA and NDFB (Songbijit faction), Assam-West Bengal’s Kamatapur Liberation Organisation, and Manipur outfits Kangleipak Communist Party and Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup to set up hideouts alongside the NSCN(K) headquarters. Intelligence reports say Khaplang and ULFA’s Paresh Barua as of date run the biggest arms bazaar in Southeast Asia.
As chairman of NSCN-K, Khaplang is also “President” of the “Government of the People’s Republic of Nagalim” — a name that also applies to a similar “government” headed by Isak and Muivah of NSCN-IM. And, as the South Asia Terrorism Portal puts it, “for generation of finance, the group (NSCN-K) reportedly indulges in kidnapping, extortion and other terrorist activities”. NSCN-K accounted for the killing of 62 civilians and 26 security personnel during the period 1992 to 2000 but suffered heavily in that period, losing 245 of its men.
On July 31, 1997, the Government of India chose to sign a ‘ceasefire’ agreement only with NSCN-IM and started peace talks. NSCN-K’s ceasefire pact came on April 27, 2001, and from then until last year, both groups had been extending the truce every year. But, while New Delhi has so far held over 80 rounds of talks with NSCN-IM, Khaplang has not been invited even once in the past 14 years. For New Delhi, the reason is simple — while Isak and Muivah have returned to India with Indian passports, Khaplang is a Myanmarese national. And to confirm this, Khaplang on April 9, 2012, had signed a ceasefire with the Thein Sein-led Myanmarese government.
It was only in April this year that Khaplang, tired of waiting for an invite from New Delhi, 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 NSCN-U, and then when senior leaders Khole Konyak and Kitovi Zhimoni formed NSCN-KK.
Khaplang’s abrogation of the ceasefire in April has been followed by six attacks on Indian forces – in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal, including the one that took place in Chandel district of Manipur last week.