You can choose your friends, but not your neighbours” is a cliché that our decision-makers like to quote when referring to China. But if geography is destiny, it has lessons for our Myanmar policy as well. Myanmar presents what Samir Das calls a “frontier dilemma” for India’s Look East policy — now awkwardly renamed the “Act East” policy. Its goal may be to connect the Northeast to the “powerhouses” of Southeast Asia. But some of those places are far away. What lies next door to Northeast India is the poor, politically unstable and strife-torn region of Myanmar. To make matters worse, some of the ethno-territorial conflicts in western Myanmar and Northeast India are part of a single regional conflict complex.
Increasingly, the Indian approach to the Naga conflict is at odds with developments across the border. The ceasefire between the government of India and the S.S. Khaplang-led faction of the NSCN has unravelled and there have been attacks on Indian soldiers by NSCN-K militants.
But across the border, relations between Khaplang and the Myanmar government have been on the upswing. The group has signed a five-point agreement with the Thein Sein government. The terms include a ceasefire, the opening of a liaison office to facilitate talks and freedom of movement for unarmed cadres within Myanmar.
Those developments have had an impact on Naga politics on the Indian side. The NSCN-K has split. While the ceasefire with the NSCN-K has been revoked, the Indian government expects to sign a ceasefire agreement with a yet-to-be-named group of former NSCN-K members. There have been efforts to portray Khaplang as a “Burmese Naga” with limited influence on the Indian side. But Khaplang is no more a “Burmese Naga” than Thuingaleng Muivah (of the NSCN-IM) is an “Indian Naga”. The Naga social and political worlds are not shaped by strict international boundaries. Khaplang spent part of his early childhood in Margherita in Assam. Y. Wangtin Naga, expelled recently from the NSCN-K and the person expected to lead the new outfit, is a Konyak from Nagaland’s Mon district. Yet, in April 2012, he was one of the signatories to the agreement between Khaplang’s group and the Myanmar government.
By all accounts, Khaplang, addressed reverentially as Baba, inspires awe and respect among many — and not just among his supporters. Thanks to his influence and authority, many northeastern rebel groups have found a safe home in Myanmar’s Sagaing region. Among them are the United Liberation Front of Asom, the United National Liberation Front, the People’s Liberation Army of Manipur and, at present, the Paresh Barua faction of Ulfa and the I.K. Songbijit-led NDFB.
Khaplang’s ideological worldview — and not just political opportunism — explains some of his political actions. There is an unfortunate tendency in India to reduce Naga political personalities to their tribal origins, and not to take their ideological commitments seriously. Khaplang speaks of “Eastern Nagaland” and the Indian Northeast being “natural allies”. He was instrumental in creating the Indo-Burmese Revolutionary Front (IBRF) in 1991. “Indo-Burma”, for Khaplang, comprises Northeast India and northwestern Burma — “one of the few regions in the world which remains to be liberated from colonial rule”. Before the unravelling of the NSCN-K ceasefire, Khaplang took pride in having signed ceasefire agreements with two governments. It lent legitimacy to his organisation as a cross-border resistance movement, not limited to an ethnic agenda.
Khaplang has significant influence on the Indian side, especially in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh and the Mon district of Nagaland. Even Wangtin Naga, after being expelled from the NSCN-K, apologised unconditionally “to my great baba, as no son has any bad intention towards his father”. It is unlikely that any former member of the NSCK-K will try to step into Khaplang’s shoes any time soon.
Baba’s authority and influence should be a concern to Indian officials. Khaplang’s homeground is, after all, where the NSCN began in1980, when Khaplang, Muivah and Isak Chishi Swu were all in the same organisation. The NSCN split in two in 1988, after an outbreak of bloody factional warfare. The divide between Khaplang and the Muivah-Swu factions of the NSCN are deep and bitter. Muivah has made it clear that he will walk out of the talks if the Indian government tries to expand them to include the Khaplang faction or any other group.
The Indian government has, therefore, put all its eggs in the NSCN-IM basket.
Clearly, the NSCN-K decided that a ceasefire without talks is no longer sustainable. It unilaterally withdrew from the ceasefire on March 27.
The talks with the NSCN-IM are supposedly making progress. But it is no secret that the negotiations have reached an impasse on the key issue of reunification of Naga territories. This explosive, emotion-laden issue, with multiple stakeholders, cannot be resolved through talks with the NSCN-IM alone.
India has long put pressure on Myanmar to close the camps of northeastern insurgent groups. Some security officials appear to hope against hope that, some day, Myanmar will do a Bhutan and/ or a Bangladesh (under Sheikh Hasina) and eliminate those camps. Viewed from Myanmar, the NSCN-K does not appear that way. But even with the camps of other northeastern insurgent groups, the chances of that ever happening have receded after Khaplang’s agreement with the Myanmar government.
Thus, the talk among Indian intelligence officials has suddenly shifted to “shutting out” Khaplang in Myanmar, “sealing” the border and even building a fence. Such moves could easily stop the Act East policy in its tracks.
Geography may well be destiny. But proximity is also a matter of definition and neighbours can be chosen. Myanmar’s semi-civilian and semi-democratic government has decided that recognising Khaplang’s authority in certain parts of Sagaing makes political sense. As a region, Sagaing is Northeast India’s most proximate neighbour, and historically an important site for Northeast India’s insurgencies. It is unwise for New Delhi to be so radically out of step with Naypyidaw regarding this key area.
The writer is professor of political studies at Bard College, New York.