Shangwang Shangyung Khaplang, the head of the hardline National Socialist Council of Nagalim faction opposed to ongoing peace talks with India, passed away at a hospital in the insurgent group’s military base at Takka, in Myanmar’s Kachin state on Friday, sources in the organisation said. Indian government sources said the ailing insurgent leader had died of diabetes-related complications. The long-ailing insurgent leader’s death could pave the way for the second-rung leaders within the group who hope to strike separate peace deals with the governments of India and Myanmar, officials said.
Even as members of the rival Thuingaleng Muivah-led NSCN is engaged in talks with New Delhi, Khaplang’s forces have continued to wage war with Indian troops. Earlier this week, a clash at Tijit, near Lappa in Mon district in Nagaland, claimed the lives of Indian Army officer Major David Manlum, and three NSCN-Khaplang insurgents.
In 2016, the NSCN-Khaplang’s killing of 20 Indian Army soldiers in an ambush in Manipur sparked off a cross-border raid into Myanmar, targeting the group’s infrastructure. The results of the raid remain disputed, however, with critics charging it did little to deter.
Born in April 1940 in Waktham village, east of Myanmar’s Pangsau pass, and the youngest of 10 siblings, Khaplang’s early childhood was shaped by the opening up of long-isolated Naga communities by the Second World War. The 1,763-km Stilwell Road from Ledo in Assam to Kunming in China, built to facilitate supply of troops fighting Japan’s 18 Division, brought a huge surge of troops into the region around the Pangsau pass — and laid the template for the militarisation of the region.
Hailing from the Hemi Naga tribe, which predominantly lives in Myanmar, Khaplang formed the Naga Defence Force in 1964, the leading eastern voice of a new nationalist movement that sought to carve a new nation out of both India and Myanmar.
He went on to become chairman of Eastern Naga Revolutionary Council, which helped the cadre of Angami Zapu Phizo’s Naga National Council travel to China for training.
During this time, he partnered with Thuingaleng Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu — the three of whom revolted against Phizo when his forces signed the Shillong Accord of November 1975, under which NNC accepted the supremacy of the Indian Constitution.
Though the NSCN now emerged as the pre-eminent insurgent group, it soon split: in 1988, following an abortive assassination attempt targeting Muivah, Khaplang drove the Indian Naga cadre out of Myanmar — mainly from the Konyak and Tangkhul tribes — and forced his rivals to shift base to Thailand.
He, instead, turned the NSCN-Khaplang into a provider of weapons and logistics for a welter of North-East insurgent groups, like the United Liberation Front of Assam and the Kanglei Yawol Kunna Lup.
From 2001, the NSCN-Khaplang entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government as its rival faction had done four years earlier. It could not be invited to peace talks, however, since Khaplang was a Myanmar national — provoking him to walk out of the ceasefire in 2015.
By that time, Indian Naga leaders in his ranks, notably Khole Konyak and Kitovi Zhimoni had split, to form their own faction. Inside Myanmar, where Khaplang signed a peace deal with the government in 2012, the NSCN-Khaplang remains well entrenched. Earlier this year, New Delhi faced considerable diplomatic embarrassment when photographs surfaced of its ambassador to Myanmar, Vikram Misri, and European Union envoy Roland Kobia, standing next to NSCN-Khalplang military chief Niki Sumi and his colleague, Isak Sumi.
The photograph was taken in Lahe, in the Naga Self-Administered Zone in Sagaing region of Myanmar, at Naga new year festivities earlier this year.
The National Investigation Agency has offered a reward of a reward of Rs 10 lakh for information leading to the arrest of Niki Sumi, who it alleges was the architect of the 2015 ambush in which 20 Indian Army soldiers were killed.
“Khaplang had rejected joining ongoing peace talks aimed at assimilating ethnic militias into the Myanmar political order, holding out for a Nagalim that would cut across both India and Myanmar,” says a senior Indian government official. “The hope now is that realists will be able to push forward”.
Negotiations with the rival NSCN faction have continued uninterrupted despite the death of Isak Chishi Swu last summer, the official said, and have reached a stage where granular details of constitutional arrangements are now being discussed.
“The broad idea is to give Naga communities living outside the state a high degree of autonomy, without changing the territorial boundaries of existing states”, he said.